Maximizing Yield in a Near-Zero Rate Environment

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To some, the global financial crisis of 2008-2010 may seem a distant memory. But it was almost 11 years ago today that the crisis was at its peak, sending some of the largest banks in the country to the brink of insolvency, while others failed entirely. As lending dried up, the broader economy suffered, leading the S&P 500 Index to decline by more than 50%, a dramatic fall that shook the confidence of an entire generation of investors.

Banks that seemed rock-solid were failing, and the larger the bank, the more complex were its exposures and thus the more difficult it was to assess its safety. It was against this backdrop that I began managing my own cash more actively, in search of greater safety and liquidity.

The Role of the FDIC

In the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress enacted the Banking Act of 1933, which paved the way for the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC helped create a level playing field for banks, backstopping depositors with the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government. The FDIC thus conferred upon bank deposits the same credit risk as U.S. Treasurys — up to a cap — giving depositors confidence that their deposits were safe.  

During the Financial Crisis, the FDIC raised the deposit insurance limit to $250,000 per depositor, per account type, per bank charter, and it has remained at this level ever since. By spreading cash across multiple banks, depositors can avail themselves of even more FDIC insurance coverage, making it possible to keep even larger sums of cash fully insured. 

Maximizing Yield and Safety

At the time of the Financial Crisis, I was working as an investment banker at one of the largest banks in the country and witnessed first-hand the risks that depositors faced, particularly if they were holding more than the FDIC insurance limit in cash. I started looking for a way to keep my own cash safe and liquid. 

Brokerage firms were marketing brokered deposit solutions that they claimed increased deposit insurance coverage, but the deeper I dug into these products, the more flaws I found. I determined that these brokered deposit offerings — in which a bank or brokerage firm sells your deposits to other banks to earn a profit while claiming to offer increased FDIC coverage — all suffered from the same fundamental flaw: the funds all flowed through an intermediary institution, so if the institution selling brokered deposits were to fail, depositors might lose access to all their funds until that institution was bailed out. Put differently, these solutions — marketed as a means of reducing risk — were in fact riskiest in precisely the circumstances that they were designed to help you avoid.

I decided that the best way to keep cash safe was much simpler: keep it in my own bank accounts. I could hold these accounts directly in my own name and spread my cash across multiple banks so that even if one bank were to fail, I’d still have access to funds at other banks while the failing bank went through the FDIC resolution process. No brokers. No intermediaries. Just my own cash sitting in my own bank accounts.

The challenge, of course, was monitoring all of these accounts. I found myself logging into multiple bank accounts each month to monitor balances and rates. Accrued interest pushed me over the FDIC limit, and as time went on, I noticed that banks were changing their rates all the time, meaning that I found myself having to constantly monitor rates and shift funds from bank to bank to ensure I was getting the best deal. There had to be a better way.

My experience managing cash during the financial crisis led to the creation of MaxMyInterest, a simple cash management solution that fully automates this cash management strategy, enabling anyone to benefit from increased FDIC insurance coverage and higher yields. Max is now used by advisors at more than a thousand wealth management firms with collectively more than $1 trillion of assets under management. Clients using Max typically earn thousands to tens-of-thousands of dollars of incremental interest income each year, automatically. 

How Max Works

Max works by helping you link your existing brick-and-mortar checking account or brokerage account to your choice of higher-yielding online banks. Each bank is backed by FDIC insurance coverage. By spreading funds across multiple banks, you can increase liquidity and FDIC insurance coverage at the same time. And because online banks have lower operating costs, they tend to pay much higher rates than brick-and-mortar banks or brokerage firms, so you can earn higher returns on your cash at the same time.

Opening new bank accounts is now easier than ever. You can open as many accounts as you like, and unlike credit cards, there’s no impact to your credit rating when you open savings accounts. The Max platform makes it even easier, making it possible to open, link, and begin funding new savings accounts in as little as 60 seconds using Max’s patented Common Application. But even without Max, you can pursue this same strategy of opening and managing a portfolio of bank accounts on your own.

