#5 Interest Rates
December 15, 2015
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Just because it has the word "interest" in it doesn't mean it's interesting to a teenage girl.
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This episode was edited by Alex Blumberg and Peter Clowney and produced by Chris Neary and Rachel Ward, with help from Julia Kumari Drapkin. It was mixed by Michael Garofalo.
In an earlier version of this episode we mischaracterized the pope. We went totally overboard on his credentials: We called him the "physical manifestation of God on earth," but really he's the Bishop of Rome, and the leader of the worldwide Catholic church. Thanks to the helpful listener - a seminarian - who pointed this out to us.
"Debt into Growth: How Sovereign Debt Accelerated the First Industrial Revolution," by Jaume Ventura and Hans-Joachim Voth
A History of Interest Rates, by Sidney Homer and Richard Sylla
Lending to the Borrower from Hell: Debt, Taxes, and Default in the Age of Philip II, by Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Voth
Money, Markets and Trade in Late Medieval Europe, edited by Lawrin Armstrong, Ivana Elbl and Martin M. Elbl
The Moral Economy: Poverty, Credit, and Trust in Early Modern Europe, by Laurence Fontaine
Prometheus Shackled: Goldsmith Banks and England's Financial Revolution after 1700, by Peter Temin and Hans-Joachim Voth
Unsettled Account: The Evolution of Banking in the Industrialized World since 1800, by Richard S. Grossman
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AD: From Gimlet Media, This is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Adam Davidson.
Adam McKay: And I am Adam McKay.
AM: We all know how this show works, we pick a subject that seems incredibly boring and we challenge the other person to make it awesome. But I wanted to increase the level of difficulty for you so I was talking to my daughter Lili Rose and I told her the idea of the show and I told her one of the subjects was interest rates. And Lili’s a very smart girl, she’s interested in a lot of subjects but she immediately said there’s no way in a million years I would ever care about that subject.
AD: So who are you?
LM: I’m Lili Rose McKay, I’m 14 and I’m in ninth grade.
AD: And you care a lot about animals.
LM: Yes. I’m a vegetarian and I love animals and I have a cat, her name is Petals and she’s the best cat ever and shout-out to Petals if you’re listening. She’s not, she’s a cat.
AM: Lili emotionally, what’s your response to interest rates, and then emotionally what’s your response to, say for instance, Q-tips.
LM: LAUGHS. Okay well emotional response to interest rates would be concern and disappointment, and emotional response to Q-tips would be - I have no idea how to emotionally respond to Q-tips. That is a really difficult question.
AD: Alright, we’re gonna do this.
AM: Alright so Lili Rose is with us as well as Pearl my 10-year-old daughter who also had a very blank look on her face when interest rates were brought up.
PM: It’s not interesting at all and it’s no way that you’re gonna make my sister interested in this.
AM: What do you know Pearl about interest rates?
PM: That you have to like sell like money to people or you have to borrow money from people to like buy stuff or something.
AD: Pearl is, of course, right. Hi dear Listener. I’m talking to you, now. Throughout this episode I’m going to break the fourth wall and talk directly to you. That’s for one simple reason: I did explain an awful lot about interest rates, I have to be honest, when I listened to the tape, I was kind of long-winded and a little boring. I can do better!
AD: So interest rates are the price we pay to borrow money. That’s true for people - you know that. Your credit card, your mortgage. It’s true for companies, even entire countries. And the riskier you are, the higher your interest rate. The less risky, the lower your interest rate. Just ask Greece. And I have tell you that my biggest lesson as a financial journalist over the last couple of decades is this: Interest rates are the single most important thing in the world.
AD: Let me give a very, very quick history. And to help me stay on track, I’m bringing on Rachel Ward, who I’m very excited to introduce. Rachel is the senior producer of Surprisingly Awesome. Hey Rachel.
Rachel Ward: Hi Adam.
AD: Hey great to have on the show. Adam McKay is, right now, on an insane publicity campaign for his wonderful movie, The Big Short, everyone should see it. So Rachel’s here to help me with this episode.
