Savings accounts hold sway

Despite the fact that Greek banks have already increased their deposit rates by almost the full 0.25 percent recent rise in the European Central Bank’s (ECB) key rate, the return to depositors remains negative when taking into account the cost of borrowing and inflation. The rate for a savings account with a balance of 30,000 euros is between 0.50 percent and 1.0 percent, while a balance of 60,000 euros will not yield more than 1.35 percent. Bankers counter criticism by arguing that the high rates of the past reflected even higher inflation rates. Real returns, they note, were never high. Nevertheless, negative returns have had little effect in dissuading Greek depositors from parking their money in savings accounts. According to Bank of Greece data, deposit account balances stood 7.9 percent higher at the end of 2005 than a year earlier, to about 80 billion euros. But much more impressively, time deposits skyrocketed 48 percent higher to 53.7 billion euros, largely as the result of a shift away from money market funds. Central bank data show that customers’ total balances rose 37 percent between 2001 and 2005, much higher than the country’s gross domestic product. Placements in mutual funds, the main investment in retail banking, rose just 4.1 percent to 27.9 billion euros. This dismal performance compared to savings accounts, of course, cannot be dissociated from the bitter taste left to investors from the stock market crash in 1999-2000. In recent years, banks have intensified efforts to turn deposit accounts into instruments for conducting daily transactions which have typically taken much time and effort, notably the payment of the household and consumer bills. Bank data show that the average balance of savings accounts is now about 8,000 euros, with 70 percent of accounts holding balances between 2,500 and 30,000 euros. About four million depositors have balances of less than 3,000 euros. According to ECB data, the average number of non-cash transactions (involving checks, credit and debit cards, standing orders and remittances) per inhabitant in the European Union in 2003 was 150, with Finland leading with 227. In Spain the number of such transactions was 80, in Italy 57 and in Greece it was the lowest in the 15 old members, at just 10.