MONEY Banking

Google Wants You to Use Gmail to Pay Your Bills

Google is working on a service, code-named Pony Express, that would let you receive and pay bills from your inbox.

MONEY Banks

The Government Will Publish Your Banking Nightmare Story

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will start including the tales behind your banking complaints on its website.

TIME Germany

Police Cars Set Afire at Anti-Austerity Protest in Frankfurt

GERMANY-EU-EUROZONE-BANK-ECB
Odd Andersen—AFP/Getty Images Riot police form a cordon as a police car burns on the opening day of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt on March 18, 2015

Anti-austerity protesters attempted to blockade the inauguration ceremony for the European Central Bank, and demonstrators set at least two police cars on fire

(FRANKFURT) — Demonstrators set at least two police cars on fire Wednesday as authorities confronted left-wing anti-austerity protesters trying to blockade the inauguration ceremony for the European Central Bank’s new headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.

Police said one officer was injured by stones thrown by demonstrators near the city’s Alte Oper opera house.

Police put up barricades and barbed wire around the ECB headquarters as they braced for demonstrations against government austerity measures and capitalism. Protesters targeted the ECB because of the bank’s role in supervising efforts to restrain spending and reduce debt in financially troubled countries such as Greece.

The Blockupy alliance says activists plan to try to blockade the new headquarters of the ECB ahead of a ceremony Wednesday inaugurating the building, and to disrupt what they term capitalist business as usual.

Some 10,000 people were expected for a rally in Frankfurt’s main square, the Roemerberg. Organizers have chartered a special train bringing demonstrators from Berlin and are busing in others from around Germany and other European countries.

Frankfurt police say most demonstrators are expected to be peaceful, but that violence-prone elements could use the crowds as cover.

The ECB, along with the European Commission and International Monetary Fund, is part of the so-called “troika” that monitors compliance with the conditions of bailout loans for Greece and other financially troubled countries in Europe. Those conditions include spending cuts and reducing deficits, moves that are aimed at reducing debt but have also been blamed for high unemployment and slow growth.

Greece’s new left-wing government blames such policies for a “humanitarian crisis” leading to poverty for pensioners and the unemployed.

ECB President Mario Draghi has called for more spending by governments that are in good financial shape such as Germany — a call that has been mostly ignored by elected officials.

The ECB says it plans to be “fully operational” during the protest, although some employees may work from home.

MONEY Banking

The Hidden Risks of Paying Your Bills Automatically

open wallet
Alamy

It's convenient to put your regular bills on autopilot. Just don't ignore them entirely or you might find yourself short on cash.

Autopaying bills is a no-brainer. You are never late with a payment, and you do not have to spend all that time going through stacks of bills, filling out checks, and then stuffing and stamping envelopes.

But Brent Cumberford learned the hard way that automatic bill paying is not as simple as setting it up and walking away.

Last year, his natural gas was turned off because expected automated payments were not made, a canceled subscription kept getting paid and another canceled service automatically renewed itself.

Cumberford, 32, who runs the personal finance site Vosa.com and splits his time between San Diego and Calgary, resolved the natural gas situation without figuring out what exactly went wrong (the bank and the utility blamed each other) and got the automatic renewal credited back. But he is still dealing with the subscription.

“The lesson I learned was that it’s important to still track automated payments,” Cumberford says.

About 61% of Americans have set at least one bill to pay automatically, says Eric Leiserson, a senior research analyst for financial technology services company Fiserv.

The main reason consumers use autopay is to make sure bills are paid on time. That is vital to their credit scores when it comes to debts like car loans, credit card balances, and mortgages, but most other on-time payments are not recorded.

A recent study by credit reporting firm Experian, however, suggests that including positive utility payment histories, which is not commonly done, could help elevate the credit scores of millions of Americans. The report also says people with thin credit histories would benefit from having a richer record of payments made.

As much as automation can be a positive, there are plenty of catches to be watch out for:

1. Changing accounts

If you decide to pay from a different account, be sure all the changes are in place. Marketing consultant Peter Brooks, 56, of Vallejo, Calif., says it was a big hassle to re-enter all the payment information after he changed checking accounts.

2. Being short of funds when bills are paid

Not having enough money in the bank is a main reason not to automate bill paying. If you have a bill set up to pay automatically and you lack money to pay it, this could affect your credit history as much as forgetting to mail in the check. Being on time 99% of the time does not help you much, but missing one payment could hurt your credit score for years.

