Prime rate definition – What does it say?

The prime rate – definition, calculation & explanation

Surely you have already stumbled over the term of the base interest rate. Most of the time, people have a vague idea about it, but cannot explain exactly what is meant by it. In this article, we therefore take a closer look at the prime rate together and also present it with practical examples. Especially for consumers and entrepreneurs, this value can become important. At the end of the text, we will also describe the prime rate as an important, monetary policy instrument, as it plays an important role especially for investors in the stock market.

Definition – What is the Base Rate?

The prime rate is a variable interest rate that is set by the Deutsche Bundesbank in accordance with the specifications of the European Central Bank (ECB). It is re-determined twice a year and indicates themaximum limit that companies must adhere to when setting interest on arrears. In conjunction with the German Civil Code and other regulations, interest incurred in the event of late payment can therefore be calculated precisely. The addition of the prime rate and the corresponding default interest (depending on whether the customer is a private individual or a business) results in an upper limit for the determination of default interest.

The base interest rate was established on 01 September 2001, at that time on the basis of the so-called Discount Rate – Transition Act. Since then it has been calculated every six months. Before the euro was introduced and Europe became a monetary union, the Deutsche Bundesbank set a so-called discount rate, which was the official reference for determining interest on arrears until the currency reform. With the introduction of the euro as a means of payment in Europe, responsibility for monetary policy was transferred from the Deutsche Bundesbank to the European Central Bank. At the time, the Transition Act was intended to ensure that statutory rules and regulations relating to the prime rate continued to apply.

How is the prime rate determined?

Since 2002, the prime rate has been calculated twice a year – on the first of January and the first of July – by the Deutsche Bundesbank. According to the German Civil Code, the Bundesbank must publish the prime rate in the Federal Gazette without delay after the reference dates. The Bundesanzeiger is a public organ through which official announcements can be communicated. The rate is determined primarily on the basis of the guidelines issued by the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB carries out so-called main refinancing operations. These are transactions between the central bank and the commercial banks. These take place on a weekly basis and provide liquidity to the commercial banks. These transactions are carried out at a certain interest rate, which serves as a reference for the prime rate.

The Practice – Why Do I Need the Base Rate?

As the only official market interest rate, the prime rate is used in particular to calculate interest on arrears. These are defined in Section 288 of the German Civil Code (BGB). If a debtor is unable to pay an outstanding debt on time, the creditor may charge default interest for this period. However, these may not simply be set arbitrarily. The base interest rate serves as a reference value here, on the basis of which the default interest rate is calculated. In most cases, a contractually or legally defined margin is added to the base interest rate. The calculation is therefore based on the following formula:

Thus, the prime rate is also an important measure in court rulings to classify actions for late payment. The prime rate has changed constantly since its introduction in 2000. Between 4.26% at its peak in September 2000 to today’s negative value of – 0.88%.

Legal basis – What is the default interest rate?

First, I would like to define what exactly default interest is. Default interest can be charged when a customer fails to pay a debt on time. Default interest is not an obligation for a creditor. He can set them if he wants to. However, he must do so within a certain framework. Within this framework, a creditor can therefore also set lower interest on arrears or none at all, for example, if the debtor is a long-standing customer. In order not to jeopardize a good customer relationship, it may therefore make sense to “swallow” the late payment and wait for the debtor’s liquidity. However, higher interest on arrears may not be applied under any circumstances.

The exact formula for calculating default interest can be found in the next section. First, however, you need to know which legal regulations apply to interest on arrears. Section 288 of the Civil Code distinguishes between two bases of assessment. The most important component here is whether the customer is a private person (consumer) or an entrepreneur.

This therefore results in the following distinction, which is immensely important in practice:

  • Private individual: If a private individual is unable to meet a set payment deadline, the creditor can demand default interest of a maximum of 5% above the prime rate. If we now assume a current prime rate of -0.88%, this results in a corresponding default interest rate of 4.12% (-0.88% + 5%).
  • Traders or entrepreneurs: For companies and traders, the maximum default interest rate is higher than for private individuals. Here, 9% above the prime rate can be claimed. Currently, therefore, an entrepreneur would have to expect 8.12% interest on arrears (-0.88% + 9%) if he or she is unable to settle a claim on time.

Facts and figures – How do I calculate interest on arrears using the prime rate?

The delay in payment begins as soon as the payment deadline or an individually defined period of time has expired. The amount of interest on arrears is usually converted to days. The following things are important for determining the interest:

  • The amount of the claim
  • The prime rate
  • The default interest
  • The period of delay in days

The formula is now as follows:

Example: an amount of 500 euros has been open for 21 days. We assume here a private person. The interest on arrears is then 5 %. The base interest rate for the year 2021 is – 0.88 %. The calculation now looks as follows:

The creditor’s total claim would therefore amount to 501.18 euros. With each additional day of delay, 0.056 euros of additional default interest would accrue. Compound interest on late payments is not permitted, but in some cases additional reminder fees may be added to the invoice amount.

Accordingly, the invoice for a business customer would look like this:

Here, the bill would thus increase to 502.33 euros. Daily 0.11 euros would be added.

Calculating interest on arrears using this formula is simple and easy to understand. Still, there are certainly nicer things for an entrepreneur to do than chase unpaid receivables. For consumers, this formula can be important if accruing interest on late payments seems too high. There are also numerous calculators on the Internet for automatically calculating interest on arrears.

The Central Banks’ Money Market Policy – The Key Interest Rate

As mentioned above, the prime rate is adjusted every six months. However, it is based on the so-called prime rate and is always about 0.88 percentage points below this value. So if the benchmark rate rises, the prime rate also increases and vice versa. Many investors are probably more familiar with the key interest rate than the prime rate, as it is one of the most important monetary policy instruments used by central banks. The prime rate not only has a direct impact on our private lives, but also on our investments in the stock market. But what exactly does it mean?

The key interest rate is used primarily to control the money supply and thus the economic development in a currency area. If the ECB raises the key interest rate, it becomes more expensive for commercial banks to borrow money there. Of course, they pass on these additional costs to private borrowers. This makes it unattractive to take out a loan and tends to reduce the amount of liquidity entering the economic cycle. At the same time, this causes their own currency to appreciate. If the key interest rate falls, the exact opposite happens. However, lower interest rates in turn boost the economy, as it is now more favorable for companies to invest with borrowed funds.

But companies are also influenced by the ECB’s steering measures in other ways. Rising interest rates can become a problem for highly indebted companies in particular and significantly reduce profits. Growth companies that are not yet profitable and still have to invest a lot of money in their business model also have to contend with rising interest rates.

For savers who rely on checking and call money accounts, a low prime rate means hardly any interest on their investment. So here you should look at other assets like funds or stocks to invest your money more profitably.

Conclusion – good to know

The base interest rate can become important, especially for consumers, if they get into payment trouble. Here it is worthwhile to recalculate the interest on arrears to avoid any nasty surprises. Of course, it is always the better option to pay bills directly and stay within your financial means. However, should you ever get into trouble, you now have starting points to which you can pay attention.

Based on the text, you can also find the relevant legislation quickly and without any problems. In most cases, a close look at the Civil Code can already help. If you are an investor in the stock market, it is advisable to take a closer look at the monetary policy of the central banks and the key interest rate, as there are very direct connections here. It is extremely exciting to be able to follow the effects of the monetary policy of the respective central banks on the basis of the performance of certain shares. Depending on this, one’s own investment strategy should of course be adjusted accordingly.

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