Are there any safe havens left?
It sure doesn't feel like it. Even conservative investments - like ultrashort- term bond funds and a single money market fund - have lost value recently. But rest assured, your cash accounts are still extremely safe. To shore up confidence in money-market mutual funds after a prominent portfolio "broke the buck," the Treasury Department launched an insurance plan to guarantee their value.
What's more, bank money-market accounts and CDs are as protected as ever. While it's certainly hard to tell which banks will eventually survive this financial meltdown, your accounts are FDIC-insured.
Finally, if you're looking for a safe option within your 401(k), consider a stable value fund. These portfolios often invest in a diversified mix of short- to intermediate- term bonds that are backed by different insurers. Plus, they've been yielding around 4% lately.
Is my bank or brokerage going to disappear?
Even with the government stepping in to buy up the crummy mortgage-backed securities that are endangering the health of so many banks and brokers, this relief won't be immediate. It may take weeks for the Treasury Department to put together a team to evaluate these bonds. In the meantime, more banks and brokers could go under or be forced to sell out to healthier firms.
Still, the tally of failed banks is unlikely to come close to the number we saw in the savings and loan crisis. Between 1986 and 1995, 1,043 thrifts went under (though many of them were tiny). So far this year, only 13 banks and savings and loans have failed, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. That includes Washington Mutual, the nation's largest S&L, which was shut down before its deposits were sold to J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500).
Regardless of what the final tally is, it's important to keep in mind that your bank deposits are for the most part safe. Deposits up to $250,000 per person per institution and $500,000 for joint accounts will be protected by the FDIC (The FDIC temporarily raised the limits from $100,000 and $200,000 respectively through December 30, 2009.). Some retirement accounts are covered up to $250,000.
Investment banks and brokerages have also come under pressure. Here too you are mostly protected. Unlike commercial banks, which use your deposits to lend to other customers, brokerages are supposed to segregate your assets from theirs. So if you own 1,000 shares of General Electric and your brokerage collapses, your 1,000 shares of GE should still be there and will most likely be transferred to another broker on your behalf.
If for any reason your failed broker can't locate your securities, up to $500,000 of your assets per account is covered by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, a nonprofit funded by member firms. With a few exceptions, SIPC limits its safety net to SEC-registered investments. So while your stocks, bonds and mutual funds will be covered, foreign currency, precious metals and commodity futures contracts won't be.