Cash: Activate Your Savings and Checking Accounts

Over the next several chapters, we'll be discussing your investment options—asset class by asset class. We will look at what each class is, how it works, and the values-aligned investment choices you have. We'll start, in this chapter, with the first asset class: cash. Your cash should not be overlooked when you're thinking about a value-aligned portfolio. Like any other investment you make, it is being used for some purpose, and you have the right to choose a bank that uses your money to support the things you care about.

This chapter will help you think differently about your cash and the impact it is having on the world. It describes a range of banking options through which you can express your values, and it provides you with the step-by-step actions required to shift your assets from your current bank to a financial institution that is driven by more than the bottom line. By changing banks, you might also find that you receive higher interest, pay lower fees, and/or receive more personalized customer service.

In 2011, I transferred my savings and checking accounts from Wells Fargo and Citibank to New Resource Bank, which aspired to invest 100% of its loan portfolio in businesses that advanced sustainability. I loved New Resource Bank! They were small, local, and loaned my money to green businesses. When I started writing this chapter, my bank was in the process of being acquired by Amalgamated Bank, another values-aligned financial institution.

While I appreciated my new relationship with Amalgamated, I prefer smaller banks. So I moved my cash accounts to two different financial institutions, both of which support women-led businesses and underserved groups in my community. I also opened a third account with Aspiration Bank, because it is a digital-only values-aligned bank, and I wanted to test that, too.

Although I opened accounts at three banks, I'm not advocating that you do the same. I did it as an experiment. Bottom line? It wasn't that hard. I made the shift bit by bit and didn't close out my Amalgamated accounts until I knew all my deposits, bill payments, and transfers were being handled by my new banks. Since I wasn't in a rush, I gave myself about six months to complete the process, even though I could have done it much faster.

So far, I am very happy with my choices. I feel good about where my money “lives” and what it supports. I get updates about the impact these institutions are making, and my new banks even invite me to local events from time to time. In my view, that's a pretty compelling relationship to have with your bank!

Cash Is Ready Money

Cash includes any funds that are immediately available—in full—for any purpose. Cash is normally invested in savings, checking, and money market accounts. These investments are available from a range of financial institutions.

When you put your cash in the bank, it is safe, but chances are you aren't making money on it. In fact, since the rate of inflation is probably higher than the interest rate you receive on your cash, you're actually losing money. For example, if you're receiving 1.00% interest and the inflation rate is 3.00%, then in real terms* you're losing 2.00% of the value of your cash each year. Crazy, right?

Your bank, however, is using your money to make money for itself. How they are using it, what they are investing in, and who is benefiting from your money should matter to you. After all, it's your money. The question is: Are they supporting your goals and using your money in ways that align with your values? The good news is you have other choices if they aren't.

This is particularly important for women because we are savers. In other words, we often have more cash than we need to hedge against risks. According to an article by Ellevest, women keep 71 cents of every dollar in cash instead of investing it.1 We tend to do this because we're saving for a future goal, we want to protect against lean times, or we just don't know where else to invest. So these funds are left in cash accounts—sometimes for years, even decades, without growing. I want you to know that it doesn't have to be this way. You can make the switch and start having your money work for you while supporting your values.

What Is Your Cash Supporting?

Banks make their money by using your cash deposits to make loans and investments. You’d better believe they earn far more on your money than the meager interest they pay you. Let's say your bank is paying you 1.00% interest on your deposits. They could be lending that money out at the rate of 4.75% for mortgages, 5.0% to 7.6% for student loans, or 14% to 20% for credit card balances. In other words, they're generating revenue on your money. They're also making money through the fees they charge you for your accounts, such as monthly service charges, fees for using out-of-network ATMs, and wire transfer fees. How different financial institutions invest (and profit from) the money they take in through your savings, checking, and money market accounts varies widely and depends on their size (that is, the amount of money they control), their business model, and their ownership structure.

Traditional Options: The Mega-Bank

Let's start by looking at the mega-banks, where many Americans have chosen to invest their savings, checking, and money market accounts. Four of the biggest banks in the US are Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase. These four mega-banks have combined assets in the trillions of dollars, and they control half of all the banking assets in the country.2 During the 2008 financial crisis, the economic power these banks wielded became apparent and the now-famous epitaph “too big to fail” became a household saying.

