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Interest rates have been negative in Europe for years. But it took the flood of savings unleashed in the pandemic for banks finally to charge depositors in earnest.
Germany’s biggest lenders have told new customers since last year to pay a 0.5% annual rate to keep large sums of money with them. That is creating an unusual incentive, where banks that usually want deposits as an inexpensive form of financing, are essentially telling customers to go away.
The pandemic has changed the equation. Savings rates skyrocketed with consumers at home. And huge relief programs from the ECB have flooded banks with excess deposits. Banks also have used the economic dislocation of the pandemic to make operational changes they have long resisted.
According to price-comparison portal Verivox, 237 banks in Germany currently charge negative interest rates to private customers, up from 57 before the pandemic hit in March of last year. Charges range between 0.4% and 0.6% for deposits beginning anywhere from €25,000 to €100,000.
The ECB’s deposit rate, which it charges banks, is minus 0.5%. The central bank has signaled it is unlikely to change that level anytime soon.
Banks in Germany are particularly hit by negative rates because Germans are big savers. About 30% of all household deposits in the eurozone are in Germany, according to the ECB. Last year, deposits in the country rose 6% to a record €2.55 trillion as people became wary of spending under the pandemic or simply had nowhere to spend, with restaurants closed and travel restricted.
In Denmark, where interest rates were cut to below zero two years before the eurozone, banks have gone from charging wealthier clients to smaller ones over the past year. The Danish central bank estimates about a quarter of the country’s depositors are currently being affected.
Nordea Bank Abp recently lowered the deposit threshold for a 0.75% charge to 250,000 danish krone, equivalent to $41,000, from 750,000 danish krone as the pandemic will likely prolong the era of negative rates.
The flip side for customers there, is that in some cases, while they pay to deposit money, they don’t have to pay anything to borrow. Nordea in January started offering 20-year mortgages at 0%.