This is just another joke about economists. Suppose you just have found a tenner on the street. You are very excited about this windfall so you feel the urge to tell the next person you meet about your find. Now suppose that this person happens to be an economist. And you say: “I just found a tenner on the street.” What do you think the economist will reply? He or she would probably say: “That’s impossible. If there really was a tenner on the street then someone would have picked it up already.”
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is another saying that means more or less the same. Of course there are people who get a lunch for free but in that case someone else has to pay for it, just like someone else has paid for the tenner. According to economics it is impossible to get money for free, and if it is possible then someone will take it as soon as it is there, so there is no money for free for long. But why is this important? If a government makes a law it should not ignore this effect in markets.
Economists call it arbitrage
Assume that gold costs € 50 per gram in France and € 40 per gram in Germany. What will happen? There is money to be made by buying gold in Germany and selling it in France. Hence demand for gold in Germany will go up as will supply in France. According to the law of supply and demand, the price goes up when demand increases and the price goes down when supply increases, so the price in Germany goes up and the price in France goes down until the price is the same in both countries. Economists call this arbitrage
Smuggling is more or less the same. Cigarettes are more expensive in the United Kingdom than in the rest of Europe. There is money to be made by smuggling cigarettes into the United Kingdom and selling them there illegally. The price difference promotes the smuggling. If a government introduces legislation that affects the price of goods and services it should take into account that their measures can illicit smuggling and black markets. The difference between arbitrage and smuggling is that arbitrage is legal.
That’s also why it is so hard to end smuggling. If cocaine costs € 10 per gram in Colombia and € 70 per gram in the United States, there is a lot of money to be made in the trade. That’s why the War on Drugs is a failure and why there is so much violence in South America. It may be better to regulate lesser harmful drugs like canabis in the way it is done with alcohol and cigarettes. The use of harmful drugs could be seen as a medical issue and addicts could be helped rather than left on the streets. It was also a reason to deregulate financial markets. It would be hard to end gold smuggle if there are price differences between countries.
The essence of trade
A tenner is more likely to be found in places where others don’t look. That’s why Wall Street firms hire the brightest minds on the planet to find these places. For instance, Apple stock may be for sale for € 150 in Australia while in Germany the stock is doing € 151. And you must be faster than everyone else once there is a tenner on the street if you want to be the one who picks it up. Hence, Wall Street firms pay huge sums of money to have the fastest computers and networks.
So once a tenner falls out of your pocket, Wall Street has already picked it up long before it hits the street. They may even look inside your pocket and pick the tenner before it falls. So if you try to sell your Apple stock for € 150 and someone else is willing to pay € 151, Wall Street banks with their fast computers and networks snatch away the stock you offer for € 150 and immediately sell it to the other person for € 151.
You can call this theft but it is the essence of trade. The ancient Greeks already knew this. Their god for the traders was also the god for the thieves. Trade sometimes coincides with questionable ethics and the difference between trade and theft is sometimes obscure. But trade is useful. It performs the following functions in society:
Goods are produced in one place and consumed elsewhere so trade bridges distance.
Goods are produced first and consumed later so trade bridges time.
Goods are produced in certain quantities and demanded in other quantities so trade matches volume.
Trade is about information. A successful trader has better or more timely information. For instance, if you know that a product is successful before others know it, you can buy the stock of the corporation making the product before others do and make a profit by buying the stock cheap and selling it at a higher price. Financial markets are riddled with schemes like that. A way to combat theft disguised as trade is to make markets more transparent, which more or less means that everyone can have the same information at the same time, which more or less means that there will never be a tenner on the street just like the economist says.
Tenners can be found on other places too. If the interest rate in one country is lower than in another country, you can make a profit by borrowing money in the first country lending it in the second country. Economists call this a carry trade. You might expect that like the price of gold, interest rates would converge, but that doesn’t always happen because most countries have their own currency. For instance, interest rates in Japan have been near zero for decades while they were higher in the rest of the world, so there was a massive borrowing of Japanese yen. These yen were exchanged into other currencies and lent at higher interest rates.
It is attractive to borrow yen at 1% and lend dollars at 5% and pocket the difference. Normally this difference would not exist for long because the interest rate in yen would rise because of the demand for borrowing in yen. But the Japanese government didn’t allow this to happen. The central bank kept on lending yen at 1% because the Japanese economy was slow and there was no inflation. The Japanese government didn’t like the yen to rise because that would hurt their exports so they allowed it to happen. The carry trade has been very profitable for bankers around the world for nearly two decades. In a sense the Japanese central bank was throwing away massive amounts of money, but not on the street.
