Consumer credit may seem like a fairly new invention – but it’s actually been around for more than 5,000 years!
In fact, many millennia before the credit score became ubiquitous, there is historical evidence that cultures around the world were borrowing for various reasons. From the writings in Hammurabi’s Code to the exchanges documented by the Ancient Romans, we know that credit was used for purposes such as getting enough silver to buy a property or for agricultural loans made to farmers.
Consumer Credit: 3,500 B.C. to Today
In today’s infographic from Equifax, we look at the long history of consumer credit – everything from the earliest writings of antiquity to the modern credit boom that started in the 20th century.
Consumer credit has evolved considerably from the early days.
Over the course of several millennia, there have been credit booms, game-changing innovations, and even periods such as the Dark Ages when the practice of charging interest (also known as “usury”) was considered immoral by some people.
A Timeline of Consumer Credit
Below is a timeline of the significant events that have helped lead to the modern consumer credit boom, in which Americans now have over $12.4 trillion borrowed through mortgages, credit cards, student loans, auto loans, and other types of credit.
The Ancients and Credit
3,500 BC – Sumer
Sumer was the first urban civilization – with about 89% of its population living in cities. It is thought that here consumer loans, used for agricultural purposes, were first used.
1,800 BC – Babylon
The Code of Hammurabi was written, formalizing the first known laws around credit. Hammurabi established the maximum interest rates that could be used legally: 33.3% per year on loans of grain, and 20% per year on loans of silver. To be valid, loans had to be witnessed by a public official and recorded as a contract.
50 BC – The Roman Republic
Around this time, Cicero noted that his neighbor bought 625 acres of land for 11.5 million sesterces.
Did this person literally carry 11.5 tons of coins through the streets of Rome? No, it was done through credit and paper. Cicero writes “nomina facit, negotium conficit” – or, “he uses credit to complete the purchase”.
Moral Concerns About Lending
800 – The Dark Ages in Europe
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, economic activity grinded to a halt. The Church even banned usury, the practice of charging interest on loans, for all laymen under Charlemagne’s rule (768-814 AD).
1500 – The Age of Discovery
As European explorers and merchants begin trade missions to faraway lands, the need for capital and credit increases.
1545 – England
After the Reformation, the first country to establish a legal rate of interest was England in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII. The rate was set at 10%.
1787 – England
Philosopher Jeremy Bentham writes a treatise called “A Defense of Usury”, arguing that restrictions on interest rates harm the ability to raise capital for innovation. If risky, new ventures cannot be funded, then growth becomes limited.
The Birth of Modern Consumer Credit
1803 – England
Credit reporting itself originated in England in the early 19th century. The earliest available account is that of a group of English tailors that came together to swap information on customers who failed to settle their debts.
1826 – England
The Manchester Guardian Society is formed, and later begins issuing a monthly newsletter with information about people who fail to pay their debts.
1841 – New York
The Mercantile Agency is founded, and starts systemizing rumors about the character and assets held by debtors through a network of correspondents. Massive ledgers in New York City are made, though these reports were heavily subjective and biased.
1864 – New York
The Mercantile Agency is renamed the R. G. Dun and Company on the eve of the Civil War, and finalizes an alphanumeric system for tracking creditworthiness of companies that would remain in use until the twentieth century.
1899 – Atlanta
The Retail Credit Company was founded, and begins compiling an extensive list of creditworthy customers. Later on, the company would change its name to Equifax. Today, it is the oldest of the three major credit agencies today in the United States.
The Consumer Credit Boom
1908 – Detroit
Henry Ford’s Model T makes automobiles accessible to the “great multitude” of people, but they were still too expensive to buy with cash for most families.
1919 – Detroit
GM solves this problem by loaning consumers the money they need to buy a new car. General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) is founded and popularizes the idea of installment plan financing. Consumers can now get a new car with just a 35% downpayment at time of financing.
1930 – United States
By this time, efficient U.S. factories are pumping out cheaper consumer products and appliances. Following the lead of GM, now washing machines, furniture, refrigerators, phonographs, and radios can be bought on installment plans. It’s also worth noting that in this period, 2/3 of all autos are bought on installment plans.
The First in Big Data
1950 – United States
By 1950, typical middle-class Americans already had revolving credit accounts at different merchants. Maintaining several different cards and monthly payments was inconvenient, and created a new opportunity.
At the same time, Diners Club introduces their charge card, which helps open the floodgates for other consumer credit products.
1955 – United States
Early credit reporters use millions of index cards, sorted in a massive filing system, to keep track of consumers around the country. To get the latest information, agencies would scour local newspapers for notices of arrests, promotions, marriages, and deaths, attaching this information to individual credit files.