Max simply automates the process for you, monitoring interest rates daily. Each month, Max helps your funds flow whichever of your banks is offering the highest interest rates. So not only do you benefit from increased safety and liquidity, you can earn higher yield, too.

The Fed Funds Rate

When Max launched in 2014, the Fed Funds target rate was 0% to 0.25%. You can think of the Federal Reserve as a bank for banks, and so the Fed Funds rate is effectively the rate at which banks can borrow from (or lend funds to) the Fed overnight. Against that backdrop, the average rate paid on savings accounts across the country was a paltry 0.12%. Still, online banks — owing to their lower operating costs — were able to pay higher yield, approximately 0.90% at the time. As a result, depositors who were astute enough to open savings accounts at online banks could pick up an extra 80 basis points, or 0.80%, of risk-free incremental return, simply by being a bit smarter about where they were holding their cash. 

Beginning in December 2016, the Fed began raising rates in earnest. Online banks raised their rates, too, reaching a peak of 2.25%. The banks supported on the Max platform raised their rates even higher, since Max saves them from having to spend money on advertising or customer acquisition. As a result, the top rate earned by Max members reached 2.72%, a rate that enabled customers to earn more on cash than they might pay on a 7/1 adjustable-rate mortgage!

As the Fed has begun to cut rates, the rates paid by online banks also began to decline, but at a slower pace than the Fed rate cuts. Bankers call the relationship between the change in interest rates paid by banks and the Fed Funds rate the deposit beta. At lower interest rates, online bank deposit betas have tended to average around 0.6, which means that for every 100 bps change in the Fed Funds rate, banks only adjust their rates by 60 bps.

At Max, our data suggest that if the Fed were to lower its target range to 0% to 0.25% (as it was following the Financial Crisis), the online banks will still pay approximately 0.80% to 1.00% on savings accounts. So while interest rates may not be as high as they were in 2019 when the economy was booming, savvy depositors can still earn above-market rates on cash simply by paying more attention to where they keep their funds.  

The Yield Curve

We’re living through extraordinary times. The shock of 9/11 pummeled airlines and impacted the economy, but as a country, we rebounded and rebuilt and enjoyed a long bull run that lasted from the Gulf War through to the Financial Crisis. The Financial Crisis prompted a deeper and more prolonged shock to the economy, but the 11-year bull run that has followed generated tremendous wealth, particularly for those who had liquidity and were able to buy at or near market lows. It’s still too early to estimate the impact of COVID-19 on the markets, but at present, it appears that we’re in for both supply and demand shocks, which could result in a prolonged recession that will require fiscal stimulus, not just monetary stimulus. At present, the most pressing social issues relate to health and safety. Financial recovery cannot begin until our epidemiological prognosis improves.

The Role of Cash

In good times, holding cash may feel like a wasted opportunity, as it often barely keeps pace with inflation. But cash is, as it turns out, a remarkably valuable thing to have on hand when markets turn volatile, both because it gives you the confidence to avoid selling at the wrong time, and also the ability to buy at the right time. While you can’t perfectly time the market, it’s possible to be disciplined about increasing your exposure to the market over time through dollar-cost averaging. Removing emotion from the equation enables you to buy equal amounts when stock prices are rising or falling, smoothing out your cost basis. It might feel counterintuitive, but that’s often the winning strategy, enabling you to follow Warren Buffet’s advice to be “greedy when others are fearful.” 

Those who had sufficient cash reserves to resist the temptation to sell, or who bought the S&P 500 during the scariest days of the Financial Crisis, ultimately experienced a more than 300% gain in the decade that followed. While it can be tempting to let emotion sidetrack your long-term plans, holding a large cash cushion can give you the fortitude to remain a disciplined investor and focus rationally on the long term. And if you’re going to hold a cash cushion, you ought to ensure it’s safe and earning as much as possible. If history is any guide, Max will continue to deliver the highest yields in the market on fully-insured, same-day liquid deposits.

