You worked hard, saved money, and reduced or eliminated debt. You've been conservative, preferring the stability and security of bank deposits versus the gyrations of the market. Now, after forty years of toil and delayed gratification, you're ready for retirement.
If this were 2006, things would be good. The Fed Funds Rate stood at 5.25%, and inflation in check at 2.5%. This means you could get roughly 2.75% real interest from your bank savings account. Your money grew.
Then, boom, the 2008 financial crisis. The Fed immediately dropped Fed Funds to a range of 0% - 0.25%. And at that time, inflation was nearly zero (0.1%), so your real interest was still positive. And since it was a financial crisis, no worries. Things would recover. And thankfully since you were nearing retirement your home wasn't leveraged to the hilt and then some. Sure, your home value declined, but what does that mean to someone with little to no mortgage and isn't in the market to sell?
Heck, maybe there'll be a reassessment and your real estate taxes will go down.
Taxes go down? See that. I made a funny.
Retiree: That's Not So Funny
To the retiree that prefers the safe haven of FDIC insured deposits held at the local bank that lends it out locally, this is a serious issue. If we use the Fed Funds rate as a proxy for what a saver earns at their bank, the chart below is alarming.
Things looked good as we entered the 21st century. Sure inflation was relatively high, at least above the Fed's target rate of 2%, at 3.4%. But the Fed Funds rate, as proxy for savings, was 6.5%, a full 3.1% real return. (Note: I checked a few of our strategic planning peer groups to see their cost of deposits at June 30, 2021. One peer average was 36 basis points and the other 37. Although this is higher than the current top guideline of Fed Funds rate of 25 basis points, I feel comfortable using it as a proxy for bank savings rates. Eleven basis points difference to the peer median... c'mon.)
If a saver put $1,000 in a bank savings account on January 1, 2009, less than one month after the Fed dropped the Fed Funds rate to 0%-0.25%, and kept it in that savings account, they would have $1,091 at the end of 2020. That same $1,000, invested in the S&P 500 Index for the same period, would be worth $4,318.
Worse, in 14 of the 21 years from 2000 through 2020, the inflation rate has been higher than the Fed Funds rate. Meaning keeping your money in cash, or at your bank, caused a decrease in your depositors' buying power.
This caused savers to flee to higher earning assets, driving up the value of those assets. This phenomenon, combined with the Fed increasing its balance sheet from $1 trillion to near $9 trillion since the financial crisis, has kept bond yields low and their prices high. Forcing savers into equities, which has driven markets up. I can't imagine those that seek a safe haven will go into crypto currencies. But never say never.
This is a great environment for borrowers and spenders. Not so much for savers and those that avoid leverage.
What Say You, Mr. Powell?
And I'm not so sure policy makers have the savers' best interests in mind. The current inflation rate at this writing was 5.3%, well above the Fed's 2% target. Yet they continue to signal that they will keep the Fed Funds rate where it is until 2023. The two Board Governor hawks that are calling to do it sooner are leaving.
It benefits the federal government to keep rates artificially low because we have $28T of debt to service. That's with a "T". I'm hopeful the Fed makes decisions to promote maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. And ignores politician's calls to continue to print money to keep bond yields low so they can keep swiping the national credit card.
But I'm becoming increasingly skeptical that the Fed is remaining faithful to its mission. So as an industry, we might have to solve for the diminishing value of our customers' deposits. It could be part of our higher purpose (Increase economic well-being of savers).
If you have thoughts on solutions, I would love to hear them.
Please consider reading my book: Squared Away-How Can Bankers Succeed as Economic First Responders.
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