Throwing money at the banks
Government and central bank interventions in the markets like setting interest rates have undesired side-effects. Central banks are throwing money around and much of it ends up in the pockets of bankers. Somehow this appears to be necessary. That is because most money is debt created by banks. On this debt interest must be paid. So if you borrow € 100 and the interest rate is 5% you have to return € 105 after a year. But where does the extra € 5 come from? Here are the options:
Someone else is going to borrow € 105 so you can repay you loan.
You are not going to repay your loan (in full).
The government is going to borrow the extra € 5.
The central bank prints the € 5 out of thin air.
Usually these things happen at the same time. If people do not borrow enough, other people can’t repay their loans, banks go bankrupt and a lot of people lose their money, so governments step in and borrow. And if no-one is willig to lend to the government anymore, central banks create money out of thin air. Letting things crash isn’t an option. That could result in an economic depression. And an economic depression is very, very bad.
The prospect of a an economic depression scares the hell out of central bankers. And so they are throwing money at banks to fix any serious shortfall that might occur, usually before it materialises. The extra € 5 has to come from somewhere. So if no-one goes into debt to pay for the interest then the central bank feels obliged to create the € 5 out of nothing. That’s why central banks are called the lenders of last resort. They exist to save the economy from the banks and their scheme of usury and in doing so they save the banks and their scheme of usury. On the bright side, ending usury might solve these problems, perhaps once and for all.
Featured image: A tenner on the street. Free Shutterstock image from Blackday.
When I was eighteen years or so I once read The Limits of Growth. That’s depressing stuff, most notably if you’re young and expect to live for another sixty years or so. Doom seemed imminent and I would probably live to see it happen. That was the moment when my views about the future turned grim. Before that I hardly had views about the future at all. A few years later I became an environmentalist and a member of Friends of the Earth in Groningen. Friends of the Earth does research and tries to convince people that they should change their lifestyles. Friends of the Earth also lobbies with politicians and pressures corporations. And sometimes we protested.
One day we blocked the entrance of Groningen Airport to protest against the government subsidies for the airport. The city council felt that Groningen needed an airport but Groningen wasn’t big enough to make it profitable. When we were sitting there, the police came to remove us, and it suddenly became clear to me that activism didn’t help. Politicians will be voted out of office when they are serious about solutions. Businesses will go bankrupt if they take appropriate action unless all other businesses do the same. The required measures are extremely costly and will affect our lifestyles so profoundly that it would never happen in the current political and economic system.
Once being over a cliff, a cartoon character can only clutch at a straw. And only in cartoons the straw might hold. Friends of the Earth in Groningen worked together with the Strohalm Foundation. The meaning of the Dutch word strohalm is straw. According to Strohalm, the economy must grow because of interest, and that’s destroying the planet. It is ‘grow-or-die’ because interest rates need to be positive. Any solution begins with ending interest, they believed, and interest causes a lot of other problems too, like poverty and financial instability. Strohalm’s idea was banning interest and charging a fee on money as Silvio Gesell had proposed, so that it would be attractive to lend out money without interest.
Economists didn’t take interest-free money seriously. If you can receive interest elsewhere then why would you lend out money without interest? And if you can borrow money at an interest rate of zero, you would borrow as much as you can and put it in a bank account at interest. Therefore, interest-free money with a holding tax would never work, at least so it seemed, and it didn’t take long before I realised that too. Only, that wasn’t satisfactory. Accepting doom is like committing suicide. If interest is the root of many social and environmental problems, and may destroy human civilisation, you can’t ignore that. And perhaps it could work. During the Great Depression it had been tried in a small Austrian village and it was a stunning success.
For years I used public transport as much as possible, but at some point I began to realise that it was all pointless. More and more people started driving SUV’s. They didn’t care. It didn’t matter what I do. A car can make your life more comfortable and I had no higher morals than other people.
A few years later, in 1998, I became a freelance IT specialist. I made a lot of money so I had money to invest. My first investments were small and not very successful. That was because I believed that the profits of corporations matter. But investments in loss-making internet startups did very well while profitable corporations did poorly. And so I came to believe that I had to stay informed about the developments in the financial markets. In 2000 I joined the investment message board Iex.nl.
