Whatever happened to savers and the savings ratio?

A feature of the credit crunch era has been the fall and some would say plummet in quite a range of interest-rates and bond yields. This opened with central banks cutting official short-term interest-rates heavily in response to the initial impact with the Bank of England for example trimming around 4% off its Bank Rate to reduce it to 0.5%. If we go to market rates the drop was even larger because it is often forgotten now that one-year interest-rates in the UK rose to 7% for around a year or so as the credit crunch built up in what was a last hurrah of sorts for savers. Next central banks moved to reduce bond yields via purchases of sovereign bonds via QE ( Quantitative Easing) programmes. In the UK this was followed by some Bank of England rhetoric heading towards the First World War pictures of Lord Kitchener saying your country needs you.

Here is Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean from September 2010.

“What we’re trying to do by our policy is encourage more spending. Ideally we’d like to see that in the form of more business spending, but part of the mechanism … is having more household spending, so in the short-term we want to see households not saving more but spending more’.

Our Charlie was keen to point out that this was a temporary situation.

“It’s very much swings and roundabouts. At the current juncture, savers might be suffering as a result of bank rate being at low levels, but there will be times in the future — as there have been times in the past — when they will be doing very well.

Mr.Bean was displaying his usual forecasting accuracy here as of course savers have seen only swings and no roundabouts as the Bank Rate got cut even further to 0.25% and the £79.6 billion of the Term Funding Scheme means that banks rarely have to compete for their deposits. This next bit may put savers teeth on edge.

“Savers shouldn’t see themselves as being uniquely hit by this. A lot of people are suffering during this downturn … Savers shouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to live just off their income in times when interest rates are low. It may make sense for them to eat into their capital a bit.”

In May 2014 Charlie was at the same game according to the Financial Times.

BoE’s Charlie Bean expects 3% interest rate within 5 years

There is little sign of that so far although of course Sir Charlie is unlikely to be bothered much with his index-linked pension worth around £4 million if I recall correctly plus his role at the Office for Budget Responsibility.

House prices

I add this in because the UK saw an establishment move to get them back into buying houses. This involved subsidies such as the Bank of England starting the Funding for Lending Scheme in the summer of 2013 to reduce mortgage rates ( by around 1% initially then up to 2%) which continues with the Term Funding Scheme. Also there was the Help to Buy Scheme of the government. I raise these because why would you save when all you have to do is buy a house and the price accelerates into the stratosphere?

The picture on saving gets complex here. Some may save for a deposit but of course the official pressure for larger deposits soon faded. Also the net worth gains are the equivalent of saving in theoretical terms at least but only apply to some and make first time buyers poorer. Also care is needed with net worth gains as people can hardly withdraw them en masse and what goes up can come down. Furthermore there are regional differences here as for example the gains are by far the largest in London which leads to a clear irony as official regional policy is supposed to be spreading wealth, funds and money out of London.

There is also the issue of rents as those affected here have no house price gains to give them theoretical wealth. However the impact of the fact that real wages are still below the credit crunch peak has meant that rents have increasingly become reported as a burden. So the chance to save may be treated with a wry smile by those in Generation rent especially if they are repaying Student Loans.

Share Prices

This is a by now familiar situation. If we skip for a moment the issue of whether it involves an investment or saving as it is mostly both we find yet another side effect of central bank action. In spite of the recent impact of the North Korea situation stock markets are mostly at or near all time highs. The UK FTSE 100 is still around 7300 which is good for existing shareholders but perhaps not so good for those planning to save.

Number Crunching

There are various ways of looking at the state of play or rather as to what the state of play was as we are at best usually a few months behind events. From the Financial Times at the end of June.

UK households have responded to a tight squeeze on incomes from rising inflation, taxes and falling wages by saving less than at any time in at least 50 years. According to new figures from the Office for National Statistics, 1.7 per cent of income was left unspent in the first quarter of 2017, the lowest savings ratio since comparable records began in 1963.

This compares to what?

The savings ratio has averaged 9.2 per cent of disposable income over the past 54 years,

Some of the move was supposed to be temporary which poses its own question but if we move onto July was added to by this.

In Quarter 1 2017, the households and NPISH saving ratio on a cash basis fell to negative 4.8%, which implies that households and NPISH spent more than they earned in income during the quarter.

The above number is a new one which excludes “imputed” numbers a trend I hope will spread further across our official statistics. It also came with a troubling reminder.

This is the lowest quarterly saving ratio on a cash basis since Quarter 1 2008, when it was negative 6.7%.

As they say on the BBC’s Question of Sport television programme, what happened next?

The United States

We in the UK are not entirely alone as this from the Financial Times Alphaville section a week ago points out.