RW: I am here to keep you on track.
AD: And focused yes. So interest rates are not some invention someone dreamed up one day. They are a fundamental part of being human. They exist in one form or another everywhere there are people. In fact, interest rates show up in the very first writing in ancient Sumer, 5,000 years ago. And whoever is doing that writing is completely familiar with the idea of interest rates. Of someone loaning something - some grain, some cattle - to someone else and expecting the original amount to be returned plus something additional - that’s the interest on the loan. The idea is so fully there when writing begins, that we have to assume interest rates were around long, long before writing.
RW: Right and one theory in fact, about why people started to write things down, in the first place, is that it was to keep track of all these loans and the interest they charge.
AD: Exactly. And something like interest rates appear everywhere when writing first shows up. Ancient China, India, Mesoamerica. So let’s fast forward a few thousand years to the Middle Ages. Like a lot of things that are primal and fundamental to human life, from time to time people think this thing that everyone wants to do must be wrong. I’m thinking about you, sex. They ban it. They say it’s sinful.
RW: Yeah, like pretty much everything else during the Middle Ages, interest was a sin. It was illegal. And no one could charge interest.
AD: I’ve been talking to a ton of Medievalists about this. And they say it’s hard to put a precise date on when the ban on interest is really fully over all Europe. But certainly by 1200, the official position of the Church is no interest can be charged on loans. It’s immoral. Thomas Aquinas, the Italian monk in the 1200s, was the most influential theologian on this. And he said any kind of interest on a loan was immoral. His argument is really confusing because, to my modern brain, it makes zero sense. But he believed money should only be a means of exchange and charging interest on a means of exchange counts as double billing. Which to him is like stealing, and stealing is immoral, so interest is immoral. Anyway, it made sense to him and seemed to make sense to a lot of people in the Middle Ages because pope after pope for hundreds of years, including during the awful Inquisition, they all believed interest is bad.
RW: Right so absolutely no interest, zero people are paying interest during the Middle Ages. It is completely forbidden.
AD: Except, of course, there are tons of people are giving out loans and charging interest all the time.
RW: Of course.
AD: When I think of the Middle Ages, I think of those big, famous rich Italian families: the Medici, the Peruzi, the Bardi. How did they get to be rich, Italian families? By lending money and charging interest.
RW: This is the moment of surprise in the show, where surprise, the rich get away with something!
AD: That’s right, they were so powerful that in some cases, they just did it. And nobody stopped them. But they also had these really complex ways of hiding the fact that they were lending someone money and charging interest on loans. The most common was to bury this fact in complex transactions. They’d tie it up all with currency exchanges - which at the time was pretty easy because there were tons of currencies. So Venice had the Grosso. Florence had the Florin. And they’d be selling gold in grossos and buying it in Florins. All of it which was to hide the fact that they were lending someone money and receiving more than the money they lent because of the addition of interest.
RW: So the pope was totally fine with all of this?
AD: A lot of the time it’s the pope borrowing the money. Or it’s a king, or the king’s nephew. They borrow money to fund crusades, or to fund wars, or just build a really fancy palace. So the rich and powerful, they can borrow and lend with interest, even though it’s illegal. At the bottom, among the most poor people, the widows, the handicapped, the desperate, they also were allowed to borrow money with interest. There were these loan sharks. Every medieval town would have them. They were usually outsiders, who would come to town and make loans to the truly desperate during crisis times. They had huge interest rates 40 percent, 50 percent. So why is there all this borrowing and lending even though it’s illegal, even though they have to go through all these shenanigans to get away with it. Because, borrowing money is the way for them to do things they really want to do. People with money want more of it, they wanna see their money grow. And people without money, still have dreams, still have things they want to accomplish. And they want to get money to do them. If they’re poor they want to eat food. Or if they’re a king they want to fight wars. And that’s pretty much it - the two main reasons people borrowed money was to eat and fight.