On the message board was a day trader who shared all kinds of conspiracy theories with us. For instance, if the markets were about to collapse, a secret group called Plunge Protection Team would come to the rescue. He was ridiculed, but after the internet bubble popped, markets often miraculously recovered when they were about to crash.
And gold often crashed because of sudden selling. The day trader believed central banks wanted to keep confidence in their currencies. If the gold price were to rise, he claimed, people would lose trust in central bank currencies. This was new to me, and probably it wasn’t true, but I already had bought some gold because I didn’t trust financial markets and the people operating them. I was not good picking stocks, and I was too risk averse to be very successful in the stock market, but the gold turned out to be a good investment as I held on to it for decades.
In 2001 after the Internet bubble had popped I pitched the idea of interest-free money on the message board. My lack of knowledge was eclipsed by my zeal and lengthy discussions followed. On the Internet people from different backgrounds and different knowledge can be in one virtual room and participate in a discussion. I was rebutted time after time, but as these discussions went on, my knowledge of the financial system increased and I became aware of the issues that had to be resolved in order to make interest-free money work.
As a gold investor I became familiar with the Austrian School of Economics. This group questions money creation by banks and the need for central banks. They pointed at the inflation caused by money creation and central banks. At some point all the debt banks create would eventually collapse the financial system and money would be worthless, they believed.
And so two opposing fringe ideas, interest-free money with a holding tax and Austrian School, were challenging each other in my mind, which may be how Hegelian dialectic is supposed to work. In 2008 this resulted in a resolution and the idea of Natural Money was born. The economy can do better without interest so returns for investors can be higher. As positive interest rates are not allowed, the money may rise in value, so that interest-free money can give better returns. Hence, interest-free money was possible, perhaps even inevitable. In the following decade I integrated modern main stream economics into the theory of Natural Money. This research can be found on the website Naturalmoney.org.
There is a relationship between the amount of capital in a market economy, wealth inequality, savings, the level of debt, and interest rates. If an economic depression or a world war can be avoided, this relationship may decide the future of interest rates, and interest rates may go negative. If this makes you yawn, you have read the message already, and you can proceed with more exiting ventures like checking out what your friends are doing on Facebook or Instagram.
If instead you are thrilled by the idea of knowing more about this relationship, you may continue reading. Interest rates are the result of supply and demand for money and capital. Money and capital differ from consumer goods like coffee and services like haircuts. Money is a medium of exchange. You use money to buy and sell consumer goods and services. And capital isn’t consumer goods or services either. Capital is used to make these consumer goods and services. Hence supply and demand for money and capital need a separate explanation.
The price of money
A kilogram of coffee might cost € 7 in France and $ 8 in the United States. But what does that mean? Is coffee more expensive in the United States than in France? That entirely depends on the price of the dollar and the euro. If one dollar is worth € 0.80 then $ 8 is € 6.40, which is less than € 7. The price of the euro and the dollar change every day because of changes in supply and demand in the market for euros and dollars. But the price of euros and dollars is not the price of money, at least according to economists.
When economists talk about the price of money, they do not mean the price of dollars and euros. They talk about the interest rate. The supply and demand for money and capital determine the interest rate, hence the interest rate is the price of money. This price has a relation with the returns on capital because investments in capital are an alternative to lending. Money isn’t produced and consumed like coffee. If you borrow money, you may have to return it with interest. Borrowers may pay for the use of money, not for the money itself.
There are people and corporations that have savings as well as people and corporations that need money for consumption or investment. So there is supply and demand for money. But what determines the supply and demand for money and therefore the interest rate? It begins with the choice people have when spending their income. They can choose between consumption and saving. Savings can be used for investments in corporations to make products and services in the future.
Consumption versus investment
Economists sometimes use a simple model consisting of only households and businesses to explain things like consuming and saving. Households consume the stuff businesses make. In order to make that stuff, businesses need investment capital provided by households from their savings. It is important to notice that some households borrow and some businesses save, but on balance households save while businesses borrow to invest.
Households can do two things with their income. They can either use it for buying stuff, which is consumption, or save so that businesses can invest. For example, if you are a plumber and need to buy a new van for your business, which is an investment, you may have to forego a new car for your family, which is consumption, to save money for the van. You could also borrow the money for the van so that you can buy the family car too, but in that case someone else has to save so that you can borrow.
