Interest - History of Interest

History of Interest

According to historian Paul Johnson, the lending of "food money" was commonplace in Middle East civilizations as far back as 5000BC. They regarded interest as legitimate since acquired seeds and animals could "reproduce themselves"; whilst the ancient Jewish religious prohibitions against usury were a "different view".

In the Roman Empire interest rates were usually calculated on a monthly basis and set as multiples of 12, apparently for expedient calculation by the wealthy private individuals that did most of the moneylending.

The First Council of Nicaea, in 325, forbade clergy from engaging in usury which was defined as lending on interest above 1 percent per month (12.7% APR). Later ecumenical councils applied this regulation to the laity. Catholic Church opposition to interest hardened in the era of scholastics, when even defending it was considered a heresy. St. Thomas Aquinas, the leading theologian of the Catholic Church, argued that the charging of interest is wrong because it amounts to "double charging", charging for both the thing and the use of the thing.

In the medieval economy, loans were entirely a consequence of necessity (bad harvests, fire in a workplace) and, under those conditions, it was considered morally reproachable to charge interest. It was also considered morally dubious, since no goods were produced through the lending of money, and thus it should not be compensated, unlike other activities with direct physical output such as blacksmithing or farming. For the same reason, interest has often been looked down upon in Islamic civilization, with most scholars agreeing that the Qur'an explicitly forbids charging interest.

Medieval jurists developed several financial instruments to encourage responsible lending and circumvent prohibitions on usury, such as the Contractum trinius

In the Renaissance era, greater mobility of people facilitated an increase in commerce and the appearance of appropriate conditions for entrepreneurs to start new, lucrative businesses. Given that borrowed money was no longer strictly for consumption but for production as well, interest was no longer viewed in the same manner. The School of Salamanca elaborated on various reasons that justified the charging of interest: the person who received a loan benefited, and one could consider interest as a premium paid for the risk taken by the loaning party.

There was also the question of opportunity cost, in that the loaning party lost other possibilities of using the loaned money. Finally and perhaps most originally was the consideration of money itself as merchandise, and the use of one's money as something for which one should receive a benefit in the form of interest. Martín de Azpilcueta also considered the effect of time. Other things being equal, one would prefer to receive a given good now rather than in the future. This preference indicates greater value. Interest, under this theory, is the payment for the time the loaning individual is deprived of the money.

Economically, the interest rate is the cost of capital and is subject to the laws of supply and demand of the money supply. The first attempt to control interest rates through manipulation of the money supply was made by the French Central Bank in 1847.

The first formal studies of interest rates and their impact on society were conducted by Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and Mirabeau during the birth of classic economic thought. In the late 19th century leading Swedish economist Knut Wicksell in his 1898 Interest and Prices elaborated a comprehensive theory of economic crises based upon a distinction between natural and nominal interest rates. In the early 20th century, Irving Fisher made a major breakthrough in the economic analysis of interest rates by distinguishing nominal interest from real interest. Several perspectives on the nature and impact of interest rates have arisen since then.

The latter half of the 20th century saw the rise of interest-free Islamic banking and finance, a movement that attempts to apply religious law developed in the medieval period to the modern economy. Some entire countries, including Iran, Sudan, and Pakistan, have taken steps to eradicate interest from their financial systems altogether. Rather than charging interest, the interest-free lender shares the risk by investing as a partner in profit loss sharing scheme, because predetermined loan repayment as interest is prohibited, as well as making money out of money is unacceptable. All financial transactions must be asset-backed and it does not charge any "fee" for the service of lending.

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