The painful occurrence of sometimes. Educational about insurance and financial risk.

 

My editorial on You Tube

 

Things happen sort of sometimes. You are never sure. Take a universe. Technically, there are so many conditions to meet if you want to have a decent universe that is seems a real blessing we have one. You need them electric charges, for example. We call them negative and positive, fault of a better description, but the fact is that in reality, we have two kinds of elementary particles, A and B, I mean protons and electrons, and each A repels any other A but is irresistibly attracted to any B. Same for B’s. Imagine that 50% of B’s start behaving like A’s, i.e. they are attracted by other B’s and repel A’s. You would have 50% of matter devoid of atoms, as you need A and B to behave properly, i.e. to cross-mate A+B, and avoid any A+A or B+B indecency, in order to have an atom.

Kind of stressful. You could think about an insurance. An insurance contract stipulates that the Insured pays to the Insurer a Premium, and in exchange the Insurer gives to the Insured the guarantee of paying them damages in case a specific unpleasant event happens in the future. We insure our cars against physical accident and theft, same for our houses and apartments. You can insure yourself when you travel, and you are afraid of medical bills in case something happens to your health when on the road.

I learnt, with a big surprise, when reading the magnificent Fernand Braudel’s “Civilisation and Capitalism”  , that insurance was the core business of the first really big financial institutions in Europe. Yes, we used to do banking. Yes, we did all that circulation in debt-based securities. Still, it was all sort of featherweight business. Apparently, the real heavyweights of finance appeared with the emergence of maritime insurance. When small, local bankers started offering to the owners of commercial ships those new contracts, guaranteeing to pay for their damages in case there are any, and they gave those guarantees in exchange of relatively small insurance premiums, it was, apparently, like the release of a new iPhone in the world of gadget-lovers: a craze. By offering such contracts to captains and ship owners, those local bankers had rapidly swollen to the size of really big financial institutions.

Financial instruments always have an underlying behavioural pattern. Financial instruments are what they are because we, humans, do what we do. One of the things we do is selective individuation. There is a hurricane coming your way. You board your windows, you attach your garden furniture, you lock yourself in your house, and you check the insurance of your house. You brace against the calamity as an individual. That hurricane is going to do damage. We know it. We know it is going to do damage to the whole neighbourhood. Technically, the entire local community in threatened. Still, we prepare as individuals.

As I check the insurance of my house, I can read that in exchange of a premium, which I have already paid, I can possibly receive a coverage of my damages. Do I really want things to take such a turn, which would make those damages material? With rare exceptions, not really. Yes, I have that insurance but no, I don’t want to use it. I just want to have it, and I want to avoid whatever event might make those damages payable.

I imagine other people in a similar position. All bracing for an imminent hurricane, all having their individual insurances, and all sincerely expecting not to suffer any damage covered by those insurance contracts.

This is selective individuation as it comes to the foresight of future events. I know some bad s**t is heading my way, I know it is going to hit all around, and I just expect it is not going to hit me. As it is bound to hit all around, there is bound to be some aggregate damage. The hurricane is bound to destroy property for an amount of $5 000 000. There are 500 000 people under threat. Let’s say that 24% of them think about insuring their property. How will an insurer approach the situation?

First of all, there is bound to be those $5 000 000 of damages. Seen from a financial point of view, it is a future, certain capital expenditure. I stress it very strongly: certain. What is just a probability at the individual level becomes a certainty at a given level of aggregation. What is the “given level”? Let’s suppose there is a 1% likelihood that I step on a banana skin, when walking down the street. With 100 of me, the 1% becomes 1%*100 = 100%. Sure as taxes.

You have (I hope) already studied my lectures on equity-based securities, the debt-based ones, and on monetary systems. Thus, you already know three manners of securing capital for a future, certain outlay. Way #1: create an entity, endowed with equity in some assets, and then split that equity into tradable shares, which you sell to third parties. This way is good for securing capital in the view of slightly risky ventures, with a lot of open questions as for the strategy to adopt. Way #2: borrow, possibly through issuance of promissory notes (oldie), or bonds, if you really mean business. This path is to follow when you can reasonably expect some cash flows in the future, with relatively low risk. Way #3: get hold of some highly liquid assets, somebody else’s bonds, for example, and then create a system of tokens for payment, backed with the value of those highly liquid assets. This manner of securing capital is good for large communities, endowed with a pool of recurrent needs, and recurrent, yet diffuse fears as for the future.