AD: But the key point is this: there’s no middle ground. If you’re rich and powerful, you basically can borrow at sort of reasonable rates and get more rich and more powerful. If you were poor and desperate, you can borrow, but at such a high rate that you’ll end up becoming even more poor and more desperate. There’s nothing like entrepreneurship, like hey I have a great idea for a business, if only I could have some money, I know, I want a new podcasting company
RW: Right, because podcasts weren’t invented until the Enlightenment. But anyways, when it’s working, interest rates are this magical way of bringing two sides together. People who need money can access the money of people who have more of it, but at this point in our history, all of this is happening in the shadows. No one’s talking about lending interest rates openly.
AD: Then in 1600 everything changes. And like all major changes, it happens in Amsterdam. The Dutch were trying to get their independence from Spain. It was in the middle of the vicious 80 year war. And out of desperation, they dropped the rule against interest rates, and they created the first modern lending system. Suddenly, people can borrow and lend at very open, posted, public interest rates. No shame, no sin. And it worked like crazy. It turns out this changes everything. Once their system is up and running, the Dutch are able to borrow roughly three times as much money at one-third the interest. And they used this ability to borrow enough money to fund a war that gives them independence against the King of Spain. Eventually that money allows them to colonize parts of India and Southeast Asia. And this tiny backwater becomes the richest country in Europe.
RW: And the rest of the world starts to take notice. This idea starts to spread. And you kinda know the rest of the story.
AD: Yeah, open interest rates spread to England, all over Europe, and we start to see the very beginning of modern entrepreneurship. Of smart people who aren’t already rich and powerful getting money to start businesses, invent things. You see a growing Middle Class, more democracy. You see the industrial revolution. So all this is in my head when I’m talking to Lili and thinking about interest rates. But here’s what she is thinking.
AD: What do you picture when you think about interest rates and finance and economics, your whole body reacted and your face reacted with about a profound a look of boredom as possible.
LM: I think of like the typical movie depiction of a stock market I guess. That’s usually what pops into my mind. Guys in suits yelling a lot, looking at some boards with numbers that I don’t understand on them.
AD: Alright. Um … Alright.
AM: By the way, can I point out one thing? The movie depiction she’s talking about is 10 times more interesting than the actual reality.
AD: Yes that’s actually true.
AD: So what are you into? What does fascinate you?
LM: I like music.
AD: You sing and you play.
LM: Yeah, I sing and I play guitar and bass. Uh yeah, It’s really fun.
AD: I figured it if I had a chance of making Lili care about interest rates, it would only be by appealing to something she already cared about. Fortunately interest rates touch on every single thing we do, music included. That’s my way in. And to demonstrate, I enlisted Lili’s dad. McKay has an old friend, Sophie Lee, a great Jazz singer who owns and runs one of the best music bar/restaurant venues on Frenchman street in New Orleans. It’s called the Three Muses.
AM: Let’s do it, let’s inject some life into this, you can do it Davidson I believe in you!
AD: Let’s go to the Three Muses.
AD: I should mention, we were all in New Orleans because McKay was filming The Big Short there. Miss Sophie Lee lent us her private dining room for the afternoon. She was such a generous hostess, she even agreed to sing a song with Lili.
LM/Sophie Lee singing: You’ll never know dear how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.
LM singing: The other night dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms, when I awoke dear, I was mistaken, and I hung my head and cried.
AD: Rachel she’s really good.
RW: She is, she’s like genuinely good.
AD: But I was not here to listen to something as boring as lovely music, performed by charming people in an incredible venue overlooking one of America’s most charming cities. I was there to talk about something truly important, truly exciting: interest rates. And so to that end, I’d asked Miss Sophie Lee to bring in some of her musician friends, to talk about how interest rates affect their lives.
Sarah Quintana: Now I feel like if you say the word “interest rate” it’s like I’m in a race and I have to win against these calculations that appear in my bank account every month.
SQ: My name is Sarah Quintana and I’m a singer songwriter from New Orleans.
SQ singing: I’m so blue I don’t know what to do. All day long I’m pining just for you. I did wrong when I let you go away, for now I grieve about you night and day.
