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Interest Rates Explained: Nominal, Real, Effective, And More


Jan 6, 2024
Interest Rates Explained: Nominal Real Effective And MoreInterest Rates Explained: Nominal Real Effective And More

Interest Rates Explained: Nominal, Real, Effective, And More

The interest rate is the amount charged by a lender to a borrower on top of the principal for the use of assets. An interest rate also applies to the amount generated from a deposit account at a bank or credit union.

The interest rate is the amount charged by a lender to a borrower and is expressed as a percentage of the principal—the amount loaned. The annual percentage rate (APR) is the term used to describe the interest rate on a loan.

An interest rate can also be used for the amount earned from a savings account or certificate of deposit (CD) at a bank or credit union. The income generated on these deposit accounts is referred to as the annual percentage yield (APY).

The Key Takeaways

The interest rate is the amount charged by a lender to a borrower on top of the principal for the use of assets.

An interest rate also applies to the amount generated from a deposit account at a bank or credit union.

The majority of mortgages employ basic interest. Some loans, on the other hand, use compound interest, which is applied not only to the principle but also to the accumulated interest from prior periods.

A lender will charge a reduced interest rate to a borrower who is deemed low-risk. A loan with a high risk will have a higher interest rate.

The APY is the interest rate earned on a savings or CD at a bank or credit union. Compound interest is used in savings accounts and CDs.

Understanding Interest Rates

Interest is essentially a fee levied against the borrower for the use of an asset. Borrowed assets might include cash, consumer goods, vehicles, and real estate. As a result, an interest rate can be considered the “cost of money” – higher interest rates make borrowing the same amount of money more expensive.

Thus, interest rates apply to the majority of loan and borrowing activities. Individuals borrow money to buy houses, fund projects, start or fund enterprises, or pay for college. Loans are taken out by businesses to support capital projects and to grow their operations by purchasing fixed and long-term assets such as land, buildings, and machinery. Borrowed funds are repaid in either a flat sum or in monthly installments by a predetermined date.

In the case of loans, the interest rate is applied to the principal, which is the loan amount. The interest rate is the borrower’s debt cost and the lender’s rate of return. Because lenders seek compensation for the loss of use of the money during the loan time, the amount to be repaid is frequently greater than the amount borrowed. Instead of making a loan, the lender may have invested the funds over that period, generating income from the asset. The interest charged is the difference between the final repayment amount and the original loan.

When a lender considers a borrower to be low risk, the lender will normally charge a lower interest rate. If the borrower is deemed high risk, the interest rate charged will be higher, resulting in a more expensive loan.

What Are the Different Interest Rates?

The phrase “interest rate” is one of the most often used phrases in the fixed-income investment vocabulary. The many sorts of interest rates, such as real, nominal, effective, and annual, are separated by key economic variables that can assist individuals in becoming wiser consumers and investors.

Nominal Interest Rate.

Real Interest Rate.

Effective Interest Rate.

Fixed interest. 

Variable interest. 

Accrued interest.

Compound interest. 

1. Nominal Interest Rate 

The stated interest rate on a bond or loan represents the actual monetary price that borrowers pay lenders to use their money. If a loan’s nominal rate is 5%, borrowers can expect to pay $5 in interest for every $100 borrowed. Because it was originally stamped on the coupons redeemed by bondholders, this is commonly referred to as the coupon rate.

The stated interest rate of a bond or loan represents the actual monetary amount borrowers pay lenders to use their money. If the nominal rate on a loan is 5%, borrowers can expect to pay $5 in interest for every $100 borrowed. This is sometimes referred to as the coupon rate since it was originally stamped on the coupons redeemed by bondholders.

2. Real Interest Rate

The real interest rate is so termed because, unlike the nominal rate, it takes inflation into account to provide investors with a more realistic representation of their purchasing power after redeeming their positions. If an annual compounding bond has a nominal yield of 6% and the inflation rate is 4%, the real rate of interest is just 2%.

Real interest rates are critical for making sound financial decisions, particularly when it comes to investments and loans. When considering investment opportunities or borrowing costs, it is critical to evaluate the real interest rate to comprehend the underlying economic impact and how inflation may affect the return on investment or borrowing costs.

3. Effective Interest Rate

Investors and borrowers should also be aware of the effective interest rate, which takes into account the notion of compounding. For example, if a bond pays 6% yearly and compounds semiannually, an investor who invests $1,000 will receive $30 in interest payments after the first six months ($1,000 x.03) and $30.90 in interest payments after the second six months ($1,030 x.03). This investor will receive a total of $60.90 for the year. In this case, the nominal rate is 6%, but the effective rate is 6.09%.

Mathematically, the gap between the nominal and effective rates grows as the number of compounding periods within a given period increases.