How did we get to the point where a relatively small number of banks play such an outsized role in the US economy? In a word—consolidation. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions from 1990 to 2009, 37 banks combined into what are now known as the “Big Four.”

These mega-banks tend to invest in what is known as the “financial economy,” money that gets put to work in stock trading, global markets, investment banking, and similar financial services. Because mega-banks and other large banks are publicly owned and traded on the stock market, their investments must maximize return for the benefit of their shareholders. This requirement is a key driver of their business models, investment decisions, and customer focus—and it often doesn't leave a lot of room for people, the planet, or the other things that matter to many of us.

If you want your money aligned with your values, you need to know how your bank is investing your cash. Due to their size and complexity, there is little transparency as to how money deposited in mega-banks is actually used, which makes it hard to determine the values that drive the bank's business decisions. Putting your money in a mega-bank is like putting it in a black box. Chances are you're inadvertently supporting businesses, industries, and economic players that aren't aligned with your values. It's even possible that you're invested in the businesses and activities that you would boycott, petition against, and otherwise work to change.

While the mega-banks do offer a range of banking services, it's unlikely they're making us money—unless we're shareholders. And even then, it's unlikely they're a place where women, minorities, and the local community successfully obtain loans as they try to start—or run—small businesses.

These banks are so big, so much a part of our economy, and so ubiquitous in our lives that we just assume they're our only option for savings and checking accounts, credit cards, and other personal financial products. But that couldn't be further from the truth. And it wasn't always like this. Even today's mega-banks started out much smaller and focused on the needs of the average person. At one time, they were also centers for innovation. But as they grew, the banks' business models became more focused on large customers, economic growth, and shareholder profitability.

Other Banking Options

Sadly, many financial institutions like Bank of America have long outgrown their founders' original visions. Still, there are plenty of others that use their capital to support local communities, the members of their institution, or specific values such as climate change and social justice. These alternatives to mega-banks include values-based banks, credit unions, and community development financial institutions (CDFIs). Some of these options are banks, some are member based, and some are nonprofits. These values-based financial institutions provide a wide range of banking services that often come with higher returns or lower fees than larger banks. Most of them ensure your deposits are federally insured up to $250,000, similar to mega-banks. And many have been in business for decades and are extremely viable options for socially minded individuals.

Is Your Money Safe?

Some of you may be concerned that values-aligned banks and financial institutions are not as safe as mega-banks, particularly during times of financial downturns or crisis. However, this is not necessarily the case. For one thing, not all the alternatives to mega-banks are small. Amalgamated Bank, the values-based bank referenced earlier, has over $40 billion in assets. Credit unions, another values-based option, have a combined asset base of over $1 trillion.3 The Navy Federal Credit Union, currently the largest credit union in the country, has $95 billion in assets and over 8 million members.4 It's hard to consider that small.

Even more important, there are two federal agencies that regulate financial institutions—the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Both provide deposit insurance for financial institutions of all sizes up to a maximum of $250,000, but the types of institutions they cover differs. For example:

  • The FDIC provides deposit insurance to regulated banks.
  • The NCUA provides deposit insurance to regulated credit unions.
  • Deposit-taking CDFIs can be banks, in which case the FDIC insures them, or they can be credit unions and be insured by the NCUA.

Should a financial institution of any size or type fail, if it is registered with the FDIC or NCUA, the funds deposited there are federally insured, and they should be safe.

Smaller Banks Support Local Businesses and Communities

With smaller banks and credit unions, your cash can be leveraged to support you, your communities, small businesses, women, minorities, and other social goals. Smaller financial institutions are often leading providers of home, auto, and consumer loans, particularly for underserved populations. And as we learned during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, smaller financial institutions were often the ones that came to the rescue of local businesses that were struggling.