Newly revised data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that American consumers have spent the past two years embracing option 2. The average American now saves about 35 per cent less than in 2015……….Not since the beginning of 2008 have Americans saved so little — and that’s before accounting for inflation.

Comment

One of the features of the credit crunch was that central banks changed balance between savers and debtors massively in the latter’s favour. Measure after measure has been applied and along this road the claims of “temporary” have looked ever more permanent. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that savings seem to be out of favour just as it is really no surprise that unsecured credit has been booming. It is after all official policy albeit one which is only confessed to in back corridors and in the shadows. After all look at the central bank panic when inflation fell to ~0% and gave savers some relief relative to inflation. If we consider inflation there has been another campaign going on as measures exclude the asset prices that central banks try to push higher. Fears of bank deposits being confiscated will only add to all of this.

Meanwhile as we find so often the numbers are unreliable. In addition to the revisions above from the US I note that yesterday Ireland revised its savings ratio lower and the UK reshuffled its definitions a couple of years or so ago. I do not know whether to laugh or cry at the view that the changed would boost the numbers?! I doubt the ch-ch-changes are entirely a statistical illusion but the scale may be, aren’t you glad that is clear? We are left mulling what is saving? What is investment?

But we travel a road where many cheerleaders for central bank actions now want us to panic over an entirely predictable consequence. Or to put it another way that poor battered can that was kicked into the future trips us up every now and then.

 

 

 

Life gets worse and worse for savers and depositors

Today sees or by the time you read this the announcement of another Bank of England policy decision. Actually reality has already changed as the vote took place yesterday in one of Governor Mark Carney’s “improvements”. He preferred the PR spin of presenting the announcement and the minutes together against the real and present danger of some traders being more equal than others. Presumably just like the apocryphal civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby he feels that those with the knowledge are “one of us” and can be trusted with it. Of course in that episode of Yes Prime Minister Sir Humphrey was shocked by the defections to Russia and we know that central banks leak “like a sieve” as Jim Hacker put it.

That may particularly matter today if it turns out that someone has voted for a Bank Rate cut or other form of policy easing. We are in a zone now where with production and manufacturing looking rather recessionary and the latest Markit Purchasing Managers Index suggesting a quarterly economic growth rate of 0.1% one or two will be mulling that. Perhaps the fact that the NIESR suggested a quarterly growth rate of 0.3% yesterday will make them hold fire for now but it brings me to the point at issue today which is to look at a major implication of the Bank Rate being at an “emergency” rate of 0.5% since March 2009.

Savings Rates

Even the BBC has noted that there has been changes in this area. This is because even worse than flatlining like the 0.5% Bank Rate they have been consistently falling.

Interest rates for savers have fallen to new record lows, after hundreds of cuts in recent months and more than 1,000 in the past year.

And again.

Savings rates plummeted after the Bank of England slashed its base rate in the financial crisis. Since last autumn, as the economic outlook has worsened, they have fallen again……In research carried out for the BBC, the rate-checking firm Savings Champion recorded 1,440 savings rate cuts last year and more than 230 so far this year.

So “The heat is on” to quote the late and sorely missed Glen Frey. Indeed it is the much trumpted ISAs which have been leading the charge in the wrong direction.

Tax-free Isa rates are at their lowest ever. The average variable rate Isa is down to 1%, while a typical fixed-rate Isa pays 1.4%.

Savers amongst you may well be having a wry smile thinking that we have been allowed to put more into ISAs like that just as they have become less valuable! That does remind me of the plans of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Prime Minister.

Along the way the BBC has uncovered a real nugget but sadly it mostly misses the significance of it.

The average return from the five best easy access accounts has dropped from more than 3% in 2012 to under 1.3%.

This is because the Funding for (Mortgage) Lending Scheme began in the summer of 2012 and the £69 billion or so of cheap funding provided by the Bank of England pushed mortgage rates lower. As it did so this meant that the banks had less need for ordinary deposits meaning less competition and lower deposit or savings rates have followed over time. More recently that existing trend has been added to by the way that interest-rates have fallen elsewhere such as the -0.4% deposit rate of the European Central Bank or the way that bond yields in Germany are negative out to the 9 year maturity. An illustration of this is the way that the 2 year UK Gilt (government bond) only yields some 0.36% which of course is below the Bank Rate which is not only embarassing for the Forward Guidance of Mark Carney it provides little help and succour for savers.

Financial Repression

This is defined by the Financial Times lexicon as shown below and the emphasis is mine.

Financial repression is a term used to describe measures sometimes used by governments to boost their coffers and/or reduce debt. These measures include the deliberate attempt to hold down interest rates to below inflation, representing a tax on savers and a transfer of benefits from lenders to borrowers.

