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By Kenadi Silcox
December 11, 2020
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Remember the heyday of high-yield savings accounts when they actually paid out something significant? If you signed up with digital darlings like Ally or Marcus back in 2018 or early 2019, you were likely getting returns near, if not above, 2%. Thanks to the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, those rates are a relic of the past — at least for now.

During an economic downturn, the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates, hoping to make it easier for consumers and businesses to borrow and spend. The Fed started cutting its benchmark interest rate during the summer of 2019 in response to mounting trade tensions with China, and as a result savings rates began to tick down. But the returns for high-yield savings accounts didn’t really start to sharply decline until March of 2020 when the Fed cut interest rates to near zero in response to COVID-19. As of December, even the best high-yield savings accounts have an annual percentage yield (APY) between just 0.5 and 0.7%.

The Fed stated in June that short-term benchmark interest rates would remain near zero through 2022. But the development of a potential vaccine to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the possibility of another stimulus package may have savers wondering whether or not they’ll still have to wait that long before seeing their money grow again.

But a recovery doesn’t necessarily mean an a quick return to the way things were. In December 2008, during the middle of the Great Recession, benchmark interest rates dropped below 0.25% and didn’t even scratch above 1% again until June 2017. While high-yield accounts still managed to remain at rates higher than the average savings account during that time, it wasn’t until the Fed’s first interest rate hike in March 2017 that consumers started to consistently rake in extra cash from higher interest payouts.

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If the economic recovery in 2021 is strong — i.e. unemployment rates drop significantly, with more people taking out loans and easily paying their bills on time — you could see the APY on your savings account increase by a few decimal points even as benchmark interest rates remain low, but don’t expect rates to return to where they were pre-pandemic. “If the economy does well next year, then you could maybe see your rates go from 0.6% to 0.8%,” says Ken Tumin, founder of DepositAccounts.com.

With some serious research, savers can still find a handful of high-yield accounts whose rates are better than the rest, although they aren’t managed by a typical online bank like Ally or Synchrony. Some financial technology companies backed by venture capital investors have recently appeared in the market and are offering attractive rates in an effort to win customers. Right now for example, Affirm, a tech company that primarily provides installment loans to consumers, is offering a savings account with a 1% APY.

Another lesser-known option are high-yield checking accounts (sometimes known as rewards checking), which are typically offered by regional banks and credit unions, some with interest rates reaching above 4%. However if you want to save money using one of these accounts, you may have to adhere to some onerous stipulations, like meeting minimum monthly deposit requirements and making a certain number of debit card purchases each month. These accounts also tend to have limits on how much money can earn that high yield, usually between $10,000 and $25,000.

But Tumin says consumers should be cautious before jumping to whichever company has the flashiest deal: “These are variable rate accounts, so there’s no guarantee that rate will last.”

During periods of economic instability, it’s important to have an easy place to save money in case of an emergency. So while 2021 probably won’t be delivering the best returns for high-yield savings accounts, if your goal is to have fairly quick access to liquid cash with the fewest amount of limits, risks, or stipulations, then it’s still your best option.

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