Powers to The People

“You say logarithms and exponents have to do with growth, Mr Moire?”Log Exp and slide rule captioned

“Mm-hm.  Did they teach you about compound interest in that Modern Living class, Jeremy?”

“Yessir.  Like if I took out a loan of say $10,000 at 10% interest, I’d owe $11,000 at the end of the first year and, um…, $12,100 after two years because the 10% applies to the interest, too.”

“Nice mental arithmetic.  So what you did was multiply that base amount by 1+10% the first year and (1+10%)² the second, right?”

“Well, that’s not the way I thought of it, but that’s the way it works out, alright.”

“So it’d be (1+10%)³ the third year and in general (1+rate)n after n years, assuming you don’t make any payments.”


“OK, how do we have to revise that formula if the interest is compounded daily and you get lucky and pay it off in a lump sum after 19 months?”

“Can I use your whiteboard?”

“Go ahead.”

“OK, first thing to change is the rate, because the 10% was for the whole year.  We need to use 10%/365 inside those parentheses.  But then we’re counting time by days instead of years.  Each day we multiply the previous amount by another (1+10%/365), which makes the exponent be the number of days the loan is out, which is 19 times whatever the average number of days in a month is.”

“Why not just use 19×(365÷12)?”

“Can we do that?  In an exponent?”

“Perfectly legal, done in all the best circles.”

“So what we’ve got is

“Try poking that into your smartphone’s spreadsheet app and format it for dollars.”

“In spreadsheet-ese that’d be
Hah!  The app took it, and comes up with … $11,715.31.  Lemme try that with two years that’s 24 months.  Now it’s $12,213.69.  Hey, that’s $123 more than two years compounded once-a-year.  Compounding more often generates more interest, doesn’t it?”

“Which is why daily compounding is the general rule in consumer lending.  But there’s a couple more lessons to be learned here.  One, you can do full-on arithmetic inside an exponent.  That’s what the log log scales are for on a slide rule.  Two, the expression you worked up has the form
base×(growth factor)(time function).
Any time you’re modeling something that grows or shrinks in some percentage-wise fashion, you’re going to have exponential expressions like that.”

“Hey, I tried compounding more often and it didn’t make much difference.  I put in 3650 instead of 365 and it only added 30¢ to the total.”

“Which gives me an idea.  Load up cells A1:A7 in your spreadsheet with this series: 1, 3, 10, 30, 100, 300, 1000.  Got it?”

“Ahhh … OK.  Now what?”

“Now load cell B1 with +10000*(1+(0.1/A1))^(24*(A1/12)).”

“Says $12,100.”

“Fine.  Now copy that cell down through B7.”

“Hmm…  The answers go up but by less and less.”

“Right.  Now highlight A1:B7 and tell your spreadsheet to generate a scatter plot connected by straight lines.”

“Gimme a sec … OK.  The line goes straight up, then straight across almost.”

“Final step — click on the x-axis and tell the program to use a logarithmic scale.”diminishing returns

“Hey, the x-numbers scrunch and wrap like on the A, B and K scales on Dad’s slide-rule.”

“Which is what you’d expect, right?  They both use logarithmic scales.  The slide-rule uses logarithms to do its arithmetic thing.  The graphing software lets you use logarithms to display big numbers together with small numbers.  But the neat thing about this graph is that it shows two different flavors of a general pattern.  Adding something, say 20, to a number to the left on the x-axis moves you a longer distance than adding the same amount somewhere over on the right.  That’s diminishing returns.”

“Look, the heeling-over curve shows diminishing returns from compounding interest more and more often.”

Exploding returns“Good.  Now copy A1:A7 by value into C1:C7 and generate a scatter plot of B1:C7. This time apply the logarithmic scale to the y-axis. This’ll show us how often we’d need to compound to get the yield on the x-axis.”

“Whoa, it blows up, like there’s no way to get up to $12,300.”

“Call it exploding returns.  Increasing the exponent increases the growth factor’s impact.  Beyond a threshold, a small change in the growth factor can make a huge difference in the result.”

“Seriously huge.”

“Exponentially huge.”

~~ Rich Olcott