EDISON, N.J. - The New York Federal Reserve Bank launched the first of its investment seminars here in this tranquil township.

But the senior citizens who showed up for the meeting last Friday were anything but quiet.

Despite the threat of rain, 15 seniors attended the seminar hoping to get some advice on how to invest their hard-earned savings.

"That's what why we're here, to learn how to make money," said Peter Giulias, 72, a retired Defense Department worker.

Instead, Mr. Giulias and his friends were lectured on the extent to which federal deposit insurance covers bank products and the differences between the certificates of deposit and mutual funds.

When Andy Dominici asked, "Should I be investing in something risky like mutual funds or annuities?" Nancy Tomassone, a Fed senior bank examiner, punted the ball.

She said that's a question that should be answered by an investment adviser.

"I cannot provide you with investment advice," Ms. Tomassone said, reading from a prepared statement.

There's the rub. While senior citizens are often cast as victims in need of the most basic information, those who showed up in Edison simply wanted practical investment advice that the Federal Reserve was in no position to deliver.

Mr. Dominici, 68, has been a conservative investor for much of his life, having stashed away his savings in CDs and in one mutual fund family. He told the group of seniors that investing has made his retirement much easier, but that his sister-in-law hasn't been so lucky.

She was sold an annuity by a Prudential Securities representative eventhough she is 70 and wouldn't be able to draw income on the investment for another 10 to 15 years, he said.

What happened to his sister-in-law, Mr. Dominici said, demonstrates that elderly people need objective investment advice and are looking to federal agencies for help.

"We need to know whether these investments are right for us or not," he said.

Mr. Giulias also put most of his money in CDs over the years. "But when rates went way down, I took a whole lot of money and invested it in mutual funds. And I've been losing money ever since," he said.

In the past two years, Mr. Giulias estimates that he's lost more than $50,000 because his brokers advised him to put his money in mutual funds that primarily invested in bonds and mortgage-backed securities - investments that plummeted in value last year.

"They kept saying, Hold on to it and in six or seven years you'll see your money," Mr. Giulias said. "I'm 72 years old; I don't want a long-term investment."

The brokers, who were not affiliated with banks, did a "lousy" job of disclosing the risk, he said. "I can't emphasize this enough: All brokers are thieves and liars."

That goes for brokers based at bank branches as well, several of the seniors said. Though none of the seniors at the meeting had bought investments through banks before, the consensus was that banks did not have the expertise to be doling out investment advice.

"Banks really don't have qualified people to talk with," said Joe Buck, 88, a retired former township employee and a lifelong resident of Edison. "They couldn't help me with my retirement at all."

Mr. Buck said his bank couldn't answer any questions about investing in stocks and bonds, so he took a large portion of his savings and opened an account with Merrill Lynch & Co.

Henrietta Stankewicz, who lives in Edison, said she can understand the concern that the Federal Reserve and other agencies have about consumers buying investments through banks.

"You're more likely to be taken by a banker, because everyone uses a bank," Mrs. Stankewicz said. "You find a lot of seniors that are not sophisticated (investors), and they go into a bank and are told, 'Oh, I sold this to my mother'- and they buy it."

The Fed's Ms. Tomassone agreed. "What were trying to do is get out to the people and educate them before they get to that point."

Though she acknowledged that some people walked away from the meeting with questions unanswered, she said the investment seminar program would give consumers "a base from which they can ask questions from and be better informed."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.