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. The banks say they can no longer absorb the negative interest rates the European Central Bank charges them. The more customer deposits banks have, the more they have to park with the central bank.
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. Banks are even providing new online tools to help customers take their deposits elsewhere.
Banks in Europe resisted passing negative rates on to customers when the ECB first introduced them in 2014, fearing backlash. Some did it only with corporate depositors, who were less likely to complain to local politicians. The banks resorted to other ways to pass on the costs of negative rates, charging higher fees, for instance.
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.
a managing director at a fintech company in Düsseldorf, received a letter from his bank, a unit of Commerzbank, last year saying it was going to start charging a 0.5% interest on deposits above €100,000, equivalent to $121,000.
To avoid paying, Mr. Bierhaus, whose savings ballooned without trips to restaurants and vacations, shifted some €60,000 to a bank in Italy and one in Sweden through an online platform called Raisin, which allows customers to shop for better rates at banks across Europe.
Mr. Bierhaus can’t even remember the name of his new banks but said he felt comfortable given that Europe has domestic guarantees on all deposits up to €100,000. He is receiving 0.8% interest on the one-year fixed deposits, similar to a certificate of deposit.
“I wouldn’t mind receiving nothing for my deposit, but being asked to pay is just too much,” the 34-year-old said, adding that he plans to use the money to buy a…