In the past when borrowers couldn’t pay their debts with interest they became the serfs of money lenders. That’s why interest was often forbidden and called usury. Most people have forgotten about that. But nowadays most money is debt on which interest must be paid. And that is the reason why there are so many problems in the financial system like instability, increasing debt levels, inflation, and central banks having so much power.
Incomes fluctuate but interest payments are fixed. And interest is a reward for risk. So the less a debtor can afford to pay interest, the higher the interest rate will be. The lender is rewarded with a higher interest rate to take that risk. It is therefore not surprising that the financial system is unstable.
Even more importantly, money is loaned into existence and must be repaid with interest. So if the interest rate is 5% and there is € 100 in existence then € 105 must be returned after a year. But where does the extra € 5 come from? There are a few options:
Lenders spend some of their balance so borrowers can pay the interest.
Some borrowers default so a part of the balance is not returned.
Borrowers borrow more.
The government borrows more.
The central bank creates the shortfall out of thin air.
All these things happen and often at the same time. Lenders on aggregate let their capital grow at interest. A few defaulting borrowers are acceptable but too many defaults can easily cascade into a financial crisis and create an economic crisis. The cost of letting the financial system fail is so big that this option is not acceptable. So if no-one else is willing to borrow then the government or the central bank steps in.
That’s why debts continue to grow. That’s why there is inflation. That’s why we have economic crises. That’s why governments are running deficits. That’s why there are financial crises. That’s why we need central banks to save us. That’s why all fixed positive interest rates on money and debts are usurious, even when they are low. The following example can demonstrate that.
Suppose that Jesus’ mother had put a small gold coin of 3 grammes in Jesus’ retirement account at 4% interest in the year 1 AD. Jesus never retired but he promised to return. Suppose now that the account was kept for this eventuality. How much gold would there be in the account in 2020? The answer is an amount of gold weighing 12 million times the mass of the Earth.
A mere 4% yields an incredible amount of gold after 2020 years. Someone has to pay the interest, in this case the people who borrowed money from the bank. If Jesus doesn’t come back to spend his money, that’s impossible. At some point the debtors can’t pay the interest, let alone repay their debts. They can only borrow more or default. Lowering the interest rate doens’t solve the problem. It only postpones the reckoning.
Ending usury by banning interest was never possible. Lending and borrowing would stop or go underground. The capitalist economy requires lending and borrowing so without interest it would never have been possible to build a modern capitalist economy. But interest rates are poised to go negative so it may soon become possible.
Natural Money is interest free money with a holding fee. The holding fee on money makes it attractive to lend out money at negative interest rates. For example, if the holding fee is 10%, lending out money at an interest rate of -2% will save you 8%. Once most interest rates are negative, positive interest rates can be forbidden. That can end reckless lending without producing a financial or economic crisis.
What does ending usury mean? Interest is everywhere. Interest is hidden in taxes, rents, the price of all the products and services you buy. Most pay more interest than they receive. Ending interest will benefit most people as 90% pays interest on balance while only the to 10% richest people receive interest on balance. But there is more to it. A few consequences:
You can’t borrow if your finances are in dire straits. Lending money to people in financial distress shouldn’t be left to the markets.
People and businesses will become less leveraged as there is no incentive to that. Risky ventures will be financed with equity.
The business for banks does’t change much. Borrowing money at -2% to lend it at 0% is as profitable as borrowing money at 2% to lend it at 4%.
Financial engineering will be reduced as financial engineering schemes like LBO’s often involve great leverage.
The economy can find support in the negative interest rate so governments don’t need to go into debt to stimulate the economy.
The maximum interest rate can curb debt creation for as soon as the economy recovers equity investments become more attractive relative to debt.
It can be a blow to political corruption because borrowers need to be trustworthy, and that includes governments, so taxes must cover government expenses.
This is not austerity as governments don’t pay interest on their debts but instead receive interest on their borrowings.
