The past year saw interest rates ascend from the murky depths of near-zero. What began as a gentle wobble expanded like some giant emission from the sub-aquatic crust below calm seas to – ahem – belch violently at the surface, causing shockwaves in all directions.

Hmm, my co-blogger The Accumulator makes these metaphors look so easy. Anyway you get my point.

Early last year I warned this regime change could derail early retirement plans by whacking equities and bonds. Mortgage rates would rise, too. Although on a brighter note cash savings would pay more. Albeit not, as things have turned out, by anything like enough to match inflation.

In the UK we eventually even got a government-induced Mini Financial Crisis, when a spike in bond yields threatened to blow-up the pension system and imperil the banks again.

And to my surprise, this shift is still not over. 18 months ago I’d expected inflation to have eased a lot by now. The longer high inflation lasts, the more likely it gets embedded via higher wages.

Policymakers are similarly bemused, if not panicked. They first talked of “transient” inflation. Then they unleashed a rapid succession of hikes. Then they arguably lowered their guard – only to see inflation fears now pick up again.

Bonds and equities have fallen recently as more and longer-lasting US rate rises are back in sight:

Rate expectations

What we are seeing here is the messy sausage-making behind the ugly word ‘normalization’.

We’ve gone back to a world where money is no longer almost free.

As much discussed, the inverted yield curve that has resulted from the rate hikes that got us here seems to predict a recession is coming. (Though the academic behind this signal has doubts).

Most pundits expect a mild slowdown. But I suppose a very deep recession could hammer the outlook for inflation and hence rates. Maybe we can’t entirely dismiss a return to near-zero interest rates – especially if the vast amount of borrowing out there limits how long high rates can endure.

However it looks much likelier to me that we’ve seen the last of policy rates of 0-2% from central banks for a while. That we’re back in a 3-6% market interest rate world.

That has consequences for financial products and services, and for government borrowing and business strategies, too.

Higher borrowing costs will surely inflict a correction on frothy residential property markets. Higher costs will also change how businesses raise money and where and why they invest. Zombie outfits propped up by low rates could finally go bust. There will be other winners and losers.

Banks for instance should do better in a higher rate environment, all things considered. They’ve become masters at finding other ways to make money rather than simply sweating their ‘net interest margin’, which was crushed in the near-zero era. But the alchemy of lending at higher rates and paying savers less is more forgiving at today’s levels. So traditional banking should do markedly better from here. (Barring a true housing crash…)

Elsewhere, any company sitting on a lot of cash will finally have the wind at its back – whereas such prudence was a drag on returns for over a decade.

But these won’t just be conservative companies with strong balance sheets.

We can also expect firms that take a lot of customer cash upfront – and then sit on it for a while – to report higher income from interest earned, too.

Many companies are in this position. It all depends on exactly when they pay their suppliers for whatever they sell their customers. A big delay creates a cash ‘float’ that can generate an income.

Cash in an investment account

However the most interesting winners from the return to higher rates from a Monevator perspective are the investment platforms and brokers.

Stephen Yiu – who manages the sometime market-beating Blue Whale Growth Fund – reminded me of this in a recent interview with the Investor’s Chronicle.

Yiu mentions his fund invested in US broker Charles Schwab explicitly on expectations of higher interest rates. That’s because Schwab earns interest on cash left idle in its customer accounts.

When risk-free rates were very low, this ability was redundant.

But with short-term US rates nearing 5% and Schwab boasting $7.5 trillion in assets under management, it’s almost a superpower.

Not all Schwab’s trillions under management will be in the right kind of assets or accounts. I just pulled up that $7.5 trillion total figure from investor relations. Plenty of assets will be, though.

Consider next that Yiu says 10% of customers’ money on Schwab’s platform is typically held in cash. Depending on what exactly you multiply by what, you can quickly forecast a huge income stream here.

All without any of the risks attendant with banking.

I remember seeing a similar dynamic when studying the results of Hargreaves Lansdown many years ago. Interest on customer cash back then contributed nicely to its profits. But this dwindled to nothingness in the years after the financial crisis.

Hargreaves scrambled for a fix for a while. It even worked up a peer-to-peer savings product, though this was ultimately scrapped. But today’s higher interest rates are a panacea.

Hargreaves’ revenue in its latest half jumped 20% thanks to higher interest income and customers holding more cash, presumably spooked by last year’s turmoil. That’s a nice hedge to the bond and equity downturn for the investment platform.

