How big is the hoard of savings Canadians still have parked in savings accounts after more than 18 months of the pandemic?
The amount is similar to the net worth of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. It’s roughly in line with the yearly economic output of all the Atlantic provinces. It’s more than enough to buy a Rolls-Royce Phantom for all the residents of St. John’s or pay for all the Ford F-150 pickup trucks bought in Canada last year, many times over. It’s enough to buy many subdivisions of average-priced houses in Vancouver.
Canada’s stockpile of savings earlier this year was $280-billion bigger than before the pandemic, according to RBC Economics. Some of this money has been spent, but RBC says there was still roughly $150-billion in extra savings as of July.
The storylines that flow out of this money include the divide between the financially fortunate ones in the pandemic and those people and households who lost jobs and income, the potential for a big wave of future spending, and the conservative decisions, to be polite, that people are making about what to do with this money.
Higher-income households were less likely to be affected by job interruptions during the various economic lockdowns, and their ability to spend on high-cost services such as travel and entertainment were curtailed. So when we talk about the hoard of savings, we have to realize it’s a zone of privilege. You mainly saved if you had money to begin with.
Withdrawals from pandemic savings have found their way into the housing and stock markets and funded renovations. Freeing up more of this money could fuel another leg of growth in home sales after a recent pullback, and drive the economy if it’s spent on goods and services.
But we might also just hang onto that money. “If history repeats itself from the 2009 financial crisis, the last time we saw a build-up of savings balances, we expect this growth [in savings] will stick rather than fuel future spending,” David McVay, a financial industry consultant, writes in his latest bulletin.
A lot of households have made bold financial moves in the pandemic by plunging into the stock market or buying houses in a hot market where bidding wars are common. But it’s clear that a lot of people feel better with lots of cash safely parked in savings.
Safety isn’t in doubt if you pay attention to deposit insurance, whether through Canada Deposit Insurance Corp. or the provincial plans that cover credit unions. What we do have to question is the choices people are making in where to keep their money.
According to Mr. McVay, the big banks are cleaning up. Alternative banks offer a little more than 1-per-cent interest at best these days, yet they’ve taken in only 3.9 per cent of the growth in deposits. People prefer the big banks and credit unions, which in Mr. McVay’s report are paying 0.05- to 0.35-per-cent interest, for the most part.
“This is a huge amount of money that is earning no interest,” he wrote.
The people who are open to alternative banks are paying attention to rates, however. Mr. McVay found that some of the biggest growth in deposits were at Canadian Tire Bank, motusbank and EQ Bank, which offer among the highest rates on savings.
Tangerine was among the alternative players with the biggest declines in deposits. Tangerine, an online bank owned by Bank of Nova Scotia, pays 0.1 per cent on savings.
Mr. McVay calls the flow of savings to big banks a “flight to quality.” Stressed about the pandemic, Canadians have turned into committed savers who mainly trust physical banks and credit unions they can see on the streets of their cities and towns.
If just half the $150-billion cash hoard earned 1 per cent, the amount of interest generated would be $750-million. That’s enough to buy 25,000 Honda Civics, a four-year undergrad degree at a university out of town for 9,000 students, or 150 million lattes.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a stake in the savings hoard, do everyone a favour. Earn some interest.
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