With insurance, we walk down a fourth avenue. There are some future capital outlays that will compensate a clear, measurable, future loss that we know is bound to happen at a certain level of social aggregation. This aggregate loss decomposes into a set of individual s**t happening to individual people, in a heterogenous manner. It is important, once again: what you can predict quite accurately is the aggregate amount of trouble, but it is much harder to predict individual occurrences inside this aggregate. What you need is a floating mass of capital, ready to rush into whatever individual situation it is needed to compensate for. We call this type of capital a pooled fund. Insurance is sort of opposite of equity or debt. With the latter two, we expect something positive to happen. With the former, we know something bad is going to occur.

According to the basic logic of finance, you look for people who will put money in this pooled fund. Let’s take those 500 000 people threatened by a hurricane and the resulting aggregate loss of $5 000 000. Let’s say that 24% of them think about insuring their property, which makes 24%*500 000 = 120 000. In order to secure the $5 000 000 we need, the basic scheme is to make those people contribute an average of $5 000 000/ 120 000 = $41,67 of insurance premium each. Now, if you take a really simplistic path of thinking, you will say: wait, $5 000 000 divided by 500 000 folks exposed makes $10 per capita, which is clearly less than the $41,67 of insurance premium to pay. Where is my gain? Rightful question, indeed. Tangible gains appear where the possible, individual loss is clearly greater than the insurance premium to pay. Those $5 000 000 of aggregate loss in property are not made as $10 times 500 000 people. It is rather made as 0,005% likelihood in each of those people to incur an individual loss of $200 000 in property. That makes 0,005%*500 000 (remember? the banana skin) = 25. Thus, we have 25 people who will certainly lose property in that hurricane. We just don’t know which 25 out of the general population 500 000 will they be. If you are likely, just likely, to lose $200 000, will you not pay $41,67 of insurance premium? Sounds more reasonable, doesn’t it?

You are not quite following my path of thinking? Calm down, I do not always do, either. Still, this time, I can explain. There are 500 000 people, right? There is a hurricane coming, and according to all the science we have, it is going to hit badly 0,005% of that population, i.e. 25 households, and the individual loss will be $200 000 on average. That makes 25*$200 000 = $5 000 000. In the total population of 500 000, some people acknowledge this logic, some others not really. Those who do are 120 000. Each of them is aware they could be among the 25 really harmed.  They want to sign an insurance contract. Their contracts taken together need to secure the $5 000 000. Thus, each of them has to contribute $41,67 of insurance premium.

At this very basic level, the whole business of insurance is sort of a balance between the real, actual risk we are exposed to, and our behavioural take on that risk. Insurance works in populations where the subset of people who really need capital to compensate damages is much smaller than the population of those who are keen to contribute to the pooled fund.

Interestingly, people are not really keen on insuring things that happen quite frequently. There is high likelihood, although lower that absolute certainty, that someone in the street will stick an old chewing gum on the seat, on a bus, and then you sit on that chewing gum and have your brand-new woollen pants badly stained. Will you insure against it? Probably not. Sort of not exactly the kind of catastrophe one should insure against. There is a certain type of risks we insure against. They need to be spectacular and measurable, and, in the same time, they need to be sufficiently uncertain so as to give us a sense of false security. That kind of trouble is certainly not going to happen to me, still, just in case, I buy that insurance.

We can behaviourally narrow the catalogue of insurable risks, by comparing insurance to hedging, which is an alternative way to shield against risk. When I hedge against a risk, I need to know what amount of capital, in some assets of mine, is exposed to possible loss. When I know that, I acquire other assets, devoid of the same risk, for a similar amount of capital. I have that house, worth $200 000, in a zone exposed to hurricanes. I face the risk of seeing my house destroyed. I buy sovereign bonds of the Federal Republic of Germany, for another $200 000. Rock solid, these ones. They will hold value for years, and can even bring me some profits. My portfolio of German bonds hedges the risk of having my house destroyed by a hurricane.