Indeed from its perspective, the best thing a customer can do is hold cash.

From its recent results:

Overall revenue margin [was] between 50 and 55 basis points, primarily reflecting the higher revenue margin on cash resulting from higher interest rates. The margin for each asset class being:

– Funds 38-39 basis points (no change)

– HL Funds 55-60 basis points (no change)

– Shares 30-35 basis points (no change)

– Cash 160-170 basis points

Notice that cash is by far the most profitable asset class for the broker.

How do you rate them?

Higher rates are good news for Hargreaves Lansdown and its shareholders, then. But what about for you and me?

Well I was dismayed to hear Schwab’s US customers leave 10% of their money un-invested.

Yet a quick glance at where customers keep their money on Hargreaves Lansdown suggests we’re even worse – with just over 11% of investment account assets held in cash.

To be fair, Hargreaves Lansdown does pay interest on this cash. From 1% to 2.4% right now, depending on what kind of account you have the cash in, and how much you have there in total.

As a quick comparison, rates seem a little higher at Interactive Investors. Whereas it appears that AJ Bell pays a little less. This is just my quick impression, you’ll have to break out the calculator and look at your own balances for an accurate comparison. And of course consider the total cost of investing.

We’ve thought about adding interest rates to our broker comparison table, incidentally, but the wide variety of permutations – and the frequent rate shifts – means it’s not really feasible.

Hence you’ll have to do your own research I’m afraid.

Money for nothing

Whatever your broker pays you on cash in an investment account, the point is those rates are likely much far lower than you – and your broker – can earn with the best cash or cash-like options.

Which is exactly why uninvested cash is a profit center for the brokers.

Investment platforms need to make money of course. Even zero commission brokers must get paid to stay in business.

Personally I’d prefer to see higher interest rates at the expense of higher explicit charges, at least with the mainstream platforms. (And lower foreign exchange costs while we’re at it. They’re dreadfully expensive at most platforms.)

However I’m in a minority. As with free banking, we’ve been conditioned to look for cheaper-to-zero explicit costs – and to not think about exactly how we’re the product as well as the customer.

Make any cash in an investment account work for you

The bottom line is that if we’re now back in a permanently higher interest rate world, then you need to have a strategy for what you’re doing with your cash allocation.

We have already seen skirmishes in this battle in the past few months.

For instance, there was the short-lived euphoria over the high interest rate Vanguard was paying – but this has since been reduced.

I suspect the previous charging structure was a legacy of the low-rate era that the investing giant hadn’t got around to updating until customers (and us!) paid attention. See the comments to that article for how things played out there.

We’ve also seen growing interest in money market funds.

My co-blogger is skeptical about these, but I see it a bit differently.

I definitely agree that if you want all the benefits of cash, hold cash. Any funds are riskier, even if those risks are tiny. Both in terms of volatility and risk to capital, but also maybe access in a crunch.

However if you have the bulk of your worth inside investment accounts – and a lot of that is in cash – then the extra income you could get from a money market fund paying you more than 3% versus a broker paying 1.5% could be meaningful.

And given how much we obsess over small fee differences around here, I don’t think we should lightly dismiss the cost of uncompetitive cash holdings. So perhaps putting a portion of whatever you want to hold in cash in to a money market fund could make sense for some.

There are also fixed income ETFs that fit the bill. I own a big slug of the iShares Ultrashort Bond ETF. (Ultrashort in terms of duration, not in terms of ‘going short’!) This holds mostly investment grade corporate bonds close to maturity. It is very stable, can be disposed of in moments, and currently boasts a weight yield-to-maturity of 4.7%, if you believe the iShares factsheet.

Abetter option though if you want to permanently own cash as part of your investment portfolio – to diversify your ‘bond-ish’ 40% or similar of your 60/40 portfolio, say – would be to open cash ISAs again. This way you’d get a tax-free and competitive return on your cash. And that cash would actually behave exactly like cash in a crisis. (That is it would do precisely nothing.)

Just please don’t leave 11% of your portfolio lying around in your investment account as a generic cash balance on a long-term basis. You’re throwing money away.

Or if you do, then maybe also buy some shares in Hargreaves Lansdown or Schwab. That way you might also benefit from such folly!

The post Is cash in an investment account a money maker for you or for your broker? appeared first on Monevator.

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