home | authors | books | about

Home -> Adam Smith -> An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations -> Chapter 9

An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations - Chapter 9

1. Introduction And Plan Of The Work

2. Book 1, Chapter 1

3. Chapter 2

4. Chapter 3

5. Chapter 4

6. Chapter 5

7. Chapter 6

8. Chapter 7

9. Chapter 8

10. Chapter 8 continue

11. Chapter 9

12. Chapter 10

13. Chapter 10 continue

14. Chapter 11

15. Chapter 11 continue

16. Chapter 11 continue.

17. Chapter 11 continue..

18. Chapter 11 continue...

19. Conclusion of the Chapter 11

20. Book 2 Introduction

21. Chapter 1

22. Chapter II

23. Chapter II continue

24. Chapter II continue

25. Chapter 3

26. Chapter 4

27. Chapter 5

28. Book 3, Chapter 1

29. Chapter 2

30. Chapter 3

31. Chapter 4

32. Book 4, Chapter 1

33. Chapter 1 continue

34. Chapter 2

35. Chapter 3, Part 1

36. Chapter 3, Part 2

37. Chapter 4

38. Chapter 5

39. Chapter 5 continue

40. Chapter 6

41. Chapter 7, Part 1

42. Chapter 7, Part 2

43. Chapter 7, Part 3

44. Chapter 7, Part 3 continue

45. Chapter 8

46. Chapter 9

47. Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 1

48. Chapter 1, Part 2

49. Chapter 1, Part 3

50. Chapter 1, Part 3 continue

51. Chapter 1, Part 3 continue B

52. Chapter 1, Part 4

53. Chapter 2, Part 1

54. Chapter 2, Part 2

55. Chapter 2, Part 2 continue

56. Chapter 2, Part 2 continue B

57. Chapter 2, Part 2 continue C

58. Chapter 2, Part 2 continue D

59. Chapter 3

60. Chapter 3 continue

Chapter IX. Of The Profits Of Stock.

The rise and fall in the profits of stock depend upon the same causes
with the rise and fall in the wages of labour, the increasing or
declining state of the wealth of the society; but those causes affect
the one and the other very differently.

The increase of stock, which raises wages, tends to lower profit. When
the stocks of many rich merchants are turned into the same trade, their
mutual competition naturally tends to lower its profit; and when there
is a like increase of stock in all the different trades carried on in
the same society, the same competition must produce the same effect in
them all.

It is not easy, it has already been observed, to ascertain what are the
average wages of labour, even in a particular place, and at a particular
time. We can, even in this case, seldom determine more than what are the
most usual wages. But even this can seldom be done with regard to the
profits of stock. Profit is so very fluctuating, that the person who
carries on a particular trade, cannot always tell you himself what is
the average of his annual profit. It is affected, not only by every
variation of price in the commodities which he deals in, but by the
good or bad fortune both of his rivals and of his customers, and by a
thousand other accidents, to which goods, when carried either by sea
or by land, or even when stored in a warehouse, are liable. It varies,
therefore, not only from year to year, but from day to day, and almost
from hour to hour. To ascertain what is the average profit of all
the different trades carried on in a great kingdom, must be much more
difficult; and to judge of what it may have been formerly, or in remote
periods of time, with any degree of precision, must be altogether

But though it may be impossible to determine, with any degree of
precision, what are or were the average profits of stock, either in the
present or in ancient times, some notion may be formed of them from the
interest of money. It may be laid down as a maxim, that wherever a great
deal can be made by the use of money, a great deal will commonly be
given for the use of it; and that, wherever little can be made by it,
less will commonly he given for it. Accordingly, therefore, as the usual
market rate of interest varies in any country, we may be assured that
the ordinary profits of stock must vary with it, must sink as it sinks,
and rise as it rises. The progress of interest, therefore, may lead us
to form some notion of the progress of profit.

