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All You Need to Know About Variable-Rate Certificates of Deposit (CD)?

By Laurel Tincher · July 22, 2022 · 8 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

All You Need to Know About Variable-Rate Certificates of Deposit (CD)?

A variable-rate certificate of deposit (CD) is a financial product that locks up your money for a set period of time (or term) and has a fluctuating interest rate. This varying rate of return is what sets it apart from traditional CDs, which pay a fixed rate, so you know exactly how much money your money will earn.

When interest rates are high, a variable-rate CD can help pump up your returns, but the opposite holds true, too. Depending on your financial goals, style, and comfort level, a variable-rate CD may be a good option for you.

Let’s take a closer look. We’ll dig into:

•   What a variable-rate CD is

•   What to know if you are considering investing in one

•   Pros and cons of a variable-rate CD

What Is a Variable-Rate Certificate of Deposit?

Let’s start by answering the question, “What is a variable-rate CD?” A variable-rate certificate of deposit, or CD, is a financial product that you can purchase from a banking institution, broker, or credit union. All types of CDs are a savings account that have fixed investing terms. That means they hold your money for a certain amount of time, be it six months or several years.

You pick a term that suits you best. During that time, your money earns interest, but you are not supposed to withdraw any funds or you are likely to be assessed a penalty fee. When the term ends, your CD is said to have matured, and you may withdraw the funds plus interest or roll them over into a new CD. Usually the total amount of interest is also received at the end of the investment term.

Traditional CDs pay a consistent rate of interest that you are informed of at the start of the term. In the case of variable-rate CDs, however, the interest rate fluctuates throughout the term. This means, you, the investor can potentially earn more on your deposit when interest rates go up. As you might guess, the opposite is also true: You could earn less if interest rates go down. Several market factors influence interest rates. These include the prime rate, treasury bills, a market index, and the consumer price index (CPI); we’ll go into those more in a moment.

One last note: Yes, CDs are insured. Certificates of deposit are time deposits protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). If the bank holding the CD were to fail, you’d be insured up to $250,000.

Recommended: How Can I Invest in CDs?

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Special Considerations of a Variable-Rate CD

The info above gives you an overview of how variable-rate certificates of deposit work. Beyond those broad strokes, there are a few key things to consider when looking into investing in variable-rate CDs. This type of CD is generally most profitable if purchased when interest rates are low, because it’s more likely that the interest rate will increase during the investment term. For this reason, there is a higher demand for these CDs when interest rates are low.

About those interest rates: There are four main factors that influence them. These are:

•   Consumer Price Index (CPI): The federal government uses the Consumer Price Index to calculate changes in the amount that consumers pay for certain products and services. Whatever the current CPI is can affect how interest rates fluctuate.

•   Market Index Levels: Another factor that affects interest rates is the performance of investment portfolios, such as major market indices. Some indices that are often analyzed include the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the Nasdaq Composite Index.

•   Prime Rate: The prime rate is the interest rate that banks charge customers who have the highest credit ratings. These customers are the least likely to default on loans, so they get the best interest rates.

•   Treasury Bill Yields: The U.S. Treasury sells Treasury bonds in order to raise money, and they also pay interest on those bonds. The interest rate associated with Treasury bonds depends on the amount and time period of the bond.

Now that you have a little more insight onto the factors that determine a CD’s variable rate, let’s look at the big picture. It’s worth noting that, during times of high inflation, CDs may not be your best option. If inflation surges, even a variable-rate CD may not be able to keep pace. At the end of your term, you may find that your investment has lost ground versus inflation.

Another factor to consider before you lock in on a variable-rate CD is the fee for early withdrawals. Some variable-rate CDs have higher fees than others. If there’s a good chance you may end up withdrawing funds early, before a CD’s maturity date, you should check those penalties and make sure they aren’t too steep.

Recommended: How Can I Buy a Bond?