Ending interest reduces leverage and this can stabilise the financial system and the economye. The holding fee can ensure that the economy will flourish. Money with a holding fee has brought the economy of the Austrian town of Wörgl back to life in the midst of the Great Depression. Ancient Egypt had a financial system with this money for more than 1,000 years. Usury can end very soon and it may never come back.
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The miracle of Wörgl
During the Great Depression people were desperate. In the small Austrian town of Wörgl a new form of money was introduced. This produced an economic miracle.
Is the financial sector overtaking the real economy?
Less than 1% of foreign exchange transactions are made for trading goods and services. More than 80% are made for exchange rate speculation. Every three days an entire year’s worth of the European Union’s GDP of € 13 trillion is traded in the foreign exchange markets.1 So is the financial sector overtaking the real economy?
In the United States financial sector profits grew from 10% of total non-farm business profits in 1947 to 50% in 2010.2 This figure excludes bonuses. It is explosive stuff and the original research has been removed from the Internet. The findings could give us the impression that the financial sector is a big fat parasite that feeds on us. And who would have guessed that?
What a scary monster the financial system has become. This terrible creature could easily wipe out human civilisation as we know it. That nearly happened in 2008. And it can still happen. We are hostage of this monster. It is too big to fail. But what created it? It wasn’t Frankenstein for sure. The answer is already out there for thousands of years. It is interest on money and loans. In the past this was called usury and often forbidden.
The core problem is that incomes fluctuate while interest payments are fixed. This causes instability in the financial system. And if the investment is more risky, lenders demand a higher interest rate, which contributes to the risk. Limiting interest would reduce leverage and make financial system more stable and less prone to crisis.
It’s the usury, stupid!
Fraud in the financial sector contributed to the financial crisis of 2008. To what extent the fraud or the size of the financial sector are to blame is less clear. Financial crises are not a recent phenomenon. They have caused economic crises in the past. For instance, the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent bank failures caused the Great Depression of the 1930s. Back then the financial sector was not as large as it is today and there was no large-scale mortgage fraud. Hence, there must be another cause.
Charging fixed interest rates on debts causes problems as incomes fluctuate. So if some person’s income or some corporation’s profit suddenly drops, interest payments may not be met. When the economy slows down that happens to a lot of people and corporations simultaneously, which makes the financial system prone to crisis. And interest is a reward for risk. Creditors may be willing to lend money to people and corporations that are already deeply in debt, but only if they receive a higher interest rate. So if interest was forbidden, that might not happen, and there could be fewer financial crises.
Banning interest has been tried in the past and it failed time after time. That is because without interest lending and borrowing wouldn’t be possible and the economy would come to a standstill. Until now there was a shortage of money and capital so interest rates needed to be positive, but that may be about to change. The increased availability of money and capital pushed interest rates lower. Money and capital may soon be so abundant that interest rates can go negative. That could be the end of usury.
The scary monsters in the financial system
Apart from exchange rate speculation there are frightening creatures like quantitative easing, shadow banks and derivatives. These things will be explained later in this post. Some experts believe that the financial sector is out of control. That may not be the case. Usury created this monster so Natural Money, which is negative interest rates and a maximum interest rate of zero, could make many of these seemingly hard-to-solve issues disappear, and perhaps shrink financial sector profits too.
Leverage, shadow banking and derivatives make the financial sector so profitable for its operators because of interest and risk. Interest is a reward for risk but interest also increases risk because interest charges are fixed while incomes aren’t. But more risk means more profit for the usurers because all that risk needs to be ‘managed’. That provides opportunities to profit for those who make the deals. Usury is the main cause of financial crises and generates most financial sector profits.
Quantitative easing means that central banks print money to buy debt with this newly created money. Trillions of dollars and euros have been printed so central banks now own trillions in debt. In this way the financial crisis of 2008 was stemmed. Investors and banks wanted to get rid of debts and preferred cash because there was a risk that some of these debts would not be repaid in full. This caused the crisis.
