Negative interest rates: is it time to bury your money?

Negative interest rates: is it time to bury your money?

The consecutive RBA rate cuts in June and July have taken the cash rate to an historical low at just one per cent. This, coupled with Governor Philip Lowe’s comment that the RBA may reduce the cash rate to zero per cent, has raised concerns that Australia could be joining Japan, Denmark and Switzerland in negative interest rates territory.

Unsurprisingly, this news has sparked a national debate between economists, journalists and political commentators on the best way to encourage consumer spending and boost inflation. Is it through negative interest rates?

What will happen if the cash rate goes below 0%?

If the RBA introduces negative interest rates, consumers will have to pay a fee to their bank for holding their money in a savings account, whilst ‘earning money’ for taking out a loan.

In theory, negative interest rates offer a way to boost consumer spending, borrowing and investment. This is based on the assumption that savings can be damaging to the economy if they are not re-invested into the financial system. By lowering interest rates into negative territory, banks are encouraging consumers to take their money out of savings accounts to either spend or invest it.

Feeling confused? You’re not alone.

Negative interest rates can be perplexing to prospective borrowers and lifetime savers, due to the intricacies of the financial system, and the calculations needed to understand what a future with a cash rate is below zero looks like.

Paying to save

The global economy as we have come to know it is starting to shift, with negative interest rates already in play in the EU.

Back in 2014, German bank Skatbank started charging their wealthy depositors for holding their money, which is now at a rate of 0.4 per cent. This means if you wanted Skatbank to hold $100,000 for you today in a savings account, you would pay $400 for the privilege.

Paying the major banks to hold your money is an unattractive concept for consumers, and one that could signal a move away from savings accounts, and toward investments in tangible commodities, like gold. Or, potentially, this market could encourage a surge in demand for safe deposit boxes and vaults, as people decide to hold their own savings to avoid costly fees.

Negative Interest Rates -what do they mean

‘Earning money’ on loans with negative interest rates

Paying your bank to hold your money does seem in stark contrast to the idea that consumers will ‘earn money’ on loans they take out.

However, as with all financial products, you must read the fine print. Borrowers will not receive money into their account per se, but instead what they ‘earn’ will subsidise their mortgage repayments.

An example of this can be seen in the recent move by Danish lender, Jyske Bank. This lender is now offering prospective homeowners seven or ten year fixed-rate mortgages with -0.50 per cent interest rates.

In their official release, Jykse Bank confirms that investors will not receive the money directly into their accounts. Instead the negative interest rate increases the repayment to higher than it would be with a positive interest rate, and the -.50 per cent interest rate acts as a subsidy to reduce the total amount a borrower would repay.

The fact that investors will not get any physical money into their accounts, is complicated further by the addition of bank fees and contributions charged by lenders for loans of this type.

Will home loans with negative interest rates turn out to be less affordable when high repayments and fees are taken into account?

Financial calculations and discrepancies between lenders seem to create a miasma of misunderstanding over the entire debate. Truthfully, until these types of home loans are created, and fees applied, it is difficult to determine whether negative interest rate home loans will indeed be beneficial to consumers.

As such, it’s important that consumers increase their financial awareness, and educate themselves on how these changes could impact their own financial situation.

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Fact Checked -

This article was reviewed by Personal Finance Editor Mark Bristow before it was published as part of RateCity's Fact Check process.

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Learn more about home loans

What are the different types of home loan interest rates?

A home loan interest rate is used to calculate how much you’ll pay the lender, usually annually, above the amount you borrow. It’s what the lenders charge you for them lending you money and will impact the total amount you’ll pay over the life of your home loan. 

Having understood what are home loan rates in general, here are the two types you usually have with a home loan:

Fixed rates

These interest rates remain constant for a specific period and are a good option if you’re a first-time buyer or if you’re looking for a fixed monthly repayment. One possible downside of a fixed rate is that it may be higher than a variable rate. Also, you don’t benefit from any lowering of interest rates in the market. On the flip side, if rates go up, your rate won’t change, possibly saving you money.

Variable rates

With variable interest rates, the lender can change them at any time. This change can be based on economic conditions or other reasons. Changes in interest rates could be beneficial if your monthly repayment decreases but can be a problem if it increases. Variable interest rates offer several other benefits often not available with fixed rate home loans like redraw and offset facilities and free extra repayments. 

What happens to my home loan when interest rates rise?