4. Fixed interest

This refers to an interest rate that remains constant throughout the life of a loan, or at least as long as the terms are met.

Assume that you have a 5% fixed interest rate. This means that each time you make a payment, you will pay 5% of the loan’s outstanding principal. The lender is not permitted to adjust the interest rate based on market conditions or any other unilateral grounds.

It is crucial to note, however, that lenders frequently add provisions that allow them to change the interest rate if you are late or skip a payment. This is especially popular with credit cards, which sometimes offer very low fixed rates with the option of adjusting upward (quite upward) if you are even a day late paying your account.

Consumers frequently get a better deal with fixed interest rates. While a higher interest rate is feasible, in the long run, you’re usually better off obtaining a loan with known and certain terms rather than one with flexible terms.

5. Variable interest

This is an interest rate that can fluctuate during a loan.

Let’s imagine you have a variable interest rate of 5%. This implies that you begin by paying 5% of the loan’s outstanding principal each time payments are due, but the lender can adjust that rate at any moment during the loan’s duration. Your interest rate could be 6% next year, then drop to 4% the following year.

A lender can seldom, if ever, adjust variable interest rates at their discretion. Instead, the terms of your loan will specify the particular standards for calculating variable interest by your lender. A variable interest rate is often based on a set rate that is changed by some external benchmark. Banks typically utilize either the prime rate (an industry standard) or the federal funds rate.

As an example, your bank may provide you with a variable interest rate of 2% plus the prime rate. This means that if the prime rate is 4%, your loan’s interest rate will be 6%. Your interest rate will fall if the prime rate falls. If it rises, so will the interest rate on your loan.

Banks commonly use variable interest rates to try to protect themselves from market swings. It enables them to account for issues like inflation and rising interest rates, preventing them from being burdened with subprime loans. Variable interest rates are usually a bad offer for consumers for the same reason.

7. Accrued interest

This is the amount of interest that has accrued on an account during a payment period. It represents the disparity in the rates at which interest accumulates and payments are due.

Assume you have a $1,000 loan with a 5% basic annual interest rate. This means the borrower owes $50 per year, which is payable at the end of the year. The borrower will owe $25 in interest after six months. This is the amount of money that will have accumulated over the loan’s term but is not yet due.

Accrued interest is especially critical for loans with varying compounding and payment schedules. Assume your payments are due at the end of each month, but your loan compounds every day. (Some credit cards have a bad tendency to do this.) Your accrued interest will indicate the amount by which your loan grows each day, which is then compounded by your principal until the end of the month when payment is due.

8. Compound interest

This is when a product calculates your interest regularly and then adds it to the principal. It’s also known as “interest on interest.” It differs from simple interest in that the rate at which your interest is calculated differs from the rate at which your interest accrues.

Assume you take out a $1,000 loan with an annual interest rate of 5%. This loan comes in two varieties:

  • 5% annual, simple interest
  • 5% annual, compounded bi-annually

The initial form of this loan means that the word used to calculate your interest is the same as the term used to add it to your debt. The lender will charge you 5% for this loan once a year.

The second form of this loan calculates your interest annually but adds it to your debt twice a year. As a result, your lender will add the amount of interest that has accrued up to that point (2.5% in our example) to the amount you owe every six months. Six months later, they will repeat the process, but the interest will be higher because the principal has increased by the amount of your previous interest calculation.

Most loans have some sort of compound interest, and the rate at which your loan’s interest accumulates is critical.

Compound Interest and Savings Accounts

Compound interest is advantageous when accumulating money in a savings account. The interest collected on these accounts is compounded and is paid to the account holder as compensation for allowing the bank to use the deposited funds.

If you deposit $500,000 in a high-yield savings account, the bank can take $300,000 and use it as a mortgage loan. The bank compensates you by depositing 1% interest into your account each year. So, although the bank charges the borrower 4%, it gives the account holder 1%, netting it 3% in interest. In effect, savers give money to the bank, which then lends money to borrowers in exchange for interest.

Borrower’s Cost of Debt

While interest rates indicate interest income for the lender, they also represent the borrower’s cost of debt. Companies compare the cost of borrowing versus the cost of equity, such as dividend payments, to decide which funding source is the least expensive. Because most businesses raise capital by issuing debt or issuing stock, the cost of capital is calculated to establish the best capital structure.


Consumer loan interest rates are often expressed as an annual percentage rate (APR). This is the rate of return that lenders require in exchange for the ability to borrow money. The interest rate on a credit card, for example, is expressed as an APR. In our previous example, the APR for the mortgage or borrower is 4%. The APR does not account for compounded interest over the year.

The annual percentage yield (APY) is the interest rate earned on a savings account or CD at a bank or credit union. This interest rate accounts for compounding.

