Personal Finance 

All About Rates: Fed Rate, Prime Rate, LIBOR and COFI

The Fed did what everyone expected this past week, cutting the federal funds rate by 75 basis points to 2.25%, a little less than what the market wanted (they wanted a full 100 basis point cut down to 2%). The federal funds rate has gotten a lot of press lately and many people have started to understand how the Fed Rate personally affects them. Some have been confused between the federal funds rate and the federal discount rate, which I tried to explain in the past, and wanted to learn why the fed rate affected the stock market, but overall I think it’s relatively well understood. The other popular rates that aren’t as well understood are the Prime Rate, the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), and the 11th District Cost of Funds Index (COFI).

Prime Rate

What is it? The prime rate is a generic term but in the US it primarily refers to the the Wall Street Journal Prime Rate. It is “the base rate on corporate loans posted by at least 75% of the nation’s 30 largest banks.” [Source: Wikipedia] Usually you can expect the rate to be about 3% higher than the Federal Funds rate so when the Fed drops its rates, you can expect the Prime Rate to fall as well (but not always). WSJ prints this rate about once a month.
Why does it matter? The Prime Rate is often the rate you see associated with credit cards, car notes, and all other types of consumer debt. For example, a card may have their variable purchase and balance transfer APR pegged to the Prime Rate plus 4.99%, so that rate will be the Federal Funds rate plus around 8.99%. Since the Fed cut the rate by 75 basis points, you should expect a similar fall in your interest rates. The Prime Rate is published by WSJ so it will lag the Fed by a little bit, so you might not see the lower rate for a little while.

London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR)

What is it? The LIBOR is “a daily reference rate based on the interest rates at which banks offer to lend unsecured funds to other banks in the London wholesale money market (or interbank market).” [Source: Wikipedia] In other words, it’s the Fed funds rate in London. Some other notable differences are that it’s a daily rate, announced after 11 AM by the British Bankers Association, and is an average of rates on inter-bank loans of up to 1 year with contributor banks. It’s a lot like taking a snapshot of the crowd at a sporting event, you get close but it’s obviously a continually moving target. Another difference between the two rates is that with the Fed funds rate you’re talking about the target that the Fed is trying to hit by adding liquidity. With the LIBOR, it’s the actual rate being charged and not a target. While it is an academic difference, it’s a difference nonetheless.
Why does it matter? Some adjustable rate mortgages are actually linked to the LIBOR, such as LIBOR + 2.75% or LIBOR + 2.0%; so when the LIBOR moves around, it can affect what your ARM is adjusted to.

11th District Cost of Funds Index (COFI)

What is it? Last but not least, we have the 11th District Cost of Funds Index (COFI), an index I never heard of before researching this article. The COFI is a little more complicated and is “computed from the actual interest expenses reported for a given month by the Arizona, California, and Nevada savings institution members of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco (Bank) that satisfy the Bank’s criteria for inclusion in the COFI (COFI Reporting Members).” [Source: FHLBank San Francisco] Like the Prime Rate, this rate is reported on a monthly basis but two months behind (so the January value is reported in March).
Why does it matter? Again, it’s an index used to adjust mortgages and other loans and it’s popular because it lags the market and is a stable measure. This means that it’s good when the rates are increasing, since it lags, but not as good when the rates are falling, since it lags. The reason why its stable is because it includes more factors such as loans from savings and checking accounts, CDs, etc.

Hope that clarifies things just a little bit more…


50 Fun Facts About Banks

Nearly 1 year ago I wrote 50 Fun Facts about Credit Cards, a post that was very well received, so I figured why not follow that up one year later with another 50 fun facts post – this time talking about banks. I like reading about history so the first batch of facts revolve around the central bank, starting with the First Bank of the United States and ending with our current Federal Reserve system (you can see the progression!), then wash that meal down with some more entertaining facts like some other firsts, a few mind boggling statistics, and then some fun stuff like bank robberies and banking sponsorship information. It was fun (and educational) putting it together so I hope you enjoy reading the list. (much like last time, I added in a few bonus facts!)

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Federal Funds Rate vs. Federal Discount Rate

The federal funds rate is the interest rate that banks charge other banks when lending money to them. One of the consequences of having a reserve limit is that sometimes banks, in trying to stay as close to that limit as possible, may go under it and thus need to borrow some money to boost their reserves. This rate is set by the Federal reserve.

The federal discount rate is the interest rate that the Fed charges banks when it lends the bank money. This amount is higher than the Federal Funds Rate so it’s used as a last resort for banks needing some cash to boost their reserves.

In an earlier article on how the Fed rate affects the stock market, I made an error of omission by mentioning only the federal discount rate and wanted to take the opportunity to clear that up.