Thus, here is my choice as for shielding my $200 000 house against hurricane-related risks. Option #1: I hedge with equity in valuable assets worth $200 000 or so. Option #2: I insure, i.e. I buy a conditional claim on an insurer, for the price of $41,67. Hedging looks sort of more solid, and indeed it is. Yet, you need a lot of capital to hedge efficiently. For every penny exposed to a definite risk, you need to hedge with another penny free of that risk. Every penny doubles, sort of. Besides, the assets you hedge with can have their own, intrinsic risk, or, if they haven’t, like German sovereign bonds, you need to pay a juicy discount (price, in financial tongue) for acquiring them. Insurance is cheaper than hedging.

My intuitive perception of the financial market tells me that if somebody has enough capital to hedge efficiently against major risks, and there are assets in view, to hedge with, people will hedge rather than insure. They insure when they either have no big capital reserves at all, when they have run out of such reserves with the hedging they have already done, or when they have no assets to hedge with. When I run a pharmaceutical company and I am launching a new drug at high risk, I will probably hedge with another factory that makes plain, low risk aspirin. That makes sense. It is a sensible allocation of my capital. On the other hand, when I have a fleet of company cars worth $5 000 000, I would rather insure than hedge.

This is what people do in the presence of risk: they insure, and they hedge. They create pooled capital funds for insurance, and they make differentiated portfolios of investments for hedging. Once again: this is what people do, like really. This is how financial markets work, and this is a big reason why they exist.

As I talk about how it works, let’s have a closer look. It is finance and it is business, so what we need is a balance sheet. When, as an insurer, I collect $5 000 000 in insurance premiums to cover $5 000 000 of future damages, I have a potential liability. Here, it becomes a little tricky. Those damages have not taken place yet, and I do not need to pay them now. I am not liable yet to people I signed those insurance contracts with. Still, the hurricane is going to hit, and it is going to destroy property for $5 000 000, and then I will be liable. All in all, the principles of accounting specifically made for the insurance business impose an obligation, upon insurers, to account the insured value as a liability.

Now, a big thing. I mean, really big. Economically, most of what we call ‘public sector’ or ‘political organisations’ are pooled funds. The constitutional state can be seen as a huge pooled fund. We pay our taxes into it, and in exchange we receive security, healthcare, infrastructure, bullshit, enlightened guidance of our leaders etc. Just some of us can really experience that payoff, and, strangely enough, we don’t always want to. Yes, we all want to drive on good roads, but we don’t want to be in a situation when the assistance of a police officer is needed. Most of us wants to have nothing to do with prisons, which are also part of what this pooled fund finances.

There is a pattern in the way that pooled funds work. That pattern sums up to the residual difference between the insurance premiums actually collected, and the actual damages to be paid. A successful insurer manages to market his contracts in sufficiently big an amount so as to have a surplus of premiums collected over the damages to be paid. The part of premiums collected, which is supposed to pay for damages, is the technical reserve of the pooled fund. The residual surplus of premiums collected, over the technical reserve for damages, is de facto an investment fund, which brings a financial yield.

Most types of insurance are based on the scarcity of occurrence across space. Hurricanes do damage to just some of us, but many are willing to insure against.

There is a special type of insurance, usually observable as those special contracts called ‘life insurance’. Life insurance contracts are about death and severe illness rather than about life. When you think about it, those contracts insure a type of events, which are certainly going to happen. In ‘ordinary’ insurance we pool funds for events scarce across space: we don’t know where the hurricane is going to hit. In life insurance, we pool funds for financing occurrences 100% bound to happen to everyone, we just don’t know when.

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

More and more money just in case. Educational about money and monetary systems

 

My editorial on You Tube

 

Here comes the next, hopefully educational piece in Fundamentals of Finance. This time it is about money. Money strictly speaking. This is probably one of the hardest. Money is all around us, whether we have it or not. How to explain something so pervasive? I think the best way is to stick to facts, in the first place. I take my wallet. What’s inside? There is some cash, there is a debit card, and two credit cards. Oh, yes, and there is that payment app, SkyCash, on my phone. All that, i.e. cash + credit cards + debit card + payment app, is the money I am walking around with.

How to explain things which seem really hard to explain? One possible way is to ask THOSE questions. I mean those stupid, out of place questions. One such question is just nocking at the door of my consciousness. Are all these forms of money in my wallet just different forms of essentially the same thing, or are they rather essentially different things which just take a similar form? I mean, if this is all money, why is there not just one form of money? Why are there many forms? Why don’t I use just cash, or just a payment app? See? If anyone was in any doubt as for whether I can ask a really stupid question, here is the answer. Yes, I can.