Why Financial Advisors Choose MaxMyInterest to Help Clients with Held-Away Cash

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

When Max launched in 2014 as a way to help individual investors keep cash safe while earning higher yield, few paid much attention. Due to the Fed’s many rate cuts during the financial crisis, people had become accustomed to the idea that cash was a zero-return asset class, and few gave it much thought.

Fast forward to 2020 and everyone seems to be focused on cash and how to earn more. Some of the most influential journalists have picked up the cause, including Jason Zweig at The Wall Street Journal and Jim Cramer on Mad Money, urging clients not to ignore what they could be earning on cash.

Everyone seems to be getting in on the game now, trying to convince you to move your funds to a robo advisor or brokerage firm. But not all of these solutions are the same, and you should always be sure to read the fine print.

Industry experts Bob Veres and Joel Bruckenstein, who publish an annual report on financial advisor technology called the T3/Inside Information Advisor Software Survey, note that the most popular solution among independent financial advisors for helping clients manage the cash they hold outside of the brokerage account is a solution called MaxMyInterest, or “Max” for short.


Why Max is a smart choice for a client’s held-away cash

There are good reasons why Max has become so popular with financial advisors. Max was built out of the simple desire to help people, so a lot of care was put into designing a service that delivers the best yields to clients while being free from any conflicts of interest.

Max works with financial advisors from all types of advisory firms, from independent RIAs to hybrid firms managing trillions of dollars of client assets. Max isn’t a broker or custodian; it simply offers software that acts much like an air traffic controller for cash, helping individuals earn more on cash that they hold in their own bank accounts in a very simple and transparent way.

Notably, Max doesn’t cross-sell other products or sell data. There is no ulterior motive. The company was founded to help people better manage their cash, bringing greater efficiency and transparency to a market that, up until this point, has been opaque and inefficient to the detriment of depositors.

Max includes smart features, such as a patented optimization process that helps ensure a client’s funds are earning the most they can, even as banks change their rates. Intelligent Fund Transfers automatically move funds with one click. And Consolidated Tax Reporting makes tax time as easy as forwarding an email to your accountant.


Why Max appeals to so many clients

Max is simple and easy-to-understand. With Max, funds always remain in clients’ own FDIC-insured bank accounts, held directly in their own names. As a result, clients retain full and same-day access to funds, and can call any bank directly to check on their money, or view all balances through a dashboard on any computer or mobile device. 

But Max is more than just a series of bank accounts – it’s a completely digital user experience where clients can open new accounts in 60 seconds without having to visit a bank’s website, create new usernames and passwords, or deal with trial deposits. The patented Max Common Application is fast and simple, and advisors can even pre-fill the application form for clients with just a few clicks.

Max also delivers preferred rates, higher than those available to the general public, and has arranged other preferred terms, such as higher daily ACH limits and no minimum balance requirements.

Whether used for its built-in cash sweep or used with a set amount of cash, Max is a flexible solution to help a variety of client needs, including:

  • Higher yields and broader FDIC-insurance for those with higher balances of cash
  • As a helpful tool to establish or grow an emergency fund
  • As a way for retirees and those drawing an income to earn more on idle cash


Why Max is the #1 choice for advisors

Since 2015, Max has served the needs of independent financial advisors and continues to innovate to meet the needs of advisors, soliciting advisor feedback at every turn.

Max also offers integrations with leading reporting platforms, including a recently announced integration with Orion

Financial advisors can learn more by visiting MaxForAdvisors.com or by emailing advisors@maxmyinterest.com. Clients can get started earning more right away at MaxMyInterest.com and may choose to link their advisors during enrollment.

Rates Rise; Max Members Cheer

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen speaks at a press conference to announce the central bank's rate increase on December 14, 2016. Photo credit: Federal Reserve via Flickr.

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen speaks at a press conference to announce the central bank’s rate increase on December 14, 2016. Photo credit: Federal Reserve via Flickr.

Since the Federal Reserve last raised interest rates in December 2015, investors have been waiting for the central bank’s next move. Now Chairwoman Janet Yellen and her board have done what the market expected and raised rates by 25 basis points (0.25%).

