Moaning about bad returns on your savings? Stop complaining – it's your fault that interest rates are so low

 Do savers really believe a 10 per cent fall in the value of their house is a price worth paying for a couple of extra percentage points of interest on their current accounts?

Ben Chu
Tuesday 16 August 2016 18:12
The returns on cash savings are low, but low interest rates mean property and other assets have appreciated quickly
The returns on cash savings are low, but low interest rates mean property and other assets have appreciated quickly

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, warned Polonius. But should he have added “saver” to that list?

The Bank of England’s latest cut in its base rate has piled even more downward pressure on returns offered by banks on cash balances. Santander this week halved the interest rate on its “123” account, one of the few remaining products on the market that had offered a decent return on savings. And there is talk of another Bank rate cut later this year, perhaps down to just 0.1 per cent. Will it be long before furious savers march on the Bank’s Threadneedle Street headquarters with pitchforks and burning torches in their hands?

They should put the pitchforks down.

There are a number of serious misconceptions regarding the plight of savers that have gone uncorrected for too long. The first is that “saving” only takes the form of cash held on deposit in current accounts (or slightly longer-term savings accounts) at the bank or building society. The truth is that far more of the nation’s wealth is held in company shares, bonds, pensions and property, than on cash deposit.

Shares and pension pots have been greatly boosted by the Bank’s low interest rates and monetary stimulus since 2009. House prices have also done well, also helped by low rates. Savers complain about low returns on cash, yet fail to appreciate the benefit to the rest of their savings portfolios from monetary stimulus.

Carney on interest rates

There’s no denying that annuity rates (products offered by insurance companies that turn your pension pot into an annual cash flow) are at historic low thanks to rock bottom interest rates. Yet, since last year, savers also have the freedom not to buy an annuity upon retirement thanks to former Chancellor George Osborne’s regulatory liberalisation. People can now keep their savings invested in the stock market, liquidating shares when necessary to fund their outgoings.

There has been talk of the latest cut in Bank base rate pushing up accounting deficits in defined benefit retirement schemes to record levels, clobbering pensioners. But this is another misunderstanding.

Yes, some of these schemes, run by weak employers, could fail and need to be bailed out by the Pension Protection Fund. And this could entail reductions in pension pay outs. Yet the larger negative impact of rising pension deficits is likely to be felt by young people in work, rather than pensioners or imminent retirees.

Firms facing spiralling scheme deficits and regulatory calls to inject in more spare cash to reduce them, might well respond by keeping downward pressure on wages or by reducing hiring. In other words, the bill is likely to be picked up by those workers who are not benefiting, and were never going to benefit, from these (now closed) generous retirement schemes.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about savings is that low returns on cash deposits are somehow all the fault of the Bank of England. This shows a glaring ignorance of the bigger economic picture.

Excess savings in the global economy – in particular from China, Japan, Germany and the Gulf states – have been exerting massive downward on long-term interest rates in western countries for almost two decades. To put it simply, the world has more savings than it is able to digest. It is this global 'savings glut’ that has driven down long-term interest rates, making baseline returns so low everywhere.

It’s legitimate to wonder whether further cuts in short-term rates by the Bank of England will have much positive affect on the UK economy. But the savings lobby seems to believe that it’s the duty of the Bank to raise short-term rates, regardless of the bigger picture, in order to give people a better return on their cash savings today. This would be madness.

Yes, the Bank of England could jack up short-term rates – but the most likely outcome of this would be to deepen the downturn. And for what? It would mean a higher income for cash savers, but survey research suggests most would simply bank the cash gain rather than spending it, delivering no aggregate stimulus to growth.

Share and other asset prices would also most likely take a beating, undermining the rest of savers’ wealth portfolios. Do savers really believe a 10 per cent fall in the value of their house is a price worth paying for a couple of extra percentage points of interest on their current accounts?

Moreover, the Bank of England’s responsibility is to set interest rates for the good of the whole economy, not for one interest group within it. As Andy Haldane, the Bank’s chief economist pointed out at the weekend, keeping rates on hold (never mind increasing them) would considerably increase unemployment. And the people who would suffer in those circumstances would probably be those who have not even had a chance to build up any savings.

No sensible policymaker or economist wants low interest rates for their own sake. They are a means to an end: to help the economy return to its potential growth rate. When growth has hit that target it will, in time, necessitate higher short-term rates to keep inflation in check.

So for short-term rates to rise, the economy needs to pick up speed. That’s what the Bank of England has been trying to achieve since 2009. Yes, the process has been frustratingly protracted, like jumpstarting an old banger with a flat battery, but the situation would have been worse without Threadneedle Street’s efforts.

If savers are frustrated with low deposit returns they should focus their anger on the global savings glut and the failure (and refusal) of governments in Asia and Europe to rebalance their domestic economies. Other legitimate targets are excessive domestic austerity here in Britain, from the coalition and current governments since 2010, which have delivered a feeble recovery since the Great Recession, and also the Brexit vote which has forced the Bank of England into hosing the economy down with yet more emergency monetary support this month.

And if they voted for the latter two – austerity and Brexit – then savers might care to look in the mirror if they want to see one of the true causes of their frustration.

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