For a while now, online payment service PayPal.com has offered an extra reason to keep money in their accounts – a money market fund paying around 5% interest annually. I get asked about it regularly, and here I will explain in detail why I do not recommend keeping any significant amount of money in this account.
Now, when you think about a money market account, what are the top three things you look for? Here are mine, from most important down to least important:
- Safety. This is cash savings, so the top priority is that you don’t want any risk or chance of loss.
- Liquidity. This is not a certificate of deposit; You want to be able to access the money at any time.
- Yield. You want to earn a competitive rate of interest.
I’ll address them in reverse order:
Its 7-day average yield as of 8/16/07 was 5.04%. This isn’t bad, and historically the fund has offered competitive rates, although they are not necessarily the highest. In looking at the prospectus [pdf], these higher yields appear to be the result of temporary fee waivers. Without the ongoing fee waivers, the yield would be about 0.70% lower. Whether or not they will keep the yield competitive with these waivers in the future is unknown.
As with all money market mutual funds, they are not FDIC insured. PayPal is not a bank. However, the money market fund is still subject to the same restrictions as any other retail money market fund, and must invest in the highest rated securities out there. In addition, PayPal is a subsidiary of eBay, and the fund is run by Barclays Global Investors, a big name that manages trillions of dollars of assets. A retail money market mutual fund has never gone below the standard $1 per share for an individual investor, and I don’t expect it to here.
However, there is also the different safety concern of what happens if someone fraudulently gains access to your account. If someone hijacks your bank account, what can they really do? They can’t just go out and buy something. In order to set up an online transfer, they still need to provide account and routing numbers to a bank account with the same name on the account. Even if you do lose money, you are protected by Federal Reserve Board?s Regulation E and have your personal liability capped.
On the other hand, PayPal is inherently risky because it allows the instant ability to spend your money! In fact, they can send money to anyone with an e-mail address. If someone steals your password, they can start sending money right away to various vendors and other users. Such fraud can be very hard to track. And then who decides if you get your money back? PayPal.
Again, here PayPal gets to write it’s own rules. It is not a bank, and is not subject to the many regulations that a bank has to follow. They can freeze your account at any time. PayPal froze my account once for no good reason. (Unless you count a complaint of one nervous buyer who mistyped his tracking number and thought I was scamming him.) This can lead to weeks if not months of faxing them different documents in order to prove you’re you, or you didn’t scam someone else, or whatever. Meanwhile, you can’t withdraw any of your money, and they may even take some of it away from you.
The point here is that you are not guaranteed access to your money. Again, PayPal is sole judge and jury.
The PayPal Money Market Fund account, while offering a decent interest rate and a little bit of added convenience, fails to satisfy the two most critical requirements of a cash savings vehicle – to maintain the highest levels of both safety and liquidity. Sure, if you use PayPal a lot, you might sign up for it to earn a bit of interest on your in-transit money, but I wouldn’t keep large sums of money in such an account.
There are so many other FDIC-insured, highly-regulated banks that offer similar levels of interest and easy online access, why would you want to?