If you are on a variable rate home loan, every so often your rate will be subject to increases and decreases. Rate changes are determined by your lender, not the Reserve Bank of Australia, however often when the RBA changes the cash rate, a number of banks will follow suit, at least to some extent. You can use RateCity cash rate to check how the latest interest rate change affected your mortgage interest rate.

When your rate rises, you will be required to pay your bank more each month in mortgage repayments. Similarly, if your interest rate is cut, then your monthly repayments will decrease. Your lender will notify you of what your new repayments will be, although you can do the calculations yourself, and compare other home loan rates using our mortgage calculator.

There is no way of conclusively predicting when interest rates will go up or down on home loans so if you prefer a more stable approach consider opting for a fixed rate loan.

What is the best interest rate for a mortgage?

The fastest way to find out what the lowest interest rates on the market are is to use a comparison website.

While a low interest rate is highly preferable, it is not the only factor that will determine whether a particular loan is right for you.

Loans with low interest rates can often include hidden catches, such as high fees or a period of low rates which jumps up after the introductory period has ended.

To work out the best value for money, have a look at a loan’s comparison rate and read the fine print to get across all the fees and charges that you could be theoretically charged over the life of the loan.

What are the features of home loans for expats from Westpac?

If you’re an Australian citizen living and working abroad, you can borrow to buy a property in Australia. With a Westpac non-resident home loan, you can borrow up to 80 per cent of the property value to purchase a property whilst living overseas. The minimum loan amount for these loans is $25,000, with a maximum loan term of 30 years.

The interest rates and other fees for Westpac non-resident home loans are the same as regular home loans offered to borrowers living in Australia. You’ll have to submit proof of income, six-month bank statements, an employment letter, and your last two payslips. You may also be required to submit a copy of your passport and visa that shows you’re allowed to live and work abroad.

Why does Westpac charge an early termination fee for home loans?

The Westpac home loan early termination fee or break cost is applicable if you have a fixed rate home loan and repay part of or the whole outstanding amount before the fixed period ends. If you’re switching between products before the fixed period ends, you’ll pay a switching break cost and an administrative fee. 

The Westpac home loan early termination fee may not apply if you repay an amount below the prepayment threshold. The prepayment threshold is the amount Westpac allows you to repay during the fixed period outside your regular repayments.

Westpac charges this fee because when you take out a home loan, the bank borrows the funds with wholesale rates available to banks and lenders. Westpac will then work out your interest rate based on you making regular repayments for a fixed period. If you repay before this period ends, the lender may incur a loss if there is any change in the wholesale rate of interest.

Does the Home Loan Rate Promise apply to discounted interest rate offers, such as honeymoon rates?

No. Temporary discounts to home loan interest rates will expire after a limited time, so they aren’t valid for comparing home loans as part of the Home Loan Rate Promise.

However, if your home loan has been discounted from the lender’s standard rate on a permanent basis, you can check if we can find an even lower rate that could apply to you.

What is the difference between fixed, variable and split rates?

Fixed rate

A fixed rate home loan is a loan where the interest rate is set for a certain amount of time, usually between one and 15 years. The advantage of a fixed rate is that you know exactly how much your repayments will be for the duration of the fixed term. There are some disadvantages to fixing that you need to be aware of. Some products won’t let you make extra repayments, or offer tools such as an offset account to help you reduce your interest, while others will charge a significant break fee if you decide to terminate the loan before the fixed period finishes.

Variable rate

A variable rate home loan is one where the interest rate can and will change over the course of your loan. The rate is determined by your lender, not the Reserve Bank of Australia, so while the cash rate might go down, your bank may decide not to follow suit, although they do broadly follow market conditions. One of the upsides of variable rates is that they are typically more flexible than their fixed rate counterparts which means that a lot of these products will let you make extra repayments and offer features such as offset accounts.

Split rates home loans

A split loan lets you fix a portion of your loan, and leave the remainder on a variable rate so you get a bet each way on fixed and variable rates. A split loan is a good option for someone who wants the peace of mind that regular repayments can provide but still wants to retain some of the additional features variable loans typically provide such as an offset account. Of course, with most things in life, split loans are still a trade-off. If the variable rate goes down, for example, the lower interest rates will only apply to the section that you didn’t fix.

What is 'principal and interest'?

‘Principal and interest’ loans are the most common type of home loans on the market. The principal part of the loan is the initial sum lent to the customer and the interest is the money paid on top of this, at the agreed interest rate, until the end of the loan.

By reducing the principal amount, the total of interest charged will also become smaller until eventually the debt is paid off in full.

What is a comparison rate?