Now, I need the really hard answer, I mean the answer to that stupid question. I observe things and try to figure something out. I observe my credit card, for example. What is that? It is a technology that allows me to tap into a credit account that a bank has allowed me. Which means that the bank studied me, and compared me to a bunch of other people, and they decided that I have a certain borrowing capacity, i.e. I am able to generate sufficient a stream of income over time to pay back a certain amount of credit. When I use a credit card, I use my future income. If this is a technology, there must have been need for its massive use. We usually make technologies for things that happen recurrently. Banks recurrently assess the amount of credit they can extend to non-bank people, and they take care of securing some kind of technology to do so. Here comes an important distinction in plastic, namely that between a credit card and a debit card. A debit card is a technology that allows me to tap into my own current bank account, which is different from my credit card account. I trust the bank with recording a certain type of transactions I make. These transactions are transfers to and from my current account. The bank is my book keeper, and, as far as a current account strictly spoken is concerned, it is a smart book keeper. I cannot make more transfers from my current account than I receive onto it. It is book keeping with a safety valve. Banks recurrently keep the record of financial transactions that people enter into, they take care of preventing negative balance on those transactions, and the temporary bottom line of such transactions is the current balance on the same people’s current accounts.

 

Good, now comes cash money. Those notes and coins I have in my wallet are any good for payment because a special bank, the Central Bank of my country, printed and minted them, put them in circulation, and guarantees their nominal (face) value. Guaranteeing means that the Central Bank can be held liable of the total nominal value of all the notes and coins in circulation. This means, in turn, that the Central Bank needs to hold assets of similar liquidity, just to balance the value of cash guaranteed. When I use cash, I indirectly use a fraction of those liquid assets held by the central bank. What kind of assets has a similar liquidity to money? Well, money, of course. The Central Bank can extend credit to commercial banks, and thus holding claims on the money those banks hold. The Central Bank can also buy the cash money guaranteed by other central banks, mostly those reliable ones. We have another behavioural pattern: governments form central banks, and those central banks hold some highly liquid assets, and they use those highly liquid assets to back a certain amount of cash they put in circulation.

Now, there is that beast called « FinTech » and all them Payment Apps we can use, like Apple Wallet. I can use a payment app in two ways: I can connect a credit card to it, or I can directly hold a monetary balance in it. Anyway, I need to register an account, and give it some liquidity. When I pay through connection with my credit card, the Payment App is just an extension of the same technology as the one in the card. On the other hand, when I hold a monetary balance with a payment app, that balance is a claim of mine on the operator of the app. That means the operator has a liability to me, and they need to hold liquid assets to balance that liability. By the way, when a bank holds my current account, the temporary balance on that account is also my claim on the bank, and the bank needs to hold some highly liquid assets to balance my current balance with them. Here comes an even more general behavioural pattern. Some institutions, called financial institutions, like commercial banks, central banks, and operators of FinTech utilities, are good at assessing the future liquidity in other agents, and hold highly liquid assets that allow them to be liable to third persons as for holding, and keeping operational, specific accounts of liabilities: current accounts and cash in circulation.

Those highly liquid assets held by financial institutions need to be similar in their transactional pattern to the liabilities served. They need to be various forms of money. A bank can extend me a credit card, because they have another bank extends them an even bigger credit card. A central bank can maintain cash in circulation because it can trust in the value of other currencies in circulation. Looks like a loop? Well, yes, ‘cause it is a loop. Monetary systems are made of trusted agents who are trusted precisely as for their capacity to maintain a reliable balance between what they owe and what they have claims on. Historically, financial institutions emerged as agents who always pay their debts.

 

Good, this is what them financial institutions do about money. What do I do about money? I hold it and I spend it. When I think about it, I hold much more than I spend. Even if I count just my current wallet, i.e. all those forms of liquidity I walk around with, it is much more than I need for my current expenses. Why do I hold something I don’t immediately need? Perhaps because I think I might need it. There is some sort of uncertainty ahead of me, and I more or less consciously assume that holding more money than I immediately need can help me facing those contingencies. It might be positive or negative. I might have to pay for sudden medical care, or I might be willing to enter into some sudden business deals. Some of the money I hold corresponds to a quantity of goods and services I am going to purchase immediately, and another part of my money is there just to assure I might be able to buy more if I need.

