Thursday, December 17, 2015

Banks Hike Prime Rate, but leave Savings Rates Untouched

Yesterday, in what must be the most telegraphed increase in interest rates in American history, the Federal Reserve Bank moved to increase interest rates by 0.25%. Major US banks quickly followed suit, hiking the Prime Lending Rate by the same amount. But banks have left the deposit rate paid on consumer savings at close to zero. First reported by ZeroHedge, banks one after the other, including Wells Fargo, Citi, JP Morgan and US Bank moved within minutes of the Fed hike to raise their bank's Prime Lending Rate to borrowers.

What's shocked investors is that after seven years of near zero rates of interest on savings and money market balances at banks, the Fed's long awaited rise in interest rates would have no corresponding increase, not even a comment, on raising the rate of interest for savers on bank deposits. But when you look at how banks have managed the interest rate cycle following the financial crisis, it's really no surprise.

While corporations and banks alike have seen their cost of borrowing fall precipitously following the financial crisis, banks by and large have been unwilling to pass these savings onto consumers through lower interest rates on credit card balances and consumer loans. Banks, who have been able to borrow at interest rates near zero and have paid substantially less than 1% of interest on consumer deposits for the past seven years, have held credit card rates near their all-time high. 

Data of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in a 2012 report to Congress on trends in bank credit card pricing found that average bank rates had fallen from 14.68% in the period leading up to the recession to just 13,09% by 2011. By November of 2014, this rate had fallen to just 12.89%. At the same time, the average rate of return on assets of large US credit card banks had climbed from 2.75% to 5.25%. With the funding cost of banks near zero for this period and the interest rates charged on consumer loan balances stuck at 13%, it's quite shocking that returns on bank assets weren't actually far higher.

This points to the great failure in Federal Reserve monetary policy over the past seven years and why US economic growth isn't far more robust, following seven years of zero interest rates and $4 trillion of bond purchases under the Fed's program of Quantitative Easing. The answer, in short, is that the benefits of easy money and ultra-low interest rates have been retained by the banks, rather than passed along to consumers. With the banks serving as the Fed's only transmission mechanism for monetary policy, this is not only unfortunate, it's unconscionable.