One percent may not seem like much to cheer about.
But after a decade of suffering with paltry earnings on money market accounts, investors are starting to do slightly better, with the top-paying funds pressing through the 1 percent mark in recent days.
The Federal Reserve’s three small rate hikes since December 2015 — each just a quarter percent — have breathed some life back into these vehicles, billed as safe places to park cash. But the returns are still a long way from the 5 percent investors could get on money markets in 2007, before the economy fell off a cliff.
Back then, $10,000 invested in Fidelity Government Cash Reserves earned $503 in a year, according to Morningstar Inc. That dropped to about $9 last year but is now up to $39 at the current annualized rate of 0.39 percent.
The highest return offered last week, 1.06 percent on Fidelity’s Money Market Portfolio, would provide a $106 payout on $10,000 — a figure that should grow modestly if the central bank continues to raise rates, as predicted, at least twice more this year.
But while savers are still mostly collecting pocket change from their money market accounts, the managers running the funds are once again reaping big profits.
“It’s billions of dollars that those three Fed hikes have delivered to money funds,’’ said Peter G. Crane, president of Crane Data in Westborough and publisher of Money Fund Intelligence.
The large money market fund managers, led by Boston-based Fidelity Investments, had dramatically cut the expenses they charge, in order to retain customers after the financial crisis, making the business far less profitable. The rising rates of late, Crane said, mean “hundreds of millions for Fidelity.”
Fidelity doesn’t break out its money market revenue. The firm manages $511 billion in money market mutual funds, more than any of its rivals, according to Crane Data. Its market share exceeds 18 percent in a $2.6 trillion industry.
Vanguard Group, the nation’s largest mutual fund manager overall, is a distant number two in money markets, with about $260 billion under management, according to Crane.
Federated Investors Inc. provides a snapshot of how rising rates are moving the needle for money market managers: The Pittsburgh company reported that its revenue increased by $46.3 million, or 19 percent, in the fourth quarter of 2016, primarily due to a decrease in its fee waivers on money market funds.
The company, like Fidelity and others, had covered fees for customers to provide returns that were above zero after expenses.
The good news for beleaguered savers also marks a big turnaround for the money market industry.
Industrywide, Crane said, firms have been collecting $7.5 billion in annualized monthly revenue from money market funds so far this year. That’s more than double the $3.5 billion in revenue in 2014, and $1 billion higher than last year’s take.
In addition to the challenges of low interest rates, money market funds came under intense regulatory scrutiny after the financial crisis. A large money market fund “broke the buck” in September 2008, for only the second time in history. And many others received shoring up by their managers so they would not trade below the $1 per share value historically expected of money market mutual funds.
The turmoil prompted regulators to require some so-called prime money market funds to trade with a floating value, instead of at the traditional $1 per share.
Rather than take on that risk, large investors have moved billions of dollars out of prime funds, which invest primarily in corporate debt, and into government debt funds.
Fidelity, which fought the new regulations mightily, has converted some of its prime funds into government funds. It also has won more business from investors for its money market funds overall, Crane said.
Now, with rates on the upswing, Fidelity stands to gain after years of slashing expenses on money market funds. Over the course of 2016, the company phased out the longstanding discounts.
In one example, the $137 billion Fidelity Government Cash Reserves fund has returned its expense ratio to 0.37 percent. That’s up from a low of 0.24 percent in 2014, according to Morningstar. The differential: about $178 million in revenue.
“Fidelity waived fees on its money market funds for several years to provide a positive yield on those funds as short-term interest rates remained near zero,’’ Fidelity spokesman Adam Banker said.
If rates continue to rise, he said, investors in money market mutual funds “stand to benefit.”