Expats and foreigners have an alternative to banks for their financial needs in Costa Rica: Financieras. They are good, solid options too, offering substantially higher returns on deposits and other investments than banks. Two-year certificates of deposit return as much as 5 percent in U.S. dollars. They are also more friendly, eager to answer questions and solve customer needs. Much more so than banks, most of which are bureaucratic monsters.
They are very secure choices because they are monitored closely by the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras, the governmental organization in Costa Rica that supervises the stability of the country’s financial system.
“Most people, even Ticos, do not know that financerias can provide almost all the services a bank provides,” Maria Jose Abrahams of Desyfin said in an interview last week. “The only major difference is we do not provide checkbooks, and who uses checks anymore?” A financiera refers to financial entity that provides factoring, bank guarantees, insurance, leasing and investment capital to individuals and businesses.
“We offer something hard to find at a bank in this day and age, close individualized financial service.” Ms. Abrahams added. Even private banks do not come close to what we have to offer customers.” When asked if financieras work with foreigners and if they can address their needs, the English speaker replied, “I do not know about other organizations, but we pride ourselves in our ability to work with all nationalities.”
The Superintendencia, known as SUGEF, lists 12 private banks and nine financial entities in a long list of general financial organizations operating in the country. Ms. Abrahams is correct. Banks offer banking services that include checking accounts. Most people do not write checks anymore because online banking is fast and safe.
Nacional and private banks have been known to give foreigners, even retired expats with a long history of living in the country, a hard time. More so since March of 2012 when the Banco Central of Costa Rica told all financial entities a DIMEX number is required for all SINPE transfers.
DIMEX stands for Documento de Identidad Migratoria para Extranjeros which sounds fancy but it is nothing more than a residency identification card. SINPE stands for the Sistema Interbancario de Negociación y Pagos Electrónicos and is the main payment system for the central bank. Articles on March 31 and April 14 covered the problems in depth.
Why is this import to expats? As banking becomes more and more restrictive all over the world, it is important to find a friendly entity to invest idle cash for the highest possible return with the least risk and a place that can assist a retired person or working foreigner with the ins and outs of the paperwork required to open a bank account or certificate of deposit. The financieras also offer a slightly better rate on currency exchange.
What about risk? SUGEF is constantly monitoring all financial companies in Costa Rica. They are still trying to scrape the egg off their faces from not regulating groups like the
Villalobos Brothers, Savings Unlimited (a/k/a “the Cubans”) and The Vault, among others. These so-called investment shops lost tens of millions – some say hundreds of millions – of dollars from people all over the world. The agency also missed the boat with the 1994 collapse of Banco Anglo, a public entity that had losses four times its net capital.
Costa Rica’s criminal courts have done a lousy job prosecuting these cases, too. Cuban-American Luis Milanes of Savings Unlimited is still in the courts. His investors lost an estimated $200 million dollars. As many as 500 people are victims still waiting for justice. SUGEF is now over-regulating and trying to make up for the not-so-bright past.
How secure is it to invest money with the top picks listed above? Everyone needs to do their own homework when it comes to money and deciding on where to put it for the highest return. Cafsa leads the pack with the highest net earnings and return on investment. However, this could indicate a riskier portfolio. Desyfin shines as a very strong financial group with the highest net assets and owners’ equity of the bunch. Norfund of Norway just made a substantial partnership with the group. As noted earlier, both have online banking. Cafsa disappoints because they have no Web site for English speakers. Comeca has an English Web site but no Internet banking.
Even expats without a DIMEX card can make some payments for monthly bills and utilities with an account having an online capacity. They just cannot make intra-bank transfers via SINPE.
There is one problem with using a financiera. They do not have the branch locations offered by banks. However, this is changing. They are trying to open locations in key areas.
Nacional banks are everywhere. Banco de Costa Rica has more ATM machines, while Banco Nacional de Costa Rica has more offices throughout the country. But, they tend to shun foreign people at times. Banco Popular is trying to compete in the service locations horse race but falls way behind the first two. Private banks like Citibank are closing branches throughout the country. Soon they will have no locations outside the Central Valley.
Sure, it is nice to have your bank close by for easy access, but is this really important nowadays? SINPE, ATM machines, debit and credit cards can handle most transactions. As for service, if there is a problem, calling a national bank is a nightmare. Getting information from a private bank is a little better but still requires a bottle of aspirin to connect to someone who can really help.
Financieras on the other hand usually assign a representative to a customer. Not too many banks do this anymore. They are worth a look-see. High returns, personal service and Internet banking are all good news. The homework could pay off.
Garland M. Baker is a 44-year resident and naturalized citizen of Costa Rica who provides multidisciplinary professional services to the international community. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Baker has undertaken the research leading to these series of articles in conjunction with A.M. Costa Rica. Find the collection at http://crexpertise.info, a complimentary reprint is available at the end of each article. Copyright 2014. Use without permission prohibited.