The interest rate fallacy
There is a widespread assumption that interest rates represent the cost of borrowing money. In the narrow sense that it is a rate paid by a borrower, this is true. Monetary policy planners enquire no further. Central bankers then posit that if you reduce the cost of borrowing, that is to say the interest rate, demand for credit increases, and the deployment of that credit in the economy naturally leads to an increase in GDP. Every central planner dreams of consistent growth in GDP and they seek to achieve it by lowering the cost of borrowing money.
The origin of this approach is mathematical. William Stanley Jevons in his The Theory of Political Economy, first published in 1871, was one of the three discoverers of the theory of marginal utility and became convinced that mathematics was the key to linking the diverse elements of political science into a unified subject. It was therefore natural for him to treat interest rates as the symptom of supply and demand for money when it passes from one hand to another with the promise of future repayment.
Another of the discoverers of the theory of marginal utility was the Austrian, Carl Menger, who explained that prices were subjective in the minds of those involved in an exchange. He argued it was fundamentally a human choice and therefore could not be predicted mathematically. This undermines the assumption that interest is simply the cost of money, suggesting that some sort of human element is involved, separate from pure cost. Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, who followed in Menger’s footsteps saw it from a more capitalistic point of view, that a saver’s money, which was otherwise lifeless, was able to earn a saver a supply of goods through interest earned upon it.[i]
Böhm-Bawerk confirmed interest produced an income for the capitalist and was a cost to the borrowing entrepreneur, but agreed with his mentor there was also a time preference element, the difference in the value of possessing money today compared with the promise of possessing it at a future date. The easiest way to understand it is that savers are driven mainly by time-preference, while borrowers mainly by cost. This was why borrowers had to bid up interest rates to attract savers into lending, the explanation for Gibson’s paradox.[ii]
In those days, money was gold, and currencies were gold substitutes, that is to say they circulated backed by and freely exchangeable into gold. Gold was the agency by which producers turned the fruits of their labour into the goods and services they needed and desired. Its role was purely temporary. Temporal men valued gold as a good with the special function of being money, but as a good, its actual possession was worth more than just a claim on it in the future. But do they ascribe the same time preference to fiat currency? To find out we must explore the nature of time preference as a concept.
Time-preference in classical economics
Time-preference is simply the desire to own goods at an earlier date rather than later. This is because everyone prefers immediate ownership to the promise of future ownership. Therefore, the future value of possessing a good must stand at a discount compared with actual possession, and the further into the future actual ownership materialises, the greater the discount. This is time preference. But instead of pricing time preference as if it were a zero-coupon bond, we turn it into an annualised interest equivalent.
Obviously, time-preference applies primarily to lending to finance production, which requires time between commencement and output. Borrowed money must cover partly or in whole the commodities and all the costs required to make a finished article and the time taken to deliver it to an end-user. An entrepreneur must forgo some of his current consumption if he is to invest in his own production, and the allocation he makes of his current resources to that end is governed partly by time-preference and by the profit he anticipates. If his production process requires a long time between investment and the sale of a finished product his sacrifice of current consumption will be for proportionately longer, so it has to be worthwhile.
The easiest way to isolate time-preference is to assume our entrepreneur has to borrow some or all the resources necessary. We now have to consider the position of the lender, who is asked to join in with the sacrifice of current consumption in favour of the future. The lender’s motivation is that he has a surplus of money to his immediate needs and instead of just sitting on it, is prepared to use it profitably. His reward for doing so by providing the utility of his excess to a businessman must exceed his personal time-preference.
The medium for matching investment and savings is obviously money, because it would be very difficult to coordinate them in a barter economy. It is this function above all else which money facilitates. We take this obvious function so much for granted that we forget that interest rates are actually the expression of time-preference, which has its origin in deferring ownership of consumer goods. Intermediation by banks and other financial institutions conceal from us the link between interest and time-preference, on the saver’s false assumption he is not parting with his money by depositing it in a bank.
The bank appears to be giving the depositor something for nothing in its role as financial intermediator, but it is effectively cutting the link between savers and borrowers. Both parties in a modern economy end up dealing with a bank instead of each other. However, despite a bank’s intermediation, the basic relationship between saver and entrepreneur through a bank is the possession of the former’s capital for a period of time. It may conceal it, but it cannot get rid of time-preference.
When a saver saves and an entrepreneur invests, the transaction always involves a lender’s savings being turned into the production of goods and services with the element of time. For the lender, the time preference will always equate to the loss of possession of his capital for a stated period.