Why The Fed Interest Rate Affects The Stock Market

In layman’s terms, which is what the title was put in, the reason why the interest rate, dictated by the Fed, affects the stock market is because it affects the interest rate on loans that businesses can get to grow their businesses. When the interest rate goes up, loan rates go out and businesses have to pay more on their loans and thus have less to put back into the business. The interest rate also affects consumers because the rates on their loans are going to go up and thus their ability to spend money is going to go down. If consumers are spending less, businesses are making less; yet another hit to the future growth potential. Since the stock market is supposed to track the business, rate hikes affect growth projections and thus the price of the stock. The price of a stock is based on those projections, so increased costs (rate hike) means potentially decreased future growth, and so the price goes down. Rate hike means stocks weaken, rate drop means stocks strengthen. That’s the layman’s version and that’s basically like explaining the waves at the top of the ocean without looking at the multitude of forces at play below the surface.

The Fed

In actuality, when people say “the Fed,” short for Federal Reserve, they actually mean the Federal Open Market Committee. The committee consists of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and four of the eleven remaining Federal Reserve Banks on a rotating basis. The FOMC meets eight times a year and Ben Bernanke is the Chairman of the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors is in charge of setting the discount rate (what people commonly call the “interest rate”) and the reserve requirement.

The discount rate is what the Federal Reserve will charge banks to borrow money from them. The reserve requirement is how much, percentage-wise, a bank must hold in its reserves to cover deposit requirements. This idea kind of blew my mind when I first heard about it like ten years ago. So when you deposit $100 at the bank, if the reserve requirement is 10%, then the bank must keep $10 on hand but it can lend out the $90. Let’s say they lend that $90 to another bank. The second bank must keep $9 in reserves but it can lend out the $81. This can happen, in theory, forever and so the original $100 actually ends up becoming really really close to $1000 in total value across however many instruments when it’s all said and done.

The Discount Rate

So, how does the discount rate affect the interest rate? Well, as mentioned earlier, the discount rate is the rate at which commercial banks can borrow money from the Federal Reserve. If the rate increases, then the cost to banks increases and that cost is passed onto its borrowers. Then the borrowers, who are themselves consumers of the products and services of businesses, will be spending less in stores and thus reducing the revenue stream of the businesses they frequent. Businesses are hit with a double whammy – if they need loans, those are more expensive; plus their customers are spending less. Businesses that are earning less, hire less people, those people who are thus not hired will find themselves spending less… and so you can see how the cycle can feed itself. The public barometer that the Fed uses to see how well this cycle is operating is inflation. The hard part about dealing with inflation is that interest rate changes are the cause but the effects aren’t seen for years, so it’s a difficult game to be playing.

Update: In addition to the discount rate, the Fed also sets the federal funds rate but it generally moves lockstep with the discount rate. For a discussion on the difference, please refer to this article on the differences between the discount rate and the Federal funds rate.

As you can see, the basics are pretty easy to understand: rates go up, market goes down; rates go down, market goes up (in general). However, there are so many factors at play in there that to boil it down to that one liner doesn’t do it any justice.


“Fascinating” ABA Routing Number Facts

So I was trying to figure out how long ABA Routing Numbers are valid for and accidentally unearthed a whole slew of facts I never knew about the little digits identifying your bank on your checks:

ABA stands for American Bankers Association and they come up with the ABA Routing Numbers, here’s a boring and long PDF file all about it.

What do the numbers stand for?
The first four numbers are the Federal Reserve routing symbol, which specifies which of the twelve Federal Reserve banks (including city) that the check was printed at. The next four digits specify your bank and the last digit is the checksum digit, a calculation I explain next.

Did you know that there is a checksum validity test?
For the non-nerds out there, a checksum just means you basically add the numbers together after doing some other mathy stuff and the result is a checksum. It’s a way to figure out if something was corrupted in the communication. To calculate the checksum for the ABA Routing Number, multiply the first digit by 3, the next by 7, the next by 1, and then repeat in that order. A valid ABA Routing Number’s checksum will be evenly divisible by 10.

So if you take Emigrant Direct’s ABA Routing number of 226070319:

(2 x 3) + (2 x 7) + (6 x 1) + (0 x 3) + (7 x 7) + (0 x 1) + (3 x 3) + (1 x 7) + (9 x 1) = 100

Looking for a Bank With Its Routing Number?
Ta da! You can look it up at a Federal Reserve Financial Services website. I wonder if they give better rates at ABA#: 2839-7842-5.

I’m sure there are other great ABA facts but those are some to get you started.


Limit of 6 ACH Transfers on Savings Accounts

There is a limit of six transfers, ACH or otherwise, per statement cycle on savings accounts as mandated by the Federal Reserve board Regulation D, which defines the rules of each account type and its reserve requirement. Why is this important? With the advent of online savings accounts and the chase for a better interest rate, ACH transfers into and out of savings accounts are becoming more frequent. Before online savings accounts like ING Direct and Emigrant Direct, when you actually had to visit a bank to initiate an ACH transfer; a limit of six transfers on a savings account wasn’t really a problem. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to initiate six in a year, let alone six within a statement month. Now, you can initiate six ACH transfers within a statement cycle without really realizing it and that can be cause to terminate your account!

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