Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 25: CAPITALIZATION AND INTEREST - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
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CHAPTER 25: CAPITALIZATION AND INTEREST - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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CAPITALIZATION AND INTEREST
§ 1. Interest subsequent to time-price. § 2. Origin and definition of the term interest. § 3. Interest versus income, or gross versus net interest. § 4. Concealed rate of interest. § 5. Commercial paper. § 6. Mercantile cash discounts. § 7. Long-time loans. § 8. Special markets for money loans. § 9. Capitalization, the clue to the general interest rate. § 10. Time-series of incomes, monetary and non-monetary. § 11. Present dollars and what they can buy. § 12. Blending of the investment premiums into a common rate. § 13. Indicative nature of the interest rate.
§ 1. Interest subsequent to time-price. There remains to consider that form of a price for time which is most prominent in the thoughts of men in the business world, which therefore often is the only form that is recognized—namely, interest on a loan of money, or on credit expressed in terms of money. The buying and selling of anything for a price expressed arithmetically was very unusual until some form of money came into use; and this was particularly true of the sale of timeliness in a barter economy. The loaning of money occurred in the commercial cities of ancient times, but for a long period, in the Middle Ages, was very unusual. The practice again became common in commercial cities of Europe about the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The deepest thinkers from Aristotle (bc 384-322) to Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274 ad) could see nothing in a money-loan but its superficial money-aspect, nothing of its underlying economic nature, and they studied the problem only as one of morals. When, despite all the disapproval of philosophic moralists of church and state, the practice of money loans had become common in commercial circles in cities, the earlier economists began to attempt an explanation of the phenomena. A prevailing rate of premium on money-loans appeared only where money was in use, and therefore at first was deemed to be peculiarly connected with the quantity of money in the country. This idea still widely persists, is indeed the naïve theory of every mind until it is corrected by some economic thought. Some economists began to see that the rate of interest on money-loans was somehow a reflection of the general state of wealth of the community, and was not in the long run dependent on the quantity of money in the community. Behind the problem of the rate on contractual loans was seen to be a more fundamental economic problem of value. The explanation of the problem was, however, still begun in the market for contractual loans, the so-called money market. We, having studied the nature of time-preference and of capitalization, are in a position from which to view money-loans in a different way, and to see them in their true character as merely forms in which time-preference sometimes appears in an economy where money is in general use and borrowing is common in commercial affairs.
§ 2. Origin and definition of the term interest. The term interest,1 applied in the Middle Ages to a payment for the use of a money loan, was first a substitute for the word usury. It was intended, by indicating that the lender had something involved in the business, to soften the general opposition of the church and of public opinion to such agreements.
The word interest will be here defined in its original meaning, still almost universal in business circles, to wit: Interest is the amount paid and received according to a contract for credit given in terms of money. Credit is the postponement of the right of either party in an exchange to require immediate delivery of the price agreed upon. The creditor puts faith (credence) in the promise of the debtor. The rate of interest is the percentage that the interest (usually for one year) makes of the principal. The principal is the amount loaned expressed in dollars as a capital sum estimated apart from the interest. Interest, in this sense, always is a price, and not simply an individual’s estimate. Its amount is always stipulated by a contract between persons (expressed or implied, as either the customary amount or the legal amount specified by statute law). The interest contract may not illogically be looked upon as a special case of the rent contract, the thing rented being a stated amount of money (the standard of deferred payments or things acceptable to the lender as of equal value) and the rent (interest) being a smaller amount of money. Interest is payable at stipulated periods until the money loaned is returned. The expression of the interest as a percentage (rate of interest) is of great practical convenience, permitting as it does payment of parts of the principal and for partial periods of a year without alteration of the contract. Moreover, the expression of interest as a rate per cent of the principal gives to the interest problem an aspect very different from any presented by the rent problem.2
§ 3. Interest versus income, or gross versus net income. The sum paid as interest on a loan and the rate specified contain other elements than a pure time-price. This is recognized constantly in practice and must be observed in theory. Gross interest must be distinguished from net interest. The lender does not, as in most cases of rent, have to make allowance for repairs and for physical depreciation of the objects loaned, for the borrower is bound to return the specific standard of payment; but allowance must be made first for risk, or the chance that the money will not be all returned or paid promptly. Risk and trouble are to interest what depreciation and repairs are to rent. (Chapter 15, section 2.) Money loaned in hazardous ventures must yield a higher contractual rate of interest to offset this, or the true rate realized will, on the average, be less than the market rate. The lender may in the end get either more or less than the usual interest, or even get negative interest through the loss of a whole or a part of his capital. A lender strives in making a number of loans to have the gains cancel the losses, so that the capital may be kept intact, besides yielding a net income (interest).