But what if there was a tax of 10% per year on cash and central bank deposits? Losing a few percent on bad debts suddenly doesn’t seem such a bad deal any more. Investors may have kept these debts and the crisis would not have occurred. The losses on bad mortgages turned out to be a lot less than 10% per year. That was also because the crisis was halted with central bank actions like quantitative easing.
If there had been a tax on cash and central bank deposits there would always have been liquidity. The crisis may never have happened in the first place and quantitative easing may not have been needed. And if this tax is going to be implemented in the future, investors may gladly gobble up the debt on the balance sheets of central banks, so that quantitative easing can be undone, and most likely at a profit for the taxpayer.
In order to protect depositors, banks are subject to regulations. Regulations are bad for profits because they limit the risks banks can take. Bankers who were looking for bigger bonuses came up with a scheme that is now called shadow banks. Shadow banks don’t offer deposit accounts to ordinary people so regulations don’t apply. And so shadow banks can take more risk and generate more profits.
A shadow bank borrows money from investors and invests it in products like mortgage-backed securities. A mortgage-backed security is a derivative that looks like a bunch of mortgages. The owner of the security doesn’t own the mortgages themselves, but is entitled to the interest from the mortgages but also the losses when home owners fall behind on their payments. Not owning the mortgages themselves makes trading a lot easier because mortgages involve a lot of paperwork.
Shadow banks can be dangerous because bank regulations don’t apply. Ordinary banks are required to have a certain amount of capital to cushion losses so that depositors can be paid out in full when some loans aren’t repaid. The balance sheet of an ordinary bank might look like the one below:
mortgages and loans
loans to other banks
deposits from other banks
cash, central bank deposits
the bank’s net worth
But shadow banks don’t need to comply to these regulations because they don’t have depositors. And so the balance sheet of a shadow bank might look like this:
short-term lending in money markets
insurance and credit lines
the shadow bank’s net worth
What is so great about shadow banking, at least for bankers? If banks borrow at 2% and lend at 4%, the ordinary bank can make € 1,400,000. The bank’s net worth is € 10,000,000 so the return on investment is 14%. But the shadow bank can make € 10,000,000 and the return on investment is 100%. And you can imagine how great this is for bonuses. Only, if something goes wrong, there is little capital to cushion losses. That’s not a problem for the bankers because by then they have already cashed their bonuses. But it could become our problem as shadow banks can blow up the financial system.
If the loans drop 10% in value because some home owners fall back on their mortgage payments, the capital of the ordinary bank can cushion the loss of € 8,000,000, while the shadow bank goes down in flames leaving an unpaid debt of € 40,000,000. And now we get to the point where financial system blew up. It is the insurance and credit lines part on the balance sheet of the shadow bank. There is no value attached because credit lines so insurances don’t show up on balance sheets or only for a very low amount.
Ordinary banks guaranteed credit to shadow banks just in the case investors like money market funds didn’t want to invest in shadow banks any more. The great thing of credit lines for bankers is that they get a fee for these credit lines while they don’t appear on the balance sheet so that banks don’t have to cut back their lending. When homeowners fell behind on their payments, investors didn’t want to invest in shadow banks any more, and these credit lines had to be used. This means that ordinary banks had to step in and suddenly their capital wasn’t sufficient to cover the losses. Also going down in flames, were the insurers of mortgage-backed securities.
The United States had a government policy of stimulating home ownership. Under the guise of this policy mortgages were given to people who couldn’t afford them. Behind the scenes usury was to blame. If there was doubt whether the borrower could afford the mortgage, a banker could charge a higher interest rate to compensate for the risk. This made the mortgage even less affordable to the borrower. The solution for that problem was giving ‘teaser rates’, meaning that the interest rate was low during the first year so that the home owner could afford the mortgage payments at first. Meanwhile the mortgage was packaged in a mortgage-backed security so the banker was already off the hook when the home owner fell behind on his or her payments.
