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While the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having money safely parked in a savings account, it has also driven savings rates into the ground.

Interest rates have done some funny things since the pandemic hit hard. Central banks drove their benchmark rates down, and the major banks followed along with their prime rates, used to price home-equity lines of credit and variable-rate mortgages. Bond yields fell then started to rise and then eased back again. Savings accounts have basically gone one way – down.

While this trend applies to big banks, alternative online banks and credit unions alike, the extent of the decline differs a lot. Pay attention if you sensibly want to build up savings to see you through tough times ahead.

Data gathered by the consulting firm McVay and Associates show that big banks have cut their rates since February by an average 0.65 of a percentage point, bringing the average return on a high rate savings account to 0.38 per cent.

The average rate from alternative banks fell by 0.64 of a point, leaving the average return at a much better 1.44 per cent. Credit unions cut their savings account rates the least on average – by 0.6 of a point. But the average return was just 0.76 per cent, well behind alternative banks.

Alternative banks are your best bet for top rates on savings, then. The good news for safety seekers: Many of them are covered by Canada Deposit Insurance Corp., which means eligible deposits of up to $100,000 in principal and interest are covered. Worried about CDIC’s stability in these uncertain times? In a recent column, I explained why you should have confidence in this federally backed agency.

It’s an open question whether alternative banks can maintain rates at current levels, which means around 2 per cent at best. On one hand, these banks need to be aggressive in attracting deposits they can lend out to other customers. On the other, the weak economy is like a lead weight pressing down on interest rates. There is a much bigger likelihood that rates go lower before they turn around and head back to pre-pandemic levels.

Here are the alternative banks listed in the McVay report as having rates at or above 2 per cent at the time of publishing: B2B Bank, LBC Digital, Motive Financial, EQ Bank, Oaken Financial, Alterna Bank (down to 1.9 per cent as of Thursday) and Peoples Trust.

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