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EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA SINCE 1900
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Table 58 U.S. Consumer Credit Commercial Bank Rates: 1972 1989
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LOAN SHARKS As in ancient Athens, and in all other periods of history, there has been no limit to the charges made by loan sharks. The better class of modern loan shark skirts the law by buying salaries or selling overpriced merchandise. A prevailing rate of 240%, running up to 1500% per annum, on loans of this type was suggested during the Great Depression by a survey in those
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THE UNITED STATES IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: 1946 1990
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states that did not license consumer credit companies. (521) These were short loans and were usually negotiated at weekly or monthly rates, which are here converted to annual rates. The conversion of rates quoted for a few days or weeks into annual rates is statistically necessary for comparative purposes but can give a distorted picture of such transactions as they are viewed by debtor and by creditor. Earlier in the twentieth century, a favorite rate for illegal small loans in American cities seems to have been $1 a week for loans of $5. Needy workers might borrow $5 on Saturday and promise to repay $6 on payday, which would be Friday of the next week. They would no doubt consider that the loan had financed a spree or a visit to the doctor at a cost of an extra $1. Our mathematics tells us that they pay 20% a week, or 1040% a year. If they renewed the loan weekly or, more likely, repaid each Friday and reborrowed each Saturday, they did in fact pay $52 a year for the use of $5. During the 1950 s loan shark prosecutions in New York County repeatedly revealed just this rate of interest. In the 1920 s, a group of clerks in the financial district of New York made a regular business of lending to other clerks on these terms: $5 on Monday for $6 on Friday. In 1960 a criminal information (similar to an indictment) against a loan shark ring in New York, which for ten years had loaned to taxi drivers, mentioned an average loan of $100 with the recipient paying $120 at the end of a week plus $25 a week for any longer term or in case of arrears. This is again a rate of 1040% a year, uncompounded plus penalties, bringing it up to a theoretical 1295% a year. In the 1930 s and earlier, blacks in the South were said to pay twice this New York loan shark rate; $7 on Friday for the use of $5 for any part of a week. This was an annual rate of 2080%. (522) Larger illegal loans, as might be expected, commanded lower rates. A Senate investigation was once told of a group of New York racketeers who loaned to other gangsters sums totaling at least $300,000 at various rates of interest quoted as 30%, 47%, 65%, 73%, 104%, 173%, and 198% per annum. (523) Similar rates on such transactions have been reported in the press in recent decades. Apparently this type of interest rate does not rise and fall with the money market. REAL INTEREST RATES The rise of interest rates and market yields to record levels in the 1970 s and early 1980 s cannot be understood without reference to inflation and the economic concept of real interest rates. If a lender considers that a 4% real return, that is, a 4% gain in purchasing power or in dollars of constant value, is required in order to justify lending $100 for one year,
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EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA SINCE 1900
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then that lender will demand a nominal interest rate of 14.4% if the expected rate of inflation in that year is 10%. Then, supposing that the expected inflation is realized, the loan repayment of $114.40 a year later will consist of $110 repayment of principal, which is equivalent to the $100 principal before the price level rose 10%, and $4.40, equivalent to $4 of interest before the 10% rise of prices. In this example, the nominal, or market, rate of interest is 14.4%, and the real, or inflation-adjusted, rate of interest is 4%. (524) Before the rise of inflation that began in the later 1960 s, the real rate of interest was a concept confined almost exclusively to the academic world. Apart from wartime episodes inflation was neither a notable occurrence in economic life nor a major concern of investors. Indeed, those who lived through the Depression of the 1930 s were likely to view deflation as much more of a threat and, therefore, to take a somewhat positive view of small year-to-year increases in the price level as long as the economy was prosperous. Since the 1960 s, however, higher and often rising rates of inflation have served to propel the concept of real rates of interest to the forefront of lender and borrower thinking. The effect of inflationary expectations on market rates and yields has become evident and pronounced. (525) Because the real rate of interest depends on the expected inflation, it cannot be directly observed. The theoretical concept is often roughly approximated as a market, or nominal, rate less the expected rate of inflation, and sometimes after the fact the real rate is crudely calculated by subtracting the actual rate of inflation from the prevailing nominal rate of interest, or market yield. More sophisticated modelers of expectations usually assume that expected future rates of inflation are formed by current and/or recent past inflation rates. There is thus no real rate of interest to be discovered; there are merely a variety of attempts approximately to measure it. The results of one such attempt to approximate the real interest rate in the United States since 1857 are presented in the table on page 432 and in Chart 50. The table gives the annual average nominal yield of corporate bonds and estimates of the average real interest rate and expected inflation, by decades from 1857 to 1989. Real rates in the table are calculated by subtracting expected inflation from nominal rates, which is only a rough approximation. It is apparent from the table that real interest rates were generally higher in the nineteenth than in the twentieth century. It is also apparent that real rates vary widely from decade to decade and (see Chart 50) from year to year. Even in the twentieth century, the ten-year averages vary from +6.01 to 1.78. There is little basis for the widespread belief that the real interest rate is 2 to 3% in twentieth-century America. (526) There is a
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THE UNITED STATES IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: 1946 1990
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