Recent Reviews


Library Journal

June 15, 2011

CONTENT Financial Ratings Series Online (FRSO) combines material from Weiss Ratings (weissratings.com, a “provider of independent ratings on the nation’s 900 life and annuity insurers, 2,700 property and casualty insurers, as well as 600 health insurers and HMOs…[and] independent ratings on 8,000 banks and S&Ls”) with TheStreet Ratings (thestreet.com/thestreet-picks/thestreet-ratings/, "a leading independent provider of investment ratings and analysis covering thousands of Bond & Money Market Mutual Funds, Stock Mutual Funds, Exchange-Traded Funds and Common Stocks"). There are 12 total guides in FRSO, seven from Weiss and five from TheStreet. Libraries can choose to subscribe to one, all, or any combination.

USABILITY The search interface here is delightfully simple and straightforward: at screen left there’s a column of links (Search, What Our Ratings Mean, Ratings Track Record, What’s New, Free Financial Planning Tools, Investment Tools & Tips, Glossary, Ratings Guides in Print, Weiss Ratings in the News, TheStreet Ratings in the News, Order, Price Quote Request, About Us, User Logout, and Home), and to the right a Search space with four tabs from which you choose to search Banks, Insurers, Stocks, or Mutual Funds. Access points vary across these four tabs, but all use an A+ to F rating scale, with A+ to B- meaning “Buy,” C+ to C- meaning “Hold,” and D+ to F meaning “Sell.” Can it possibly be this simple?

I began by exploring several of the more intriguing links on the left. What Our Ratings Mean is divided into Banks & Thrifts, Insurance Companies, Mutual Funds, and Common Stocks; under each, the A to F ratings are explained in the appropriate context for that section. Here’s what a C rating means from the Weiss Ratings for Banks & Thrifts: “The institution offers fair financial security, is currently stable, and will likely remain relatively healthy as long as the economic environment avoids the extremes of inflation or deflation. In a prolonged period of adverse economic or financial conditions, however, we feel this institution may encounter difficulties in maintaining its financial stability.” That’s very clear to me and, I suspect, will be to most. Then I checked the Ratings Track Record link to find this kind of information: “Over 300 Banks have Failed from January 1, 2008 through April 28, 2011. Of the 314 Bank Failures...: 279 were rated E+, E or E- (Very Weak), 28 were rated D+, D or D- (Weak). In total, 97% of these failed banks were rated Very Weak or Weak [according to Weiss Ratings & TheStreet Ratings],” accompanied by a link to Download PDF of full Bank Failures List. This information hit me right between the eyes, and I began to wonder just how long I could keep review access.

Speaking of which, the link Free Financial Planning Tools is free to all; just go to financialratingsseries.com/page/planning and download a Medicare Prescription Drug Primer, Long-Term Care Insurance Planner, Investor Profile Quiz, and many other questionnaires and worksheets—all for free.

Back to the links: the Glossary is terrific for financial noncognoscenti like me. Here you’ll find contextual definitions ranging from “10-K” (a term I do know) to “Whisper Number,” a term I’d never heard before (“An unofficial earnings estimate of a company given to clients by a security analyst if there is more optimism or pessimism about earnings than shown in the published number”). Better and better.

For my first Search, I went into the Stocks tab, selected an Overall Rating range from A+ to B- (“buy” stocks), and hit “find equities.” The search was so fast I didn’t realize it had taken place: the results were listed far down on the screen, but when I noticed they were there, I found eight pages of stocks matching my criteria. Next, I narrowed my search by adding a Solvency criterion, at a minimum of five stars out of five. Result: eight pages of stocks. Then, under Market Capitalization, I asked to look for Mid-Cap funds (between $1 and $5 billion) and got six pages of results.

Next I went into the Banks tab and searched for several of the banks with which I’ve done business. A couple of their ratings were not so great, so I went back and asked for banks with an A+ rating and got a list of 16 with direct links to the Weiss Ratings most recent (March 15, 2011) full review report with Rating Factors, Historical Highlights, Rating Indexes, Company Information, % of Operating Profits to Average Assets, and the % of Net Charge-Offs to Average Loans. Astonishing information, all in one place, that took about two minutes to locate. I really admire the power and simplicity of this file’s search.

It did take quite a long time for a couple searches not described above—in a couple cases, I gave up and searched in an alternate way to find what I was looking for. I should note, however, that these were searches I recognized were of a scope that would probably challenge the system.