SQ: One time I was making a record and it wasn’t my album but I was singing some backup and I was like how did you get all this gear ‘cause he has these great microphones and he was like “credit cards.”
AD: So you took out a credit card and bought - what did you buy?
SQ: I got two credit cards, and I kind of lived off of them after Katrina and I kind of developed this idea, that you just buy it, buy now pay later. And I got a Princeton Fender guitar amp which I love, I got this guitar, backpacking guitar. I paid for like train tickets and plane tickets when I was playing gigs, my wardrobe, one time I was on the road and I needed a root canal so I put it on my credit card.
AD: But where do you think you’d be right now in your career if you’d never had access to that credit?
SQ: Access is a really good because I think credit and opportunities to finance your goals is something that I had access to that a lot of other people don’t. And where would I be? I’d probably still be singing on Royal Street.
AD: Sara Quintana is from a middle class family. She’s not rich and well-connected. She’s also not desperate and poor. But if she lived in a world without freely floating, market-based interest rates, nobody would have lent her money to buy her Princeton Fender Guitar Amp or her album, or her website. She’d be living on whatever coins people tossed into her guitar case as they walked by.
SQ singing: If I could be with you, I’d love you strong. If I could be with you I’d love you long.
AD: Coming up, the DARK side of being able to pay for things with other people’s money. Why interest rates got such a bad rap all these centuries. And the thing we’ve invented to keep them in check - which also turns out to be pretty dangerous.
RW: Honestly I thought the root canal was going to be the dark part of this episode.
SQ singing: If I could be with you.
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-----------------------------------------------------END AD BREAK-------------------------------------------------AD: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Adam Davidson. Before the break I was talking about how credit and interest rates brought us all sorts of wonderful things: writing, the middle class, freedom.
RW: The Dutch.
AD: But, as we all know, credit is not all good. I know this personally, I was one of those peope, I think the technical term is idiot. In college I think I got up to 5 credit cards.
RW: No no no no no.
AD: All of them maxed out. I bought everything I wanted. I got into this thing where I was like oh wait, there’s some restaurants that are really good and you can buy a really nice meal on your credit card. And then after college I got a job and it did not pay well but no problem, I’m still living the life of a rich man. I got very deeply in debt and not to be corny but I was in my mid 20s, I had some dreams. I really wanted to be a travel writer. But at the worst I owed more than my yearly salary in debt so I needed to pay those debts. And I stayed in a job I hated. It sucked. At one point my interest rate was more than 30 percent. Which made it all impossible. I couldn't pay fast enough to make a dent.
RW: Adam I’m just sitting here cringing. Are you okay now?
AD: Yes yes, I’m in good shape now. But he interest rate had a huge impact on my life. If it had been lower, I might have gotten out of debt faster, been able to travel more, been able to get into the career I wanted more quickly and raised my earning potential. And that’s why the interest rate can have a profound effect on the economy as a whole. When interest rates overall are really high, everyone is in a version of the position I was in. They don’t buy a house, they don’t travel, they don’t buy a car. It slows the whole economy down.
RW: And that’s why about a century ago, we decided somebody has to be in charge of interest rates. And that somebody is the Federal Reserve.
AD: Right the Fed. This is why you always hear about the Fed in the news. The Fed is gonna raise interest rates, the Fed is gonna lower interest rates. The Fed’s main power, historically, has been deciding something called the Fed Funds Rate, and that’s sort of the base interest rate in our whole economy. The mortgage rate you pay on your house, the APR on your car loan, the interest rate on the money that your employer borrows to pay payroll when it’s a little short. That’s all impacted by the Fed Funds Rate. It is elemental to our entire economy. But when I first learned about it, like a lot of people, I thought really, that’s it? That’s the main interest rate that determines the success or failure of our economy? Let me explain it because I think it actually is interesting, but it takes a minute.
