Those old enough to remember when radio was our main source of entertainment will recall advertisements for Little Orphan Annie's magic ring, Dick Tracy's decoder, and Jack Armstrong's bat pencil. We ordered them, sending in our box tops and quarters, and waited breathlessly for their arrival, only to be bitterly disappointed when we compared the tin trinket in our hands with the description we had heard over the air.
Many toys touted on television today are similar. And sadly, so are some of the offers we receive in the mail and in ads from financial institutions.
Truth-in-lending laws have eliminated the worst of the abuses and disappointments. Gone are the days when a bank could advertise, "Put your money in a savings account earning 4% and borrow what you need at our low 3% discount rates."
Today the requirement that we show the annual percentage rate on the loan makes the poor value of this suggestion obvious. But we still have many offers that seem great at first but, over time, prove to be bad deals.
Certainly we live in a world of "buyer beware." But when a bank has a loan with a three-month teaser rate followed by a relatively high cost for the rest of the term, borrowers get pretty angry when they realize what they have committed to.
To keep customers' trust, a perceptive banker will inform depositors who have large balances in checking accounts that they can get a much better return on a CD. If the banker doesn't tell them and someone else does, the accounts can be lost altogether.
It is dangerous to the bank's image to have a statement-stuffer offering merchandise at prices above what you have to pay at the local Wal-Mart.
Another poor practice: The bank says you are so loyal that they want to send you a free gift. The only problem is that the postage and handling you pay are more than the item would cost in a local store. A good image can be hurt over a $2 pen and pencil set or Chinese digital watch with a $3.45 handling fee.
One financial equivalent of the Dick Tracy ring is the zero coupon bond.
Every banker who does any financial advising, formally or informally, should explain that the tremendous growth in the value of zero coupon bonds comes in large part because the owner must pay taxes regularly on money that is not received for all the years to maturity-unless the funds are in a tax-sheltered account. This makes the rewards of investing far lower than touted.
Advertisements for these bonds are like those from savings banks that say, "Put $100 a month in an account with us and in 25 years you will have X dollars" but somehow neglect to add "(assuming taxes are paid from another source.)"
We also have the new Visa and MasterCard offers that are really debit cards, so we pay $25 a year to use our own money in the brokerage account.
And then we have the so called "riskless" investments in Fannie Mae and Ginnie Mae securities. Sure, the principal is guaranteed by a government- related agency. But it is hard to call something "riskless" when the value of your fixed-rate investment declines as interest rates rise. If rates fall, instead of having your investment rise in value above par, the borrower refinances and you just get your money back. "Heads I lose, tails I come out even" is not exactly a definition of riskless.
People appreciate honesty and reward it.
I remember when First Union came to my region, after buying First Fidelity. They put up a sign in the branch saying something like "Please forgive us if we don't recognize you, even if you are a long-time loyal customer. We're new here, and it will take us a while to get to know you."
You can excuse a lot when there is a nice sign like that. And you certainly will not have the bad feeling many of us had on getting our secret decoders.