Can this be a safe investment? I'm pretty much convinced it isn't.
Answer: You should feel "totally secure" it won't protect your principal and interest.
Seniors are easy pickings - whether at banks, financial-planning offices, insurance firms, or investment firms - because retirees are living off their savings and starved for income. The Federal Reserve has made it impossible to use safe investments and earn income much above 1 percent or 2 percent. That could last awhile because the Fed said Thursday that it's likely to keep interest rates near zero until mid-2015.
Let me translate this for anyone dreaming of a 7 percent return on anything protected: It can't happen because the Fed has designed the system so high interest and safe returns do not go together.
The Fed is trying to get people to take chances with their money because Americans are scared, and yet the economy needs chance-taking on stocks and risky bonds to spur growth. As long as the Fed keeps interest rates low, no one can offer a high-interest, safe investment - financial firms can't earn a high return without taking risks.
"People are getting desperate," said Sylvia Matteson, a Tucson, Ariz., financial planner. "We have people coming to us with offers like 7 percent guaranteed all the time."
If the ad you have seen does apply to a CD, it may be like those Matteson has seen: 7 percent interest might apply to the first $500 you invest, along with another $19,500 in a $20,000 CD. And the 7 percent teaser rate on the $500 might evaporate after a short time, maybe six months, though your $20,000 must stay invested longer.
The product you've seen advertised might not be a CD at all. Notice the wording: "Attention CD owners." That merely means they hope to attract CD owners who are frantic for interest income.
Lately, seniors have been lured by so-called structured products that sound safe because the words "protection" or "guaranteed" are used. But the products are just the opposite. The investments are often risky, and a guarantee might apply to only 10 percent of your money, if anything. Further, you might be required to leave your money invested in the risky investment for 10 years even if it is turning worrisome or you need to withdraw it.
Brokers might make structured products sound mild-mannered, but that's often because the products are so complex even those selling them don't understand them. These products are definitely not a CD substitute. CDs, after all, are simple and completely guaranteed if they fall within a bank's FDIC protection of up to $250,000 per depositor.
Another possibility is that the ad is for an immediate annuity, said Richard Getman, a Charleston, S.C., financial planner. There is nothing wrong with annuities if you understand them, but Getman said people are lured by promises of 7 percent interest when it is not true.
Rather, what happens is that a person provides, say, $100,000 to the insurance company, and for years the company might pay the person back $7,000, using the individual's money.
After about 14 years, when the money is used up, the insurance firm pays $7,000 each year if the person is still alive. At that point, the company is dipping into its own funds, not the individual's, said Getman.
"You might actually have to live to around 100," he said, "to really make 7 percent on your money."
Gail MarksJarvis is a personal-finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at email@example.com.