Smaller Banks Can Provide Greater Value

Values-based banks, credit unions, and CDFIs can offer you reduced fees, higher interest rates, and more personalized customer service. Let's start by looking at fees, which most of us don't like to pay, particularly when the fees are not transparent. Research shows that banks holding less than $5 billion in assets were more likely to offer free personal checking accounts than larger banks.5 When you add in statement fees, overdraft fees, fees for currency exchanges, and money-wiring costs, it can get expensive to let your bank hold your cash. In fact, the average American pays hundreds of dollars each year in bank fees.6 On top of that, you are probably earning interest rates on your cash accounts that are minimal to nonexistent. While your experience may be different, the customer service I received when I used mega-banks often equated to long hold times on customer support lines. Smaller banks can often do better across the board.

Digital-Only Banks

We have entered an era where much of our banking takes places online. As a result, we have seen the arrival of digital-only banks. A key benefit of these businesses is they often pay higher interest rates than brick-and-mortar banks and financial institutions. By lowering their overhead costs, online banks can pass their savings on to their customers in the form of lower fees and higher interest rates on their deposit accounts. However, most digital-only banks lack transparency in terms of how their funds are invested and are not the best options for values-aligned investors.

There are a few exceptions, however. Aspiration Bank, a green digital-only bank, is one example. From the beginning, Aspiration set out to provide its customers with ethical and sustainable banking services. Everything the company does is geared toward that objective. With Aspiration you can earn a higher rate of return than you would from most banks, and you can know that your deposits are fossil fuel free. The bank also offers cash back when you shop for impact and donates some of its profits to charity.

Before choosing a digital-only bank, you might want to verify it will meet all your needs. These financial institutions may offer a more limited range of banking services, which can be challenging if you transfer large amounts of cash, require a loan, or are considering this type of bank for your business. It may also be difficult to establish a personal relationship with your banker, as your interactions are likely to take place through email or online chat, which could lead to greater difficulty solving problems should they occur. That said, an online bank could be one tool in your cash toolbox.

Values-Aligned Banking Options

Choosing a values-based bank, credit union, or CDFI means you'll know how your bank is investing your money. In addition, you aren't giving up safety as long as you choose a financial institution where your money is insured. You may also pay less in fees and make more in interest. And in many cases, you'll receive a more intimate customer experience. That's a lot to like.

As a consumer of banking services, you have some control over the type of impact you make through your choice of a bank. You can choose a financial institution that supports a group you're affiliated with, provides loans to women and other underserved communities, or addresses environmental issues. All of those options are possible. Table 4.1 lays out some impact goals and shows the types of financial institutions that typically provide that level of impact. Please visit our companion website to locate values-aligned financial institutions near you.

TABLE 4.1 Impact Goals by Financial Institution

Impact Goal Financial Institution
General values alignment
  • Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) members
  • B-Corporations
Specific affiliations
  • Credit unions
Small business
  • Credit unions with small business and gender mandates
  • CDFIs
Local communities
  • Credit unions with local community mandates
  • CDFIs
  • Credit unions with gender mandates
  • CDFIs
  • Specialized credit unions, such as Clean Energy Federal Credit Union or Maine Harvest Credit Union

GABV Banks

The Global Alliance for Banking on Values, known simply as GABV, was launched in 2009 as a direct response to the global financial crisis of 2008. The founding members were three financial institutions with social missions at the core of their business models. When the crisis struck, these banks realized there needed to be a global platform for likeminded financial institutions to come together and create a paradigm shift in banking and financial services. And GABV was born. As of this writing, the organization included 63 financial institutions from countries across the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Members had a combined asset base of over $210 billion and served more than 70 million customers.

For GABV members, business decisions start by identifying a human need. The banks then determine how to meet that need in a way that is sustainable from environmental, social, and economic perspectives. This includes sustainable profitability for the bank. Becoming a GABV member requires an in-depth due-diligence process to confirm the prospective bank has a business model that is driven by GABV principles. An assessment committee needs to see real commitment from the bank's senior leadership and governing board that it will advance GABV objectives within their business and through active participation in the GABV community. The financial institution must also pass high bars in terms of their regulations, governance structure, and financial sustainability.

When you bank with a GABV bank, you can trust that your financial institution is striving to be a deeply principled and socially responsible business. There are several GABV financial institutions in the US. Some are banks while others are credit unions.

