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Chase Sunset & Vine, 2012. Painting by Alex Schaefer

There is a fundamental asymmetry to banking. Banks don't like to share higher interest rates with their customers who have checking and savings accounts. But they are quick to pass off lower interest rates to us.

This asymmetry is good for bank shareholders, but bad for customers.

To illustrate this asymmetry, I'll start by showing how banks modified interest rates on savings and checking accounts 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.

This irked me and I tweeted about it over a year ago:

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. 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 are slow in passing these earnings on to the public.

Although the delay in pass-through irked me, 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 over the full economic cycle.
 
But if banks are slow to increase rates, is it indeed the case that they are also slow to reduce rates? Well, the results are in. The Fed began to cut rates in mid-2019, just around the time of my initial tweet. There were another few cuts in the latter half of 2019. Then COVID-19 hit in March, and the Fed rapidly ratcheted the rate it pay banks 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.

If banks are generally lethargically about passing on rate changes to their customers, it should have taken them three or four years to reduce rates on savings and checking accounts back to where they had started. Nope. In just a month or two, the banks obliterated all the interest rate gains that customers with savings account had enjoyed since 2018:

So 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. JP Morgan's Goldman Sachs's Marcus currently offers 1.03%, much higher than the 0.10% that the Fed pays to Goldman JP Morgan. Ally offers 1.10%. But the average savings account holder doesn't bank at these institutions. They stick to Bank of America or Wells Fargo, which both offer a measly 0.01%.

This asymmetry is not 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:

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.

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