1958 – United States
BankAmericard (now Visa) is “dropped” in Fresno, California. American Express and Mastercard soon follow, offering Americans general credit for a wide range of purchases.
1960 – United States
At a time when the technology was limited to filing cabinets, the postage meter, and the telephone, American credit bureaus issued 60 million credit reports in a single year.
1964– United States
The Association of Credit Bureaus in the U.S. conducts the first studies into the application of computer technologies to credit reporting. Accuracy of data is also improved around this time by standardizing credit application forms.
1970 – United States
The first Fair Credit Reporting Act is passed in the United States. It establishes a standard legal framework for credit reporting agencies.
1980s – United States
The three biggest credit bureaus attain universal coverage across the country.
1989 – United States
The FICO score is introduced, and quickly becomes a standard system to measure credit scores based on objective factors and data.
2006 – United States
VantageScore is created through a joint-venture between the top three credit scoring agencies. This new consumer credit-scoring model is used by 10% of the market, and 6 of the 10 largest banks use VantageScore.
The Information Age has enabled a new era in consumer credit and assessing risk – and today, credit reports are used to inform decisions about housing, employment, insurance, and the cost of utilities.
Learn more about how data, the internet, and modern computing is changing credit in Part 2 of this series.
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News Explainer: The Economic Crisis in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is currently in an economic crisis with over $50 billion in debt and consumer inflation at 39%. So how did they get here?
Explained: the Economic Crisis in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is currently in an economic and political crisis of mass proportions, recently culminating in a default on its debt payments. The country is also nearly at empty on their foreign currency reserves, decreasing the ability to purchase imports and driving up domestic prices for goods.
There are several reasons for this crisis and the economic turmoil has sparked mass protests and violence across the country. This visual breaks down some of the elements that led to Sri Lanka’s current situation.
A Timeline of Events
The ongoing problems in Sri Lanka have bubbled up after years of economic mismanagement. Here’s a brief timeline looking at just some of the recent factors.
In 2009, a decades-long civil war in the country ended and the government’s focus turned inward towards domestic production. However, a stress on local production and sales, instead of exports, increased the reliance on foreign goods.
Unprompted cuts were introduced on income tax in 2019, leading to significant losses in government revenue, draining an already cash-strapped country.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world causing border closures globally and stifling one of Sri Lanka’s most lucrative industries. Prior to the pandemic, in 2018, tourism contributed nearly 5% of the country’s GDP and generated over 388,000 jobs. In 2020, tourism’s share of GDP had dropped to 0.8%, with over 40,000 jobs lost to that point.
Recently, the Sri Lankan government introduced a ban on foreign-made chemical fertilizers. The ban was meant to counter the depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves.
However, with only local, organic fertilizers available to farmers, a massive crop failure occurred and Sri Lankans were subsequently forced to rely even more heavily on imports, further depleting reserves.
In early April this year, massive protests calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, sparked in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo.
In May, pro-government supporters brutally attacked protesters. Subsequently, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of President Rajapaksa, stepped down and was replaced with former PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Recently, the government approved a four-day work week to allow citizens an extra day to grow food, as prices continue to shoot up. Food inflation increased over 57% in May.
Additionally, the increasing prices on grain caused by the war in Ukraine and rising fuel prices globally have played into an already dire situation in Sri Lanka.
The Key Information
“Our economy has completely collapsed.”
Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to Parliament last week.
One of the main causes of the economic crisis in Sri Lanka is the reliance on imports and the amount spent on them. Let’s take a look at the numbers:
- 2021 total imports = $20.6 billion USD
- 2022 total imports (to March) = $5.7 billion USD
In contrast, the most recent reported foreign currency reserve levels in the country were at an abysmal $50 million, having plummeted an astounding 99%, from $7.6 billion in 2019.
Some of the top imports in 2021, according to the country’s central bank were:
- Refined petroleum = $2.8 billion
- Textiles = $3.1 billion
- Chemical products = $1.1 billion
- Food & beverage = $1.7 billion
Of course, without the cash to purchase these goods from abroad, Sri Lankans face an increasingly drastic situation.
Additionally, the debt Sri Lanka has incurred is huge, further hampering their ability to boost their reserves. Recently, they defaulted on a $78 million loan from international creditors, and in total, they’ve borrowed $50.7 billion.
The largest source of their debt is by far due to market borrowings, followed closely by loans taken from the Asian Development Bank, China, and Japan, among others.
What it Means
Sri Lanka is home to more than 22 million people who are rapidly losing the ability to purchase everyday goods. Consumer inflation reached 39% at the end of May.
