|Chase Sunset & Vine, 2012. Painting by Alex Schaefer|
Banks don't like to share higher interest rates with their customers.
Case in point: let's take a look at what happened as the Federal Reserve, the U.S.'s central bank, went through a long period of hiking interest rates from 2015 to 2019.
The Federal Reserve's first rate increase (from 0.25% to 0.5%) was in December 2015. It increased rates once more in 2016 and three times in 2017. But the interest rate on the average U.S. savings account and interest checking account didn't start to rise till spring 2018, two and a half years after the Fed's first rate hike (see chart a few paragraphs down).
If you're like me, you'd assume some sort of direct linkage between: 1) the interest rate that the Federal Reserve pays its customers (i.e. banks) and 2) the rate that these same banks pay their customers, you and me. Just like we have a checking account at a bank, banks maintain checking accounts at the Federal Reserve, the U.S.'s central bank. They earn interest on balances held in those accounts. This rate is known as the Fed's interest rate on reserves, or IOR. As the Fed increases the interest rate that it pays on these checking accounts, the banks earn more from the Fed. But for some reason the banks don't pass these earnings on to the public.
This lack of pass-through bothered me when I first tweeted about it over a year back. But I didn't take it too seriously, figuring it was due to some sort of institutional inertia. Banks are slow monolithic beasts. If they're slow to increase rates, at least they're slow to chop them, too, right? So on net, we customers aren't any worse off.
But are banks actually slow to reduce rates? Well, the results are in. The Fed began to cut rates in mid-2019. When Covid hit in March, the Fed rapidly ratcheted IOR down from 1.6% to 0.1%. Banks went from earning around $38 billion in interest on their checking accounts at the Fed (in fiscal year 2018) to almost nothing.
So did banks take three or four years to pass lower Fed interest rates rates on to their customers? Nope. In just a month or two, the banks obliterated all the interest rate gains that customers wit savings account had enjoyed since 2018:
Thanks for nothing, banks.— John Paul Koning (@jp_koning) June 3, 2020
From 2016 to 2019, U.S. banks slowly passed on Fed rate increases to their customers. Look how fast they passed on Fed rate reductions in 2020! pic.twitter.com/jt8hHgvL7F
No, banks aren't lethargic beasts that are universally slow to change interest rates enjoyed by savers. They seem to have a strategy of increasing rates slowly, and then reducing them rapidly. Assholes.
Note that the savings rate I am using is from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's website. FDIC takes the simple average of rates paid by all insured depository institutions and branches for which data are available.
By the way, this data probably doesn't represent the experience of the minority of financial sticklers who make an effort to locate high-interest rate savings accounts at online-only banks.
This asymmetry isn't a new phenomenon. In "Sticky Deposits", Federal Reserve economists John Driscoll & Ruth Judson found that rates are "downwards-flexible and upwards-sticky."
More specifically, the authors used proprietary data from 1997 to 2007 to show that interest rates on bank accounts and other retail deposits adjust about twice as frequently during periods of falling Fed interest rates as they do in rising ones. They estimate that this sluggish pass-through from rising Fed rates to customer rates costs American consumers around $100 billion per year!
My favorite chart from Driscoll & Judson is below:
|Source: Judson & Driscoll|
At left, we see the number of weeks it takes for banks to decrease the rate on interest checking accounts in response to a cut in the Fed's interest rate. At right we see the converse, how long it takes increase rates in response to higher Fed rates. Decreases tend to happen quickly (the purple bars in the left chart congregate closer to zero weeks) whereas increases are slow (the purple bars in the right chart congregate close to 100 weeks). More specifically, during Fed easing cycles, checking deposit rates are updated on average every 22 weeks, but during tightening cycles it takes an average of 50 weeks.
So what explains this asymmetry? A lack of competition perhaps? If I had to guess, I'd say low financial education and dearth of customer attention. Banks can afford to be assholes because most customers either don't understand what is happening, or don't notice.
If the banks are taking advantage of their customers' ignorance and inattention to the tune of $100 billion per year, should something be done?
One option would be to provide a government savings option that 'corrects' for this asymmetry. Like digital savings bonds. Or maybe a government prepaid debit card with a built-in savings account. These cards would offer an interest rate that is linked to the Federal Reserve's interest rate, but only available to those below a certain income ceiling.
Or what about setting statutory minimum interest rates on savings accounts? In Brazil, for instance, banks are obligated to link the rate they pay on savings accounts to the central bank's interest rate:
In the US, interest rates on savings accounts are minuscule. This would be illegal in Brazil, where banks must set rates using a formula linked to SELIC, the central bank's policy rate: https://t.co/3bupDm4L8f— John Paul Koning (@jp_koning) May 17, 2019
SELIC is 6.5%. Savings accounts must yield 70% of that, or 4.55%. pic.twitter.com/EPkkbROQvY
Or maybe it starts with education. As part of its new financial literacy drive, Ontario will teach children how to identify Canadian coins and bills and compare their values in Grade 1, saving and spending from Grade 4, how to budget starting in Grade 5, and financial planning starting in Grade 6. If the result is a more savvy population, banks may face more pressure to pass on higher interest rates.
Or maybe nothing. In which case one hopes that over time the combination of better financial technology, branchless banking, and competition from Silicon Valley will eventually result in better pass-through and more symmetry in interest rates.