Analysts expect that this will be the start of a period of increased rate volatility. In 2017, the market anticipates three to four more rate hikes, as the Fed climbs out of the near-zero rate trough that accompanied years of quantitative-easing after the 2008 global financial crisis.

Rising rates are a conundrum for investors. They bring the promise of more interest earned on new or floating-rate debt, but they also mean that investors now have to make sure their investments are earning the best rates.

Bank deposits will likely move higher now that the Fed’s rates are increasing. Investors who keep cash in the bank or in brokerage accounts should monitor their financial institutions’ rate moves to be certain their money is earning the most advantageous rate.

That’s not a problem for Max members. Max automatically reallocates cash to a member’s highest-yielding online savings accounts. Members don’t have to think about which of their banks is paying more in interest, or about whether they’ve exceeded the FDIC deposit-insurance limit on their bank deposits.

As the Fed continues to raise rates, it’s likely that the spread between the interest rates paid by brick-and-mortar banks — practically zero — and online banks will widen. Online banks, which have a lower cost structure because they don’t have branches, are likely raise their rates on savings accounts more rapidly. This also means that Max members will benefit, since Max works by optimizing members’ cash balances across online savings accounts.

In a rising interest rate environment, Max can help investors to stay current with the highest rates they can earn on their cash. Currently, Max members are earning .70% to .90% more than the national average.

We also work with financial advisors to help their clients earn more on cash in bank or brokerage accounts.

To learn more about how Max can help you, visit MaxMyInterest or MaxForAdvisors.com.

Guest Post: Where to Go When Cash Is King

James Sanford of Sag Harbor Advisors

James Sanford of Sag Harbor Advisors

With interest rates remaining low, many investors wonder how to evaluate the safety of various places to keep cash. Max invited financial advisor James Sanford of Sag Harbor Advisors, a performance-fee-based wealth manager, to talk about how best to think about choices for cash in a portfolio.


By James Sanford

With the Federal Reserve now expected to wait at least until the December meeting to end 8 years of zero interest rates, and some strategists putting the first lift-off out to March or June of 2016, it’s time to revisit where to put your cash when cash is king. Two-year Treasury notes are now down to 63 basis points. Emerging market weakness in China and commodity-centric nations led to a 12% decline in the S&P 500 from July through September 28, and a surge in the Volatility Index (VIX) to over 40. If you’re with me in the camp to move a substantial amount of the portfolio to cash after the Central-Bank-fueled reversal rally of more than 10% since October 1, it’s important to understand where your broker or advisor places your cash, which is called the “cash sweep.” If swept into money market funds, you’re not in cash at all, but merely a basket of short-term risky securities that earn a paltry yield of zero to 15 basis points.

First, these underlying securities contain corporate credit risk of default like any other corporate bond. Second, there’s no legal guarantee of a “par put” from the manager. Money market funds routinely maintain a fixed $1.00 par value, rather than mark to market, a convenient shell-game trick which completely hides the underlying volatility of the basket of securities in the portfolio, convincing the holder he owns a “cash equivalent.” What he actually owns is a portfolio of risky corporate senior unsecured-debt obligations, which despite their 7, 10, or 90-day maturity, are equal in recovery and default risk to corporate long bonds maturing 10 and 30 years from now. Some money market funds hold tax-free municipal bonds. These are commonly considered “risk free,” which is absolutely not the case, as investors learned the hard way in Detroit, several cities in California and Rhode Island, and, soon, Puerto Rico.

Usually the portfolio in a money market fund doesn’t move at all in price, due to its very short duration. That’s until a shock event hits one of the securities, which was the case with the Lehman Brothers default. Lehman, opened up Monday morning, September 15, 2008, at a bid-offer of $10 to 12 cents on the dollar.  Suddenly this “cash” equivalent lost 90 cents on the dollar. Roughly 35 to 40% of all investment company assets are comprised of money market funds, with 80% of corporations using money market funds to manage their cash balances, and 20% of household cash balances comprised of money market funds, according to a 2009 SEC report.