And there is more. Shadow banks offer higher interest rates to their investors. Shadow banks don’t have a lot of capital so investing in them is a more risky than putting money in a bank account of a regular bank. Investors in shadow banks need a compensation for that risk. That’s no problem because the enterprise is very profitable. It is therefore possible for shadow banks to pay higher interest rates. This might not be possible if interest was forbidden, unless shadow banks had a lot more capital to cover their losses, but that would solve the problem of them being too risky. It is usury that allows for risky schemes like shadow banks to exist.
The multi-trillion-dollar derivatives monster
In 2016 the notational value of all outstanding derivatives is estimated to be $650 trillion. This is the so-called multi-trillion derivatives monster. This figure is more than eight times the total income of everyone in the world.3 Some people are spooked by the sheer size of that number. And indeed, derivatives can be dangerous. In 2003 the famous investor Warren Buffet called derivatives ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’.
Five years later derivatives played a major role in the financial crisis. An improper use of derivatives nearly brought down the world financial system. But derivatives can be useful. Most banks use derivatives to hedge their risks. Banks that managed their risks well using derivatives fared relatively well during the financial crisis compared to banks that didn’t.4 Therefore, derivatives are probably here to stay.
But what about the multi trillion monster? The number is a notational value, not a real value. Derivatives are insurance contracts, often against default of a corporation, a change in interest rates, or home owners falling behind on mortgage payments. You may have a fire insurance on your house to the amount of € 200,000. This is the notational value of the contract. You may pay the insurer € 200 per year. That is the real value of the contract, until something happens, that is.
If your house burns down, the contract suddenly is worth € 200,000. Insurers often re-insure their risks, which is a prudent practice. But re-insurance makes the notational value of the outstanding derivatives increase. So if your insurer re-insures half of your fire insurance to reduce its risk exposure, another contract with notational value of € 100,000 is added to the pile of existing insurance contracts.
So what went wrong? If suddenly half the houses in a nation catch fire because there is a war, insurers go bankrupt. The cause of the financial crisis was many home owners falling behind on their payments at the same time so that insurers of derivative contracts like mortgage-backed securities went bankrupt. The American International Group (AIG) was the largest insurer of these contracts and it was bailed out with $ 188 billion. The US government made a profit of $ 22 billion on this bailout, but only because the financial system wasn’t allowed to collapse.
In a financial crisis a lot of things go wrong at the same time. The financial system can’t deal with a major crisis. If it happens, it may cause the greatest economic depression ever seen, and in retrospect it may herald the collapse of civilisation.
The usury issue
Money circulation in the economy is like blood circulating in the body. It makes no sense for a kidney or a lung to keep some blood just in case the blood stops circulation. The precautionary act makes the dreaded event happen. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A financial crisis is like all parts of the body scrambling for blood at the same time. When the blood circulation stops, a person dies. An if the money circulation stops, the economy dies. Hoarding is to blame for that.
Perhaps big banks are too big to fail. Breaking them up may not help because the banking system is closely integrated. Banks lend money to each other. If a few banks fail then others get into trouble too. And in a crisis all the trouble happens at the same time. So perhaps it is better to address the cause of failure itself, which is interest on money and debts. And it may be possible because interest rates are poised to go negative.
A tax on cash makes negative interest rates possible. It can also keep investors from hoarding money. If money keeps on circulating, there may never be a crisis. The crisis happened because investors scrambled for cash when they feared they might lose money on bad debts. But if they expect to lose more on cash, they might keep their debts. And there may have been fewer bad debts in the first place if there had been no interest on debts as interest is a reward for risk.
Featured image: Graffiti near the Renfe station of Vitoria-Gasteiz. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
1. The rise of money trading has made our economy all mud and no brick. Alex Andreou (2013). The Guardian. [link]
2. The Rise of Finance. Evan Soltas (2013). Economics and Thought. [no link because the information has been removed]
3. Here’s What Makes the Derivatives “Monster” So Dangerous (for You). Michael E. Lewitt (2016). Money Morning. [link]
4. Financial innovation and bank behavior: Evidence from credit markets. Lars Norden, Consuelo Silva Buston and Wolf Wagner (2014). Tilburg University. [link]
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.
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.