Pros of a Variable-Rate CD

All CDs are known to be very safe investments since they are federally insured up to $250,000. In addition to that security, there are several benefits to investing in variable-rate CDs. Let’s take a closer look:

High Yield on Investments

Variable-rate CDs are secure, insured accounts that can provide a higher rate of return than other types of savings accounts. For instance, when you buy a fixed-rate CD, you might miss out on the opportunity to earn a higher interest rate if the market ticks upward. Variable-rate CDs, however, can respond to market conditions. If you buy a variable-rate CD when interest rates are low, you can potentially earn more as rates increase.

Profitable When Interest Rates Are Low

When interest rates are low, demand for variable-rate CDs increases, as does the profit potential. That’s because it is more likely that interest rates will increase after you purchase one. The interest rate can tick upwards and earn you more money on your money.

Lower Withdrawal Fee

Generally, variable-rate CDs come with lower penalties on early withdrawals than other types of CDs.

Cons of a Variable-Rate CD

While there are several reasons variable-rate CDs make good investments, they do come with a few downsides to consider before you invest.

Low Interest Rates

Although a variable-rate CD provides the opportunity to snag higher interest rates, it also creates a significant risk of earning a lower rate if market rates go down. If you buy a variable-rate CD when interest rates are low with the hopes that they will increase, there is no guarantee that this will happen. This means they will continue to earn a low interest rate for some or all of the duration of the CD term. In this case, you’re stuck! You may have lost out on the possibility of earning a higher return elsewhere.

Paying Extra for “Bump-Up” Feature

Although interest rates can increase or decrease with most variable-rate CDs, there are some kinds that have a “bump-up” feature. This allows for a one-time rate boost (or possibly a few rate hikes) during the CD’s term, but you may well have to pay extra for this “bump-up.” This is because the initial interest rates is typically lower than it would be on a fixed-rate CD.

Inflation Can Outpace Your Rate and Wipe Away Profit

There is a chance that inflation will increase during the term of a variable-rate CD. If this happens, inflation could end up being higher than the interest rate you’re earning. Let’s spell out what that means: Your earnings would be canceled out.

Variable-Rate CD: Real World Example

All this talk of varying interest rates can be hard to get a handle on without a concrete example. So let’s consider a CD that has a three-year term and a guaranteed repayment of the principal deposit. The starting rate is based on the prime rate, which is 4% at press time. During the term of the investment, let’s suppose that the prime rate drops from 4% down to 2%. To determine the amount of interest you’d receive, you’d take the difference between the initial prime rate and the final prime rate, which is 2%. So at the end of the term the investor would receive their initial deposit plus 2% interest. That’s half what it was when you started. Obviously, you, the CD account owner, would be happier if the reverse were true, which it could be!

What Happens if I Redeem a CD Before It Matures?

Most CDs have fees for early withdrawal; these typically involve losing interest that’s been earned, and occasionally a bit of the principal. (Generally speaking, you don’t receive earned interest until a CD matures). However, some variable-rate CDs do offer early withdrawals with no penalties for fees. These CDs usually have a lower interest rate, so you are paying for this flexibility.

The Takeaway

If you’re looking for safe, reliable, and flexible financial securities, you may want to consider adding variable-rate CDs to your portfolio. CDs provide choices in terms of how long money is invested and can provide strong returns. But, that said, they do come with some risks. It’s important to understand the factors that affect interest rates when considering buying variable-rate CDs. Time things right, and you could earn a healthy return on your investment. But if rates don’t head in a positive direction, you may not even be able to keep up with inflation.

CDs aren’t the only game in town for earning interest. Come take a look at the turbocharged APY you can earn when you open SoFi’s online banking platform with direct deposit. And these accounts have no overdraft or account fees to gnaw away at your money, either. They’re a great way to help your money grow.

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Are variable-rate CDs issued by the government?

Variable-rate CDs are not issued by the government, but the FDIC insures them up to $250,000. They are issued by FDIC-insured financial institutions.

What determines the rate on a variable-rate CD?

Several factors affect the interest rate of variable-rate CDs. These include the prime rate, market indices, treasury bills, and the consumer price index.

Do CDs have fixed interest rates?

Many CDs have fixed interest rates, but variable-rate CDs have interest rates that fluctuate throughout their term.

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