Upgrade CEO Renaud Laplanche speaks at a conference in Brooklyn, New York, in 2018.
Alex Flynn | Bloomberg via Getty Images
The technology industry is known for innovation and spawning the next big thing. But at a time of economic uncertainty and rising interest rates, a growing piece of the tech sector is going after one of the most noninnovative products on the planet: yield.
With U.S. Treasury yields climbing late last year to their highest in more than a decade, consumers and investors can finally generate returns just by parking their money in savings accounts.
Banks are responding by offering higher-yielding offerings. American Express, for example, offers consumers a 3.75% annual percentage yield (APY), and First Citizens‘ CIT Bank has a 4.75% APY for customers with at least $5,000 in deposits. Ally Bank, which is online only, is promoting a 4.8% certificate of deposit.
However, some of the highest rates available to savers aren’t coming from traditional financial firms or credit unions, but rather from companies in and around Silicon Valley.
Then there’s the whole fintech market, consisting of companies offering consumer financial services with a focus on digital products and a friendly mobile experience instead of physical branches with costly bank tellers and loan officers.
Stock trading app Robinhood has a feature called Robinhood Gold, which offers 4.65% APY. Interest is earned on uninvested cash swept from the client’s brokerage account to partner banks. It’s part of a $5-a-month subscription that also includes lower borrowing costs for margin investing and research for stock investing.
The company lifted its yield from 4.4% on Wednesday after the Federal Reserve approved its 10th rate increase in a little more than a year, raising its benchmark borrowing rate by 0.25 percentage point to a target range of 5%-5.25%.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on June 4, 2019.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
“At Robinhood, we’re always looking for ways to help our customers make their money work for them,” the company said in a press release announcing its hike.
LendingClub, an online lender, is promoting an account with a 4.25% yield. The company told CNBC that deposit growth was up 13% for the first quarter of 2023 compared with the prior quarter, “as depositors looked to diversify their money out of traditional banks and earn increased savings.” Year over year, savings deposits have increased by 81%.
And Upgrade, which is led by LendingClub founder Renaud Laplanche, offers 4.56% for customers with a minimum balance of $1,000.
“It’s really a trade-off for consumers, between safety or the appearance of safety, and yield,” Laplanche told CNBC. Upgrade, which is based in San Francisco, and most other fintech players keep customer deposits with institutions backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., so consumer funds are safe up to the $250,000 threshold.
SoFi is the rare example of a fintech with a banking charter, which it acquired last year. It offers a high-yield savings product with a 4.2% APY.
The story isn’t just about rising interest rates.
Across the emerging fintech spectrum, companies like Upgrade are, intentionally or not, taking advantage of a moment of upheaval in traditional finance. On Monday, First Republic became the third American bank to fail since March, following the collapses of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank. All three saw depositors rush for the exits as concerns about a liquidity crunch led to a cycle of doom.
After the collapse of SVB, Laplanche said Upgrade’s banking partners came to the company and asked it to step up the inflow of funds, an apparent effort to stanch the withdrawals at smaller banks. Upgrade farms out the money it attracts to a network of 200 small- and medium-sized banks and credit unions that pay the company for the deposits.
For well over a decade, before the recent jump in rates, savings accounts were dead money. Borrowing rates were so low that banks couldn’t profitably offer yield on deposits. Also, stocks were on such a tear that investors were doing just fine in equities and index funds. A subset of those with a stomach for risk went big in crypto.
As the price of bitcoin soared, a number of crypto exchanges and lenders began mimicking the banks’ savings model, offering very high yield (up to 20% annually) for investors to store their crypto. Those exchanges are now bankrupt following the crypto industry’s meltdown last year, and many thousands of clients lost their funds.
There is some potential instability for fintechs, even those outside of the crypto space. Many of them, including Upgrade and Affirm, partner with Cross River Bank, which serves as the regulated bank for companies that don’t have charters, allowing them to offer lending and credit products.
Last week, Cross River was hit with a consent order from the FDIC for what the agency called “unsafe or unsound banking practices.”
Cross River said in a statement that the order was focused on fair lending issues that occurred in 2021, and that it “places no limitations on our extensive existing fintech partnerships or the credit products we presently offer in partnership with them.”
While fintechs broadly are under far less regulatory pressure than crypto companies, the FDIC’s action suggests that regulators are beginning to pay closer attention to the kinds of products that high-yield accounts are designed to complement.
Still, the emerging group of high-yield savings products are much more mainstream than what the crypto platforms were promoting. That’s largely because the deposits come with government-backed insurance protections, which have a long history of safety.
They’re also not designed to be big profit centers. Rather, by offering high yields for consumers who have long housed their money in stagnant accounts, tech and fintech companies are opening the door to potentially new customers.
Apple has a whole suite of financial products, including a credit card and payments app, that pair smoothly with the savings account, which is only available to the 6 million-plus Apple Card holders. Those customers reportedly put in nearly $1 billion in deposits in the first four days the service was on the market.
Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment. CEO Tim Cook said on the company’s earnings call Thursday that, “we are very pleased with the initial response on it. It’s been incredible.”
Apple savings account
Robinhood, meanwhile, wants more people to use its trading platform, and companies like LendingClub and SoFi are building relationships with potential borrowers.
Laplanche said high-yield savings accounts, while compelling for the consumer, aren’t core to most fintech businesses but serve as an onboarding tool to more lucrative products, like consumer lending or conventional credit cards.
“We started with credit,” Laplanche said. “We think that’s a better strategy.”
SoFi launched its high-yield savings account in February of last year. In its annual SEC filing, the company said that offering checking and high-yield savings accounts provided “more daily interactions with our members.”
Affirm, best known as a buy now, pay later firm, has offered a savings account since 2020 as part of a “full suite” of financial products. Its yield is currently 3.75%.
“Consumers can use our app to manage payments, open a high-yield savings account, and access a personalized marketplace,” the company said in a 2022 SEC filing. A spokesperson for Affirm told CNBC that the saving account is “one of the many solutions in our suite of products that empower consumers with a smarter way to manage their finances.”
Set against the backdrop of a regional banking crisis, savings products from anywhere but a national bank might seem unappealing. But chasing yield does come with at least a little bit of risk.
“Citi or Chase, feels like it’s safe,” to the consumer, Laplanche said. “Apple and Goldman aren’t inherently risky, but it’s not the same as Chase.”
— CNBC’s Darla Mercado contributed to this report.