Like raging bulls, the savings and loan associations around town have charged into the interest-producing checking account business in recent months. Their motives are hardly a secret.
On the one hand, they're trying to compete with the checking accounts offered by banks. On the other, they're trying to attract some of the "smart money" that has been pulling down those huge interest rates in money market funds.
But the S&Ls aren't satisfying everyone with their new venture. Randolph Feltus of Georgetown is a vocal case in point.
Innocent as pie, Feltus walked into the 801 17th St. NW. branch of Capital City Savings and Loan one August afternoon about 30 minutes before closing. He strode up to the teller's window and presented a $1,000 check. It was made out to "cash," and drawn on a Capital City checking account recently opened by a friend of his.
Feltus did not have an account at Capital City himself, but why would he have needed one? "Cash" on the check meant cash into the pocket of whomever presented the check, right?
Wrong. The teller conferred with the manager, who said Capital City wouldn't cash the check without the endorsement of the man on whose account it was written. Why? Policy, the manager said.
But the bank was closing in a few minutes, Feltus pointed out, and it was unlikely that the man who wrote the check could be found in time to signan endorsement. Too bad, said the manager.
Feltus protested further, whereupon the manager agreed to check with higher authority. After ten minutes, he reappeared and asked Feltus for some identification. Feltus protested that this, too, was unnecessary, but he produced it. At last, the manager directed the teller to cash the check.
If you suspect, as I did, that the size of the check was the problem here, you're wrong, according to Bud Preller, Capital City's vice president in charge of savings operations.
"It's really a matter of protecting the customer," Preller said. "We don't know in a case like this whether the check's been stolen or what. Most checks like this are good, no matter how big they are. But we feel safer in sticking to third-party checks, made out to a human being with a name."
I think you'd have to agree that many checks are made out to "cash" because somebody on one end of the transaction or the other has something to hide.
Are you taking in a gambling debt? Are you accepting a fee from a business contact and not planning to claim it on your income tax? Are you a married man with a joint checking account who wants to buy flowers for a woman who's not your wife? It's oh-so-easy to buy an extra layer of privacy and "deniability" by making the check out to "cash."
But there are legitimate reasons for making a check to "cash," too.
Let's say the gang at the office is getting together a kitty to give Happy Harold a bottle of scotch for his birthday. It's not immediately clear who's actually going to go to the liquor store and plunk down the money. So you kick in your share with a perfectly well-intended check made to "cash."
Or let's say you've just had your teeth cleaned by a hygienist who works for a partnership of three dentists. Comes time to pay, and you don't know what to do.
Should you make the check out to the hygienist? To the oldest of the three dentists? The handsomest? If you're like me, you say the heck with it and make the check to "cash," figuring that the dental folks will work it out among themselves.
Like Randolph Feltus, I hope that savings and loans work out the kinks that come with offering checking accounts. But I fear that S&Ls will take the path of least resistance by refusing to cash checks made out to "cash", even those that are made out that way for a perfectly good reason, as in Feltus's case.