Back in September 2010 a right Charlie told us this as Mr.Bean took to the Channel 4 airwaves.

“What we’re trying to do by our policy is encourage more spending. Ideally we’d like to see that in the form of more business spending, but part of the mechanism … is having more household spending, so in the short-term we want to see households not saving more but spending more’.

As you can see discouraging saving and financial repression was at the top of Charlie’s agenda. Indeed he went on to give some Forward Guidance that is as hapless as the more recent versions.

“It’s very much swings and roundabouts. At the current juncture, savers might be suffering as a result of bank rate being at low levels, but there will be times in the future — as there have been times in the past — when they will be doing very well.

So far he was completely wrong or of course he was singling along to the lyrics of Pete Townsend.

I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles

Savers may be thinking of another line from that song for Charlie’s benefit.

I know you’ve deceived me, now here’s a surprise

As the car crash interview continued the Deputy Governor had more to say on the subject.

Savers shouldn’t see themselves as being uniquely hit by this. A lot of people are suffering during this downturn.

Perhaps he thought he was suffering by getting by on a salary of £252,947 per year. Also there is not much sign of Charlie suffering in a pension worth a minimum of £4.85 million ( I have ignore spouse benefits etc for simplicity). Also he gets thrown some extra treats every now and then like his Review of UK Economic Statistics. So it would appear that a man who might be considered “one of us” by the establishment is immune from the suffering his and their policies have inflicted on others.

Comment

There are quite a few themes at play today. Firstly the driving force behind this is the central banking effort to boost asset prices such as house prices and equities. Lowering market interest-rates gives them a double whammy as the explicit move of lowering mortgage rates is added to by the implicit one of lower savings returns leading to less saving. Actually as ever life is much more complex than in the central banking 101 play book as for example many choose to pay their mortgage down faster by such methods as overpayments and repayments in 2016 have averaged just under £18 billion per month so far in 2016. Others adjust to lower savings rates by saving even more.

There is also the issue of timing as savers were promised a brighter future by Charlie Bean. Yet rather than being brighter the storm clouds have gathered and the situation has got worse.

If we spread our net wider we see that in an interview with Bild last month Mario Draghi of the ECB was humming the same song.

People can influence how much they get on their savings even in times of low interest rates. They don’t just have to keep the money in savings accounts but can invest in other ways.

But there are alternatives when investing savings. In the United States savers had to face seven years of zero interest rates.

Rather oddly the possibility of the UK leaving the European Union has been presented as a possible olive branch for savers by the new Bank of England policy maker Michael Saunders. From the Daily Telegraph.

The Bank of England will need to raise its key interest rate or Bank Rate to 3.5pc by the end of next year if Britain votes to leave the EU, the newest recruit to the Monetary Policy Committee has warned privately.

As this might well encourage savers to vote out Mr.Saunders may well be aping Bart Simpson right now as he stands in front of the Bank of England blackboard writing ” I must not…” a thousand times

 

 

What are savers supposed to do in a world of continual interest-rate cuts?

Early this morning saw yet another official interest-rate cut from a central bank. If we skip to a world down under we saw this from the Reserve Bank of Australia.

At its meeting today, the Board decided to lower the cash rate by 25 basis points to 2.25 per cent, effective 4 February 2015.

So even Australia which has benefited from the resources based boom has joined the club which reduces interest-rates to all-time lows. I doubt it will be their last move in what is also a familiar theme and trend of these times. Also I note that it is not just short-term official interest rates which have gone down.

Financial conditions are very accommodative globally, with long-term borrowing rates for several major sovereigns reaching new all-time lows over recent months……. overall financing costs for creditworthy borrowers remain remarkably low.

This morning the ten-year bond yield in Australia has fallen to a record low of 2.36% as a bass line is added to the drumbeat. One of the issues here is that it is as we have discussed before become something of a South China Territories but even this has only protected it from the cold winds of interest-rate cuts for a period.

What about Canada?

In what is looking like something of a post colonial theme it was only yesterday that I was discussing the recent interest-rate cut in Canada.

The Bank of Canada today announced that it is lowering its target for the overnight rate by one-quarter of one percentage point to 3/4 per cent.

In another development the interest-rate which comes from a low-level of only 1% was in spite of the fact that the official forecast was for growth.

The oil price shock is occurring against a backdrop of solid and more broadly-based growth in Canada in recent quarters.

So even a relatively strong economy-so far anyway- only had an interest-rate peak of 1%?

Sweden

A new tactic in the interest-rate elimination wars came from the Riksbank of Sweden last year.

The Board is cutting the repo rate by 0.25 percentage points to zero per cent, and making a significant downward revision to the repo-rate path.