When I focus on the money I hold just in case, I can see another distinction. I just walk around with some extra money, and I hold a different balance of extra money in the form of savings, i.e. I have it stored somewhere, and I assume I don’t spend it now. When I use money to meet uncertainty, the latter is scalable and differentiated. There are future expenditures, usually in a more distant future, which I attempt to provide for by saving. There are others, sort of more diffuse and seemingly more immediate, which I just hold some money for in my current wallet. We use money to meet uncertainty and risk, and we adapt our use of money to our perception of that uncertainty and risk.

Let’s see how Polish people use money. To that end, I use the statistics available with the National Bank of Poland as well as those published by the World Bank. You can see a synthetic picture in the two graphs below. In the first one, you can see the so-called broad money (all the money we hold) in relation to the GDP, or to Gross Domestic Product. The GDP is supposed to represent the real amount of goods and services supplied in the country over 1 year. Incidentally, the way we compute GDP implies that it reflects the real amount of all final goods and services purchased over one year. Hence, that proportion between money supplied and GDP is that between the money we hold, and the things we buy. You can see, in the graph, that in Poland (it is the same a bit all around the world, by the way) we tend to hold more and more money in relation to the things we buy. Conclusion: we hold more and more money just in case.

In the second graph below, you can see the structure of broad money supplied in Poland, split into the so-called monetary aggregates: cash in circulation, current account money, and term deposits in money. You can see current account money gently taking over the system, with the cash money receding, and deposits sort of receding as well, still holding a larger position in the system. It looks as if we were adapting our way of using money to a more and more intense perception of diffuse, hardly predictable risks.

 

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

Unconditional claim, remember? Educational about debt-based securities

My editorial on You Tube

 

Here comes another piece of educational content, regarding the fundamentals of finance, namely a short presentation of debt-based securities. As I will be discussing that topic,  here below, I will compare those financial instruments to equity-based securities, which I already discussed in « Finding the right spot in that flow: educational about equity-based securities ».

In short, debt-based securities are financial instruments which transform a big chunk of debt, thus a big obligatory contract, into a set of small, tradable pieces, and give to that debt more liquidity.

In order to understand how debt-based securities work in finance, it is a good thing to put a few clichés on their head and make them hold that stance. First of all, we normally associate debt with a relation of power: the CREDITOR, or the person who lends to somebody else, has a dominant position over the DEBTOR, who borrows. Whilst being sometimes true, it is true just sometimes, and it is just one point of view. Debt can be considered as a way of transferring capital from entity A to entity B. Entity A has more cash than they currently need, whilst B has less. Entity A can transfer the excess of cash to B, only they need a contractual base to do it in a civilized way. In my last educational, regarding equity-based securities, I presented a way of transferring capital in exchange of a conditional claim on B’s assets, and of a corresponding decisional power: that would be investing in B’s equity. Another way is to acquire an unconditional claim on B’s future cash flows, and this is debt. Historically, both ways have been used and developed into specific financial instruments.

Anyway, the essential concept of debt-based securities is to transform one big, obligatory claim of one entity onto another entity into many small pieces, each expressed as a tradable deed (document). How the hell is it possible to transform a debt – thus future money that is not there yet – into securities? Here come two important, general concepts of finance: liquidity, and security. Liquidity, in financial terms, is something that we spontaneously associate with being able to pay whatever we need to pay in the immediate. The boss of a company can say they have financial liquidity when they have enough cash in their balance sheet to pay the bills currently on the desk. If some of those bills cannot be paid (not enough cash), the boss can say ‘Sorry, not enough liquidity’.

