The U.S. banking industry is drowning in deposits and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As of June 30, deposits in U.S. banks (but excluding credit unions) totaled $8.9 trillion, up nearly 8.5 percent from June 30, 2011, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Total bank deposits have actually increased every year since 2003, although the increase from 2011 to 2012 was the sharpest jump over that time.
There’s no great mystery why this is happening. The U.S. economy’s uncertain outlook and a volatile stock market has led many consumers and businesses to park their investment funds in insured deposit accounts rather than risk losing a big chunk in another market meltdown. Normally banks would be quite happy to have a surfeit of low-cost deposit funding, but it’s actually something of a mixed blessing nowadays. Slack loan demand and low rates of return on investment securities like U.S. Treasuries, the latter a direct result of the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy in recent years that has kept interest rates low, are making it very difficult for banks to earn a decent return on all those deposits.
What makes this multi-year increase in deposits so interesting is that it has occurred at the same time banks have been closing branches and pruning their networks. As of June 30, according to the FDIC, there were 97,337 bank branches nationwide, down from a high of 99,550 in 2009, and there has been a consistent year-over-year decline since then. There’s no mystery why this is happening either. Two seminal events since 2010—new restrictions on overdraft charges and a cap on debit card fees—have taken a big bite out of the profitability of most retail banking operations and banks have responded by cutting costs, partly through layoffs but more so through branch closings. That deposit levels have continued to rise, even as the number of branches has declined, has no doubt made it easier for banks to trim their brick-and-mortar networks.
But here’s the rub. What happens if in a few years the U.S. economy makes a strong comeback and retail investors are once again confident enough to put their money into the stock market? Banks don’t have to compete with the stock market now for consumer funds, but they would in that scenario. Most banks have developed multi-channel distribution systems with the traditional branch as the hub and alternatives like automated teller machines, in-store branches, the Internet and more recently the mobile phone as spokes. And while remote channels like online and mobile have steadily grown in popularity in recent years, how effective will they be as deposit gathering tools if banks must once again compete for funds?
Here’s my best guess at what the future holds: Don’t be surprised if, say, five years from now the trend has reversed itself and banks are once again opening new branches. It might be like a relic of days gone by, but a deposit war between Main Street and Wall Street would be just the thing to give the hoary old bank branch a new lease on life.