3. Continued withdrawals even if you stop using the service

Monthly recurring charges for services can keep occurring even if you asked for them to stop. A gym membership or subscription set to be paid automatically every month could lag a request to cancel. So it is vital to keep an eye out to see if withdrawals persist after you have canceled a service, experts say.

4. Inadvertently disengaging the automated payments by making one manually

Bob Girolamo, 41, of Chicago, who runs the startup data and statistics organizer Sorc’d, learned that the hard way. He says he made a manual payment for his health insurance that disengaged the autopay. He did not notice the missed payments until he received the cancellation notice.

5. Errant payments

Monitoring transactions is key to fixing errors. Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, says putting payment dates in an online calendar is one way to stay on top of what payments should be going out. “With 24-7 online and mobile account access, keeping tabs on your account is easier than ever,” he says. “Taking a matter of seconds each day is all it takes.”

MONEY investing strategy

Most Americans Fail This Simple 3-Question Financial Quiz. Can You Pass It?

piggy bank with question marks on it
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

These questions stump most Americans with college degrees.

Following are three questions. If you’ve been around the financial block a few times, you’ll probably find all of them easy to answer. Most Americans didn’t get them right, though, reflecting poor financial literacy. That’s a shame — because, unsurprisingly, the more you know about financial matters and money management, the better you can do at saving and investing, and the more comfortable your retirement will probably be.

Here are the questions — see if you know the answers.

  1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? (A) More than $102. (B) Exactly $102. (C) Less than $102.
  2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After one year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account? (A) More than today. (B) Exactly the same. (C) Less than today.
  3. Please tell me whether this statement is true or false: Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.

Did you get them all right? In case you’re not sure, the answers are, respectively, A, C, and False.

Surprising numbers

The questions originated about a decade ago, with Wharton business school professor and executive director of the Pension Research Council Olivia Mitchell, and George Washington School of Business professor and academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center Annamaria Lusardi. In a quest to learn more about wealth inequality, they’ve been asking Americans and others these questions for years, while studying how the results correlate with factors such as retirement savings. The questions are designed to shed light on whether various populations “have the fundamental knowledge of finance needed to function as effective economic decision makers.”

They first surveyed Americans aged 50 and older and found that only half of them answered the first two questions correctly. Only a third got all three right. As they asked the same questions of the broader American population and people outside the U.S., too, the results were generally similar: “[W]e found widespread financial illiteracy even in relatively rich countries with well-developed financial markets such as Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand. Performance was markedly worse in Russia and Romania.”

If you think that better-educated folks would do well on the quiz, you’d be wrong. They do better, but even among Americans with college degrees, the majority (55.7%) didn’t get all three questions right (versus 81% for those with high school degrees). What Mitchell and Lusardi found was that those most likely to do well on the quiz were those who are affluent. They attribute a full third of America’s wealth inequality to “the financial-knowledge gap separating the well-to-do and the less so.”

This is consistent with other research, such as that of University of Massachusetts graduate student Joosuk Sebastian Chae, whose research has found that those with higher-than-average wealth accumulation exhibit advanced financial literacy levels.

The importance of financial literacy

This is all important stuff, because those who don’t understand basic financial concepts, such as how money grows, how inflation affects us, and how diversification can reduce risk, are likely to make suboptimal financial decisions throughout their lives, ending up with poorer results as they approach and enter retirement. Consider the inflation issue, for example: If you don’t appreciate how inflation shrinks the value of money over time, you might be thinking that your expected income stream in retirement, from Social Security and/or a pension, will be enough to live on. Factoring in inflation, though, you might understand that your expected $30,000 per year could have the purchasing power of only $14,000 in 25 years.

Mitchell and Lusardi note that financial knowledge is correlated with better results: “Our analysis of financial knowledge and investor performance showed that more knowledgeable individuals invest in more sophisticated assets, suggesting that they can expect to earn higher returns on their retirement savings accounts.” Thus, better financial literacy can help people avoid credit card debt, take advantage of refinancing opportunities, optimize Social Security benefits, avoid predatory lenders, avoid financial scams and those pushing poor investments, and plan and save for retirement.

Even if you got all three questions correct, you can probably improve your financial condition and ultimate performance by continuing to learn. Many of the most successful investors are known to be voracious readers, eager to keep learning even more.

MONEY Banking

The Easiest Way to Reduce the Bank Fees You Pay

Where to find free checking
James Worrell—Getty Images

Shift your money over from a big bank to a credit union

Looking to avoid those annoying—and expensive—monthly fees on your checking account? You might want to take your funds to a credit union.