You can generalize from there: liquidity is the capacity to enter into new economic transactions, and to fulfil obligations resulting from such transactions. In markets that we, humans, put in place, there is a peculiar phenomenon to notice: we swing between various levels of required liquidity. In some periods, people in that market will be like immerged in routine. They will repeat the same transactions over and over again, in recurrent amounts. It is like an average Kowalski (the Polish equivalent of the English average Smith, or the French average Dupont) paying their electricity bills. Your electricity bill comes in the form of a six-month plan of instalments. Each month you will have to pay the same, fixed amount, which results from the last reading of your electricity counter. That amount is most likely to be similar to the amounts from previous six-month periods, unless you have just decided to grow some marijuana and you need extra electricity for those greenhouse lamps. If you manage to keep your head above the water, in day-to-day financial terms, you have probably incorporated those payments for electricity into your monthly budget, more or less consciously. You don’t need extra liquidity to meet those obligations. This is the state of a market, when it runs on routine transactions.

Still, there are times when a lot of new business is to be done. New technologies are elbowing their way into our industry, or a new trade agreement has been signed with another country, or the government had the excellent idea of forcing every entity in the market to equip themselves with that absolutely-necessary-thingy-which-absolutely-incidentally-is-being-marketed-by-the-minister’s-cousin. When we need to enter into new transactions, or when we just need to be ready for entering them, we need a reserve of liquidity, i.e. we need additional capacity to transact. Our market has entered into a period of heightened need for liquidity.

When I lend to someone a substantial amount of money in a period of low need for liquidity, I can just sit and wait until they pay me back. No hurry. On the other hand, when I lend during a period of increased need for liquidity, my approach is different: I want to recoup my capital as soon as possible. My debtor, i.e. the person which I have lent to, cannot pay me back immediately. If they could, they would not need to borrow from me. Stands to reason. What I can do is to express that lending-borrowing transaction as an exchange of securities against money.

You can find an accurate description of that link between actual business, its required liquidity, and all the lending business in: Adam Smith – “An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth of Nations”, Book II: Of The Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock, Chapter IV: Of Stock Lent At Interest: “Almost all loans at interest are made in money, either of paper, or of gold and silver; but what the borrower really wants, and what the lender readily supplies him with, is not the money, but the money’s worth, or the goods which it can purchase. If he wants it as a stock for immediate consumption, it is those goods only which he can place in that stock. If he wants it as a capital for employing industry, it is from those goods only that the industrious can be furnished with the tools, materials, and maintenance necessary for carrying on their work. By means of the loan, the lender, as it were, assigns to the borrower his right to a certain portion of the annual produce of the land and labour of the country, to be employed as the borrower pleases.”

Here, we come to the concept of financial security. Anything in the future is subject to uncertainty and risk. We don’t know how exactly things are going to happen. This generates risk. Future events can meet my expectations, or they can do me harm. If I can sort of divide both my expectations, and the possible harm, into small pieces, and make each such small piece sort of independent from other pieces, I create a state of dispersed expectations, and dispersed harm. This is the fundamental idea of a security. How can I create mutual autonomy between small pieces of my future luck or lack thereof? By allowing people to trade those pieces independently from each other.

It is time to explain how the hell can we give more liquidity to debt by transforming it into securities. First things first, let’s see the typical ways of doing it: a note, and a bond. A note, AKA promissory note, or bill of exchange, in its most basic appearance is a written, unconditional promise to pay a certain amount of money to whoever presents the note on a given date. You can see it in the graphic below.

Now, those of you, who, hopefully, paid attention in the course of microeconomics, might ask: “Whaaait a minute, doc! Where is the interest on that loan? You told us: there ain’t free money…”. Indeed, there ain’t. Notes were invented long ago. The oldest ones we have in European museums date back to the 12th century A.D. Still, given what we know about the ways of doing business in the past, they had been used even further back. As you might know, it was frequently forbidden by the law to lend money at interest. It was called usury, it was considered at least as a misdemeanour, if not a crime, and you could even be hanged for that. In the world of Islamic Finance, lending at interest is forbidden even today.

One of the ways to bypass the ban on interest-based lending is to calculate who much money will that precise interest make on that precise loan. I lend €9000 at 12%, for one year, and it makes €9000 *12% = €1 080. I lend €9000, for one year, and I make my debtor liable for €10 080. Interest? Who’s talking about interest? It is ordinary discount!

Discount is the difference between the nominal value of a financial instrument (AKA face value), and its actual price in exchange, thus the amount of money you can have in exchange of that instrument.