The lender must also count the cost of placing, supervising, and collecting the loan. A pawnbroker lends only small sums and spends much time and effort to keep at interest a moderate capital. The sum of $5000 loaned for a year in sums averaging $10 represents 500 transactions, yet if placed at 5 per cent it yields an income of but $250 a year.3 While, therefore, the borrower of a small sum may think he is paying an oppressively high rate of interest, the lender may find that the loan nets him a very small rate of income on the investment. Risk, labor, and the various costs of carrying on the business of lending money, are thus costs in exchanging things of different time-periods which are analogous to transportation charges in exchanging things at different places, narrowing the margin of advantage and excluding many from the exchange.
§ 4. Concealed rate of interest. Interest is often concealed under forms which make the real rate greater than the nominal, or apparent, rate. It is well known that usury laws fixing the legal rate of interest are often evaded. A simple method is for the lender to charge a commission for making the loan, or, if the lender is a bank, to charge for a pretended cost of exchange to bring the money from some other city. Sometimes the borrower is required to keep larger deposits with the bank than he voluntarily would, which he does by borrowing and paying interest on a larger sum that he is permitted to use. Again the borrower, in periods of unusual demands for money, may be forced to make a long loan instead of a short one. When a one month’s loan at 10 per cent would meet his need, he may be forced to borrow for twelve months at 6 per cent, during ten months of which time 4 or 5 per cent is the prevailing rate. In these and other ways the real amount and the real rate of interest are made different from those that are expressed.
§ 5. Commercial paper. Interest-bearing loans may be roughly divided into short-time and long-time loans, according as they run for less than a year or for a year or more. In short-time loans the creditor’s claim may rest either on a verbal agreement or on a written promissory note. Short-term interest contracts are implied in a large proportion of the transactions of modern commerce. A considerable number of short-time loans are made for direct enjoyable use to individuals whose money income is delayed or inconveniently apportioned in time. But a far larger number of such loans are made by banks on promissory notes given by manufacturers and merchants, frequently secured by bills of lading for goods that have been shipped to customers or by various other evidences of existing credits. Such documents are called commercial paper, or credit instruments.
§ 6. Mercantile cash discounts. When goods are sold on time (as thirty, sixty, or ninety days) the contract (except in rare cases where the terms are net cash) is an implied interest contract, for it specifies that the full sum shall be charged only when the full time elapses; otherwise the discounts for cash are at various figures, such as 1, 2, or 6 per cent or even higher for payment in ten days (giving time enough to examine the goods), and smaller rates for thirty days or other periods. This virtually makes two or more prices, one to customers that pay cash, and another to those letting bills run. The difference between cash in ten days and a discount of 1 per cent in thirty days is equivalent to a rate of 18 per cent a year on the amount of the bill, and is so great that it is impossible without taking advantage of the discount, for a buyer to carry on a business against strong competition. Such purchases on credit frequently are made, however, not only by dealers in small towns, but sometimes by large mercantile establishments when short of funds. “Slow collections” go along with increasing interest rates and “hard times.”
If the purchaser does not discount his bills, the seller has the choice either of waiting till the account is due and collecting the bills direct from the customers, or of discounting the customers’ acceptances (notes) for ready money at the bank. According to the conditions and needs of the particular business, either method may be chosen. A series of credits is then created, each resting upon the one below: manufacturer A sells goods to manufacturer B, who sells the finished product to the jobber C, who sells it to the retailer D, who sells it to consumer E, and all these credits for the same goods may be in existence at the same time, and every one may be represented by a promissory note that may be discounted at a bank. In most industries there is need for larger capital at the seasons when the product is put upon the market, and ordinarily a large part of these debts are converted into ready funds (discounted) at the banks. The merchant or manufacturer plans his business in the expectation of an average rate of interest at such times, and if it chances that the rate is abnormally high, he has no choice but to go on borrowing and paying the high rate of interest out of the expected profits of his business. This risk of a change in the interest rate is one of the many chances he has to run.
