Decision in long-running dispute: BGH rules on interest calculation for premium savings contracts

Decision in long-running dispute: BGH rules on interest calculation for premium savings contracts
Decision in long-running dispute: BGH rules on interest calculation for premium savings contracts

Interest plus bonuses for years – this promise attracted savings bank customers. Due to one-sided contract clauses, savers are entitled to money retroactively. The Federal Court of Justice could now clarify how much.

Once a bestseller – now a nuisance: For years there has been a dispute over premium savings contracts that savings banks and cooperative banks concluded with hundreds of thousands of customers. The fact that banks were able to unilaterally change interest rates in their favor in many cases was declared illegal by the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) 20 years ago. The question of how interest on these products is to be calculated has not yet been clarified by the highest court. Consumer advocates expect that the Karlsruhe judges will provide clarity on the basis of two model lawsuits this Tuesday (9 a.m.).

What is a premium savings contract?

With this product, savers receive a bonus in addition to the variable interest rate, which is usually staggered according to the contract term. The longer regular savings contributions are received, the higher the bonus. Such savings contracts were sold in the 1990s and early 2000s – primarily by savings banks (“Vorsorgesparen”, “Vermögensplan”), but also by cooperative banks (“Bonusplan”, “VRZukunft”).

Why are premium savings contracts controversial?

Many of these contracts contain clauses that give banks the unilateral right to change the guaranteed interest rate – for example: “The current interest rate will be announced by notice.” The bank was thus able to adjust the interest rate to its own advantage. After examining thousands of contracts, consumer centers came to the conclusion that savers received an average of around 4,000 euros less in interest as a result.

How have courts decided so far?

For more than two decades, courts have been dealing with premium savings contracts and their interest rates. The Federal Court of Justice ruled back in 2004 that contractual clauses that allowed savings banks to reduce their interest rates at will were unlawful. Since then, there has been a dispute about how high the interest rate should have been. In 2021, the Federal Court of Justice confirmed earlier rulings that many old savings bank contracts contained inadmissible clauses.

What models are there for calculating interest?

In April 2022, the Dresden Higher Regional Court set a reference interest rate for premium savings for the first time in an individual case: the current yield of listed federal securities with a remaining term of 8 to 15 years. At the same time, the Higher Regional Court spoke out against the use of the so-called moving average in the interest calculation, which is determined on the basis of current and historical money and capital market interest rates. This was followed at the beginning of 2023 by comparable rulings by the Naumburg Higher Regional Court and the Dresden Higher Regional Court in mass proceedings, which are now the subject of the Federal Court of Justice hearing. The Higher Regional Courts in Bavaria and Brandenburg used other calculation methods for the reference interest rate in later rulings. Lawyer Michael Hummel from the Saxony Consumer Advice Center is therefore “very sure that the Federal Court of Justice will have a final say”.

How many customers are affected?

In 2021, there were around 1.1 million premium savings contracts in Germany; the financial regulator Bafin does not have more recent figures. Since then, the number is likely to have fallen significantly because institutions – where legally possible – have terminated entire contract years. For ongoing contracts, interest payments are not automatic. Consumer advice centers have been putting pressure on companies for years with model declaratory actions. The Saxony Consumer Advice Center alone is conducting nine such proceedings, in which 6,000 consumers have joined.

Are banks allowed to terminate premium savings contracts?

“The longer you save, the higher your premium will be,” is how savings banks once advertised products such as “S-Prämiensparen flexibel”. And they promised: “You alone decide how long you want to save.” But in the low interest rate phase, which only ended in summer 2022, many institutions tried to get rid of old contracts. Because many savers have been paying in for years, they are entitled to comparatively high annual premiums. This was expensive for the institutions, especially in times of zero and negative interest rates.

The dispute over the termination of premium savings contracts also went to the Federal Court of Justice. In May 2019, the court ruled: “The savings contract may not be terminated before the highest premium level is reached.” Savers must therefore be allowed to receive the maximum possible premium at least once. After that, the contract continues, but can be terminated unilaterally at any time.

How can consumers enforce their rights?

When the Federal Court of Justice issues a ruling on the model declaratory actions, it sets a general trend. The individual affected parties must enforce it individually with their bank. “Savings banks do not necessarily have to react, but can wait for individual lawsuits,” says Michael Hummel, head of the legal department at the Saxony Consumer Advice Center. “However, I think it is unlikely that the institutions will sit it out, because there are already various legal service providers waiting in the wings to enforce consumers’ claims.”

Do claims ever expire?

Anyone who has not joined a model lawsuit can request that their bank recalculate the interest on their savings contract, citing rulings already made by the Federal Court of Justice. In the case of a terminated contract, however, according to the prevailing legal opinion, claims must be filed within three years so that they do not become time-barred. The Consumer Advice Center in Saxony wants to enforce a ten-year limitation period on this issue.

Source: Stern

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