The credit crunch: the fine print changes at banks

Whilst the more visible mass layoffs at banks like Citigroup, RBS and HBOS grab the headlines, there have also been some subtle changes at banks which are equally designed to shore up their balance sheets.

This time however they’re looking to you, the customer, to do it.

In Australia we usually hold the cash component of our super fund in St George term deposits (St George is soon to merge with Westpac).

The way that St George configures term deposits is, of itself, of some interest as the “12 month term deposit”, if you read the fine print, actually translates into an ‘indefinite deposit’ if you fail to give the bank “Notice” during a 14 day maturity window at the end of the term deposit. Put simply, if you don’t tell the bank that you wish the term deposit to mature at that point they will simply re-invest it for the identical term at whatever the prevailing interest rate is at that time. 

Leaving aside the somewhat misleading nature of a ‘term deposit’ with an indefinite term (which has always been the case at St George) what has changed with the onset of the credit crunch is that it has suddenly got considerably more difficult to give them the Notice in the form in which they require it…

“You are able to continue to send a signed fax to Fixed Terms with a copy of your passport and drivers licence, outlining your request.  A contact number is required in order for our staff to make a verbal confirmation of the request received.  The Bank’s decision to implement these additional safeguards is to protect your funds and personal information.  As your security is of the utmost importance to us, if we are unable to contact you or identify you once contacted, the request will not be actioned.”


So, for ‘personal security’ reasons you can no longer inform them, in advance, that you wish the deposit to mature as specified in the term (we used to be able to do this by email or using phone banking) and in their online banking system whilst you can extend or vary the term you cannot mature it.

They actually now require verbal instruction to mature a term deposit using their phone banking service.  Bad luck if you’re on holiday or you happen to overlook the maturity statement they provide you in the mail … or if, like us, you happen to be travelling in a different timezone expect to spend some time late at night making sure your term deposit matches the term you agreed in the first place.

Naturally, the real motivation here is likely to be that many clients will overlook the fine print, and the bank will end up with some percentage of term deposits renewing when their owners in reality had the intention of moving the money to a better return elsewhere.  As interest rates fall this is a good thing to keep an eye on.

Posted under Risk, Setup

This post was written by mike on November 25, 2008

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Legislative risk – or “I’d rather have the cash now thank you”

Whether you put money into a SIPP or SMSF, in the back of everyone’s mind is the question (especially with voluntary contributions) of whether it makes sense to lock your money up in this way.

In Australia the point comes to the fore more with voluntary contributions as superannuation is compulsory at 9% of salary (so it’s not as if you have a choice on salary as to whether you contribute or not).

The Australian government made contributions compulsory in 1992 – if ever the UK government does the same buy an index fund or better still buy stock in a fund manager – estimates put the ‘new’ savings engendered by this move in Australia at 62c on the dollar.

The key point is obviously that you cannot access the money contributed to pensions/super until ‘preservation age’ (in Australia 60 years of age for most people who are not close to retirement).

Want to take the holiday of a lifetime before 60 on this money – you can’t.  Want to give a lump sum to a child – you can’t.

There are some exceptions for hardship, so if you’re starving in a garrett at 55 you will probably be able to get access to your super before preservation age, but that’s about it. If you die relatively young (although it would have to  be abnormally young – average life expectancy in Australia is now about 80; for the UK it’s 78) this could prove seriously annoying.

Some other more governmental / political risks might be:

  • between now and your retirement the government in its wisdom decides to change preservation age. In 1997 the Australian government pushed back the ‘preservation age’ by a whole 5 years from 55 to 60. Presumably the thinking behind this, as with much of the government’s rationale, was to stop people cashing in their super relatively early and then relying on State benefits in the later stages of life. What are the chances of this happening again? Probably relatively high…. But bear in mind that last time they did it they ‘tapered’ the results so that those close to the previous preservation age could still obtain most of their superannuation at close to the old figure of 55 years old
  • the government decides to change the tax rate on super from the current 15% level (in Australia). However if they did this it would be unlikely to be retrospective so it would only affect ‘future’ income and not the balance you had already built up. You could hope that perhaps you would be able to transfer the fund offshore and still retain the benefits but who knows. Against this you need to balance the significant difference in tax rates on money in super funds and money outside super. At the average income in Australia (around $49,000) you are paying a marginal tax rate of 30% for everything over $30,000 and 40% over $75,000. Against this, a tax rate of 15% for money in your super fund looks pretty attractive (if at some stage of your life you’re earning less than $30,000 it might be worth keeping your money outside a super fund – you pay the same tax rate of 15%).

A perhaps more common scenario is where a new investment opportunity arises which if you were not self managing your super/pension you could not take advantage of this because you were constrained by the options on offer from your managed fund.  With the new ability to even buy property in a fund there is a lot of freedom, although you cannot borrow, so if you are fond of margin lending to finance your share portfolio you can’t do this in a SMSF. All in all though, having a self managed fund does not greatly restrict your options, assuming you are a relatively conservative investor.

Posted under Risk, Setup

This post was written by mike on September 13, 2008

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