B-Corp Financial Institutions

B-Corps, some of which are banks, are businesses that adhere to the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability. To be designated as a B-Corp, a company must go through an extensive certification process that examines the entire business to ensure it meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. Some values-based financial institutions, including some GABV banks, have gone through the process of becoming B-Corps.

Credit Unions

A credit union is a member-governed, member-owned, nonprofit financial institution that has been established for the benefit of its members, that is, those who deposit their savings and checking accounts with the institution. Corporations and other entities can form credit unions, which can range in size from relatively small enterprises to very large financial institutions with millions of members and billions of dollars in assets.

In addition to providing bank accounts, credit unions offer loans and other financial services to their members and the broader community. Because these businesses are structured as nonprofits, any extra money earned is returned to the members in the form of reduced fees, increased interest rates on deposits, reduced loan rates, or other benefits. Regulated by the NCUA, deposits in credit unions are insured up to $250,000 per depositor.

Participation in credit unions is growing in the US. According to the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), a third of Americans are served by credit unions.7 There are wonderful resources on the Web to help you find a credit union that meets your needs. Many of the listings provide information about the credit union, including eligibility requirements.

ELIGIBILITY   Since these are membership organizations, you must qualify to participate. Membership is often determined through an affiliation like your job, the town you live in, or association with a group you belong to. Some credit unions are very restrictive, while others are more flexible. You're eligible to join a nonrestrictive credit union if you belong to an “associated” membership organization. This option is often available for a relatively small, one-time fee. For example, if you join the Center for Community Self-Help—a nonprofit committed to economic and social justice—for a modest lifetime membership fee of $10, then you're eligible to become a member of the Self-Help Credit Union, which has branches in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, and California. Comprehensive lists of nonrestrictive credit unions are available on the Web.8

SOCIAL MISSION   The vast majority of credit unions strive to provide high-quality, personalized service to their members, and that may be where their impact stops. However, others have additional social objectives related to the types of clients they serve. Social justice is a common theme among credit unions, as many support underserved groups in their local communities with small business loans, mortgages, student loans, and other financial services.

It's exciting to see other specialized credit unions forming. The Clean Energy Federal Credit Union has a very unique investment objective. This financial institution provides loans to help people afford clean-energy products and services such as solar electric systems, electric vehicles, home-energy efficiency retrofits, electric-assist bicycles, and net-zero energy homes. You can join the Clean Energy FCU by first becoming a member of the American Solar Energy Society, a nonprofit that is working to advance solar energy. Another example is the Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union, which focuses on small farms and the new food economy in Maine. Given the advances of technology, you no longer need to be in the same physical location as your bank. This makes it possible for you to join credit unions such as the Clean Energy and Maine Harvest from any place in the US.

REACH   Even though your credit union might be small or not close to you physically, if it participates in the CO-OP Network, it can use “shared branching,” which allows members from one credit union to transact at more than 5,000 credit union branches across the country and around the world. They may also leverage the CO-OP ATM network, which offers access to over 30,000 ATMs.9 In addition, there are other sharing programs your credit union may be affiliated with that expand their reach and service offerings.

When researching credit union options:

  • Confirm they are regulated by the NCUA to be sure your money will be federally insured up to $250,000;
  • Check whether you're eligible to become a member;
  • Determine if they're part of the CO-OP or other shared-branching and ATM network programs; and
  • Look into the social mission of the credit union by finding out how they invest their deposits.

Community Development Financial Institutions

Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs, are financial institutions that offer affordable loans and small business advice to individuals and communities that are underserved by traditional banks. While some credit unions make an impact that extends outside their membership, all CDFIs have community-impact mandates. These financial institutions support small businesses, nonprofits, and other community-based organizations, stimulating the economy in underserved markets. CDFIs support businesses like your local dry cleaner, beauty parlor, and bagel shop, which are often run by women, who have a harder time getting business loans from banks than men.