If people spend a lot of money on consumption, businesses sell a lot of stuff and make great profits. Businesses may be willing to invest so that they can sell even more and make even more profits. But if there are only a few savings because people spend a lot of money on consumption, so businesses might fear they can’t borrow and may be willing to pay higher interest rates, so that interest rates go up.
When interest rates go up, some businesses may abort their investment plans as they don’t expect to make enough money to pay for the interest. At the same time, more households may be willing to save. So when interest rates go up, the demand for money goes down and the supply of money goes up.
On the other hand, if households save a lot of money and do not consume, there are a lot of savings, but businesses are not willing to invest because they have trouble selling stuff and making profits. In that case households fearing that they don’t receive interest on their savings are willing to lend at lower interest rates, and interest rates go down. But how do households choose between consuming and saving?
Economists believe that your choice between saving and borrowing depends on your time preference as well as the interest rate. Time preference is your willingness to forego your needs or desires in the present in order to fulfil your needs or desires in the future. An example can illustrate this. Assume that you want to buy a new car. You want that new car now but you don’t have the money. You can either wait and save to buy the car later or you can borrow to buy the car now.
Assume the car costs € 10,000. If the interest rate is 10%, you may realise that borrowing money to buy the car will cost you dearly. If you pay back € 1,000 each year, you repay the loan in 10 years. Over that period you pay € 5,500 in interest so the car will cost you € 15,500 instead of € 10,000. The alternative is to wait and save money to buy the car.
If you can manage saving € 1,500 per year and the interest rate on savings is also 10%, you could buy the car after less than six years. But then the car only costs you € 8,250 because you receive € 1,750 in interest. At an interest rate of 10% borrowing money to buy this car costs nearly twice as much as saving.
That may convince you to save and drive your old car for six more years. If the interest rate is lower, you may find borrowing more attractive than saving because you would rather have the new car now. Your time preference tells how strong your desire is to have the car now rather than later. It determines the interest rate you are willing to pay. Not surprisingly, different people have different time preferences.
Time preferences affect interest rates. Suppose that you want to borrow money for a new car. Suppose that you can only borrow the money from John. John has € 10,000 but he wants to buy a car too. Time preferences are going to decide whether or not John is going to lend you this money. If your time preference is 7% and John’s time preference is 5%, he will keep his old car for a while and lend the money to you. He may do this because he expects to buy a bigger car once you have repaid your loan with interest.
The interest rate could be anywhere between 5% and 7% depending on your and John’s negotiating skills. You won’t borrow at interest rates above 7% and John won’t lend at interest rates below 5% but any interest rate between 5% and 7% is acceptable to both you and John. In this way time preferences affect interest rates.
When interest rates go down, more people may borrow and fewer people may save because of their time preferences. If the interest rate is 4%, John may buy that bigger car now and borrow the money to buy it. If the interest rate is 8%, you would save to buy the car. When interest rates rise, more people may opt for saving instead of borrowing. The interest rate may move to where supply equals demand, which depends on the time preferences of lenders and borrowers but also on the demand for investment capital.
Time preference only works for ordinary people. There are other people too. They are called capitalists. You probably have heard about them. Capitalists think differently. They suffer from a condition called capitalist spirit, which is having little or no time preference. Capitalists think that money spent on a frivolous item is money wasted, because when you invest your money, you end up with more money that you can invest again.
Capitalists save regardless of the interest rate. They rather invest in the distant future when they are dead than spoil their money on frivolous items during their lifetimes. Consequently capitalists end up with a lot of money when they die. What’s the point of that? Capitalists invest in businesses that make the frivolous items ordinary people enjoy. Ordinary people wouldn’t have invested their money, but spent it on frivolous items instead so that these items wouldn’t have been produced in the first place.
Perhaps you think that all capitalists are wealthy. But that isn’t true. Anyone who saves as much as he or she can regardless of the interest rate can be called a capitalist. What is important here, is that the capitalists as a group own most capital, and because capitalists own so much money and capital, and keep on saving and investing, there is a surplus of savings. And if there is a surplus of savings at an interest rate of zero, the interest rate should be negative according to the law of supply and demand.
When you lend money to someone else you can’t use it yourself. There may be a new mobile phone you want to buy, but alas, you have lent out your money. This is not convenient. But then you remember with a smile on your face that you will be able to buy the phone but also an additional hip phone cover next year because you receive interest on that loan. So, if you don’t receive interest on your money, you may not bother lending it out because you may suddenly need it. Interest rates on long-term loans are higher than interest rates on short-term loans because the longer you can’t use your money, the less convenient it is.