AD: The Fed Funds rate is the amount of money charged on a very particular kind of loan that most people never even know exists. Overnight loans between banks. Every day, around 4 pm, every bank adds up all the money it has on hand, all the money it owes. By law, every bank has to have a certain amount of money on reserve. And so, every day, some banks are a little short, other banks have more than they need. And so the banks that have more than they need, lend it to the banks that are a little short. Just overnight, 4 p.m. ‘til 8 or 9 a.m. the next day. And the interest they pay on that, the tiny little bit of interest they pay every day, that is the Fed Funds Rate. And that money being lent between big banks for one night is considered the safest transaction there is. So that is what the Fed controls, they decide what the interest rate should be on those overnight loans. That’s it. So as the Fed is raising or lowering that one rate, what they’re hoping to do is impact rates throughout the economy and impact the entire pace of the US economy.
RW: Because when that rate is low, the economy speeds up, and when that rate is high, the economy slows down. This is their mechanism for sort of tempering the pace of the entire economy.
AD: Right there was this famous Fed chairman who said our job is to take the punch bowl away when the party really gets started. Now Fed chair can also dump an extra bottle of grain alcohol in the bowl when the party is depressed and boring.
RW: And this is one of the things you and Adam McKay were trying to explain to his daughter Lili back in New Orleans: How much power the Fed has.
AM: So yeah the movie we’re doing, The Big Short, one of the main causes that’s cited for the crash that happened in 2008 was that Greenspan, who was the chairman of the Fed, kept the interest rates too low through a booming economy. And one of the irrational decisions that came out was getting crazy with these mortgage-backed securities in the housing market and a lot of people have pointed to those interest rates and the fact that Greenspan didn’t raise them when he should have - but it’s unpopular because when you raise them it is gonna slow down the economy and the politicians don’t like it, Greenspan doesn’t like it, his friends who all run banks and are rich don’t like it.
AD: We don’t like it, it means life is less fun!
AM: Yeah, and he didn’t pass that test - he had the moment where he was supposed to do his job. And he did not and so that was a case where interest rates caused the bust, some would argue.
LM: That is really interesting. Wow.
AD: This is actually the whole argument Alex Blumberg and I got into in a This American Life episode called “The Giant Pool of Money.” The housing crisis was caused - at least in part - because interest rates were really, really low. People who had extra money kept lending it to riskier and riskier folks, so that they could get higher interest rates on the loans. That’s a big part of why there was a subprime mortgage bubble. And when that bubble burst we had the financial crisis. This is why so many people, these days, have heard the term, Federal Reserve, The Fed, even though most people have no idea what it actually does. But we know it’s really, really important. The Fed has this crucial job. And so to bring that point it home to Lili, we gave that job to her.
AD: What we arranged for this podcast, which is actually kind of I’d say irresponsible is they’ve just decided to leave it up to you. The central bank, Janet Yellen, and the 12 members of the Federal Open Market Committee said whatever you tell them, they’re gonna do that.
AM: There was this giant conference that’s been going on all year, Adam and I created this fake podcast, all as a way to get to this point.
AD: So we got Brad Pitt, weirdly, to agree to do this movie, there’s no movie.
AM: Yeah there’s no way anyone would make a movie of The Big Short, I mean come on. So do it Lil, set the interest rates.
AD: Seven. That is TERRIBLE.
AD: That is literally the worst decision.
LM: I just said a number! No! Why!! What have I done!!
AM: There’s roving gangs, on the streets!
AD: So let me explain, precisely, why a Fed funds rate of 7 would be, possibly, the single worst thing in the history of the world. The Fed funds rate is, currently, just above zero, because the economy is not growing fast enough to get business growing, people working. The Fed has kept it low to try to help the economy. There is a huge debate right now about whether or not our economy can handle an increase of a quarter percent. If some maniac got in control of the Fed and raised that Fed Funds Rate all at once to 7 percent, that would not just be taking the punch bowl away. That would be like knocking everybody at the party out, tying them up and holding them at gunpoint.
RW: That is not a fun party.
AD: Not at all. Specifically, it would be a party at which mortgage rates would triple, business loans would collapse. There would basically be no economic activity. The worst depression ever. It would spread about the world. There would be riots, probably war.
