In September, the CEO of Fifth Third Bancorp, Tim Spence, said something at the Barclays investor conference that might have seemed astonishing at another time. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based bank was letting $10 billion simply roll off its balance sheet in the first half of the year, an amount the CEO described as “surge” deposits.
In an age when banks are awash in liquidity, many of them are happily waving goodbye to some amount of their deposits, which appear as a liability on the balance sheet, not an asset.
Like Fifth Third, banks overall have been slow to raise interest rates on deposits, feeling no urgency to keep up with the Federal Reserve’s substantial interest rate hikes this year.
Evidence suggests that deposits have begun to leave the banking system. That may not be such a bad thing. But bank management teams should carefully assess their deposit strategies as interest rates rise, ensuring they don’t become complacent after years of near zero interest rates. “Many bankers lack meaningful, what I would call meaningful, game plans,” says Matt Pieniazek, president and CEO of Darling Consulting Group, which advises banks on balance sheet management.
In recent years, that critique hasn’t been an issue — but that could change. As of the week of Oct. 5, deposits in the banking system dipped to $17.77 trillion, down from $18.07 trillion in August, according to the Federal Reserve. Through the first half of the year, mid-sized banks with $10 billion to $60 billion in assets lost 2% to 3% of their deposits, according to Fitch Ratings Associate Director Brian Thies.
This doesn’t worry Fitch Ratings’ Managing Director for the North American banking team, Christopher Wolfe. Banks added about $9.2 trillion in deposits during the last decade, according to FDIC data. Wolfe characterizes these liquidity levels as “historic.”
“So far, we haven’t seen drastic changes in liquidity,” he says.
In other words, there’s still a lot of wiggle room for most banks. Banks can use deposits to fund loan growth, but so far, deposits far exceed loans. Loan-to-deposit ratios have been falling, reaching a historic low in recent years. The 20-year average loan-to-deposit ratio was 81%, according to Fitch Ratings. In the second quarter of 2022, it was 59.26%, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
In September, the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors enacted its third consecutive 75 basis point hike to fight raging inflation — bringing the fed funds target rate range to 3% to 3.25%. Banks showed no signs of matching the aggressive rate hikes. The median deposit betas, a figure that shows how sensitive banks are to rising rates, came in at 2% through June of this year, according to Thies. That’s a good thing: The longer banks can hold off on raising deposit rates while variable rate loans rise, the more profitable they become.
But competitors to traditional brick-and-mortar banks, such as online banks and broker-dealers, have been raising rates to attract deposits, Pieniazek says. Many depositors also have figured out they can get a short-term Treasury bill with a yield of about 4%. “You’re starting to see broker-dealers and money management firms … promot[e] insured CDs with 4% [rates],” he says. “The delta between what banks are paying on deposits and what’s available in the market is the widest in modern banking history.”
The question for management teams is how long will this trend last? The industry has enjoyed a steady increase in noninterest-bearing deposits over the years, which has allowed them to lower their overall funding costs. In the fourth quarter of 2019, just 13.7% of deposits were noninterest bearing; that rose to 25.8% in the second quarter of 2021, according to Fitch. There’s a certain amount of money sitting in bank coffers that hasn’t left to chase higher-yielding investments because few alternatives existed. How much of that money could leave the bank’s coffers, and when?
Pieniazek encourages bank boards and management teams to discuss how much in deposits the bank is willing to lose. And if the bank starts to see more loss than that, what’s Plan B? These aren’t easy questions to answer. “Why would you want to fly blind and see what happens?” Pieniazek asks.
What sort of deposits is the bank willing to lose? What’s the strategy for keeping core deposits, the industry term for “sticky” money that likely won’t leave the bank chasing rates? Pieniazek suggests analyzing past data to see what happened when interest rates rose and making some predictions based on that. How long will the excess liquidity stick around? Will it be a few months? A few years? He also suggests keeping track of important, large deposit relationships and deciding in what circumstances the bank will raise rates to keep those funds. And what should tellers and other bank employees say when customers start demanding higher rates?
For its part, Fifth Third has been working hard in recent years to ensure it has a solid base of core deposits and a disciplined pricing strategy that will keep rising rates from leading to drastically higher funding costs. It’s been a long time since banking has been in this predicament. It’s anyone’s guess what happens next.