§ 7. Long-time loans. A large part of the debts in modern times are outstanding for a term of years and represent the lender’s purchase of a claim on income from public or private sources. The most familiar form of long-time loan is that made on the security of real estate, which is mortgaged to the lender for the term of the debt. Usually the debtor is obliged to pay the interest either annually or semi-annually, and often, but not always, is permitted to reduce the principal by partial payments. These real-estate mortgages rest on the security of the particular mortgaged wealth, and, unlike most short-time loans in bank, are not obligations resting primarily on the general credit of the borrower. Corporation bonds, issued by railroads and other public utility corporations, which have increased so greatly in recent years, yield an income fixed in advance, and are secured usually by mortgage on the entire property of the corporation issuing them. (The income on some special kinds of “preferred stocks” is so certain as to make them for investors almost the same as bonds, but they are legally not loans, payable at a certain time, but are evidences of ownership.) Another large class of long-time loans are those made by national, state, and local governments. Tens of billions of dollars of public debts are now outstanding, held by private investors in every walk of life.
The contract in the case of each kind of these loans provides for a fixed term after which the borrower must repay or renew, and for a fixed rate on the nominal or par value of the loan. Nearly all the securities (bonds, certificates, evidences of indebtedness) are saleable at a market rate. The incomes are fixed, the selling price (or capital value) fluctuating above or below the nominal sum except just at the moment when the debt falls due.
§ 8. Special markets for money loans. The choice of timeliness is possible in a market along any one of many series of incomes, but in commercial circles trade in timeliness most commonly takes the form of money-loans. Let us see how this would appear. Let lender A offer some dollars at 10 per cent interest (or more); let borrower B be ready to borrow some dollars at 16 per cent (or any less). Then there is a motive for trade (omitting fractions) for a loan at any rate between 15 and 11, let us say 13 per cent. But this motive exists only with respect to certain marginal units of money, not without limits. A could not give up all his control over income during the year for 13 per cent for that would mean greater present deprivation than he chooses to make; B would not borrow much beyond a certain amount even at less than 13 per cent, for he would have to pay interest either for less urgent personal desires (consumption loans) or to get control of incomes which to him will yield a smaller surplus.4
If there are numerous competing would-be lenders and borrowers there is a true lending market. The various preference rates (each regarding successive dollars, viewed with relation to the marginal valuation) unite into hypothetical bidders’ curves (as in the market for commodities, see Chapter 7) and a price results that establishes equilibrium between demand and offer.5 So in a market all the individual bids that are satisfied and enter into the making of the marketprice are modified by trade; the urgent bidder (or bidders) on either side are included on the marginal principle, the units most easily spared being loaned, the units most urgently desired being borrowed. As in the market for objective commodities, so in the market for loans, the valuations of the various individuals within a certain range are thus brought into conformity with the market-price. The earlier isolated valuations cease to be actual; they are, as we look back at them, merely of historical interest, and as we look forward, are only hypothetical, being the rates at which preference would appear under other conditions than the present. (See Chapter 7, section 7.)
Under these conditions the price of loans (expressed as a rate of interest) has to the superficial view an appearance of independence, as if the market for loans were a thing apart from the existing premium involved in capitalization. But this loan market could not exist apart from an existing status of prices. Money borrowed to keep would indeed be barren of any income; it would even cease to be money.6 The representative character of money makes a loan mean to the borrower the loan of whatever use-yielding, or whatever rent-bearing, agent can be bought with the amount of money borrowed; and makes it mean to the lender parting with the purchasing power to buy goods at their present prices. The loan market is meaningless and motiveless, if it be thought of as cut off from the existing system of prices (capitalization).