A survey released Thursday by Bankrate.com found that 72% of America’s largest credit unions still offer standalone free checking accounts. And another 26% waive fees if customers meet certain requirements, like accepting e-statements or opting for direct deposit.

Credit unions look ever more attractive compared to the nations biggest retail banks—only 38% of which now offer free checking, down from 65% five years ago.

Even when credit unions do levy checking fees, those charges are typically between $2 and $3, about half of what traditional banks will deduct.

Prone to overdrawing your checking account? You’d do better at a credit union on that count, too. The average overdraft fee at unions is $26.78; the average for banks: $32.74.

In spite of the potential savings, however, a credit union isn’t right for everyone. Find out if you could benefit from becoming a member by checking our guide. And find a credit union that offers free checking with this list compiled by Bankrate.com.

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TIME celebrities

Actress Emma Thompson, Husband Mull Withholding Taxes After HSBC Scandal

Actress Emma Thompson arrives for the British Independent Film Awards at Old Billingsgate Market in central London, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014.
Joel Ryan—Invision/AP Actress Emma Thompson arrives for the British Independent Film Awards at Old Billingsgate Market in central London, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014.

Thompson's husband Greg Wise said the couple are "not paying a penny more until those evil bastards go to prison"

Two-time Academy Award–winning actress Emma Thompson may refuse to pay taxes until those implicated in the HSBC tax evasion scandal go to prison, according her husband Greg Wise.

“I am disgusted with [the HM Revenue and Customs]. I am disgusted with HSBC. And I’m not paying a penny more until those evil bastards go to prison,” Wise told the Evening Standard in an interview this week.

And Wise made it clear that Thompson was fully supportive of the proposed boycott. “Em’s on board. She agrees. We’re going to get a load of us together. A movement,” he added.

The acting couple’s disgust stems from a decision by the U.K. customs department to not prosecute anyone after leaks detailed misconduct in HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary, including helping chief executive Stuart Gulliver shelter over $7 million in a Swiss account away from the taxman’s gaze.

Thompson is an iconic British actress who won two Best Actress Oscars, first in 1992 for her role in the movie Howard’s End, and in 1995 for Sense and Sensibility. She has been nominated for three other Academy Awards.

TIME Saving & Spending

This Will Change the Way You Use Your Visa Card Forever

American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa credit cards are displayed for a photograph in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Credit-card firms caught off-guard by U.S. Senate passage of curbs on debit fees are facing what one executive sees as a "volcanic" eruption of legislation, including possible limits on interest rates. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg/Getty Images

It could majorly cut down on theft and fraud

This is one of those tech advances that are simultaneously cool and disturbing. Visa is adding a feature to the smartphone apps of member banks that lets banks know when a customer is traveling.

Convenient! This way, your card won’t be automatically declined just because you happen to be 50 miles or more away from home—a situation that can trigger an alert to a bank’s fraud department. Your bank, thanks to your phone’s location feature, will already know exactly where you are. Scary! Well, maybe.

It’s hard to decide. Fewer hassles are always good, of course. Nobody wants to be that poor sap standing hapless and red-faced at the checkout counter with a declined card. But do we really want our banks tracking our movements? (The financial crisis gave Americans plenty of reasons to think twice.)

Thankfully, the feature, Visa Mobile Location Confirmation, coming in April, will be entirely opt-in. Customers have to knowingly turn it on for it to work. Big Brother isn’t really so terrifying when you’re inviting him to watch you.

It’s entirely understandable that banks would want as many as people as possible to use the feature—they lose billions to debit- and credit-card fraud every year, and those numbers are on the rise. But the feature is not a panacea, of course. For instance, it won’t help if someone’s phone and bank card are stolen at the same time.

On balance, though, it seems like a net win for both banks and consumers.

TIME Hacking

Hackers Steal $1 Billion in Massive, Worldwide Breach

Russian Retail-Sales Growth Unexpectedly Gains Amid Ruble Crisis
Bloomberg/Getty Images

A prominent cybersecurity firm says that thieves have infiltrated more than 100 banks in 30 countries over the past two years

Hackers have stolen as much as $1 billion from banks around the world, according to a prominent cybersecurity firm. In a report scheduled to be delivered Monday, Russian security company Kaspersky Lab claims that a hacking ring has infiltrated more than 100 banks in 30 countries over the past two years.

