“The reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”

Joseph E. Stiglitz

What is interest?

Interest is paid by a borrower to a lender as compensation for making the amount of borrowed money (the loan) available.
The common way of calculating interest is as a percentage of the amount borrowed – which itself is called the principal. Interest is usually calculated over a period of time (interest per month, per year, etc.). When there is no mention of a period, usually the interest on a yearly basis is meant.

The purpose of interest is to compensate the lender for the risk he or she is taking when lending out the money. After all, the borrower might not be able to pay the money back. As such, you could say it is the pricetag on the trust that the lender gives the borrower when lending out the money. In addition, interest compensates for the fact that the lender can not use the borrowed amount of money for himself.

Types of interest

Interest can be calculated as simple or compound interest. When calculating compound interest, the amount of interest for each period is calculated as a percentage of the total amount of the principal and the interest over the previous periods since the beginning of the loan. With simple interest, the amount of interest to be paid for each period is calculated as a percentage of the principal only.
The Art Reserve Bank uses simple interest. In case you wish to exchange your work of art for Euro’s again, the Art Reserve Bank will give you 10% simple interest on a yearly basis, starting from the day of the original exchange and with the rate the coin was originally exchanged for as principal.

Except for positive rates, interest can also be expressed in negative rates. In that case, interest is called demurrage. When applying demurrage, the amount of money to which it is applied actually becomes smaller as a certain percentage of interest is subtracted. When this concept is applied to a currency, it provides an incentive to spend the money as soon as possible – and thus increase the amount of trade taking place. Throughout history, this principle of demurrage has been succesfully applied in times of economic crises.

Interest in the news

Several interest rates are often mentioned in the news. Most often, the headlines refer to the interest rates used by central banks (see also: Central Banks). The most import interest rate that the European Central Bank works with, is the refinancing rate or repossession rate (refi- or reporate for short). This is the minimum rate that the central bank applies for lending out money to commercial banks. As such, this rate has a big influence on the interest rates that commercial banks ask for lending money to their own customers and other commercial banks – it has a big influence on the ‘price of money’.

Other important interest rates that the ECB uses are the deposit rate and the marginal lending rate. The deposit rate is the rate that commercial banks receive when they place a temporary surplus of money in their account at the central bank. The marginal lending rate is the exact opposite: it is the rate commercial banks need to pay when they temporarily want to borrow money from the central bank on very short notice. Both of these rates are derived from the repo-rate, which lies in between these two rates. Together, the rates form a bandwith of interest rates used by the ECB. Being the lowest, the deposit rate is the ‘bottom’ and the marginal lending rate the ‘ceiling’ of the money market.

The Euribor rate (Euro Interbank Offered rate) is the average interest rate that a certain group of commercial banks in the European Monetary Union applies when they lend out money to each other. This benchmarkrate is strongly linked to the repo-rate. It is also an indicator for the amount of trust that the commercial banks have in each other.

Interest and religion

The practice of interest is probably several thousands of years old. Although interest is charged all around the world, throughout the centuries the concept of interest has often been – and still is – a much debated subject. Depending on the zeitgeist and on religious or cultural viewpoints, in certain groups of people demanding monetary compensation for lending out money is considered completely forbidden or is only tolerated silently.

In the era of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle (384-322 BC) described interest in his work Politics as the most hated and deplorable way to acquire wealth. During the middle ages, charging interest was forbidden for Christians. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) even declared that a special place in hell was reserved for those charging interest. Jews were also not allowed to charge interest when lending out money to other Jews, but they were allowed to do this when lending out money to non-Jewish people. As a result, many members of the Jewish community fulfilled important roles in the early signings of the ‘financial sector’.
In large parts of the Islamic world, the charging of interest is still considered sinful. The lack of interest is one of the most important characteristics of Islamic banking. Often however, other methods of calculating a certain amount of compensation are applied.

Current debate

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the debate around the systemical effects of charging interest has drawn renewed attention. The main -extremely simplified- argument against it is that if banks require borrowers to repay the principal and interest by performing some form of economic activity, but then do not spend the interest back into circulation so that it can be 're-earned' with new economic activity, the overall effect is that continuous concentration of money occurs in an ever-decreasing group of people.

Several interest groups are actively campaiging for a study of alternative economic models that do not use interest. For example, the abolishment of interest is an important cornerstone in a model named Mathematically Perfected Economy (MPE). Interestless cooperative banking, such as practiced by the JAK Medlemsbank, is also increasingly popular.

 Demurrage in Wörgl
Een Wörgl Schilling, met bij te plakken zegels
A Wörgl Schilling, including the '1%' stamps that needed to be added on for the bill to remain valid
Probably the most well-known example of the use of demurrage is the story of the Austrian town of Wörgl in 1932. During a heavy economic crisis, the mayor introduced a local currency to which demurrage was applied. As a result, local trade received an enormous boost and the town recovered miraculously. Nearby towns copied this concept, but the party soon came to an end when the Austrian central bank went to the High Court and succesfully claimed a monopoly on distributing currency - the Wörgl Schilling was officially banned by law.
Coop Art Reserve Bank — Overtoom 256, 1054JA Amsterdam — T. +31 6 1226 3331 — info@kunstreservebank.nl