CDFIs can be set up as for-profits or nonprofits. In all instances, they are profit making, just not profit maximizing, because they put community before shareholders. With a long history that accelerated in the 1990s, CDFIs have a proven track record in terms of strong financials and local impact.10 Although CDFIs historically have higher loan delinquency rates, they also have lower total losses from their loans compared to other banks.11 Since delinquency rates are generally calculated on a 90-day period, this data suggests that CDFI banks are more willing to work with their loan customers to ensure ultimate repayment, while traditional banks are more inclined to let those customers default on their loans (and the bank will then write off the losses). The CDFI approach translates into more dignity for the loan recipient and a better bottom line for the CDFI.

CDFI banks and CDFI credit unions can be found all over the country. The FDIC monitors CDFI banks while the NCUA regulates CDFI credit unions. In both cases, deposits at insured CDFIs are guaranteed up to $250,000.

Aligning Your Cash

At this point, you have learned that you have options about where you hold your savings and checking accounts. You also know that you can invest your cash in ways that support women, your local community, or other causes you care about. However, actually taking the time and energy to make these changes may seem daunting. Some of the women involved in writing this book went through the process just like I did. And, like me, they learned that it's not that hard to break with your current bank.

The biggest obstacle you are going to run into when moving your cash to a new bank will be inertia. We felt it, too, but as we started learning more about how our money could advance our goals, we got more and more excited to shift our cash into alignment with our values. Then, when we realized that we could make more money in interest and get more personalized customer support, many of us moved into action. And so can you.

If you're considering changing your bank, I'm sure you have a lot of questions. Here are some of the ones I considered when I first started to move my cash:

Isn’t this Going to Take a Lot of Work?

It will take some work, but it doesn't have to be that much. It's going to take you a bit of effort to shift from one bank to another, but there are a number of resources that can help you make the transition easily.

The most time-consuming aspects of this process will be:

  • Deciding where you want to move your cash; and
  • Establishing your automatic direct deposit and bill payment links with your new bank.

To simplify these steps and to hold yourself accountable for following through, you may want to go through the process with a few friends. Several of us did this together over a period of months, and we learned a lot in the process.

As a bit more incentive, you may find that changing banks saves you hundreds of dollars every year. Switching banks allows you to do some “financial housekeeping,” because you will go through all of your recurring and automatic payments. You may find (as some of us did) that there are things you have been paying for on a regular basis that you completely forgot about and don't even need anymore.

How Long is this Going to Take?

Plan on a transition period of three to six months. Not because it must take that long—you could do this in a matter of days or weeks if you prefer. A longer time frame allows you to move through the process at a pace that fits your lifestyle. After you open your new account, you don't have to move all your assets at once. It can be easier initially to shift only a portion of your funds. By managing two accounts for a while, you can enter your automatic deposit and bill payment links into your new account over time. Furthermore, you can watch your old account after most of the funds have been shifted to be sure there are no unexpected deposits or withdrawals. Once you are comfortable that your new account is fully functional and funds are no longer needed in the old account, you can close it.

What if I Can’t Find a Values-Aligned Bank that Provides all the Services I Need?

This can be a challenge if you do a lot of international travel, have business overseas, feel like you are tied to your bank due to a mortgage, or have unusual financial needs. Many credit unions offer additional services to their members through partnerships with Credit Union Service Organizations, so be sure to ask before assuming your needs can't be met.

If a values-aligned bank can't provide the services you need, you may want to have two banks. Most of your cash can be kept in a values-aligned institution, with a minimal amount kept in your current bank to ensure you have access to the key services you want to maintain or that your new bank cannot offer. This way, you will have most of your cash in alignment with your values, even though some of it will be in a nonaligned bank. If you set up a link between your banks, it will be easy to move funds back and forth. This can actually be a win-win scenario because you have access to the benefits of a community-based financial institution, the key services you need from your current bank, and the satisfaction that most of your cash is being put to work in support of the things you value.

What if I Hate My Current Bank, but I Love their Technology?

In the past, limitations related to online bill pay services or mobile phone apps were a hindrance in making the commitment to move cash to more values-aligned financial institutions. But this is changing.

Online banking capabilities are rapidly becoming the standard that all banks and credit unions need to meet. So more and more of them are upgrading their systems. If this is critical to you, be sure to address this issue when you are interviewing prospective banks.

What about ATMs? Won’t I give up Access?

