Is the tide turning for beleaguered savers?

Savings rates: Is the tide turning?

A lot has been made of rising consumer debt recently, coupled with record-low levels of household savings. A squeeze on real wages has garnered some of the blame, but the big culprit is surely derisory interest rates, and the Bank of England stood firm on base rates of 0.25 per cent (a 300-year low) once again this week on ‘Super Thursday’.

While access to cheap credit provides a good stimulus for the economy, it coincides with poor rates of return for savers. As such, it effectively dis-incentivises saving, which goes some way to explaining the lack of inclination among British consumers to put money away for a rainy day.

Since 2009, the trend in terms of savings and Cash ISA rates has been a depressingly, inexorably downward one, with precious few rays of light along the way. The nadir was arguably Santander’s decision to cut the rate of its popular 123 account from 3 per cent to 1.5 per cent at the end of last year. It felt like the final kick in the teeth for savers, and the statistics speak for themselves, with the number of people opening a Santander 123 account having dropped from 276,000 in H1 2016 to just 43,000 in the corresponding first two quarters of 2017.

A shift in momentum

Yet against this grisly backdrop, there are numerous signs that, after years of misery, beleaguered savers have come out the other side. There have, of course, been some long-standing inflation beaters, such as the 5 per cent offered by Nationwide’s FlexDirect account, or the 3 per cent on TSB’s Classic Plus account. But these rates only apply on balances up to £2,500 and £1,500 respectively, and fees do apply.

The more encouraging action is taking place away from the high-street, with challenger banks beginning to alter the landscape. RCI Bank offer an easy-access rate of 1.2 per cent with their new Freedom Savings Account, while Bank of Cyprus and Ford Money savers earn returns of 1.15 and 1.08 per cent respectively.

In terms of fixed-rate savings, Al Rayan offers an impressive 2.02 per cent on a one-year term, while a five-year deposit with Ikano fetches 2.3 per cent. Axis and United Trust three-year accounts have headline rates of 2.1 per cent, with the latter paying out 2.41 per cent to those willing to commit to a five-year term.

And in the cash ISA domain, Charter Savings Bank is starting to make a name for itself, with a 1.3 per cent rate on a 1-year, fixed-rate cash ISA; 1.41 per cent on two years, and 2.15 per cent on five years. Paragon’s 1.41 per cent over three years is also competitive, while Virgin Money’s 1.01 per cent on its easy-access cash ISA represents decent value too.

Jockeying for position

While none of the above rates will have anyone jumping for joy – they are all below current headline inflation, which was 2.6 per cent for the month of June – the important thing to note is the shift in the overall pattern, with rates unequivocally beginning to increase. This is down to one simple economic principle: competition. As the quest to shift up the best-buy tables intensifies, it is the more agile, technologically-savvy challenger banks which are raising the bar, and big banks will continue to haemorrhage customers if they fail to respond.

The threat also comes from further afield too, with peer-to-peer lending applying significant pressure on high-street behemoths. It is important to note that savings accounts/cash ISAs and peer-to-peer lending are not direct equivalents, as there is no FSCS cover afforded to those who make use of the latter. That said, it is playing an important role in shifting the tectonic plates – not least as a result of the new Innovative Finance ISA - as shrewd savers and investors broaden their horizons from formerly mainstream options.

After years of price taking, and feeling powerless to fight bank against the might of the established financial powerhouses in a low-interest environment, consumers are finally seeing the cycle being broken. Challenger banks, fintech companies and peer-to-peer platforms are pioneering a new path, and it is individuals who can reap the benefits by simply riding in their slipstream. As Roger Waters once sang… “oh, oh, oh, the tide is turning”.

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