Applications of Nominal, Real, and Effective Rates

The interest rate on many financial instruments is stated as a nominal rate. For example, financial firms frequently use nominal interest rates to sell their loan or deposit products. Customers can easily comprehend the rate they will receive or pay without the need for modifications. Furthermore, the nominal interest rate that will be applied to the principal amount is specified in many financial contracts such as mortgages, personal loans, and credit cards.

When examining investment decisions, real rates are typically employed. Real interest rates are examined when analyzing investment opportunities (especially in fixed-income assets such as bonds or savings accounts) to estimate the actual buying power of the investment return after accounting for inflation. Real interest rates are more useful when planning for long-term financial goals such as retirement because they account for decreasing purchasing power. Furthermore, because various locations may be impacted by different macroeconomic policies, analyzing international investments may necessitate the use of real rates.

Nominal, Real, and Effective Rate Regulation

Many financial rules have been enacted to safeguard consumers, many of which focus on the concept of interest rate transparency and justice. Many countries have laws requiring financial firms to offer consumers clear and accessible information about interest rates. This covers both nominal and effective interest rates, as well as any fees or charges associated with the loan or investment that may or may not be related to these rates.

Around the world, there are numerous specific acts and laws. The Truth in Lending Act of the United States mandates lenders to disclose the APR to borrowers. The effective interest rate is represented by the APR, which includes not only the nominal rate but also any additional fees or charges associated with the loan.

The Consumer Credit Act is a law in the United Kingdom that governs consumer credit agreements and protects borrowers. It applies to a variety of credit arrangements, such as loans, credit cards, and hire-purchase agreements. The Act compels lenders to offer consumers with clear and transparent information regarding the cost of credit, including the total amount repayable, interest rate, and any fees or charges. It establishes standards for credit advertising and marketing techniques to protect customers from being deceived or subjected to unfair practices.

Special Considerations

Negative Interest Rates.

TIPS and Other Alternatives.

1. Negative Interest Rates.

If the inflation rate exceeds the nominal rate of an investment, real interest rates may go into negative territory. If the inflation rate is 4%, a bond with a nominal rate of 3% will have a real interest rate of -1%. This equation can be used to compute a comparison of real and nominal interest rates:

RR=Nominal Interest Rate  Inflation Rate

where: RR = Real Rate of Return

This method can be used to generate a variety of economic conditions that lenders, borrowers, and investors can use to make more educated financial decisions.

  • When inflation rates are negative (deflationary), real rates typically exceed nominal rights. When inflation rates are high, the opposite is true.
  • According to one theory, the inflation rate moves in lockstep with nominal interest rates over time, implying that real interest rates become constant over lengthy periods. As a result, investors with longer time horizons may be able to judge their investment results more correctly on an inflation-adjusted basis.

2. TIPS and Other Alternatives

Investors seeking inflation protection in fixed-income securities may consider Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), which pay inflation-indexed interest rates.3 As a result, rather than pursuing nominal returns that may erode purchasing power, investors can target a certain real rate of return (which accounts for inflation). Alternatively, mutual funds that invest in bonds, mortgages, and senior secured loans that pay floating interest rates fluctuate with current rates regularly.

Examples of Nominal, Real, and Effective Rates

Consider a car loan as a real-world example to demonstrate real, nominal, and effective interest rates. You want to buy a car and decide to obtain a car loan from a bank. The bank provides the following terms:

      • Nominal Interest Rate: 6% per year
      • Loan Term: 5 years (60 months)
      • Loan Compounding Frequency: Monthly
      • Inflation Rate: 2%

The stated yearly interest rate, in this example 6%, is the nominal rate. This rate, however, is presented on an annual basis and does not account for the effect of compounding over the life of the loan. It is important to note that the nominal rate is normally indicated when you sign your auto loan paperwork.

The effective rate takes into consideration the effect of compounding. The compounding frequency in this case is monthly. We use the following formula to compute the effective interest rate:

Effective Interest Rate = (1 + (Nominal Interest Rate / Number of Compounding Periods))^(Number of Compounding Periods) – 1

The calculation in this situation is Effective Interest Rate =  (1 + (6% / 12))^(12) – 1 ≈ 6.17%. This rate shows the true annual cost of borrowing, taking into account monthly compounding.

The inflation rate must be considered when calculating the real rate. The real interest rate is 4% (6% nominal interest rate less 2% inflation).

The primary takeaway from this example is to understand how one rate might be significantly different from another. These three rates, which are all correct and apply to the same loan, range from 4% to 6.17%. Even one to two percentage points can add up to hundreds of dollars in extra charges over the life of an auto loan; this is exacerbated for larger loans such as mortgages.

