The seal of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors
The seal of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors © AFP

Leading US banks have warned that they could start charging companies and consumers for deposits if the US Federal Reserve cuts the interest it pays on bank reserves.

Depositors already have to cope with near-zero interest rates, but paying just to leave money in the bank would be highly unusual and unwelcome for companies and households.

The warning by bank executives highlights the dangers of one strategy the Fed could use to offset an eventual “tapering” of the $85bn a month in asset purchases that have fuelled global financial markets for the last year.

Minutes of the Fed’s October meeting published last week showed it was heading towards a taper in the coming months – perhaps as soon as December – but wants to find a different way to add stimulus at the same time. “Most” officials thought a cut in the interest on bank reserves was an option worth considering.

Executives at two of the top five US banks said a cut in the 0.25 per cent rate of interest on the $2.4tn in reserves they hold at the Fed would lead them to pass on the cost to depositors.

Banks say they may have to charge because taking in deposits is not free: they have to pay premiums of a few basis points to a US government insurance programme.

“Right now you can at least break even from a revenue perspective,” said one executive, adding that a rate cut by the Fed “would turn it into negative revenue – banks would be disincentivised to take deposits and potentially charge for them”.

Other bankers said that a move to negative rates would not only trim margins but could backfire for banks and the system as a whole, as it would incentivise treasury managers to find higher-yielding, riskier assets.

“It’s not as if we are suddenly going to start lending to [small and medium-sized enterprises],” said one. “There really isn’t the level of demand, so the danger is that banks are pushed into riskier assets to find yield.”

The danger of negative rates has deterred the Fed from cutting interest on bank reserves in the past. If it were to do so now, it would most probably expand a new facility that lets banks and money market funds deposit cash at a small, positive interest rate. That should avoid any need for banks to charge depositors.

About half of the reserves come from non-US banks that do not have to pay the deposit insurance fee. Their favourite manoeuvre is to take deposits from money market funds and park them overnight at the Fed, earning millions of dollars risk-free. Cutting the interest on reserves would stop that.

Lowering interest on reserves would also affect money market funds, said Alex Roever, head of US interest rate strategy at JPMorgan.

“[It] would decrease the incentive for those banks to borrow in the money markets, which in turn could leave money market funds short of certain investments and force them to bid up the price of their next best options,” he said.

Richard Gilhooly, strategist at TD Securities, highlighted some benefits to the Fed from the possible cut: “[It] would not only anchor short-term rates near zero, it also stands to boost the profits for the Fed as they pay less interest to banks,” he said.

Additional reporting by Michael Mackenzie in New York and Patrick Jenkins in London

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