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Savers’ plight: Interest rates across bank deposits, small savings at multi-decade low levels

Radhika Merwin BL Research Bureau | Updated on June 28, 2020 Published on June 24, 2020

With the RBI cutting its policy repo rate sharply over the past few months amid growing pandemic concerns, banks, too, have been wielding the scissors on deposit rates.

Since this March, fixed deposit rates have fallen by 100-125 basis points across many banks, even higher in some cases. In fact, deposit rates fell significantly in 2019 and were on a free fall in the beginning of this year, even before the RBI embarked on its fast-paced rate easing cycle since March.

The fallout? Savers are stuck with bank deposit rates that are at near two-decade low levels. Currently (as of mid-June), public sector banks (PSBs) on an average offer 5.2-5.45 per cent on their 3-5 year deposits. The last time deposit rates were near around these levels were in 2003 and 2004.

With the pandemic crisis expected to be long-drawn and the RBI expected to cut rates further, bank deposit rates are set to fall even more in the coming months. While a few private sector banks offer much higher rates (over 7 per cent in some cases), the YES Bank episode has turned depositors wary of parking large sums of money in some of them.

Not only are savers left with little choice with bank deposits, their kitty of alternative safe and fixed income options has also shrunk over the past year. Small saving schemes offered by the post office — that have always enjoyed an advantage over bank deposits by offering much higher rates — are fast losing sheen. Recently (for the April to June 2020 quarter), rates on the popular small savings schemes were cut by 80-140 basis points, reducing the attractiveness of these schemes over bank deposits.

The rate on the popular National Savings Certificate (NSC) at 6.8 per cent, Public Provident Fund at 7.1 per cent and Senior Citizen’s Savings scheme at 7.4 per cent are the lowest since 1992. These rates will most likely fall further in the coming quarters as broader rates in the economy and yield on G-Secs continue to decline.

 

More cuts

In a falling rate scenario, banks are often more quick to cut deposit rates than lending rates. In the current scenario, surplus liquidity and weak credit growth have only nudged banks to be nimbler.

Overall, at the system level, there is excess liquidity with banks. In June, banks have parked over ₹6-lakh crore under reverse repo on a daily average basis. Banks have turned highly risk averse to lending and even cautious to investing in government bonds (fearing mark-to-market loss).

Hence, to cushion the impact of lower interest income on margins, banks have been cutting deposit rates significantly. In fact, SBI had cut its savings deposit rate to 2.7 per cent last month (for deposits up to ₹1 lakh).

However, the liquidity situation is not uniform across banks. In some private sector banks, there has been outflow in deposits (post YES Bank crisis) and in some others steady fund flows are essential to support growth (high credit deposit ratio). Hence, many private banks and small finance banks with smaller deposit base continue to offer much higher rates.

The RBI has already cut the repo rate by 115 basis points so far. With more cuts on the anvil, bank deposit rates are likely to fall further (in varied proportions across banks) in the coming months.

 

Small savings lose sheen

Interest rates on small savings schemes have always been kept attractive to ensure steady flow into these schemes. For instance, from April 2012 until March 2016, rates on these schemes were hardly tweaked despite two rate easing cycles. To align the rates on small savings schemes with market rates, effective April 2016, the Centre had decided to revise them every quarter based on the prevailing rates on G-Secs.

But, interest rates on small savings schemes have not moved in sync with the movement in G-Sec yields. For instance, in the whole of 2019, interest rates on small savings scheme were reduced only once (July-September 2019), by a mere 10 basis points, even as the yield on 10-year G-Secs had fallen by 80-90 bps.

But rates for the April-June quarter this year were reduced sharply by 80-140 bps, narrowing the gap drastically between rates offered by post office schemes and most bank deposits.

So, what should savers do?

Safety first, returns next

While a sharp fall in rates across fixed-income options has hurt savers (particularly if you are a senior citizen who relies on interest income on deposits), it is important to alter priorities a bit at this juncture.

If earlier, interest rate was the top-most criteria while deciding on FD options available across banks, there is now a lot more emphasis on safety and liquidity. After the YES Bank and the recent Franklin Templeton episode, it is only advisable to be prudent and cautious when parking large sums of money.

One way to mitigate risk is by ensuring that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Each depositor is insured up to ₹5 lakh for both principal and interest under the Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation of India (DICGC).

For calculating this limit, all deposits across branches of the same bank are aggregated.

Therefore, better split your deposits across several banks.

Further, retain larger portions of deposits in healthy banks even if that means sacrificing some returns. (Read: tinyurl.com/healthybank)

Next, stick with shorter-tenure deposits for now. With interest rates at multi-decade-low levels now, locking into longer-tenure deposits may not make sense. Hence, go for 1-2-year deposits at this juncture.

This will not only give you an option to assess the rate scenario after two years, but also check the health of your bank after the pandemic crisis plays out.

Keeping all this in mind, you can go ahead and the check the rates offered by various banks, including small finance banks (also insured under DICGC).

Many private banks and small finance banks still offer 7-7.25 per cent on 1-2-year deposits, much higher than the average 5.5-5.75 per cent that most other banks offer.

You can park a larger proportion of your deposits in healthier banks and park smaller sums in some other banks offering attractive rates.

Small savings still score

If you are someone who swears by post office schemes and have been enjoying the excellent rates on the popular ones for years, the recent cuts would have surely rattled you.

The rate on the popular National Savings Certificate (NSC) at 6.8 per cent, Public Provident Fund (PPF) at 7.1 per cent and Senior Citizen Savings Scheme (SCSS) at 7.4 per cent are the lowest since 1992. These rates will most likely fall further in the coming quarters as broader rates in the economy and yield on G-Secs continue to decline.

Even then small savings schemes continue to score over banks deposits on several counts. One, they are much more safe as they carry the sovereign guarantee. Two, rates on most of the schemes remain attractive even after the cuts. For instance, SCSS offers over 7 per cent, while most banks (even after the additional rate for senior citizens) offer 6-7 per cent. Even the five-year NSC offers a higher rate than what most banks offer.

Lastly, post office schemes tend to score higher on the post-tax return basis, given the tax breaks that most of them enjoy. For instance, if you opt for the the older tax regime, investment in PPF, NSC and SCSS are eligible for deduction under Section 80C up to a total of ₹1.5 lakh. Interest earned and maturity proceeds are exempt from tax in the case of PPF; in the case of NSC, interest for the first four years (reinvested) is also exempt under Section 80C.

Hence, even if you don’t not want to lock in your money for a very long term, say in PPF, you can consider the five-year NSC.

Don’t go overboard

While the low rates in safer fixed-income options may tempt you to look at market-linked products such as debt funds, remember not to go overboard. The recent downgrades and defaults in bonds held by debt funds continue to highlight the underlying risk in these schemes.

Hence, if you have a very low-risk appetite, and safety of capital is foremost, stick with safer fixed-income options, as mentioned above, for the chunk of your investments. If you have a moderate risk appetite and have a longer investment horizon, then a portion, say, 10-15 per cent of investments, can be in debt funds, to bump up your overall portfolio returns. But given the high risk in low-rated debt instruments and the uncertainty over rate risk, stick to less-risk funds such as corporate bond funds and banking and PSU debt funds.

Published on June 24, 2020
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