A few years ago, I found that same pattern in an innocently-looking contract, which was underpinning a loan that me and my wife were taking for 50% of a new car. The person who negotiated the deal at the car dealer’s announced joyfully: ‘This is a zero-interest loan. No interest!’. Great news, isn’t it? Still, as I was going through the contract, I found that we have to pay, at the signature, a ‘contractual fee’. The fee was strangely precise, I mean there were grosze (Polish equivalent of cents) after the decimal point. I did my maths: that ‘contractual fee’ was exactly and rigorously equal to the interest we would have to pay on that loan, should it be officially interest-bearing at ordinary, market rates.

The usage of discount instead of interest points at an important correlate of notes, and debt-based securities in general: risk. That scheme with pre-calculated interest included into the face value of the note is any good when I can reliably predict when exactly will the debtor pay back (buy the note back). Moreover, as the discount is supposed to reflect pre-calculated interest, it also reflects that part of the interest rate, which accounts for credit risk.

There are 1000 borrowers, who borrow from a nondescript number of lenders. Each loan bears a principal (i.e. nominal amount) of €3000, which makes a total market of €3 000 000 lent and borrowed. Out of those 1000, a certain number is bound to default on paying back. Let it be 4%. It makes 4% * 1000 * €3000 = €120 000, which, spread over the whole population of borrowers makes €120 000/ 1000 = €120, or €120/€3000 = 4%. Looks like a logical loop, and for a good reason: you cannot escape it. In a large set of people, some will default on their obligations. This is a fact. Their collective default is an aggregate financial risk – credit risk – which has to be absorbed by the market, somehow. The simplest way to absorb it is to make each borrower pay a small part of it. When I take a loan, in a bank, the interest rate I pay always reflects the credit risk in the whole population of borrowers. When I issue a note, the discount I have to give to my lender will always include the financial risk that recurrently happens in the given market.

The discount rate is a price of debt, just as the interest rate. Both can be used, and the prevalence of one or the other depends on the market. Whenever debt gets massively securitized, i.e. transformed into tradable securities, discount becomes somehow handier and smoother to use. Another quote from invaluable Adam Smith sheds some light on this issue (

Adam Smith – “An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth of Nations”, Book II: Of The Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock, Chapter IV: Of Stock Lent At Interest): “As the quantity of stock to be lent at interest increases, the interest, or the price which must be paid for the use of that stock, necessarily diminishes, not only from those general causes which make the market price of things commonly diminish as their quantity increases, but from other causes which are peculiar to this particular case. As capitals increase in any country, the profits which can be made by employing them necessarily diminish. It becomes gradually more and more difficult to find within the country a profitable method of employing any new capital. There arises, in consequence, a competition between different capitals, the owner of one endeavouring to get possession of that employment which is occupied by another; but, upon most occasions, he can hope to justle that other out of this employment by no other means but by dealing upon more reasonable terms.”

The presence of financial risk, and the necessity to account for it whilst maintaining proper liquidity in the market, brought two financial inventions: endorsement, and routed notes. Notes used to be (and still are) issued for a relatively short time, usually not longer than 1 year. If the lender needs to have their money back before the due date of the note, they can do something called endorsement: they can present that note as their own to a third party, who will advance them money in exchange. Presenting a note as my own means making myself liable for up to 100% of the original, i.e signing the note, with a date. You can find an example in the graphic below.

Endorsement used to be a normal way of assuring liquidity in the market financed with notes. Endorsers’ signatures made a chain of liability, ordered by dates. The same scheme is used today in cryptocurrencies, as the chain of hash-tagged digital signatures. Another solution was to put in the system someone super-reliable, like a banker. Such a trusted payer, who, on their part, had tons of reserve money to provide liquidity, made the whole game calmer and less risky, and thus the price of credit (the discount rate) was lower. The way of putting a banker in the game was to write them in the note as the entity liable for payment. Such a note was designated as a routed one, or as a draft. Below, I am presenting an example.