PRICING Pricing depends on which guides a library wants to include in its subscription and on the population served (for public libraries) or FTE (for academic libraries). The scale for public libraries ranges from $759/year (for access to a single guide in a library serving a population up to 10,000) to $29,995/year (for access to the full suite of guides in a library serving a population over 2,000,000).

BOTTOM LINE The content here is off the scale—yeah, it’s that good—and the ease of accessibility, both technical and intellectual, is almost uniformly excellent (which means that I, a humanist by training, can understand it all). An excellent financial tool that will certainly get an enormous amount of use anywhere it’s available, this rates a strong overall ten. Recommended for public and academic libraries that can afford it.

Booklist

July 1, 2011

The carefully compiled and researched Financial Ratings Series combines the strength of Weiss Ratings and TheStreet Ratings to provide a single source for financial strength ratings and financial planning tools covering insurance, banks, mutual funds, and stocks. Weiss Ratings, begun in 1971, is an independent rating service for approximately 900 life and annuity insurers, 2,700 property and casualty insurers, and 600 health insurers and HMO’s plus 8,000 banks and S&Ls. The U.S. General Accounting Office validated Weiss’ accuracy in its Insurance Ratings study. Weiss also distributes independent ratings on shares of thousands of publicly traded companies, mutual funds, closed-end funds, and ETFs. TheStreet Ratings produces investment ratings covering 16,000 mutual funds and 6,000 common stocks.

This large site can help users find the safest bank or credit union in their area, avoid the weakest insurance companies, find the strongest mutual funds, and pick good-performing stocks. Each category—Banks, Insurers, Stocks, Mutual Funds—has its own search screen with different sets of limiters, and users will find the screens easy to use and understand. Among the various tools available on the site are worksheets and questionnaires for investors, retirees, and anyone buying insurance or searching for a different insurance company. The What Our Ratings Mean page clearly and concisely explains how the ratings for bank and thrifts, insurance companies, mutual funds, and common stocks can help the consumer or investor make sound financial decisions. On the Weiss rating scale each entry gets a simple, intuitive letter grade that immediately identifies top performers. The same uncomplicated rating is used by TheStreet Ratings to indicate a stock or mutual fund as Buy-Hold-Sell.

Financial Ratings Series succeeds in its efforts to provide one-stop shopping in a user-friendly online format for consumers, investors, investment analysts, money managers, and students. A recommended resource for both public and academic libraries.

CHOICE

September 1, 2011

Financial Ratings Series Online (FRS) combines Weiss Ratings and TheStreet Ratings. Weiss Group is the only provider of independent financial ratings for financial institutions and financial market funds, making it indispensable for graduate students and professionals.

In describing itself, FRS intends to assist consumers and professionals in finding safe banking and insurance options and in avoiding unnecessary risks. Weiss Ratings rates 900 life and annuity insurers, 2,700 property and casualty insurers, 600 health insurers and HMOs, 8,000 banks and savings and loans institutions; and the shares of publicly traded companies, mutual funds, closed-end funds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Credit unions will be added soon. TheStreet Ratings rates 6,000 common stocks and 16,000 mutual funds. With the combining of Weiss Ratings and TheStreet Ratings, Weiss Ratings will focus on financial institutions and insurance companies, and TheStreet Ratings will focus on publicly traded companies on the market. Common stocks, stock mutual funds, bond/money market funds, and ETFs are included.

Weiss's rating scale of letter grades, similar to school grading scales, is used for all the ratings. Each group of materials has its own explanation of what those letter grades mean. For example, one explanation is provided for banks and thrifts, and another for insurance companies. In addition to the letter grade, stocks and bonds reports tell subscribers to simply buy, hold, or sell. Each report includes seven different areas: major rating factors, other rating factors, historical highlights, rating indexes, company information, largest affiliates, and the rating with its definition. Historical highlights are depicted in statistics in small tables, and rating indexes are depicted as a bar chart. The other areas are described succinctly in words. FRS scores itself and its ratings in a section called Ratings Track Record. When a financial institution fails, FRS checks its ratings of that institution to see if its ratings warned people appropriately.

The site provides a Free Financial Planning Tools section that consists of worksheets and questionnaires to let consumers fill out the appropriate information to compare different providers, or indicate their personal financial situation to evaluate their own investment profile. One consumer questionnaire lists questions to ask when interviewing a potential broker.

Because the site is extremely easy to use and interpret (several glossaries are featured), it is appropriate for senior high school students and adults. Alternatively, both Weiss Ratings and TheStreet Ratings guides are available in print on a quarterly basis.

Since this resource is the only provider of independent financial ratings for financial institutions and financial market funds, it is indispensable for professionals and graduate students.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All libraries; all user levels.