When you deposit money at a bank, you lend it to the bank but you can still use it any time. That is possible because when you make payment, for example for legal advice, this money ends up the account of the lawyer. The bank will then be borrowing this money from the lawyer instead until she uses it to pay someone else. This is convenient so you are willing to lend money to a bank. For that reason interest rates on current accounts and checking accounts are low. Having money in a bank account is more convenient than cash so the bank may even charge you for having an account.
Lending out money can be risky. There are two types of risk. First the borrower may not pay back the loan. That could make you reluctant to lend. So if someone of questionable integrity wants to borrow money from you, and you fear that she may not pay back, she could offer you a very high interest rate so that you might think, ‘Well, she may not pay back, but the interest rate is very attractive, so I’ll take my chances and do it anyway.’
Second, money may become worth less in the future. This is called inflation. If there’s a lot of inflation then the money that buys a mobile phone today may only buy a phone cover next year. In that case you may spend your money right away on a mobile phone before it is too late. That is unless someone wants to borrow the money from you and offers a very high interest rate, so that your can buy a better model next year.
The business of a bank is to know its customers. For that reason lending money to a bank is less risky than lending out money to an individual or a corporation. And because banks are supposed to be good at managing risk, they can borrow at lower interest rates, meaning that interest rates on bank accounts are lower than those on loans.
And because banks know their customers and lend to many different people, they can manage risk better than you can and lend at lower interest rates than you are willing to because if you lend money to a someone you don’t know, you may desire a higher interest rate because you don’t know whether he or she is going to repay the loan.
Returns on investments
If you have money, you could invest it in corporations or real estate. Corporations pay dividends and real estate pays rent. If the rents and dividends are higher than the interest rate you get by lending out your money, you may prefer investing to lending. But investing is more risky than lending. If sales are sluggish, profits may go down and dividends may be cut, but lenders still get their interest. Nevertheless investments are an alternative to lending, so if investments offer better yields, you may opt for investing.
If someone wants to borrow money from you, the interest rate must be high enough otherwise you may invest this money instead. Other people who have money are in a similar position. Borrowers need to offer attractive interest rates in order to be able to borrow. Similarly, if dividends and rents are low, people with money may prefer lending to investing, so that borrowers can negotiate lower interest rates. In this way the returns on investments affect interest rates on loans.
The type of money used
The properties of money can affect interest rates. Just imagine that apples are money and you are saving to buy a house. If someone wants to borrow 1,000 apples from you, and promises to repay those 1,000 apples after 10 years when you plan to buy your house, you would gladly accept this generous offer. You may even accept an offer of 900 apples because that is better than letting your apples rot. In this case you would settle for a negative interest rate. But you would only do so if there are no alternatives.
If you could make 10% per year in the stock market, you could exchange your apples for Apple stock because their gadgets are in great demand and outrageously expensive. In that case, it doesn’t matter that apples rot and you could demand interest on a loan. But if returns on the stock market are low or when stock prices are fluctuating so wildly that you can’t sleep at night, you may prefer the offer of 900 apples.
If the money had been gold, you would never accept such an offer, even when the stock market is doing terrible. You can always keep your gold in a safe deposit box. Similarly, you wouldn’t accept negative interest rates on euros or dollars because you can take your money from the bank and store the bank notes in a safe deposit box. The problem with this is that if you put money in a safe deposit box, other people can’t use it for buying and selling stuff. And this can cause an economic depression.
It is often said that central banks set the interest rate. But how do they do that? Central banks can print money. If central banks believe that the interest rate is too high, they print more money so that there is additional supply and interest rates go down. On the other hand, if central banks believe that the interest rate is too low, they print less money so that interest rates go up. If the central bank says that it sets the interest rate to 3%, this means that it will print precisely enough money to keep the interest rate at 3%.
Why do central banks print money? Money isn’t produced and consumed like coffee. If you borrow money, it has to be returned with interest. Most money is debt so where does the interest come from? Capitalists let their money grow on their bank accounts so the money to pay the interest from must come out of thin air. Individual borrowers may be able to repay their debts with interest but on aggregate borrowers can’t.
More money needs to be borrowed to pay for the interest. That’s why the total amount of debt increases each year. And if people aren’t borrowing enough, the central bank may print more money to prevent a financial crisis.
