Whatever happened to the rate of interest?

According to the French historian Fernand Braudel, to understand the present we should master the whole of world history. The same may be said for the rate of interest: to grasp its significance we should have a full understanding of the whole of economics. Interest is the most important price of economy, the most pervading, as pointed out by the American economist Irving Fisher. Interest plays a key role in affecting all economic activity: interest and the price level are strictly interconnected, subject to leads and lags, they move in the same direction. A falling interest rate induces falling prices and a rising interest induces rising prices. Capital values are derived from income value: if interest is 5%, a capital amount yielding $100 every year has a value of $2,000. The interest rate translates, as it were, the future into the present bridging capital to its income.

When interest drops from a high down to a low level it raises the capitalized value of equipments, bonds, annuities or any other assets providing a stream of future incomes. The rate of interest reveals the individual’s rate of time preference or their “impatience for money”: the inclination towards current consumption over future consumption and vice versa. For example if the individual is indifferent between €1.04  next year and €1.00  today, his rate of time per preference per annum is four percent.

Interest can therefore be considered the minimum future amount of money required to compensate the consumer for foregoing current consumption. It is as it were, the return on sacrificing consumption towards more future consumption. When time preference falls, savings rise and interest falls. And the lower the time preference the more the supply of income saved and transferred in the form of credit to satisfy investment demand. In the economy there cannot be any real net investment without an equal amount of real net saving. The price balancing the supply of income (from savings) and the demand for it (for spending and investment) was defined by the Scandinavian economist Kurt Wicksell, the “natural rate of interest”.

Its function is to ration out existing scarce savings into productive uses and to induce to sacrifice current consumption to add to the stock of capital. The 18th century French finance minister Anne-Robert-JacquesTurgot put it this way:

The current interest of money is the is the thermometer by which the abundance or scarcity of capitals may be judged; it is the scale on which the extent of a nation’s capacity for enterprises in agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, may be reckoned.. Interest may be looked upon as a kind of like a sea level …… under which all labor, culture, industry, commerce  cease to exist». In the contemporary economy interest is a monetary tool by which central banks pretend to regulate the abundance of capital. Unfortunately in doing so they make the economy sink under the sea level. To understand this effect the rate of interest has to be investigated through its relation with money and capital.

Interest and Money

In ordinary language interest is defined either as the cost or the price for borrowing money, but these notions are partly true. If interest is a cost for the borrower is also an income for the lender. On the other hand by defining interest as a “price” we are lead into thinking that it varies inversely to the money quantity. This is what the monetary theory of the interest holds. Despite some appearance of truth it is a fallacious doctrine because being also the interest a quantity of money paid or collected against a loan it varies in direct proportion to the quantity of money. For example, if a loan was $100 earning $5, and the money supply doubled, it will rise to $200 earning $10. Interest must double to make loans equivalent (in fact: 5/100=10/200) although in percentage remains unchanged. If anything, other things being equal, an increase of money supply causes interest to rise, not to fall, for the “price of money” is not interest but money purchasing power. Furthermore the definition of interest as the price for money obscures the fact that what is exchanged in a loan is not money but present money against future money, namely credit. Credit is the temporary transfer of wealth or purchasing power from one person to another upon payment of interest. Since purchasing power is wealth and wealth producing income is capital, the rate of interest is the income paid for the use of capital. But what is used is not “abstract capital” because there is not a generic demand for capital, otherwise there would be no difference between the interest rate and the discount rate, but between the money market and the capital market. When a person asks for a loan for consumption he is not asking for capital but for money as means of payment. Who discounts bills or notes does not need capital he already has in some form or another, he wants to transform it in a more liquid form. Ultimately he needs “liquidity” not to expand his capital or business but to anticipate its monetary form. Because most businesses due to seasonal fluctuations cannot be conducted on a cash basis they need credit or liquidity just to compensate these fluctuations. The price for the temporary use of liquidity is the rate of discount. It doesn’t represent interest on capital but a rent, as it were, measuring the value of the money services namely for specific services: making the flow of the production smooth, keeping solvency or allowing specific profits in money transactions. The whole all transactions involving transfers of liquidity used to increase the marketability of all the forms of wealth  as to render them more fluid, form the money market. Here money is invested without losing its form, without turning itself into capital which is the money income employed in production. However, liquidity emerging as cash surpluses to fund cash balances deficits, is always grounded on capital operations and being limited by the use of  capital depends on the rate of interest.