Due to power outages meant to save energy and fuel, schools are currently shuttered and children have nowhere to go during the day. Protesters calling for the president’s resignation have been camped in the capital for months, facing tear gas from police and backlash from president Rajapaksa’s supporters, but many have also responded violently to pushback.
India and China have agreed to send help to the country and the the International Monetary Fund recently arrived in the country to discuss a bailout. Additionally, the government has sent ministers to Russia to discuss a deal for discounted oil imports.
A Foreshadowing for Low Income Countries
Governments need foreign currency in order to purchase goods from abroad. Without the ability to purchase or borrow foreign currency, the Sri Lankan government cannot buy desperately needed imports, including food staples and fuel, causing domestic prices to rise.
Furthermore, defaults on loan payments discourage foreign direct investment and devalue the national currency, making future borrowing more difficult.
What’s happening in Sri Lanka may be an ominous preview of what’s to come in other low and middle-income countries, as the risk of debt distress continues to rise globally.
The Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) was implemented by G20 countries, suspending nearly $13 billion in debt from the start of the pandemic until late 2021.
Some DSSI and LIC countries facing a high risk of debt distress include Zambia, Ethiopia, and Tajikistan, to name a few.
Going forward, Sri Lanka’s next steps in managing this situation will either serve as a useful example for other countries at risk or a warning worth heeding.
Note: The debt breakdown in the main visualization represents total outstanding external debt owed to foreign creditors rather total debt.
Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country
Inflation rates are reaching multi-decade highs in some countries. How aggressive have central banks been with interest rate hikes?
Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country
Imagine today’s high inflation like a car speeding down a hill. In order to slow it down, you need to hit the brakes. In this case, the “brakes” are interest rate hikes intended to slow spending. However, some central banks are hitting the brakes faster than others.
This graphic uses data from central banks and government websites to show how policy interest rates and inflation rates have changed since the start of the year. It was inspired by a chart created by Macrobond.
How Do Interest Rate Hikes Combat Inflation?
To understand how interest rates influence inflation, we need to understand how inflation works. Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods. Over the last several months, this has occurred amid a surge in demand and supply chain disruptions worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In an effort to combat inflation, central banks will raise their policy rate. This is the rate they charge commercial banks for loans or pay commercial banks for deposits. Commercial banks pass on a portion of these higher rates to their customers, which reduces the purchasing power of businesses and consumers. For example, it becomes more expensive to borrow money for a house or car.
Ultimately, interest rate hikes act to slow spending and encourage saving. This motivates companies to increase prices at a slower rate, or lower prices, to stimulate demand.
Rising Interest Rates and Inflation
With inflation rates hitting multi-decade highs in some countries, many central banks have announced interest rate hikes. Below, we show how the inflation rate and policy interest rate have changed for select countries and regions since January 2022. The jurisdictions are ordered from highest to lowest current inflation rate.
|Jurisdiction||Jan 2022 Inflation||May 2022 Inflation||Jan 2022 Policy Rate||Jun 2022 Policy Rate|
The Euro area has 3 policy rates; the data above represents the main refinancing operations rate. Inflation data is as of May 2022 except for New Zealand and Australia, where the latest quarterly data is as of March 2022.
The U.S. Federal Reserve has been the most aggressive with its interest rate hikes. It has raised its policy rate by 1.5% since January, with half of that increase occurring at the June 2022 meeting. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said the committee would like to “do a little more front-end loading” to bring policy rates to normal levels. The action comes as the U.S. faces its highest inflation rate in 40 years.
On the other hand, the European Union is experiencing inflation of 8.1% but has not yet raised its policy rate. The European Central Bank has, however, provided clear forward guidance. It intends to raise rates by 0.25% in July, by a possibly larger increment in September, and with gradual but sustained increases thereafter. Clear forward guidance is intended to help people make spending and investment decisions, and avoid surprises that could disrupt markets.
Pacing Interest Rate Hikes
Raising interest rates is a fine balancing act. If central banks raise rates too quickly, it’s like slamming the brakes on that car speeding downhill: the economy could come to a standstill. This occurred in the U.S. in the 1980’s when the Federal Reserve, led by Chair Paul Volcker, raised the policy rate to 20%. The economy went into a recession, though the aggressive monetary policy did eventually tame double digit inflation.
However, if rates are raised too slowly, inflation could gather enough momentum that it becomes difficult to stop. The longer high price increases linger, the more future inflation expectations build. This can result in people buying more in anticipation of prices rising further, perpetuating high demand.
“There’s always a risk of going too far or not going far enough, and it’s going to be a very difficult judgment to make.” — Jerome Powell, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair
It’s worth noting that while central banks can influence demand through policy rates, this is only one side of the equation. Inflation is also being caused by supply chain issues, a problem that is more or less outside of the control of central banks.
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