Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ally Bank: The saver's "friend"

If the folks at Ally Bank were looking to catch some attention, they succeeded. Time will tell if it’s truly warranted.

Ally Bank, if you haven’t heard, is the new name of the old GMAC. That’s right, that GMAC, the former financing unit of General Motors. Ally is not owned directly by the troubled car company. Instead, it’s held by parent bank holding company GMAC Financial Services, of which GM still owns a large piece.

Ally caught my eye with its recent marketing campaign. Suddenly, I saw its ads popping up everywhere; on The Wall Street Journal’s website, during The British Open broadcast a few weeks ago. The TV ads were particularly catchy, with a schmarmy salesperson representing the “typical” bank using fine print and broken promises to hoodwink young kids out of a toy truck and a real pony. Ally, in contrast to other banks, “values integrity as much as deposits,” according to its website.

A good story
Sounds pretty good, especially today when consumer trust in financial institutions is pretty low. But make no mistake; Ally does value deposits pretty highly. It’s looking to grow, and grow fast, by offering very attractive interest rates on its products—among the highest around. Its online savings account, for instance, has a 1.75% rate, better even than traditional market leader, ING Direct (1.40% for its Orange Savings Account).

More competition is a good thing, but it’s also good to question just how real higher rates are, or how long they will continue. One thing Ally doesn’t highlight in ads or currently on its website is that parent GMAC Financial was one of the institutions to receive government bailout money for being undercapitalized. The institution is secure now, but that wasn’t necessarily the case at the end of last year.

And in recent weeks, the American Bankers’ Association cried foul to the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) about Ally’s high-growth through high-deposit tactics, which it alluded to as “unsafe and unsound.” Like any bank, Ally loans out depositors’ money and if they depart the bank en masse for higher rates elsewhere, it could conceivably be caught short-handed. An unlikely scenario, but it’s why banks have to have a certain amount of capital on hand in the first place.

The FDIC also required Ally to get written approval to issue debt secured by bank deposits, as well as to keep the regulator informed on just how high above the market average its product rates are. Ally reduced the rates on its savings products from some much higher initial levels it started with in May.

Moral of the story
With savings accounts, like anything, an old rule still applies: If it sounds too good to be true, it often is. Chasing interest rates from one bank to another requires a lot of time and effort for what can often be very little gain. No one’s going to build wealth by getting an extra .25% interest on their emergency cash.

And despite the banking industry’s woes, another old rule also applies: Marketing prevails over common sense. “Valuing integrity” sounds great in a TV commercial. But it’s how actions demonstrate that integrity that really counts.

1 comment:


Now banks are for profit companies. Even smaller ones. The best thing you can do is join a credit union the credit union is like a bank in many ways but its owned by its members.