A regular Mule reader drew my attention to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (also published in The Age) which attempts to defend Australian banks from some of the criticisms levelled at them in recent months. It is something of a laundry list of points, some accurate, some dubious and has little in the way of hard data behind it.
What my correspondent was more interested in, however, was that one powerful argument was missing. If banks had not bolstered their margins by raising mortgage rates by more than the Reserve Bank cash rate rises, the Reserve Bank would in all likelihood have increased the cash rate by even more. This contention is supported by the Reserve Bank’s own board meeting minutes from the 2 November meeting. Discussing the considerations which led to the November rate hike, the following observations appear:
Members noted that lending rates might increase by more than the cash rate, but this tendency would not be lessened by delaying a change in the cash rate. Lending rates had been rising relative to the cash rate since the global financial crisis, and the Board had taken this into account in setting the cash rate. It would continue to take account of any changes in margins in its decisions in the period ahead.
From this it seems clear that if the banks had kept to moving their mortgage rates in line with the cash rate, the cash rate would now be higher and the end results for borrowers would be much the same.
Of course, if this had happened, bank margins would have been squeezed, which leads to this question from my correspondent:
Where banks don’t increase margins but RBA increases base rate more so overall level the same, where does the “banks’ profit” go? RBA [Reserve Bank of Australia]?
This question gets to the heart of how banks work.
While we tend to think of banks as lenders, it can be more useful to think of them as intermediaries between borrowers and lenders. The real lenders are the banks’ depositors and bondholders. Banks pay interest on deposits and bonds and charge a somewhat higher rate interest on their loans. The difference between the interest they pay and the interest they receive is their net interest margin which, along with fees and charges, is their source of profit. In the wake of the financial crisis, the market for deposits has become very competitive and bond investors now demand higher returns on bank debt compared to lower risk alternatives (such as government bonds…at least if the government in question is not European!). Both of these effects have resulted in the interest banks pay increasing by more than the amount the Reserve Bank’s cash rate has increased. Banks have attempted to recoup the resulting increases in the interest they pay by passing through bigger increases to their borrowers (you can read more of the details in an earlier post on bank funding costs).
So, if banks had kept their mortgage rates strictly in line with the Reserve Bank’s cash rate, their margins would certainly have been smaller than they are today. If that had happened, where would the money have done? It does not go to the Reserve Bank: while they set the target rate, the Reserve Bank itself does very little lending at that rate. Rather they ensure that any lending overnight from one bank to another is done at or very close to the target rate by promising to lend or borrow large amounts at rates only slightly above or below the target respectively. No, the real beneficiaries of the higher rates are the ultimate lenders: depositors and bondholders.
Anyone with a balance in a superannuation fund is likely to have a certain amount invested in bond funds which would invest in, among other things, bonds issued by banks. Self-funded retirees and others seeking to keep their investment risk to a minimum may have money in bank term deposits rather than shares or property. All of these people lend money to banks and benefit through higher earnings when interest rates go up*. The banks do get some of the benefit themselves. Some deposit balances are paid little or no interest and so when the cash rate rises, these deposits represent an increasingly cheap source of funds for banks, although these low interest balances represent a much smaller proportion of banks’ funding than they used to.
The effect of changing interest rates is thus an exercise in wealth redistribution between the ultimate borrowers (including those borrowing to buy a home), the ultimate lenders (depositors and investors) and the banks themselves. What we have seen over recent months can be seen as a bit of a tussle between banks on the one hand and depositors and investors on the other as to who should get how much of the higher rates borrowers are paying.
* There is a timing issue for bond investors: fixed rate bonds actually fall in value when interest rates go up, but from that point onwards the ongoing earnings of the investment are higher.