Not necessarily. Many credit unions and CDFIs are part of a broad network of ATMs. The ATM fees that values-aligned institutions charge for out-of-network ATMs can be competitive with major banks—even beating them in some cases. So don't assume that you will have less access or will pay more.

Won’t Changing Banks Negatively Affect My Credit Rating?

Unless you're also applying for a new credit card or loan at the same time, the answer is no, because neither savings nor checking accounts are associated with lines of credit. Financial institutions don't report changes in these types of accounts to credit rating agencies unless you open up a new line of credit at the same time.

Take Action

The following steps can be taken alone or in partnership with others if you prefer a more collaborative approach with shared responsibility and support.

  1. Determine how much money you want to hold in your new savings, checking, and cash alternative accounts. If you have multiple accounts, consider whether you want to move forward in stages, moving one account first before tackling the next account.
  2. Visit our companion website and create a short list of values-aligned financial institutions that interest you.
  3. Interview your candidates to ensure they meet your needs and pick a new bank.
    • Download the questionnaire for this part of the process from our companion website and add any additional questions of your own.
    • Download the template spreadsheet to fill out as you conduct interviews.
  4. Open your new account.
    • In some instances, you can open an account online, which makes this part of the process extremely easy. Most likely you'll need your SSN and some form of identification for this process.
    • Fund your new account with a deposit that's large enough to eliminate monthly fees.
    • Order your checks and ATM cards. They usually take one to two weeks to arrive.
  5. If you're paid through direct deposits, have those—and any other automatic deposits—redirected to your new account. Do this as soon as you can after opening your new account.
    • To make this process easier, get a direct deposit authorization form from your new bank. Make sure it includes your new account information. Give this to your employer or any company/individuals that make direct deposits to your account, along with a voided check (if requested) from your new account.
    • Ask when the payment to your new account will take place. It could take one or more payment cycles, so be sure to watch your new account for the switch.
  6. Once your direct deposits are being sent to your new account, update your automatic bill payment systems.
    • Make a list of any businesses that automatically debit your account for their bill payments. You can do this by going back through your bank statements. If you think you may have automatic deductions that occur less frequently, that is, quarterly or annually, you might want to look back through a year of statements.
    • Use this opportunity to do financial “housecleaning,” eliminating any recurring services you no longer need or want.
    • To make this process easier, get an automatic payment authorization form from your bank. Make sure it includes your new account information before you send it to the businesses on your list.
    • If necessary, transfer more funds to your new account to be sure that as automatic withdrawals start taking place, there are sufficient funds in the account to cover the payments. Leave enough money in your old account to cover checks that haven't cleared or automatic payments that may still be made.
  7. Capture any information about recurring payments that you have set up through your old online bill payment service. Enter this information in your new online service.
  8. Once you have switched all your recurring transactions and bill payments and you are comfortable that everything is working, wait one to three months to ensure there are no unexpected transactions in your old account. Also confirm that all outstanding checks have cleared.
  9. After your waiting period has ended, shift any remaining funds to your new account.
    • Before closing your old account, confirm that all outstanding checks have cleared and save PDFs of any statements you might need. If you think you'll need these records for tax purposes, check the IRS website to verify how long you should be saving these records, as circumstances can vary.
    • Close your old account, following your old bank's procedures.
    • Caution: Do not assume your account has been closed just because there is no money left in it. Your old bank will likely continue to charge fees on an empty account, unless you officially close it using their procedures.
  10. Write a cordial letter to the CEO of your old bank explaining why you left. You can find a template for this on our companion website.
  11. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done and think about all the people that you will be helping through your cash deposits, moving forward.


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  7. 7   Credit Union National Association. The Credit Union Difference: 2019 Advocacy Briefing.
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  11. 11 Opportunity Finance Network. “20 Years of CDFI Banks and Credit Unions: 1996–2015: An Analysis of Trends and Growth.” Jan 31, 2017.


  1. *   Real rate of return is the rate you are actually earning, in this case from interest minus the rate of inflation, which is a measure of the rate at which the average price of a “basket” of selected goods and services increases over a period of time. If your earnings keep up with or exceed the rate of inflation, then your purchasing power increases. If your earnings do not keep up, then you have less money to purchase the same goods each year.
  2. *
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