Sometimes people don’t borrow enough to keep the economy going and sometimes they borrow too much so that the economy is overheating. Central banks adapt their money printing to prevent these things from happening. Central banks raise interest rates and print less money (or stop printing money or even destroy money) when they want people and businesses to borrow less and they lower interest rates and print more money when they want people and businesses to borrow more.
The future of interest rates
Interest rates went down because capitalists acquired more and more capital over the years and kept on saving and investing regardless of the interest rate. In the past returns on capital have mostly been higher than the economic growth rate while most returns were reinvested so that a growing part of total income was for capitalists. As capitalists reinvested most of their capital income, this is not sustainable in the long run.
The graph above shows how total income and capital returns (in red) develop if the economic growth rate is 2%, the return on capital is 5%, capital income starts out as 10% of total income, and all capital income is reinvested. After 25 years the economic pie has grown faster than interest income and more is available for wages. At some point interest income starts to rise faster than total income, and less becomes available for wages. And after 80 years there’s nothing left for wages.1
This graph explains a lot about what is going on in reality. When wages started lagging, people couldn’t afford to buy all the stuff corporations made. As a consequence business profits, which is capital income, went down. In the short run it was possible to prop up business profits by allowing people go into debt to buy more stuff. But at some point people couldn’t borrow more unless interest rates went down. As capital income went down, capitalists became willing to lend money at lower interest rates, allowing people to borrow more to buy stuff. As interest rates went lower, more and more people went into debt because interest rates moved below their time preferences.
Nowadays most people are borrowing from the capitalists, for instance via mortgages, car loans, and credit cards, but also via governments as governments borrow from the capitalists too. Many people and governments can’t afford to borrow more. Interest rates are already near zero and may need to go negative if the law of supply and demand is going to do its job. In that case capitalists may start handing out money to the rest of us so that we can keep on buying the stuff their corporations make.
Capitalists may only lend at negative interest rates if money is like apples and not like gold.2 When interest rates are negative, people may buy land or real estate so that the prices of these properties may rise. Property taxes are often based on the value so properties may become less attractive at higher prices. Alternatives are gold or bitcoin, but at some point gold or bitcoin may become so expensive that the risk of losing money on these investments could deter people from buying more. Nevertheless, these alternatives put a constraint on how low interest rates can go. Interest rates must remain attractive for investors.
1. The End Of Usury. Bart klein Ikink (2018). Naturalmoney.org. [link]
2. Feasibility Of Interest-free Demurrage Currency. Bart klein Ikink (2018). Naturalmoney.org. [link]
Imagine that Jesus’ mother had put a small gold coin weighing 3 grammes in Jesus’ retirement account at 4% interest just after he was born in the year 1 AD. Jesus never retired but he promised to return. Suppose now that the account was kept for this eventuality. Imagine now that the end is near, and that Jesus is about to return. How much gold would there be in the account in 2018?
It is an amount of gold weighing 11 million times the mass of the Earth. The yearly interest would be a gold nugget weighing 440,000 times the mass of the Earth. There is a small problem, a fly in the ointment so to say. It would be impossible to pay out Jesus because there simply isn’t enough gold.
It might seem that the bank had to close long ago because of a lack of gold, but that isn’t true. As long as Jesus doesn’t show up it can remain open, at least if the borrowers are allowed to borrow more to pay for the interest. If the economy grows 4% it may not be such a big deal. The interest can be created out of thin air by making new loans that allow borrowers to pay for the interest. And if Jesus doesn’t claim his gold when he returns and accepts bank credit, everything will be fine.
There is a limited amount of gold while compound interest is infinite. As long as bankers can create money out of thin air to pay for the interest and people accept bank deposits for payment, everything is fine. Problems only arise when people demand real gold. A bank can go bankrupt when depositors want to take out their deposits in gold.
Perhaps Jesus’ retirement account isn’t such a big problem after all. Our money isn’t gold but currencies central banks can print. Assume now that Jesus’ mother had put one euro in the account instead. One euro at 4% interest makes 22,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 euro after 2017 years. That may seem an intimidating figure, but the European Central Bank can take 22 pieces of paper and print 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 euro on each of them. And there you are. Something like this happened during the financial crisis of 2008. This is called quantitative easing. You may have heard that word before.
Central banks can print new dollars and euros to cope with a shortfall. In fact, this is what central banks often do. There is always a shortfall because of interest because most money is debt and interest on this debt needs to be paid. To make up for the shortfall, there are two options. First, people can borrow more. Second, central banks can print new currency. Both things can happen at the same time. Central bank decisions about interest rates are also about dealing with the shortfall caused by interest charges.