So we saw the Riksbank literally begin a Zero Interest-Rate Policy or ZIRP as its rate was cut to 0% but take a look at the rationale!

In Sweden, economic activity is continuing to improve, primarily driven by good growth in household consumption and housing investment……….. The labour market will continue to strengthen in the years ahead and there will be a clear fall in unemployment.

You are permitted an Eh? At this point. Some improving economic activity combined with an improving labour market makes a case for an interest-rate cut? It used to be the foundations for an interest-rate rise as savers feel a chill in their bones at the implications of this.

New Zealand

If we continual the post colonial link we see that there was a case for another interest-rate rise in New Zealand.

Annual economic growth in New Zealand is above 3 percent, supported by rising construction activity and household incomes. The housing market is showing signs of picking up, particularly in Auckland.

But it did not happen partly because of all the interest-rate cuts elsewhere and fears of a currency appreciation. This of course begs the question of when an interest-rate rise can be made these days?

Negative interest-rates

These are increasing prevalent especially around the Euro area as linked economies try not to be affected by its travails and groundwash. I have analysed the way that the Swiss National Bank planned to cut to -0.25% and ended up cutting to-0.75% as the former proved insufficient. Next came Denmark’s Nationalbanken which learned nothing from Switzerland and ended up pretty much copy-catting it as it did this.

Effective from 30 January 2015, Danmarks Nationalbank’s interest rate on certificates of deposit is reduced by 0.15 percentage point to -0.50 per cent

At the same time we have seen the development and spread of negative bond yields which has been driven at least partly by negative official rates. Banks have been trying to avoid the negative rates at the central bank and so they have bought short-dated bonds instead which has often pushed yields negative there too. Danish and Swiss yields are negative quite a long way up their yield curves which leaves a saver with fewer and fewer alternatives.

Also so far I have not pointed out that the European Central Bank went over to the dark side a while ago and has an official interest-rate of -0.2%. It also now has a litany of countries with negative bond yields and some of these are no longer so short-term as in Germany even the five-year maturity is negative.

What about the UK?

We do not have negative interest-rates but we have had an “emergency” Base Rate of 0.5% for what feels like “forever,ever,ever” as Taylor Swift put it but is in fact since 2008. What we have had is downwards pressure on savings rates from the policies of the Bank of England as it has operated several implicit bank bailout policies. Whilst the largest policy was the £375 billion of QE (Quantitative Easing) it was the Funding for Lending Scheme which provided banks with cheap funding reducing their reliance on savers to provide them with liquidity and cash. So from the summer of 2012 even more downwards pressure was applied to savings rates as we are reminded of the words of the hapless Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean. From Channel 4.

I think it needs to be said that savers shouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to live just off their income in times when interest rates are low. It may make sense for them to eat into their capital a bit.

In a move that makes him now seem a right Charlie he offered hope for the future and please remember this was September 2010!

It’s very much swings and roundabouts. At the current juncture, savers might be suffering as a result of bank rate being at low levels but there will be times in the future as there have been times in the past when they will be doing very well out of the fact that interest rates are at a relatively high level and I think that’s something that savers should bear in mind.

Savers may well be wondering when the next roundabout is?! By contrast Mr.Bean did not have to dip into his pension which rose and rose to an index-linked £119,200 per annum.

What about UK savings rates?

Swanlow Park have produced some annual averages which sing along to Alicia Keys.

I, I, I, I’m fallin’
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
Fall

I keep on
Fallin’

In 2008 they calculated the average rate as 5.09%, these following the Base Rate cuts and we saw around 2.8% in 2010-12. But following the Funding for (Mortgage) Lending Scheme we saw 1.75% in 2013 and 1.48% in 2014 as the new push from the Bank of England impacted on savers one more time. Indeed savers might quite reasonably think that this from Status Quo applies.

Again again again again, again again again again

Or of course there is.

Down down deeper and down
Down down deeper and down
Get down deeper and down

Comment

There are several issues to consider here of which the first is simple fairness. How long  in a democracy can one-sided policies continue which benefit borrowers at the expense of savers? However there is an economic impact too which is that such Keynesian style policies have a time limit i.e they change things for a period and by the time that is up then the situation is supposed to be different as in better. The catch is that at best we are now singing along with Muse.

Time is running out

Actually it is my opinion that it ran out some time ago and central banks are going back to the same play-book because they combine desperation with a lack of imagination. But whilst some (US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England) tease us with talk of interest-rate rises none have actually arrived and I note that the ECB tried it and now has negative interest-rates. So savers continue to be in the chill of what feels like a nuclear winter as I wonder if it will be followed by even more fall-out? After all the current disinflationary trends allow central bankers to talk of rising real interest-rates for a while at least.