Kaspersky says digital thieves gained access to banks’ computer systems through phishing schemes and other confidence scams. Hackers then lurked in the institutions’ systems, taking screen shots or even video of employees at work. Once familiar with the banks’ operations, the hackers could steal funds without raising alarms, programming ATMs to dispense money at specific times for instance or transferring funds to fraudulent accounts. First outlined by the New York Times, the report will be presented Monday at a security conference in Mexico.

The hackers seem to limit their scores to about $10 million before moving on to another bank, Kaspersky principal security researcher Vicente Diaz told the Associated Press. This helps avoid detection; the crimes appear to be motivated primarily by financial gain. “In this case they are not interested in information. They’re only interested in the money,” he said. “They’re flexible and quite aggressive and use any tool they find useful for doing whatever they want to do.”

[New York Times]

TIME Economy

What’s Really to Blame for Weak Economic Growth

The George Washington statue stands covered in snow near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S. Wind-driven snow whipped through New Yorks streets and piled up in Boston as a fast-moving storm brought near-blizzard conditions to parts of the Northeast, closing roads, grounding flights and shutting schools.
Jin Lee—Bloomberg via Getty Images The George Washington statue stands covered in snow near the New York Stock Exchange

Finance is a cause, not a symptom, of weaker economic growth

After years of hardship, America’s middle class has gotten some positive news in the last few months. The country’s economic recovery is gaining steam, consumer spending is starting to tick up (it grew at more than 4 % last quarter), and even wages have started to improve slightly. This has understandably led some economists and analysts to conclude that the shrinking middle phenomenon is over.

At the risk of being a Cassandra, I’d argue that the factors that are pushing the recovery and working in the favor of the middle class right now—lower oil prices, a stronger dollar, and the end of quantitative easing—are cyclical rather than structural. (QE, Ruchir Sharma rightly points out in The Wall Street Journal, actually increased inequality by boosting the share-owning class more than anyone else.) That means the slight positive trends can change—and eventually, they will.

The piece of economic data I’m most interested in right now is actually a new report from Wallace Turbeville, a former Goldman Sachs banker and a senior fellow at think tank Demos, which looks at the effect of financialization on economic growth and the fate of the working and middle class. Financialization, a topic which I’m admitted biased toward since I’m writing a book about it, is the way in which the markets have come to dominate the economy, rather than serving them.

This includes everything from the size of the financial sector (still at record highs, even after the financial crisis and bailouts), to the way in which the financial markets dictate the moves of non-financial businesses (think “activist” investors and the pressure around quarterly results). The rise of finance since the 1980s has coincided with both the shrinking paycheck of most workers and a lower number of business start-ups and growth-creating innovation.

This topic has been buzzing in academic circles for years, but Turberville, who is aces at distilling complex economic data in a way that the general public can understand, goes some way toward illustrating how the economic and political strength of the financial sector, and financially driven capitalism, has created a weaker than normal recovery. (Indeed, it’s the weakest of the post war era.) His work explains how financialization is the chief underlying force that is keeping growth and wages disproportionately low–offsetting much of the effects of monetary policy as well as any of the temporary boosts to the economy like lower oil or a stronger dollar.

I think this research and what it implies—that finance is a cause, not a symptom of weaker economic growth—is going to have a big impact on the 2016 election discussion. For starters, if you believe that the financial sector and non-productive financial activities on the part of regular businesses—like the $2 trillion overseas cash hoarding we’ve heard so much about—is a cause of economic stagnation, rather than a symptom, that has profound implications for policy.

For example, as Turberville points out, banks and policy makers dealt with the financial crisis by tightening standards on average borrowers (people like you and me, who may still find it tough to get mortgages or refinance). While there were certainly some folks who shouldn’t have been getting loans for houses, keeping the spigots tight on average borrowers, which most economists agree was and is a key reason that the middle class suffered disproportionately in the crisis and Great Recession, doesn’t address the larger issue of the financial sector using capital mainly to enrich itself, via trading and other financial maneuvers, rather than lending to the real economy.

Former British policy maker and banking regular Adair Turner famously said once that he believed only about 15 % of the money that followed through the financial sector went back into the real economy to enrich average people. The rest of it merely stayed at the top, making the rich richer, and slowing economic growth. This Demos paper provides some strong evidence that despite the cyclical improvements in the economy, we’ve still got some serious underlying dysfunction in our economy that is creating an hourglass shaped world in which the fruits of the recovery aren’t being shared equally, and that inequality itself stymies growth.

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