By the 37th of Henry VIII. all interest above ten per cent. was declared
unlawful. More, it seems, had sometimes been taken before that. In
the reign of Edward VI. religious zeal prohibited all interest. This
prohibition, however, like all others of the same kind, is said to have
produced no effect, and probably rather increased than diminished the
evil of usury. The statute of Henry VIII. was revived by the 13th of
Elizabeth, cap. 8. and ten per cent. continued to be the legal rate of
interest till the 21st of James I. when it was restricted to eight per
cent. It was reduced to six per cent. soon after the Restoration, and by
the 12th of Queen Anne, to five per cent. All these different statutory
regulations seem to have been made with great propriety. They seem to
have followed, and not to have gone before, the market rate of interest,
or the rate at which people of good credit usually borrowed. Since the
time of Queen Anne, five per cent. seems to have been rather above than
below the market rate. Before the late war, the government borrowed at
three per cent.; and people of good credit in the capital, and in many
other parts of the kingdom, at three and a-half, four, and four and
a-half per cent.

Since the time of Henry VIII. the wealth and revenue of the country have
been continually advancing, and in the course of their progress, their
pace seems rather to have been gradually accelerated than retarded. They
seem not only to have been going on, but to have been going on faster
and faster. The wages of labour have been continually increasing during
the same period, and, in the greater part of the different branches of
trade and manufactures, the profits of stock have been diminishing.

It generally requires a greater stock to carry on any sort of trade in a
great town than in a country village. The great stocks employed in every
branch of trade, and the number of rich competitors, generally reduce
the rate of profit in the former below what it is in the latter. But the
wages of labour are generally higher in a great town than in a country
village. In a thriving town, the people who have great stocks to employ,
frequently cannot get the number of workmen they want, and therefore bid
against one another, in order to get as many as they can, which raises
the wages of labour, and lowers the profits of stock. In the remote
parts of the country, there is frequently not stock sufficient to employ
all the people, who therefore bid against one another, in order to get
employment, which lowers the wages of labour, and raises the profits of

In Scotland, though the legal rate of interest is the same as in
England, the market rate is rather higher. People of the best credit
there seldom borrow under five per cent. Even private bankers in
Edinburgh give four per cent. upon their promissory-notes, of which
payment, either in whole or in part may be demanded at pleasure. Private
bankers in London give no interest for the money which is deposited with
them. There are few trades which cannot be carried on with a smaller
stock in Scotland than in England. The common rate of profit, therefore,
must be somewhat greater. The wages of labour, it has already been
observed, are lower in Scotland than in England. The country, too, is
not only much poorer, but the steps by which it advances to a better
condition, for it is evidently advancing, seem to be much slower and
more tardy. The legal rate of interest in France has not during the
course of the present century, been always regulated by the market rate
{See Denisart, Article Taux des Interests, tom. iii, p.13}. In 1720,
interest was reduced from the twentieth to the fiftieth penny, or from
five to two per cent. In 1724, it was raised to the thirtieth penny,
or to three and a third per cent. In 1725, it was again raised to the
twentieth penny, or to five per cent. In 1766, during the administration
of Mr Laverdy, it was reduced to the twenty-fifth penny, or to four per
cent. The Abbé Terray raised it afterwards to the old rate of five
per cent. The supposed purpose of many of those violent reductions of
interest was to prepare the way for reducing that of the public debts;
a purpose which has sometimes been executed. France is, perhaps, in the
present times, not so rich a country as England; and though the legal
rate of interest has in France frequently been lower than in England,
the market rate has generally been higher; for there, as in other
countries, they have several very safe and easy methods of evading the
law. The profits of trade, I have been assured by British merchants who
had traded in both countries, are higher in France than in England;
and it is no doubt upon this account, that many British subjects chuse
rather to employ their capitals in a country where trade is in disgrace,
than in one where it is highly respected. The wages of labour are lower
in France than in England. When you go from Scotland to England, the
difference which you may remark between the dress and countenance of
the common people in the one country and in the other, sufficiently
indicates the difference in their condition. The contrast is still
greater when you return from France. France, though no doubt a richer
country than Scotland, seems not to be going forward so fast. It is
a common and even a popular opinion in the country, that it is going
backwards; an opinion which I apprehend, is ill-founded, even with
regard to France, but which nobody can possibly entertain with regard
to Scotland, who sees the country now, and who saw it twenty or thirty
years ago.

