It's a 'saver's market' as banks offer new, high-interest accounts


People looking for the financial industry's best ''piggy bank'' for their savings should probably follow that advice for a few weeks or so, some bankers and financial experts say, now that the ''average saver'' is facing the widest choice of savings alternatives ever available.

There are passbook accounts, NOW accounts, at least a half-dozen bank savings certificates, retail repurchase agreements, United States Savings Bonds, and money-market mutual funds. And now, two new ''money market'' accounts have emerged to give banks and savings and loans a weapon to use in their battle with those fierce money funds.

The latest of these alternatives came this week, as the Depository Institutions Deregulation Committee (DIDC), charged with loosening the federal reins from around the banking and savings industry, gave the go-ahead for a $2, 500-minimum-deposit account that features unlimited checking privileges and whatever interest rate a bank can afford.

That account, available Jan. 5, was announced just one week before another DIDC creation was scheduled to take effect. On Dec. 14, banks and savings institutions will begin accepting deposits for a $2,500 account that only allows three checks and three transfers a month, though there is no limit on withdrawals. Again, this account will pay whatever rate the banks can afford, probably about 9 percent to 11 percent. Both accounts carry $100,000 of federal deposit insurance.

In its meeting this week, the DIDC also agreed to lift the interest-rate ceilings and reduce the minimum deposits on 91-day and six-month savings certificates come Jan. 5. On that date, the minimum deposits on these certificates will be cut from $7,500 and $10,000, respectively, to $2,500 for both.

With all these changes, the banking industry is embarking on what will probably be its fiercest and, many bankers say, most confusing marketing and advertising war for depositors' dollars.

Even after Dec. 14, it is expected to take a few months for the best interest rates, terms, and restrictions to emerge. Until then, the experts say, people who are already earning respectable interest in something like a savings certificate or a money-market mutual fund would do just as well by leaving their money where it is.

''It probably would be a good idea to wait,'' says Robert H. Steele, chairman and president of Dry Dock Savings Bank in New York. ''There's going to be a lot of confusion for a while.''

''There's a market-share game going on,'' observes Thomas Drumm, vice-president and portfolio manager for the Keystone Funds in Boston. Several banks have been offering extraordinary deals to lure customers to the new money-market account, he notes. For example, he says, the First National Bank of Atlanta is paying 18.65 percent interest on accounts opened before Dec. 14. Of course, 18.65 percent is an annualized rate, paid for only a few weeks. The size of the rate has an historical origin: The bank was founded in 1865.

''It's open season,'' says Brooke Shearer, spokeswoman for the Credit Union National Association. ''Banks are pretty much on their own, as credit unions have been since April, to provide rates that are competitive, but ones which they can afford.''

The state of confusion is not helped by the fact that the DIDC's two new deposit instruments are being added to a long list of savings alternatives, many of which have appeared within the last few years. Selecting one not only involves meeting personal financial needs; it may mean joining nationally recognized economists in their game of trying to predict the direction of interest rates.

First, there was the passbook savings account. When inflation was running well into the double digits and money market funds were paying 17 percent, the passbook account's 5 1/2 percent return was often considered a joke. Yet passbooks hold more than $300 billion worth of savers' deposits, well above the

''The passbook account has been raided pretty heavily by the other accounts we've offered,'' notes Paul Prior, chairman and president of the Henry County Savings and Loan Association in New Castle, Ind. ''But many people still have a number of passbooks identified for a specific purpose.''

Selecting one of the savings certificates, with terms ranging from from seven days to 3 1/2 years, means trying to decide what direction interest rates are going. If rates appear to be going up, then the shortest term is preferable, because it allows people to move to the higher rate as soon as possible. But if rates are going down, a longer-term certificate ''locks in'' a higher rate.

Unfortunately, opinions about the direction of interest rates are almost as numerous as the number of places to make deposits. But the largest consensus, led by Salomon Brothers partner Henry Kaufman, sees a drop of 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 percent in coming months. And rates on savings certificates have been dropping in recent weeks. Those who agree with this view may want to ''lock in'' current rates with three- or six-month certificates.

However, says Judith Garai, vice-president for marketing at the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank, ''many people want to lock up their money in a fixed-rate account, to put it some place where they can't get at it, to save for college expenses or retirement.'' For these people, she says, the 9.9 percent and 10 percent rates being paid by 2 1/2-year and 3 1/2-year certificates are often acceptable.

For similar purposes, the once-maligned US Saving Bond is regaining respectability. The minimum guaranteed rate is 7.5 percent, but the actual return is 85 percent of the rate on five-year US government securities. Thus, a bond held at least five years and redeemed now, for example, would pay 11.09 percent. The rate on a bond purchased today would not be known for five years, but it would be at least 7.5 percent, and exempt from state and local taxes.

The industry that helped start all this, the money market funds, does not seem worried by the new competition.

''If you were to ask me where our assets would be in December 1983,'' says Alfred Johnson, vice-president and chief economist of the Investment Company Institute, the mutual-fund trade association, ''I would say they'd be higher.'' Their rate of growth may slow, he says, but the funds' lower expenses should help them maintain competitive rates over a longer term than the banking institutions.

Some places for the 'average saver's' money

Minimum Current Instrument deposit interest rate' n1 New money market account $2,500 approx. 9% to 11% New 'Super NOW' account $2,500 approx. 8% to 10% Money market funds $1,000 to $5,000 8.67% n2 Passbook savings account none 5.5% 91 day account $7,500 n3 $7,956% 6-month certificate $10,000 n3 8.853% 2 1/2 year 'small Savers' certificate none(usually $500) 9.9% 3 1/2 year certificate none(usually $500) 10% All savers certificate $500 6.49% Retail repurchase agreement none 8% to 9% (usually $1,000) Credit Union share draft account none 6% to 8% US Savings Bond $25 to $500 7.5% n4 n1 Interest rates can vary by institution; some change weekly or daily; commercial bank rate slightly less on some accounts. n2 Donoghue's Money Fund Report. n3 As of Jan.5, these certificates will have a $2,500 minimum, and their interest rate ceilings will be removed. n4 Minimum guaranteed rate. Savings Bonds sold at discount, double in value after 10 years.

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