As banks entered the game of securitized debt, it opened the gates of hell, i.e. the way to paper money. Adam Smith was very apprehensive about it (Adam Smith – “Wealth of Nations”, Book II: Of The Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock, Chapter II: Of Money, Considered As A Particular Branch Of The General Stock Of The Society, Or Of The Expense Of Maintaining The National Capital”): “The trader A in Edinburgh, we shall suppose, draws a bill upon B in London, payable two months after date. In reality B in Lon- don owes nothing to A in Edinburgh; but he agrees to accept of A ‘s bill, upon condition, that before the term of payment he shall redraw upon A in Edinburgh for the same sum, together with the interest and a commission, another bill, payable likewise two months after date. B accordingly, before the expiration of the first two months, redraws this bill upon A in Edinburgh; who, again before the expiration of the second two months, draws a second bill upon B in London, payable likewise two months after date; and before the expiration of the third two months, B in London redraws upon A in Edinburgh another bill payable also two months after date. This practice has sometimes gone on, not only for several months, but for several years together, the bill always returning upon A in Edinburgh with the accumulated interest and com- mission of all the former bills. The interest was five per cent. in the year, and the commission was never less than one half per cent. on each draught. This commission being repeated more than six times in the year, whatever money A might raise by this expedient might necessarily have cost him something more than eight per cent. in the year and sometimes a great deal more, when either the price of the commission happened to rise, or when he was obliged to pay compound interest upon the interest and commission of former bills. This practice was called raising money by circulation”

Notes were quick to issue, but a bit clumsy when it came to financing really big ventures, like governments. When you are a king, and you need cash for waging war on another king, issuing a few notes can be tricky. Same in the corporate sector. When we are talking about really big money, making the debt tradable is just one part, and another part is to make it nicely spread over the landscape. This is how bonds came into being, as financial instruments. The idea of bonds was to make the market of debt a bit steadier across space and over time. Notes worked well for short-term borrowing, but long-term projects, which required financing for 5 or 6 years, encountered a problem of price, i.e. discount rate. If I issue a note to back a loan for 5 years, the receiver of the note, i.e. the lender, knows they will have to wait really long to see their money back. Below, in the graphic, you have the idea explained sort of in capital letters.

The first thing is the face value. The note presented earlier proudly displayed €10 000 of face value. The bond is just €100. You divide €10 000 into 100 separate bonds, each tradable independently, at you have something like a moving, living mass of things, flowing, coming and going. Yep, babe. Liquidity, liquidity, and once again liquidity. A lot of small debts flows much more smoothly than one big.

The next thing is the interest. You can see it here designated as “5%, annuity”, with the word ‘coupon’ added. If we have the interest rate written explicitly, it means the whole thing was invented when lending at interest became a normal thing, probably in the late 1700ies. The term ‘annuity’ means that every year, those 5% are being paid to the holder of the bond, like a fixed annual income. This is where the ‘word’ coupon comes from. Back in the day, when bonds were paper documents (they are not anymore), they had detachable strips, as in a cinema ticket, one strip per year. When the issuer of the bond paid annuities to the holders, those strips were being cut off.

The maturity date of the bond is the moment, when the issuer is supposed to buy it back. It is a general convention that bonds are issued for many years. This is when the manner of counting and compound the interest plays a role, and this is when we need to remind one fundamental thing – bonds are made for big borrowers. Anyone can make a note, and many different anyones can make it circulate, by endorsement or else. Only big entities can issue bonds, and because they are big, bonds are usually considered as safe placements, endowed with low risk. Low risk means low price of debt. When I can convince many small lenders that I, the big borrower, am rock solid in my future solvency, I can play on that interest rate. When I guarantee an annuity, it can be lower than the interest paid only at the very end of maturity, i.e. in 2022 as regards this case. When all around us all of them loans are given at 10% or 12%, an annuity backed with the authority of a big institution can be just 5%, and no one bothers.

Over time, bonds have dominated the market of debt. They are more flexible, and thus assure more liquidity. They offer interesting possibilities as for risk management and discount. When big entities issue bonds, it is the possibility for other big entities to invest large amounts of capital at fixed, guaranteed rate of return, i.e. the interest rates. Think about it: you have an investment the size of a big, incorporated business, and yet you have a risk-free return. Unconditional claim, remember? Hence, over time, what professional investors started doing was building a portfolio of investment with equity-based securities for high yield and high risk, plain lending contracts for moderate yield (high interest rate) and moderate risk, and, finally, bonds for low yield and low risk. Creating a highly liquid market of debt, by putting a lot of bonds into circulation, was like creating a safe harbour for investors. Whatever crazy s**t they were after, they could compensate the resulting risk through the inclusion of bonds in their portfolios.

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