§ 9. Capitalization, the clue to the general interest rate. In agreeing to pay interest at a certain rate, the borrower is obviously selling to the lender the right to collect a series of future money incomes including the return of the principal, and is in return buying a present sum of money. The principal is the result of capitalizing the incomes, so discounted that they will emerge at the rate of interest specified on the investment of capital. A thousand dollars at 5 per cent will yield an income of $50 a year until the principal is repaid. The loan is in perpetuity unless a date of payment is named. The form of the loan at interest plainly is that of the exchange of a larger (future) sum of money for a smaller (present) one. From ancient times this has seemed on the face of things a moral wrong to the borrower and an economic mystery, therefore an economic absurdity. “Money is barren,” said Aristotle, and his thought is often echoed to-day in communistic arguments against the loan of money at interest. “The borrower pays interest and agrees to this unequal bargain because he is made to pay,” is declared on the one side; “he pays because he can afford to pay,” is answered from the other. Both statements may be right yet their very form indicates that the problem is looked upon as one of morality rather than of economics. The borrower doubtless would not make such an agreement unless he chose to do so; his choice, as every choice, may be thought of as due to economic pressure or to economic advantage, as a choice of evils or a choice of benefits. Why must he (can he be made to) pay interest if he is to get the loan? How can he afford to pay interest?
After the foregoing study of time-preference and capitalization we have not far to go to find the explanation of the contractual rate of interest at which incomes are yielded on money loans. No borrower would or could, for long, pay interest on money and let it lie in a chest. What does he do with it? He buys things. Everything he can buy has a price, is capitalized, and the explanation of the interest rate lies in the relation between the price of goods that present money will buy, and the price of the series of incomes which those goods will afford up to the time of the repayment of the loan.
§ 10. Time-series of incomes, monetary and non-monetary. Before ever a money-loan was made, before even money had come into existence in the world, time-preference existed. It lies in the very nature of choice by animals and by savages. (See Chapter 20, section 2.) In many ways it is interwoven into the valuations of every self-sufficing economy in the days of barter. It becomes generalized as a prevailing rate in each individual’s economy and as a price for timeliness in all exchanges of goods and uses of different time-periods. The rate becomes equalized as between different series of uses, as the rate of time-preference and of time-price can not consistently be greatly unequal within any circle where time-choice is possible.7 The use of money in trade gave much greater exactness to this time-price as embodied in goods and to their prices in relation to the times of their use. To-day in the innumerable valuations of many business enterprises where there is no monetary borrowing and lending time-preference expresses itself in the capitalization (price) of the durative agents of the environment. Every loan of money (or of goods in terms of money) at interest therefore occurs where the price of goods already embodies this premium on the present possession. Indeed it is simply this which would give a borrower a motive for a new loan. Here are many different agents and many series of yields, the price of all of them expressed in terms of the money unit (let us say the dollar). The money prices involve the rate of premium on present valuations (and correspondingly a discount on future prices).
§ 11. Present dollars and what they can buy. A present dollar is purchasing power that gives possession of future incomes at discounted prices. The market would present itself something like the (greatly simplified) illustrative table. Whoever has a disposable dollar which he does not need or choose to use for present desires, may either buy something and hold it for the expected increase, or he may by the method of money loans lend it to another person to do the same. It matters not how the dollar happened to be disposable, whether it was stolen, or was received in payment for some other property, or is new savings from interest on other loans, or from wages, etc.; in any case the dollar gets its power of earning interest from this prevailing discount on the future, involved in prices. Because of this fact the owner of a dollar possesses an economic power which he can assign by contract to a borrower. Interest then might be described as the price paid by a borrower for the right to buy goods at discounted prices. Money is a generalized present good, and when loaned at interest is exchanged for the promise of future goods at a ratio reflecting prevailing capitalization.