The comparison rate is a more inclusive way of comparing home loans that factors in not only on the interest rate but also the majority of upfront and ongoing charges that add to the total cost of a home loan.

The rate is calculated using an industry-wide formula based on a $150,000 loan over a 25-year period and includes things like revert rates after an introductory or fixed rate period, application fees and monthly account keeping fees.

In Australia, all lenders are required by law to publish the comparison rate alongside their advertised rate so people can compare products easily.

How long can you fix a home loan rate for?

Most lenders should let you fix your interest rate for anywhere between one and five years. While rare, a few lenders may offer fixed rate terms for as long as 10 years.

Fixing your home loan interest rate for a longer term can keep your budgeting fairly straightforward, as you shouldn't have to factor in changes to your mortgage repayments if variable rates change, such as when the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) changes its rates at its monthly meeting. Additionally, if variable rates rise during your fixed rate term, you can continue to pay the lower fixed rate until the fixed term ends, potentially saving you some money.

Of course, a longer fixed term also means a longer length of time where you may have less flexibility in your home loan repayments. It’s also a longer period where you won’t be able to refinance your mortgage without paying break fees. If variable rates were to fall during this period, you may also be stuck paying a higher fixed rate for a longer period.

When do mortgage payments start after settlement?

Generally speaking, your first mortgage payment falls due one month after the settlement date. However, this may vary based on your mortgage terms. You can check the exact date by contacting your lender.

Usually your settlement agent will meet the seller’s representatives to exchange documents at an agreed place and time. The balance purchase price is paid to the seller. The lender will register a mortgage against your title and give you the funds to purchase the new home.

Once the settlement process is complete, the lender allows you to draw down the loan. The loan amount is debited from your loan account. As soon as the settlement paperwork is sorted, you can collect the keys to your new home and work your way through the moving-in checklist.

When does Commonwealth Bank charge an early exit fee?

When you take out a fixed interest home loan with the Commonwealth Bank, you’re able to lock the interest for a particular period. If the rates change during this period, your repayments remain unchanged. If you break the loan during the fixed interest period, you’ll have to pay the Commonwealth Bank home loan early exit fee and an administrative fee.

The Early Repayment Adjustment (ERA) and Administrative fees are applicable in the following instances:

  • If you switch your loan from fixed interest to variable rate
  • When you apply for a top-up home loan
  • If you repay over and above the annual threshold limit, which is $10,000 per year during the fixed interest period
  • When you prepay the entire outstanding loan balance before the end of the fixed interest duration.

The fee calculation depends on the interest rates, the amount you’ve repaid and the loan size. You can contact the lender to understand more about what you may have to pay. 

Cash or mortgage – which is more suitable to buy an investment property?

Deciding whether to buy an investment property with cash or a mortgage is a matter or personal choice and will often depend on your financial situation. Using cash may seem logical if you have the money in reserve and it can allow you to later use the equity in your home. However, there may be other factors to think about, such as whether there are other debts to pay down and whether it will tie up all of your spare cash. Again, it’s a personal choice and may be worth seeking personal advice.

A mortgage is a popular option for people who don’t have enough cash in the bank to pay for an investment property. Sometimes when you take out a mortgage you can offset your loan interest against the rental income you may earn. The rental income can also help to pay down the loan.

How long does Westpac take to approve a home loan?

Applying for a home loan at Westpac is fairly simple. The process from initial application to settlement varies in its time frame. Some customers receive in-principle approval within a couple of days. 

You can initiate the process by filling out the bank’s home loan form and requesting a callback. A Westpac representative will get in touch with you within 24 hours. You will need to provide the following information to the representative during the call: 

  • Total income
  • Total expenses
  • Details about all your liabilities and debts
  • Information and value of all your assets. 

The Westpac representative will then share with you information about the types of home loans you may qualify for, along with an estimate of interest rates and applicable fees. 

Once Westpac has received all your details, loan preferences, and documents, the representative will assess all the information. If everything is in order, you may receive an Approval in Principle (AIP) within 2 working days. This specifies the amount Westpac is willing to offer for your home loan. 

Your Approval in Principle will often remain valid for only 90 days and if you don’t find a suitable property within that time frame, you need to apply for a renewal on your Approval in Principle. In this circumstance, if the Westpac representative confirms that there are no changes in your financial circumstances, your Approval can be extended for another 90 days. 

After you have found a home that matches the Approval in Principle, you will need a confirmed contract of sale before Westpac initiates the loan settlement. This process takes about 4-12 weeks or 2-5 days if you’re refinancing.