A few readers asked about the Tellus app, which compares itself to savings accounts and pays 3.00% APY with no caps. (4.50% APY is only up to $2,500.) Here’s a quick explanation of why it’s an easy pass. Tellus investments are not FDIC-insured and they only provide a very vague description how your money is actually invested. From their FAQ:

How does Tellus afford to pay me such a high interest rate?

Tellus generates its revenues as a non-bank lender. We provide mortgages – loans secured by residential real estate. We use technology and proprietary data to choose opportunities so that we can minimize loss and fraud; this lets us pass the profits onto you in the form of highly competitive yields.

That’s a lot of fancy words, but my translation is “Tellus lends your money out at a lot more than 3.00% APY on unknown residential real estate of unknown quality, in unknown geographic areas, at unknown loan-to-value ratios”.

Mystery underlying investments. Think of all the properties in the world that could fall under “US-based real estate”. With a more transparent structure like that of Peerstreet, I can choose the exact address of the house or building that I am investing in. I can see the original appraisal. I see the borrower terms and interest rate. I can find the purchase history, the tax records, and look up comparable properties nearby. I know I’m earning 7-9% interest rates and Peerstreet is taking about 1%. With Fundrise, I get updates with the address and pictures of the exact apartment building they just bought, and they are SEC-registered private REITs. With Tellus, I have none of this. They are asking for a lot of trust for a new startup company. Are the loans wrapped in a bankruptcy-remote vehicle? Are they registered with the SEC?

Questionable promises of safety. When lending out on residential real estate, I also accept that I can lose money on the deal, because that’s how the world works. That’s honest. From their FAQ:

Is my money safe? Can I always get my money back?
Yes, your money is safe. All transactions and personal identifying data is protected by bank-level, 256-bit AES encryption. You can trust that your money and data are secure with Tellus. You will always get your money back and you can withdraw at any time.

In my opinion, this is not honest. If you’ve paid attention at all during the crypto crisis, you know that “You will always get your money back and you can withdraw at any time” really means “Your money is really the assets of a young start-up company, and if something bad happens then we may instantly freeze all withdrawals”. Real estate loans can go bad. Startup companies can go bankrupt.

This reminds me of the biggest red flag from peer-to-peer lending: The more profusely someone promises to pay you back, the less likely they are to pay you back.

Low returns for level of risk. Even if I knew Tellus lent money using intelligent and conservative underwriting… 3% APY? Why would I take on that much risk for 3% APY? A 90-day Treasury bill pays more than 3%. I would expect at least double for the risk involved in real estate lending, which means Tellus might be taking a big cut for themselves (they don’t disclose their cut either). I regularly post FDIC-insured deals at effective rates of 4%+ APY with 100% certainty that I will get 100% of my money back. With a new startup app investing in who-knows-what, there is a real possibility that I will never see my money again.

Tellus could be run by well-meaning, honest geniuses, but there is no way I’m taking this much risk for limited upside with my hard-earned money. Look beyond the slick marketing and stock photos of happy families. There are many alternatives earning a higher return with more easy assessable level of risk.

Bottom line. Tellus advertises “high yield” and “safety”, when in my opinion it offers the opposite: relatively low returns for the level of risk you are taking on (which is completely unknowable since you have no idea what they are investing in). You are risking complete loss of your investment in a young startup that is not FDIC-insured, and thus it is an easy pass for me. Be careful.

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Tellus App: “High-Yield Savings” That Isn’t FDIC-Insured, Backed by Vague Promises from My Money Blog.

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