There is an investor perception that money market funds are insured by the manager due to the “never break the buck” concept. In fact, there is no legal requirement or guarantee that money managers must “never break the buck” or shield investors from losses. Many managers in 2008 compensated investors for losses in money market funds, because it was good for business and they had the capital. Those without the capital, such as the Reserve Fund, did not. Nobody legally had to.

So what advice would I give investors, as a financial advisor? Keep your cash in short-term T-bills? But there is very little if any interest. Take duration risk on longer dated Treasuries?  No.

The answer is more obvious then we think: it’s your common bank savings account. Investors can earn up to 1.1% on internet-only savings accounts that are 100% FDIC guaranteed, a guarantee as solid as U.S. Treasury bonds, yet one that offers overnight liquidity and no duration risk. In fact, investors would have to go all the way to the three-year note to earn a yield equal to the highest available online savings rates of 1.1%.  The counterparty risk of the bank offering the rate is immaterial. As long as it’s FDIC guaranteed, even in the event of an FDIC bank seizure, accounts holders with $250,000 or less, or $500,000 in a joint account for couples, will have unrestricted access to their cash. If the FDIC can’t honor its agreement, all investments will be set to zero. That would be the equivalent of a U.S. government default.

Advisors often don’t like using a savings account as the cash sweep option, as they can’t control the assets. At Sag Harbor Advisors, our clients’ advisor accounts at our custodian are linked via the ACH system to any bank account of their choice, and clients sign over authorization to draw specified funds back to the advisor account should we see market opportunities. For cash holdings that are well north of the FDIC limits, MaxMyInterest is the only way to efficiently manage funds.

Ask your advisor where your cash sweep is, what it’s yielding, and you might find it’s not really “cash” at all.  

 

How can U.S. depositors protect their cash against earning negative interest?

Protect your cash against earning negative interest.

Protect your cash against earning negative interest.

The European Central Bank’s announcement that it will lower interest rates in the Eurozone and charge banks to park their funds in Frankfurt overnight brings renewed attention to the problem of bank depositors earning little interest on their savings accounts.

The ECB’s move is designed to spur banks to lend out more in the form of loans to European companies and individuals. By cutting its deposit rate to negative 0.1%, the central bank aims to boost economic growth in the region, which has struggled to overcome a sovereign-debt crisis that followed the global financial crisis and sparked a deep recession.

As the world emerges from the financial troubles of the last half-decade, central banks are signalling that low interest rates will continue. The U.S. Federal Reserve is ending its own quantitative-easing program, which pumped extra money into the economy, but rates are only expected to rise slowly for the next few years, unless inflation spikes sharply.

While more bank loans could have a positive effect on European businesses and encourage companies in the region to invest more, this is not good news for bank depositors. They are already suffering from ultra-low interest rates on savings accounts. Many people are fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of having to pay to keep their money in the bank. With today’s near-zero interest rates on offer from most banks, the real return on cash is often negative, even in the U.S.

Fortunately, depositors have options. In the U.S., online banks have lower operating costs than traditional brick-and-mortar banks and are thus able to pay higher interest rates to their depositors.

With Max (MaxMyInterest.com), we have built an automated system that helps depositors benefit from the higher rates on offer from FDIC-insured online banks. Today, our members are earning a weighted average 0.87% on their cash, or 0.79% net of fees, which compares favorably to most bank accounts or money market funds that offer little to no yield.

The effects of compounding are important to an investor’s portfolio. Earning an extra 0.70% to 0.80% on deposits, year after year, can have a profound impact. Most Max members can expect to earn tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in incremental interest over their investment horizons, simply by using Max to help continuously optimize their cash allocation across multiple online bank accounts.

Periodically reviewing one’s portfolio and ensuring that cash is working as hard as possible — while spread across enough banks to be adequately covered by FDIC insurance — is one way to enhance returns without taking on more risk. Many depositors, however, are too busy to focus on how they manage their cash. In a time of low interest rates, it’s crucial to keep on top of which online banks are offering the best rates and move deposits accordingly — or let Max handle it for you, automatically.

Gary Zimmerman is the Founder of MaxMyInterest.com.