Interest Rates and Discrimination

Despite legislation prohibiting discriminatory lending practices, such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), institutional racism persists in the United States. According to a Realtor.com analysis published in July 2020, homebuyers in largely Black communities are offered mortgages with higher rates than purchasers in predominantly White ones. According to its research of 2018 and 2019 mortgage data, rising rates added over $10,000 in interest over the life of a typical 30-year fixed-rate loan.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which enforces the ECOA, released a Request for Information in July 2020, asking public opinions to identify opportunities to improve what the ECOA does to assure nondiscriminatory access to credit. “While clear standards help protect African Americans and other minorities, the CFPB must back them up with action to ensure lenders and others follow the law,” said Kathleen L. Kraninger, the agency’s director.

What Factors Influence Changes in Nominal Interest Rates?

Nominal interest rates can be impacted by several economic factors, including central bank policies, inflation expectations, credit demand and supply, overall economic development, and market circumstances. When the economy is flourishing and demand for credit is high, nominal interest rates may rise, and vice versa during economic downturns.

Why Do Effective Interest Rates Matter for Borrowers?

Borrowers care about effective interest rates because they show the full cost of borrowing, including compounding. Borrowers can use effective rates to effectively compare loan offers and understand the total amount owed during the loan duration.

How Do Central Banks Use Nominal and Real Interest Rates in Monetary Policy?

To impact economic activity, central banks establish nominal interest rates as part of their monetary policy. They utilize real interest rates to measure their policy position after accounting for inflation, so ensuring consistent economic growth and price stability.

How Do Real Interest Rates Impact Retirement Planning?

Real interest rates are important in retirement planning because they influence the growth of savings and investments over time. Positive real interest rates can help retirees keep their purchasing power by ensuring that their investments increase faster than inflation. Negative real rates, on the other hand, may cause a drop in the real value of savings and investments, demanding careful planning to offset inflationary consequences.

How Are Interest Rates Determined?

Bank interest rates are governed by a variety of factors, including the status of the economy. The interest rate set by a country’s central bank (for example, the Federal Reserve in the United States) is used by each bank to determine the APR range it offers. When the central bank raises interest rates, the cost of debt rises. When the cost of debt is high, people are discouraged from borrowing, and consumer demand declines. Furthermore, interest rates tend to grow in tandem with inflation.

To prevent inflation, banks may impose higher reserve requirements, create a tighter money supply, or increase credit demand. People like to save money in a high-interest rate environment because the savings rate is higher. The stock market suffers because investors would prefer to take advantage of greater savings rates than invest in the stock market, which offers lower returns. Businesses also have limited access to debt money, which leads to economic recession.

Because borrowers may obtain loans at cheap interest rates, economies are frequently spurred during periods of low-interest rates. Because savings interest rates are low, firms and individuals are more likely to spend and invest in riskier investment vehicles such as stocks. This spending stimulates the economy and injects capital into the markets, resulting in economic growth. While governments want lower interest rates, they eventually cause market disequilibrium, in which demand exceeds supply, resulting in inflation. Interest rates rise when inflation occurs, which may be related to Walras’ law.

Why Are Interest Rates on 30-year Loans Higher than 15-year Loans?

Interest rates are determined by the risk of default and the opportunity cost. Longer-term loans and debts are inherently riskier because the borrower has more time to default. At the same time, the opportunity cost increases over longer periods because the principal is locked up and cannot be used for anything else.

How Does the Fed Use Interest Rates in the Economy?

Interest rates are used as a monetary policy tool by the Federal Reserve and other central banks throughout the world. The central bank can impact many other interest rates, such as those on personal loans, corporate loans, and mortgages, by increasing the cost of borrowing among commercial banks. This raises the cost of borrowing in general, cutting demand for money and cooling a hot economy. Lowering interest rates, on the other side, makes it easier to borrow money, encouraging consumption and investment.

Why Do Bond Prices React Inversely to Interest Rate Changes?

A bond is a type of debt instrument that normally pays a predetermined rate of interest during the life of the bond. Assume that the current interest rate is 5%. If a bond is priced at par = $1,000 and has a 5% interest rate (coupon), bondholders will get $50 per year. If interest rates rise to 10%, new bonds will pay twice as much, or $100 for every $1,000 in face value.

For someone to desire to buy an existing bond that only pays $50, it must be sold at a severe discount. Similarly, if interest rates fall to 1%, new bonds will pay only $10 per $1,000 face value. As a result, a bond paying $50 will be in high demand, and its price will skyrocket.

In conclusion

When it comes to bond interest rates, savvy investors understand that they should look beyond nominal or coupon rates when assessing their entire investing goals. Furthermore, be cautious while taking out loans and be aware of your effective interest rate. A knowledgeable financial advisor can assist investors in navigating interest rates that keep pace with inflation and determining the true cost of debt.

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