Skepticism Grows About Higher Fed Rates Helping Banks’ Margins

  • JPMorgan, U.S. Bancorp see pressure to reward depositors
  • Competition for deposits could ‘rattle’ banks, researcher says

What Signals Are the Fed Sending to the Market?

When the Federal Reserve raised benchmark interest rates last month, it took North Carolina lender BB&T Corp. less than an hour to announce it was passing that cost along to borrowers. Depositors, however, have yet to see the benefit.

For many investors, such discipline means U.S. banks are about to feast on rising interest rates -- profiting from a fatter margin between what they charge for loans, and the rewards offered depositors who provide the funds. Now, a small but growing chorus of senior executives and analysts is signaling that resolve may fray and that shareholder optimism is too high.

Banks are under unprecedented pressure to break ranks and compete for deposits. Compared with past cycles, more savers are web savvy -- able to comparison shop and transfer money online to firms offering better deals. Money-market funds that suffered for years with near-zero rates are eager to lure back customers. And new liquidity rules encourage banks to draw more funding from consumer deposits, pushing lenders to fight for those clients.

“We’ve never really seen this movie before,” JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Financial Officer Marianne Lake warned investors in February. Lenders are “coming off of zero-bound rates in a world where liquidity requirements and technology advancements will increase the competition to get deposits and where customers are more rate aware.”

In a raft of recent research notes, analysts said they will listen carefully for U.S. bank leaders to project deposit rates when their companies start reporting first-quarter results April 13. Net income at the nation’s six biggest banks -- JPMorgan, Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley -- will probably climb 15 percent to $21.3 billion in the period, helped by improvement in net interest margins, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

But many analysts are underestimating the speed at which banks may need to increase their so-called deposit beta, the share of Fed rate hikes that banks say will get passed along to depositors, according to U.S. Bancorp Chief Operating Officer Andy Cecere, who will become chief executive officer of the nation’s largest regional lender next Tuesday.

Cecere, 56, laid out this argument in an interview: For years, with interest rates near zero, money market funds whittled costs and waived fees to keep clients. After the Fed raised rates in March by a quarter point for the third time since the financial crisis, fees are back. That means funds can share future Fed hikes more liberally with customers. And that changes the game for banks.

“Competition against waivers meant banks were holding deposit betas,” Cecere said. “Now, the competition for those consumer deposits will increase rates.”

Wall Street trading will also drive bank earnings in the first quarter -- with analysts estimating dealings in fixed-income, currencies and commodities probably increased at Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, offset by declines in revenue from equities.

But interest rates have been a major theme for shareholders in recent months. Financial stocks soared after Donald Trump’s November election on speculation he will ease rules and pursue policies that spur inflation and lift long-term rates, helping banks earn more from lending.

A key question for that equation is whether deposits are still as “sticky” as they have been for decades, or whether customers -- freed from going to branches to deal with tellers -- will demand higher returns to stick around. Small deviations in beta can help or hurt banks’ bottom lines.

JPMorgan’s Lake told investors in February that the bank modeled a scenario in which the Fed raises rates by a quarter point twice a year through 2018, and once in 2019. If the lender passes along more than half of that increase to depositors -- a beta of more than 50 percent -- it would reap $11 billion more revenue from interest, she said.

While that bodes well for profits, one assumption is notable. In 2004, the beta was roughly 45 percent, she said.

In the first quarter, analysts project the six biggest U.S. banks increased net interest income 8.5 percent to $49.1 billion, the most since 2010.

Marty Mosby, an analyst at Vining-Sparks IBG, said banks have been slow to increase deposit rates because they’re still working to cover the expense of maintaining accounts. He expects to see more movement after the Fed raises rates by another 25 basis points.

“We will be watching for indications of an uptick in deposit betas in the wake of Fed rate hikes in December and March,” Jeff Harte, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill & Partners, said Monday in a note to clients.

At BB&T, customers with an eSavings account earned a 0.03 percent interest rate as of Friday -- even less than in early December 2015, just before the Fed began its hikes.

‘More Hype’

Banks, meanwhile, realize that consumers’ patience won’t last too long, said Ray Montague, director of deposit product research at Informa Research Services. His clients include bank executives who set rates to remain competitive. Some who used to request his research monthly now ask for it once a week, he said. Those who got it weekly are now asking for it twice a week or even daily. The fear is that consumer behavior might change fast.

“As there’s more pressure, more hype, more news about increased rates I think there’s going to be more sense that ‘I need to actually start shopping around looking for the best rate,’” he said. “That’s what’s going to rattle the banks.”

(Updates with analyst’s comment in 16th paragraph. An earlier version of this story corrected the timing of BB&T’s announcement.)
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