AD: But there is only one interest rate I care about now. It is Lili’s rate of interest in the topic of interest rates. I asked her for a number between 1 and 10.
AD: So where are we now? I don’t think we’re at 10.
LM: No no, I think we’re at like 9.2.
AD: 9.2 I will take that.
AM: That’s a homerun.
LM: I would read a book about interest rates.
LM: I wouldn’t tell my friends about it, but I would read a book about it.
AD: So Pearl.
AD: So I set myself a challenge. It wasn’t just to convince Lili that interest rates were interesting, it was to convince you that I’d convinced Lili that interest rates are interesting.
PM: I don’t know because I think she’s interested but I feel like she’s interested in the people that you brought but I don’t know if she’s interested in interest rates.
AD: I think she is now, I think I did it.
AD: I think so. You wanna go ask her?
AD: So you think I did it.
AD: And you said you didn’t think I could do it.
AD: So what do you think now.
PM: I wanna see you convince me that wood is interesting.
AM: Wood is fascinating!
PM: No it’s not.
AD: So the next one is convincing Pearl that wood is interesting.
AD: That’s easy.
PM: No, it’s not.
--------------------------------------------------------CREDITS------------------------------------------------------AD: I should mention, some listeners have asked us to be better about sharing our sources. Much of this information comes from the amazing classic A History of Interest Rates, by Sidney Homer and Richard Sylla. 700 pages that are, truly, surprisingly awesome. We interviewed a bunch of other people and used a ton of other books, too.
RW: They’re listed on our website at gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com/awesome.
AD: Also, for finance nerds: I do know the Fed is currently using a different tool - interest on reserves - but we’ll save that for another show. Planet Money does great stuff on this - you can find them on your favorite podcast app.
AD: Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by the fabulous Nicholas Britell; our ad music is by Build Buildings. This episode was edited by Alex Blumberg and Peter Clowney and produced by Chris Neary and Rachel Ward, with help from Julia Kumari Drapkin. It was mixed by Michael Garofalo.
AD: We spoke with a lot of really fun people in New Orlean and we’d like to thank them:
RW: Thank you to Miss Sophie Lee, who hosted us at Three Muses. She's wonderful, but don't take our word for it. You heard her earlier singing a duet with Lili - here she is singing her song "I Will Love You."
SL singing: I will love you with all my heart. I will love you never stop. With the breath of my soul, from my head to my toes, I will love you, I will love you.
Thanks also to the amazing New Orleans musicians who talked to us: Ben Schenck, Aurora Nealand, John Boutte, Mark Samuels, the Panorama Jazz Band, and make up artist and entrepreneur Julie Hewett. If you want the perfect red lipstick, Julie Hewett.net.
RW: Thanks to Dean Howard at the Louisiana SPCA. You can find them on the web at LA dash SPCA dot org, and it’s definitely worth visiting to see their adoptable animals. My favorites at the time of this recording were Kitty Gaga - she’s a five month old ginger cat, and JoJo - a shepherd retriever mix who loves belly rubs. Petals, if you’re listening, please don’t be jealous.
AD: Thanks to our sponsor Audible.com. Audible.com has over 180-thousand audio books and spoken word audio products. If you want to listen to it, Audible has it. Get a 30-day free trial membership today by signing up at www.audible.com/awesome. That's audible.com/awesome.
AD: Thanks also to our sponsor Squarespace. Squarespace is the easiest way to build a website, portfolio, or online store. With Squarespace, sites look professionally designed regardless of skill level, no coding required. When you decide to sign up for Squarespace, make sure to use the offer code AWESOME to get 10-percent off your first purchase. Squarespace: Build it Beautiful.
RW: You can tweet at us at @surprisingshow, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Facebook, and at gimlet.com/awesome
AD: And if you're looking for more awesome things to listen to, check out our friends over at Reply All. They just did an episode called “Quit Already,” about a 53-year-old grandmother whose Facebook rant helped topple an entire government.
AM: I think I’m more bored than Lili even. Like you’re really losing me.
PM: No one’s more bored than me. I would rather be watching Rachel Maddow.