Are term deposits a good investment option right now?

author-avatar By on February 19,2020
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Are term deposits a good investment option right now?

Term deposits are an ever-popular product, but does being popular make them a worthwhile investment in the present financial climate?

Why do people invest in term deposits?

One of the main reasons people invest in term deposits over other investment assets is for safety. Since the Banking Act 1945, deposits with authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) have benefited from high levels of regulatory protection that minimise the risk of losses. This protection was greatly strengthened with the introduction of the government deposit guarantee in 2008, which made term deposits virtually risk-free (up to $250,000).

The popularity of term deposits skyrocketed following the start of the global financial crisis in mid-2007 when Australian investors fled equities for the safety of term deposits in their droves, as you can see in the graph below.

Another reason many investors favour term deposits is because of their simplicity: You deposit a lump sum of money with an ADI for a fixed interest rate over a set period of time (known as the term). At the end of the term (maturity), the deposit is paid back to you along with the interest it earned.

Of course, there’s more to them than that, but that’s the general idea.

Term deposits are essentially a guarantee that you’ll at least earn something on your investment. This makes it a popular investment option among elderly retirees, who often prefer a more conservative asset allocation to protect their hard-earned retirement dollars. Term deposits can also benefit those saving for short-medium term purposes like Christmas presents for the family or an upcoming holiday.

However, after tax and inflation are taken into account, a term deposit can actually make you a real loss.

Below are some of the highest rates for 6-month term deposits on the market.

Provider
Advertised
interest rate
Interest
frequency
 
2.12% Monthly, annually,
end of term
More details
Term Deposit
1.80% End of term More details
Term Deposit
1.85% End of term More details
1.90% End of term More details
1.85% End of term More details

*Rates correct as at 01 April 2020. Rates based on a $50,000 deposit for 6 months.

Why do banks offer them?

Deposits make up a significant portion of funding for banks, which they use for various things. If you've ever wondered where your home loan lender got the money for your house from, there's a good chance some of it came from term deposits. 

According to APRA's monthly banking statistics for December 2019 (the latest data available), Australian banks hold a total of $987 billion in household deposits - that's nearly half of the more than $2.1 trillion held in total deposits across the industry. 

Current term deposit rates

As at February 2020, the average term deposit interest rate across all terms offered on the market is around 1.40% p.a. - a year prior, it was 2.30% p.a. This is actually 40 basis points below the inflation rate (1.80%). The graph below shows what the average rate is for each available term - these rates are generally higher for longer terms, although that trend has been bucked recently. 

So the highest average rate is 1.52% p.a. for a three-month term while the highest, while the highest average rate for a term longer than a year is 1.44% p.a. for a two-year term. As things stand, these rates are extremely low. 

But rates can change up or down, which is the risk long-term deposits pose for investors if interest rates were to rise. Because the majority of term deposits are fixed, you could miss out on higher interest rates. Of course, rates can also go down, as they have recently

Will term deposit rates rise soon?

This is a matter of speculation, as a major influencer of term deposit interest rates is the official cash rate. The RBA generally increases rates when the economy is growing too fast (to prevent the inflation rate from soaring over 3.00%) and lowers rates when the economy is struggling to grow.

Theories on whether future rate changes will be rises or falls are different depending on who you ask. There have already been several cuts since mid-2019, and with the cash rate already sitting at a new historic low of 0.75%, the RBA has hinted there will be at least one more by mid-2020. Many mainstream economists predict it will happen by April. 

In current economic conditions, it may be a while before we see another increase in term deposit rates overall. 

Which investments provide the highest returns?

Each investment class has a different level of risk, which also correlates to their potential returns. Products with low returns tend to be low-risk, meaning there’s less chance you’ll lose your money. There are four key assets classes – cash, property, fixed income and equities (shares) – each of which have different risk profiles:

Asset classRiskReturnsCharacteristics 
Cash

(Term deposits, savings accounts, management trusts etc.)

Low Low Interest may not outpace inflation long-term, are more suitable for short-term investors with low-risk tolerance.
Fixed interest

(Government bonds, corporate bonds etc.)

Low/moderate Moderate More likely to outpace inflation but still a more stable asset to own.
Property

(Domestic, commercial and international)

Moderate/high Moderate/high Higher risk and higher barriers to entry (mainly cost!) but can provide tax advantages and income + capital growth
Equities

(Individual shares, ETFs, managed funds etc.)

High High The most volatile asset class, but historically gives positive returns if you have the patience for long-term investing

As a cash investment, term deposits are considered to be one of the lowest-risk ways to invest money short term, but you’ll generally have to put up with lower returns than what could be gained through other investment assets. The next core investment asset class up from cash on the risk-return scale are fixed interest assets, such as government bonds. To summarise bonds in a single sentence: you lend money to governments or corporations in exchange for a fixed rate of interest at regular intervals, with the principal investment returned to you at the end of the term.

Equities and property give higher returns but are usually much riskier to invest in. House prices in major hubs like Sydney and Melbourne have been prone to significant movements up and down, while there’s often much uncertainty in share markets. The graph below demonstrates the average long-term annual returns of such assets compared to the average rate of inflation:

Not all investors are equal, and some will definitely prefer a more passive, low-risk term deposit over a share portfolio. Think about your risk profile before deciding what to invest in:

  • What’s your time horizon? If you’re investing for the long-term then you may have time on your side to ride out any dips in the share market or property market.
  • What are your investment goals? Consider whether you’re investing primarily to grow your capital or earn a stable income. Term deposits will provide you with a fixed interest income but low capital gains while shares can generate large capital gains but low income (dividends, franking credits etc).
  • How much can you afford to lose? If you’re investing in high-risk assets, you generally shouldn’t invest anything you can’t afford to lose.

Diversifying your portfolio to include both low and high-risk assets can be a smart way to balance the good and bad days. With any investment, you should consider seeking professional advice to help you reach your financial goals.

Savings.com.au’s two cents

Choosing where to invest your money can be a tough decision at any point in time. Do you accept the risk and volatility of the sharemarket, or do you go for the safe and cuddly term deposit that guarantees a stable, albeit small, return?

Generally, your portfolio should have a mixture of both defensive assets (e.g. cash and bonds) and growth assets (e.g. shares and property), so that you can grow your net worth while having cash set aside for emergencies. The ratio between these (e.g. 90% defensive:10% growth or 40% defensive:60% growth) will depend on your risk appetite.

Investing solely in term deposits is unlikely to represent a good long-term growth strategy for a number of reasons:

  • Interest rates can go up while you’re locked into a fixed rate
  • Your earnings can be stripped away by inflation and tax
  • You may miss out on much larger returns on the share and property markets

However, your cash pile is likely to be better off in a term deposit than a transaction account (which pay barely any interest), and there is plenty of competition between the banks that offer them, leaving you spoilt for choice. So if you’re looking for a term deposit, consider choosing one with a combination of high interest and flexible conditions, such as the ability to make partial withdrawals.


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William Jolly joined Savings.com.au as a Financial Journalist in 2018, after spending two years at financial research firm Canstar. In William's articles, you're likely to find complex financial topics and products broken down into everyday language. He is deeply passionate about improving the financial literacy of Australians and providing them with resources on how to save money in their everyday lives.

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