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.

Your Answer to Market Volatility Could be Right in Your Wallet

Keeping cash on hand can help you mentally withstand periods of increased market volatility

(Originally published on ValueWalk March 10, 2020)

Volatile markets can be scary. Even for investors who understand that long-term investing is the most proven way to earn returns, watching a sea of red engulf your portfolio can be nerve-wracking. Maintaining the mental stamina required to stay the course and not sell requires fortitude.

With cases related to the novel coronavirus cropping up all over the world, markets have been in panic mode. No one knows what the economic impact will be of the virus or the widespread quarantines that many expect will shut down more cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo.

The Importance Of Maintaining A Cash Cushion

The stock and bond markets can be volatile; that’s a fact of life. No one can control or predict where markets will go or when they will go there. Over the course of an investor’s lifetime, stocks will go up and down, often for reasons unrelated to company fundamentals. That’s why it’s crucial to maintain a cash cushion.

A cash cushion is different from an emergency fund, which you should also have. An emergency or rainy-day fund segregates a year’s worth of living expenses in a savings account (ideally a high-yielding one). This fund is designed for true emergencies: losing your job, unexpected medical bills, or a surprise house move or repair. It’s savings, not investments, because it should be in completely liquid cash so that it’s easy to access rapidly if you need it.

A cash cushion is the next step in your financial fortress and serves two purposes. First, it’s a psychological buffer against worrying about losing money in a market downturn. When the market becomes volatile, you can feel comfortable ignoring those gyrations because you know you have enough cash in the bank. It also allows you to avoid selling at the wrong time—when everyone else is selling. While others are panicking, you can stay invested, which historically has been the smart long-term strategy.

Second, a cash cushion functions as “dry powder.” You can use it to buy more of positions you believe in during a downturn—or keep it waiting until you see value in buying more. In markets like these, having the ability to buy when you feel an investment is cheap can be the difference between strong long-term performance and a lagging portfolio. While few investors can time the market, dollar-cost-averaging has proven to be an effective strategy. Having enough cash on hand to stick with that strategy and keep buying on a pre-determined periodic basis, even while others are selling, can lead to better returns over time.

Keep Pace With Inflation

If cash can be such a helpful asset to have, why don’t more people follow this strategy? The trouble with cash as an asset class is that it drags down your portfolio’s overall returns. Typically, cash barely keeps pace with inflation—and often lags it. The national average interest rate on a savings account in the U.S. is ten basis points, or 0.10%. That’s essentially zero, and far below inflation. This means that for most people holding cash, they lose purchasing power each and every year.

To make your cash more competitive and keep pace with inflation, the most logical place to keep it, by far, is in a high-yielding online bank savings account. Since online banks don’t have branches, their costs are lower, allowing them to pass some of these savings along to their customers in the form of higher interest rates. Banks that are FDIC-insured are safe options for holding cash since as long as you keep your balances below the FDIC insurance limits at each bank, your deposits are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. From there, you want to make sure you’re tracking which of these banks will offer the highest yield on your cash.

Rates change frequently, so you’ll want to monitor your online savings banks closely to make sure you’re always getting the best rate. Solutions like MaxMyInterest.com track changes in rates and can help you earn more on your cash automatically.

The Coronavirus Panic

If you’ve been earning a decent yield on your cash, and you have enough both for an emergency fund and a cash cushion, you’re in a good situation when a natural disaster like the new coronavirus causes markets to fall. You’ll be able to avoid selling your stocks in a panic because you know you have cash available to meet your expenses. It’s rarely a good idea to join the hysteria when other investors are rushing to get out of stocks, and cash will give you the discipline to avoid selling in a panic. You’ll also be free to buy more shares as the market goes down. Remaining invested and adding to positions methodically has proven to be a time-tested way to generate better returns on your portfolio over the long term.

Everyone holds cash somewhere—it’s the one asset class every investor and household has in common. How you manage your cash can make a big difference in times of volatile markets.