When central banks lower interest rates, people can borrow more because interest rates are lower. Central banks lower interest rates when people are borrowing less than is needed to cope with the shortfall. If central banks raise interest rates, people can borrow less because interest rates are higher. Central banks raise interest rates when people are borrowing more than is needed to cope with the shortfall and the extra money makes people want to buy more stuff than can be made. And if people don’t borrow at all, this is a crisis, and central banks may print more currency to cope with the shortfall.
Interest on capital versus economic growth
There is a problem central banks can’t fix by printing more currency. Interest is more than just interest on money. Interest is any return on investment. Throughout history returns on investments were mostly higher than the rate of economic growth. Most of these returns have been reinvested so a growing share of total income was for investors. This can’t go on forever because who is going to buy the stuff corporations make in order to keep these investments profitable? A simple example can illuminate that.
The graph above shows how total income and interest income (in red) develop with an economic growth rate of 2% and an interest rate of 5% when interest income starts out as 10% of total income and all interest income is reinvested. After 25 years the economic pie has grown faster than interest income and wages have risen. At some point interest income starts to rise faster than total income, and wages go down. After 80 years there’s nothing left for wages. This graph explains a lot about what is going on in reality.
In the short run it was possible to prop up business profits and interest rates by letting people go further into debt to buy more stuff. In the long run, the growth rate of capital income cannot exceed the rate of economic growth. Interest rates depend on the returns on capital so this can explain why interest rates went down in recent years. In the past interest rates below zero weren’t possible but from time to time there were economic crises and wars that destroyed a lot of capital. This created new room for growth.
Wealth inequality and income inequality
When interest rates go down, the value of investments tend to rise. If savings yield little this benefits the wealthy as most people have their money in savings while the wealthy own most investments. But it is important to know the cause otherwise you might think that interest rates should rise. The graph above shows that wealth inequality causes interest rates to go lower, hence redistributing income, for example via higher wages or taxes on the wealthy, can bring higher interest rates.
There is a difference between wealth inequality and income inequality. Your labour income and the returns on your investments are your income. If you are rich but make no money on your investments, your wealth doesn’t contribute to your income. In reality wealthy people make better returns on their investments than others because they have better information and can take more risk. Still, the graph shows that income and wealth inequality can’t increase indefinitely, and that returns on investments can’t exceed the reate of economic growth in the long run, hence interest rates need to go lower.
Most people pay more interest than they receive. The interest paid on mortgages and loans is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Interest is hidden in rents, in taxes because governments pay interest on their debts, and the price of every product and service because investments have to be made to make these products and services. German research has shown that 80% of the people pay more in interest than they receive, while only the top 10% of richest people receive more in interest than they pay. Lower interest rates benefit most people despite some side-effects that work in the opposite direction.
Humans are herd animals. They buy stuff and even go into debt to buy stuff when others are going into debt to buy stuff too. Suddenly they may realise that they have bought too much or have gone too deeply into debt, and all at the same time. One day they may be borrowing money, queueing up before the shops, and bidding up prices. The next day, they may decide to pay off their debts, leaving the shop owners with unsold inventories they have to get rid of at fire sale prices. So prices may go up when people are in a buying frenzy and may go down when sales dry up.
When there is a buying frenzy business owners are optimistic and do a lot of investments, and often they go into debt to make those investments. But if suddenly customers disappear, they may be stuck with unsold inventory and debts they cannot repay. Businesses may then have to fire people. Those people are then left without income, and cannot repay their debts too, so sales will go down further. If their debts are not repaid, banks could get into trouble. In most cases the economy will recover. In the worst case banks go bankrupt, money disappears, the economy collapses, and an economic depression takes off.
Interest can make things worse. Assume that you have a business and expect to make a return of 8%. You have € 100,000 yourself and you borrow € 200,000 at 6%. You expect to make 8% so borrowing money at 6% seems a good idea. If you only invest your own € 100,000 you can make € 8,000, but if you borrow an additional € 200,000 you can make € 12,000 (8% of € 300,000 minus 6% of € 200,000, which is € 24,000 minus € 12,000). The balance sheet of your business might look like this:
cash, bank deposits
If sales disappoint and you only make a return of 2% on your invested capital of € 300,000, which is € 6,000, you make a loss because you pay € 12,000 in interest charges. You may have to fire workers. Businesses can go bankrupt because they have borrowed too much and have to pay interest, even when they are profitable overall. Sales often disappoint when the economy fares poorly. This means that more businesses face the same difficulties and make losses because of interest payments. They may have to fire workers and these workers lose their income. This can worsen the slump.