Interest and capital

While the rate of discount concerns money or short term credit to anticipate the monetary form of real capital, the rate of interest concern the money or long term credit to extend real capital. So it is a long rate not a discount rate because what is lent is not money but capital (which is wealth employed in view of more future production). Hence the purpose of capital or long credit market is to provide the nexus between savers and borrowers to finance productive investments and expand the economy. Thus interest is the price balancing the supply and demand for money capital. An increased supply competing for borrowers pushes down the interest. An increases demand competing for lenders pushes up interest. The interaction supply/demand establishes the rate of interest at the point where the lenders rate of time preference tends to equal the borrowers rate of profit. This is because the use of capital depends on its marginal utility: in the market it is convenient to borrow till the income earned from the use of capital will exceed the cost of its use coinciding with the rate of time preference. So interest is the price of money capital as determined by the interaction between the least productive use and the savers’ return on sacrificing consumption. In practice it oscillates between an upper limit and a lower limit. The former is the rate of profit, otherwise borrowing would not be convenient, and the latter the rate of time preference which represents for the economy as a whole the cost of capital accumulation. This lower limit cannot be zero otherwise lenders would use income directly giving up sacrificing current consumption.

However because the rate of interest reflects the productivity of capital and it’s convenient to borrow until capital yields a positive income, it is the rate of profit that commands the rate of interest. Hence interest may also be defined as the market price of money capital typified by the rate of profit.

To the extent people are provident and have a low time preference, the capital is abundant, the rate of interest is low and long term capital-intensive projects can be undertaken, the economy expands, technological progress advances and wages productivity rises. Conversely, if the time preference is high, capital is scarce, interest higher and more liquid projects prevail. However according to the monetary theory the market rate of interest is typified by the return or yield per year on riskless long term government bonds which are deemed to typify the benchmark for the rate of profit on capital assets. Yet because governments consume instead of producing the bond yield typifies the shifts of income supply towards consumption uses. In fact the lower the bond yield the higher the government consumption and the lesser the capital available for production. Therefore bond yields reflect propensity to consume, in contrast with interests on capital reflecting propensity to invest.

Because capital it is tied up for long time in production and regain its liquid form after the sale of products, the rate of interest has a different economic nature than the rate of discount: while the latter is subject to money fluctuations, the former is less sensitive to them for it gives up its monetary form for an extended period until the time of loan repayment. Moreover by borrowing liquidity one looks at prospects of immediate gain while by borrowing capital one looks at incomes over a longer period of time. In general, the interest rate is higher than the discount rate because being less liquid commands a premium for liquidity. However when production languishes, profits fall, capital withdraws from production, interest falls while discount rate rises as demand for short-term loans rises to preserve liquidity. Interest rises during periods of economic development when present income is sacrificed and invested in capital. Once capital starts to produce new income, interest falls setting the pace for the boom period when discount rises because the higher volume of spending increases demand for money. So in general they vary independently from one another. Although there is a constellation of rates of interest depending on the loan maturities, all tend to a same level. Money capital moves where it is most needed, runs from less profitable assets to more profitable ones and like water flows to find its level. So by continuous market oscillations any capital tends to provide the same income any difference due to the risk.

It’s worth noting that if the liquidity of capital invested is lost for many years it can be regained at any time in the stock exchange by selling shares. However because shares represent titles on already existing capital, their sale does not adds to capital stock and doesn’t affect the rate of interest, rather it adds to liquidity affecting the discount rate.

Other interest rate determinants

Interest as a market price arising from the interaction between the rate of profit and the time preferences governs the price of capital assets as well as their allocation other things being equal. In fact, because the rate of profit arises in the economic system as a difference between the prices of products and the prices of factors of production to manufacture them, it is affected by these price levels. Fluctuations in these prices cause fluctuations in the rate of profit and as consequence in the rate of interest which is typified by the rate of profit. And because capital assets are determined by discounting their expected returns by interest rates of the same maturities as the life of the capital assets,it follows that all capital allocation in the market is affected by the ratio of demand to supply of both products and factors of production.