Time preference and fiat money
Today’s economists do not recognise time-preference. For them, economics is about Jevon’s mathematics, state-issued currencies and the exclusion of human interest. They say we have moved on from the household economics of yester-year, and they despise classical stick-in-the-muds. But we can see from their repeated failure to tame human action in order to conform to their economic models that modern economists do not have the answers either. All they have done is cover up their failures through monetary inflation.
The ubiquity of unbacked state currencies certainly introduces new dimensions into prices and deferred settlement. Not only is the saver isolated from borrowers through bank intermediation and the belief his deposits are still his property, but his savings are debased through monetary inflation without his knowledge. The interest he expects is treated as an inconvenient cost of production, to be minimised. Interest earned is taxed as if it were the profit from a capitalist trade, and not compensation for a temporary loss of possession.
Consequently, the saver has been driven to speculate well beyond the possibility of not being repaid by a borrower by buying equities instead. He swaps credit risk for entrepreneurial risk. And because the expansion of bank credit out of thin air favours the entrepreneur over the saver, the theory goes that over time he is compensated for the loss of interest. The whole system has changed, and even consumers, who under the classical economic model would defer some of their consumption, have become unsecured borrowers themselves.
It is this evolution away from the strictures of time preference that has taken us to zero and negative interest rates. Yet, if the cost of money was simply its interest rate, the economy would be permanently mended and there would be no credit cycle. Why on earth it took the planners so long to understand the benefits of free money, and to even pay borrowers to borrow, would have been a mystery. Yet, experience and an understanding that economics is a human science tells us otherwise. Despite handing out free money, the Eurozone is in a worse economic and systemic condition than it was before the Lehman crisis ten years ago, with major bank share prices languishing at all-time lows. And all zero interest rates have achieved, together with aggressive monetary debasement, was the deferment of a banking and systemic crisis.
But credit cycles still exist. At their root is the issuance of money and credit on terms that do not reflect time preference. The value of ownership compared with the promise of future ownership has to be respected. It is not something a monetary planner can decide, because it is wholly a market phenomenon. No one but individual consumers can contribute to the collective judgments that say this any species of bird is worth more than two of them in the bush.
Ignoring time preference is the fundamental error behind monetary planning. It is why in a successful economy, monetary intervention by the state is kept to a bare minimum, or preferably banished altogether. Instead, it builds on the error of Jevon’s mathematical approach and the banishment of the people’s choice of money, which throughout history has been metallic.
The question now arises over the relationship between time-preference and gold. We should consider this in the light of historical experience; fiat currency has always died and been replaced by metallic money. Gold and likely silver as well will return to circulate as money.
When gold is used as money, time-preference obviously applies, given our rule that money is earned and saved on the one hand, and on the other savings are deployed in the production of goods and services. A saver lending his gold will expect it to be returned at the end of the loan period with an additional amount to reflect at a minimum his time-preference, usually in the form of interest.
Apart from isolated times of monetary debasement, this held true for millennia until the last century, when gold was gradually replaced as money in today’s currency system. As long as currency acted as a freely convertible gold substitute, interest earned and paid on that currency was tied to the rate on gold. However, if we can imagine a system with both gold and fiat currency in circulation as money at the same time, the time-preference for physical gold, all other things being equal, should be more than that for the fiat currency due to its relative scarcity.
Evidence of this difference is reflected in Gresham’s law. Most of the human population spends state-issued currency more readily than gold coin. The argument about today’s traders not accepting gold coin does not hold water, because gold coin is easily converted into fiat money in order to spend it. Those who own gold or gold coin see its disposal for fiat money not as a first, but as a last resort. Furthermore, if someone wanted to borrow your gold for a period of time, you would almost certainly place a greater value on the temporary loss of ownership than that reflected in the interest rate for fiat currency.
But this supposition ignores monetary inflation. Over history, the expansion in above-ground gold stocks has roughly kept pace with the growth in human population. Fiat currency expands without limitation, and the loss of purchasing power should be taken into account in any calculation of time preference. The fact that this is not reflected in interest rates is a function of central bank suppression of markets and the concealment of time-preference through bank intermediation.
The last thing central bankers would like to see is value given to time preference. Most of them are probably unaware of its existence, being immersed in the mathematical economics of Jevons and his successors. And when the general public wake up to the suppression of time-preference and therefore the mispricing of all future goods and services, the consequences will almost certainly be astonishing.
[i] Eugene von Böhm-Bawerk, History and Critique of Interest Theories, 1884
[ii] See https://www.goldmoney.com/research/goldmoney-insights/gibson-s-paradox
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