The province of Holland, on the other hand, in proportion to the extent
of its territory and the number of its people, is a richer country than
England. The government there borrow at two per cent. and private people
of good credit at three. The wages of labour are said to be higher in
Holland than in England, and the Dutch, it is well known, trade upon
lower profits than any people in Europe. The trade of Holland, it has
been pretended by some people, is decaying, and it may perhaps be true
that some particular branches of it are so; but these symptoms seem
to indicate sufficiently that there is no general decay. When profit
diminishes, merchants are very apt to complain that trade decays, though
the diminution of profit is the natural effect of its prosperity, or of
a greater stock being employed in it than before. During the late war,
the Dutch gained the whole carrying trade of France, of which they still
retain a very large share. The great property which they possess both in
French and English funds, about forty millions, it is said in the latter
(in which, I suspect, however, there is a considerable exaggeration ),
the great sums which they lend to private people, in countries where the
rate of interest is higher than in their own, are circumstances which
no doubt demonstrate the redundancy of their stock, or that it has
increased beyond what they can employ with tolerable profit in the
proper business of their own country; but they do not demonstrate that
that business has decreased. As the capital of a private man, though
acquired by a particular trade, may increase beyond what he can employ
in it, and yet that trade continue to increase too, so may likewise the
capital of a great nation.

In our North American and West Indian colonies, not only the wages
of labour, but the interest of money, and consequently the profits of
stock, are higher than in England. In the different colonies, both the
legal and the market rate of interest run from six to eight percent.
High wages of labour and high profits of stock, however, are things,
perhaps, which scarce ever go together, except in the peculiar
circumstances of new colonies. A new colony must always, for some time,
be more understocked in proportion to the extent of its territory, and
more underpeopled in proportion to the extent of its stock, than the
greater part of other countries. They have more land than they have
stock to cultivate. What they have, therefore, is applied to the
cultivation only of what is most fertile and most favourably situated,
the land near the sea-shore, and along the banks of navigable rivers.
Such land, too, is frequently purchased at a price below the value even
of its natural produce. Stock employed in the purchase and improvement
of such lands, must yield a very large profit, and, consequently, afford
to pay a very large interest. Its rapid accumulation in so profitable
an employment enables the planter to increase the number of his hands
faster than he can find them in a new settlement. Those whom he can
find, therefore, are very liberally rewarded. As the colony increases,
the profits of stock gradually diminish. When the most fertile and best
situated lands have been all occupied, less profit can be made by the
cultivation of what is inferior both in soil and situation, and less
interest can be afforded for the stock which is so employed. In the
greater part of our colonies, accordingly, both the legal and the market
rate of interest have been considerably reduced during the course of the
present century. As riches, improvement, and population, have increased,
interest has declined. The wages of labour do not sink with the profits
of stock. The demand for labour increases with the increase of stock,
whatever be its profits; and after these are diminished, stock may not
only continue to increase, but to increase much faster than before. It
is with industrious nations, who are advancing in the acquisition of
riches, as with industrious individuals. A great stock, though with
small profits, generally increases faster than a small stock with great
profits. Money, says the proverb, makes money. When you have got a
little, it is often easy to get more. The great difficulty is to get
that little. The connection between the increase of stock and that of
industry, or of the demand for useful labour, has partly been explained
already, but will be explained more fully hereafter, in treating of the
accumulation of stock.

The acquisition of new territory, or of new branches of trade, may
sometimes raise the profits of stock, and with them the interest of
money, even in a country which is fast advancing in the acquisition of
riches. The stock of the country, not being sufficient for the whole
accession of business which such acquisitions present to the different
people among whom it is divided, is applied to those particular branches
only which afford the greatest profit. Part of what had before been
employed in other trades, is necessarily withdrawn from them, and turned
into some of the new and more profitable ones. In all those old trades,
therefore, the competition comes to be Jess than before. The market
comes to be less fully supplied with many different sorts of goods.
Their price necessarily rises more or less, and yields a greater profit
to those who deal in them, who can, therefore, afford to borrow at a
higher interest. For some time after the conclusion of the late war,
not only private people of the best credit, but some of the greatest
companies in London, commonly borrowed at five per cent. who, before
that, had not been used to pay more than four, and four and a half
per cent. The great accession both of territory and trade by our
acquisitions in North America and the West Indies, will sufficiently
account for this, without supposing any diminution in the capital stock
of the society. So great an accession of new business to be carried on
by the old stock, must necessarily have diminished the quantity employed
in a great number of particular branches, in which the competition
being less, the profits must have been greater. I shall hereafter have
occasion to mention the reasons which dispose me to believe that the
capital stock of Great Britain was not diminished, even by the enormous
expense of the late war.