However, the value of money is also determined by supply and demand of money. If interest, in essence, depends on real factors such as time preferences, rate of profit and supply and demand, being itself a money sum must logically be dependent on the value of money although indirectly. To explain the emergence of interest the Austrian economist Eugene Bohm Bawerk argued that because present goods due to the time preference worth more than future goods of like kind and quantity, they command a premium over the future goods. In other terms, interest is the discount of future goods as against present goods or the demand price of present goods in term of future goods. However, once goods are priced in term of money, the interest rate becomes a ratio of exchange between present and future money sums and its value may not coincide with the ratio between their physical quantities because of changes occurring in the prices level. If, for example the money supply rises, the value of the expected monetary sum lent falls. Then savers expecting a rise in prices will ask for a higher interest to compensate for the loss in the value of loan capital (this confirms the mistake of monetary theory in claiming that a rise in the money supply lowers interest). Because money affects the value of real capital it’s wrong to assert (as Knut Wicksell did) that a loan might be likened to a temporary transfer of goods repayable in goods rewarded by an interest paid also in goods and determined by the supply and demand of physical goods. Interest cannot be appraised by abstracting from money because as the money value changes so does the value of real factors determining interest, all acting through money. Only if the value of money were constant would the “real” and “monetary” interest coincide.

Interest planned

As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, interest is a category of human action, a primordial phenomenon unlikely to disappear even in the most ideal world. In fact the forces determining interest prevents it from falling permanently to zero or even below. If it were zero saved income could not be exchanged for more future income or to say it differently, the valuation between present and future goods would be at par which may happen only in world where all goods would be free and no capital would be necessary to produce them. If the interest were negative future goods would command a premium on present goods, a reversal of human nature whereby present goods would be valued less than future goods and lenders would have to pay an interest instead of receiving it. The capital would shrink and the economy would regress. Such extreme values which are a little like to the absolute zero in physics, may be only inflicted to interest by exceptional circumstances such as revolutions, seizures, thefts, invasions all situations of great danger when people would prefer to pay a “penal rate” rather than lose their entire capital. Still, in the contemporary economy, similar abnormal situations are artificially created. This is because interest is not commanded by the self generating forces regulating the rate of interest, but by the central banks planned monetary policy closely related to the governments’ fiscal policy.

Central banks set an official or discount rate, a minimum and arbitrary lending rate, the “price for liquidity”, which varies through monetary policy consisting of buying and selling in the open market governments issued bonds against such liquidity. Thus monetary policy acts as a pressure and suction pump alternately decreasing and increasing the quantity of money to push the interest up and down either to keep bonds in the desired relationship with the official rate or to provide a money supply favorable to economic stability and growth. In so doing central banks mimic the natural tendency of interest. For example by expanding money supply during recessions they lower the official rate as this were the after effect of new income streams arising out of foregoing savings required to restore economic growth. The long term rate then changes through expectations towards the official rate: if the latter falls the former is expected to rise and vice versa. However because interests are used to determine the present value of capital assets by discounting their expected income, monetary policy misprices capital assets and misallocate them. This is because the entire interest market structure (the relationship among interest rates influencing prices of income producing assets of different maturity) depends solely on liquidity fluctuations commanded by monetary policy which is completely divorced from the real factors that determine the interest and lay the foundation of liquidity. So not in any sense can the market rate of interest be compared with the one determined by central banks. By ignoring the distinction between money and capital, monetary policy denies the natural function of time preferences and rate of profit confining them to an adaptive role vis-à-vis of their monetary manipulation.

On the other hand because government bonds provide the basis for the money expansion that grows as interest drops, the official rate may be looked upon as a tool of fiscal policy reflecting capital dissipation.This is because central banks pay for these bonds not with income released by foregoing capital operations, but with means of payment they themselves “coin” and lend as they were saved income. This manoeuvre – also known as credit easing – is tantamount to discounting and putting into circulation expected wealth as if it were current wealth, to consume or to use as capital. In other words, central banks by advancing means of payment act as the future were so prosperous as to pledge an ever increasing wealth allowing for their repayment. But the fact is that the most of these means of payment passed off as an existent wealth besides using up, without replacing, the wealth already produced, will never be repaid for they will be misallocated into unproductive uses by a rate of interest not reflecting the existence of money capital but the mere expansion of means of payment that, as already pointed out, should cause interest to rise, not to fall. The paradox is that subsequent rounds of this expansion entail equivalent rounds of waste making capital scarcer and scarcer. Thus economic downturns are just the result of the attempt to create capital on the foundation of monetary policy rather than on the foundation of the real factors determining the rate of interest. Unfortunately, they tend to become permanent to the extent central banks in trying to alleviate them expand money by buying bonds on a huge scale so as to push interest down to zero. But at this level lenders, having no incentive to turn income into capital, will turn capital into income which means they will be living out of their capital until is depleted. As interest vanishes “under the sea level” so does capital till “labour, culture, industry, or commerce will cease to exist” as Turgot predicted long ago.