Interest, economic depressions and war
Silvio Gesell discovered that interest rates can’t go below a certain minimum because lending would then stop. Money would go on strike as he put it. Why is that? Low yields make investing and lending money unattractive because of the risks involved. Debtors may not repay and banks may go bankrupt. Depositors then prefer to take their money out of the bank and keep it with themselves.
This can cause economic crises and depressions. Silvio Gesell lived around 1900. Interest rates below zero weren’t possible because of the gold standard. Depositors could go to the bank and withdraw their deposits in gold so that they didn’t have to accept negative interest rates. From time to time there were bank runs, economic crises and wars that destroyed a lot of capital. And this created new room for growth.
There may be a relationship between interest, economic depressions and war. In 1910 the amount of capital income (the red circle in the graph) relative to total income (the two circles together) was close to what it was in 2010. This could have led to an economic depression but then came World War I. The war destroyed a lot of capital so that there was new room for capital growth and interest rates could remain positive.
A few decades later the Great Depression arrived. If interest rates could have gone below zero in the 1930s, the Great Depression might not have happened, Adolf Hitler would not have risen to power and World War II would not have occurred. The currency of Wörgl demonstrates that negative interest rates could have ended the depression. After World War II interest rates never came near zero again. Governments and central banks printed more money. This caused inflation, which eroded trust in money.
People feared that inflation would make their money worth less so interest rates rose. In the 1970s the link between money and gold was abandoned because there was a lot more money than there was gold to back it. In the 1980s governments and central banks started policies to bring down inflation and to promote trust in money. As of 1983 interest rates went down gradually as a consequence of a renewed trust in money and central banks. Debt levels rose and interest rates went near zero.
Promoting inflation might not be a good idea. The end result is unpredictable. The best one can hope for is a poor performing economy and a lot of inflation like in the 1970s. But if interest rates rise because lenders lose their trust in money and debts, people may not be able to repay their debts, and the financial system might get into serious trouble. This can cause another great depression or another great war. But if the alternative is negative interest rates, stability and prosperity, then why not opt for that?
Featured image: Of Usury, from Brant’s Stultifera Navis (the Ship of Fools). Albrecht Dürer (1494). Public domain.
There is a story in the Bible about a Pharaoh having bad dreams his advisors could not explain. He dreamt about seven fat cows being eaten by seven lean cows and seven full ears of grain being devoured by seven thin and blasted ears of grain. Joseph explained those dreams. He told the Pharaoh that seven years with good harvests would come followed by seven years with poor harvests. He advised the Egyptians to store food. They followed his advice and built storehouses for grain. In this way Egypt survived the seven years of scarcity.1
The food storage resulted in a financial system. The historian Friedrich Preisigke discovered that the Egyptians used grain receipts for money.2 Farmers bringing in the food received receipts for grain. Bakers who wanted to make bread, brought in the receipts which could be exchanged for grain. According to the Bible, Joseph took all the money from the Egyptians.3
As a consequence the grain receipts may have become money instead. Farmers bringing in grain did get receipts for the grain they brought in. Bakers who wanted to make bread, returned the receipts for which they received grain. The storage costs were settled when the receipts were exchanged for grain, hence the receipts lost value over time. The effect was similar to buying stamps to keep the money valid as happened in Wörgl. The actions of Joseph may have created this money as he allegedly proposed the grain storage and took all the money from the Egyptians.
During the reign of Ramesses the Great, Egypt became a leading power again. Some historians have suggested that Egypt’s wealth during the reign of Ramesses was built upon the grain money. The money remained in circulation after the introduction of coins around 400 BC, until the Romans conquered Egypt. The grain money was stable and survived for more than a thousand years. This suggests that negative interest rates can create a stable financial system and that it may be possible to have negative interest rates forever.
Featured image: Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream. Illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours. Gustave Doré (1866). Public Domain.
1. Genesis 41 [link]
2. A Strategy for a Convertible Currency. Bernard A. Lietaer, ICIS Forum, Vol. 20, No.3, 1990 [link]
3. Genesis 47:15 [link]