§ 12. Blending of the investment premiums into a common rate. Now given the existence of these parallel series of time-prices in different lines of agents and products, it follows that they must, so far as exchange takes place among men, tend to embody a common rate. Aside from differences in the difficulty of keeping, ease of management, etc., all these series must, by the law of substitution, be leveled toward a common rate of income. This would include money also, for in its function as a medium of exchange, money will be spent always for the thing which at the moment has the highest value. In the hands of an investor buying money incomes, the money will be spent in the way to buy (other things equal, trouble, risk, etc.) the largest net income. Therefore, the bidding of investors for whichever income is offered at the lowest capitalization tends to level (up or down) the investment-power of a dollar in all the options of present goods offered. The different choices blend, in a variety of ways, into the common rate of which the interest rate is the superficial expression. As happens in the exchange of commodities, the individual valuations vary from the market-price—as a result of different circumstances of age, health, ability for business and liking for it, particular tastes inclining to this or that business, etc. This variation of values from market-price leads men to become borrowers or lenders, in this or that line of investment. The individual takes the marketrate as a fact, and adjusts his own conduct to it.8 Money being at the same time the medium of exchange, the common denominator of prices and the standard of deferred payments, is the unit in which all these valuations are expressed. In one from preëminently, the interest contract, the rate of timepreference comes to a definite arithmetic expression. The rate of interest sometimes appears to be the determining factor, whereas it is but the reflection of the choice of timeliness in the whole economic situation.
§ 13. Indicative nature of the interest rate. We have now before us the broad outlines of the theories of time-value, of capitalization, and of the rate of interest on money-loans. We understand how these are but aspects of the same problem, and how the market-rate of interest (after due allowance for risk and other deductions) registers a prevailing price for timeliness, which pervades the whole economic structure of society. Money is the unit in which capital and interest are expressed, but money is no more their cause than the hands of the clock are the cause of the time of day. And the rate of interest is no more the cause of time-preference than the shadow on the sun dial is the cause of the rotation of the earth on its axis. The interest-rate is but an index of the ratio inherent in the equilibrium of psychological forces, desires for present and future incomes; that is, time-preference. A change in the mental habits, in regard to this choice, on the part of any considerable number of men, must change the general distribution in time of the entire series of incomes under the control of men, collectively. Future incomes are maintained only through the constant exercise of the faculty of abstinence. This conserving and dynamic influence of abstinence we shall study further in Chapter 38.
ENTERPRISE AND PROFIT
[1 ]The economists of the eighteenth, and early part of the nineteenth, century gradually broadened the term to include any income attributable to those goods generally bought and sold in terms of money. Later the term was extended to include, tho never consistently, a large part of the problem of time-value, the nature of which was beginning to be seen.
[2 ]When the amount of the loan is expressed as more than the borrower receives, the deduction being either in lieu of, or in addition to, an expressed percentage, the deduction, called discount, is interest taken in advance, and therefore is not exactly equivalent in rate to the same payment at the end of year, the time at which the usual rate is calculated; e.g., if a note for $1000 is discounted at 6 per cent the true principal is $940, and the true interest $60 at the rate of .06383. See ch. 23, sec. 3, note.
[3 ]The Provident Loan Association of New York is a corporation organized as a philanthropy to release the poor borrower from the jaws of the “loan-shark”; but it is conducted on business principles to pay expenses. It finds that the minimum cost of making a loan, even the smallest, is about 49 cents. Yet it makes a large number of loans of amounts less than $10, and for not over a month at the rate of 1 per cent per month (or 10 cents at the maximum). This loss must be made up by the larger loans.
[4 ]If B (having good security to offer) should bid a very high rate of interest (say 20 per cent) either through bad judgment or because of a chance to buy under-capitalized goods (or incomes) it might induce A to sell his goods which involve a premium of, let us say, only 10 per cent, to lend the proceeds to B; A meantime could escape any deprivation by renting the goods he had sold, for a little more than half of the interest he is receiving. A is then not using fewer present goods but is temporarily taking advantage of a chance to substitute a more advantageous mode of purchasing both present and future incomes.
[5 ]This may be traced on figure 11, showing how various bids meet in a common price. The excluded lenders on the line to the right of the price point are those who hold their present dollars (or a part of them) rather than lend further at the market-rate of interest; the excluded buyers are those to whom further loans at the market will cost more than the expected increment in incomes.
[6 ]Of course cases occur where after the loan is made, the money is kept for a while awaiting a better time to buy the incomes which are to yield the increment of price.
[7 ]This approximation to a common rate of yield on various investments may be illustrated by some such table as the following, showing the choices that present themselves to an investor.
[8 ]This aspect of the case is given further attention in ch. 27, sec. 7, 8.