The diminution of the capital stock of the society, or of the funds
destined for the maintenance of industry, however, as it lowers the
wages of labour, so it raises the profits of stock, and consequently the
interest of money. By the wages of labour being lowered, the owners of
what stock remains in the society can bring their goods at less expense
to market than before; and less stock being employed in supplying the
market than before, they can sell them dearer. Their goods cost them
less, and they get more for them. Their profits, therefore, being
augmented at both ends, can well afford a large interest. The great
fortunes so suddenly and so easily acquired in Bengal and the other
British settlements in the East Indies, may satisfy us, that as the
wages of labour are very low, so the profits of stock are very high in
those ruined countries. The interest of money is proportionably so. In
Bengal, money is frequently lent to the farmers at forty, fifty, and
sixty per cent. and the succeeding crop is mortgaged for the payment.
As the profits which can afford such an interest must eat up almost the
whole rent of the landlord, so such enormous usury must in its turn
eat up the greater part of those profits. Before the fall of the Roman
republic, a usury of the same kind seems to have been common in the
provinces, under the ruinous administration of their proconsuls. The
virtuous Brutus lent money in Cyprus at eight-and-forty per cent. as we
learn from the letters of Cicero.

In a country which had acquired that full complement of riches which the
nature of its soil and climate, and its situation with respect to other
countries, allowed it to acquire, which could, therefore, advance no
further, and which was not going backwards, both the wages of labour
and the profits of stock would probably be very low. In a country fully
peopled in proportion to what either its territory could maintain, or
its stock employ, the competition for employment would necessarily be so
great as to reduce the wages of labour to what was barely sufficient
to keep up the number of labourers, and the country being already
fully peopled, that number could never be augmented. In a country fully
stocked in proportion to all the business it had to transact, as great
a quantity of stock would be employed in every particular branch as the
nature and extent of the trade would admit. The competition, therefore,
would everywhere be as great, and, consequently, the ordinary profit as
low as possible.

But, perhaps, no country has ever yet arrived at this degree of
opulence. China seems to have been long stationary, and had, probably,
long ago acquired that full complement of riches which is consistent
with the nature of its laws and institutions. But this complement may be
much inferior to what, with other laws and institutions, the nature
of its soil, climate, and situation, might admit of. A country which
neglects or despises foreign commerce, and which admits the vessel of
foreign nations into one or two of its ports only, cannot transact the
same quantity of business which it might do with different laws and
institutions. In a country, too, where, though the rich, or the owners
of large capitals, enjoy a good deal of security, the poor, or the
owners of small capitals, enjoy scarce any, but are liable, under the
pretence of justice, to be pillaged and plundered at any time by the
inferior mandarins, the quantity of stock employed in all the different
branches of business transacted within it, can never be equal to what
the nature and extent of that business might admit. In every different
branch, the oppression of the poor must establish the monopoly of the
rich, who, by engrossing the whole trade to themselves, will be able to
make very large profits. Twelve per cent. accordingly, is said to be
the common interest of money in China, and the ordinary profits of stock
must be sufficient to afford this large interest.

A defect in the law may sometimes raise the rate of interest
considerably above what the condition of the country, as to wealth or
poverty, would require. When the law does not enforce the performance
of contracts, it puts all borrowers nearly upon the same footing with
bankrupts, or people of doubtful credit, in better regulated countries.
The uncertainty of recovering his money makes the lender exact the same
usurious interest which is usually required from bankrupts. Among the
barbarous nations who overran the western provinces of the Roman empire,
the performance of contracts was left for many ages to the faith of
the contracting parties. The courts of justice of their kings seldom
intermeddled in it. The high rate of interest which took place in those
ancient times, may, perhaps, be partly accounted for from this cause.

When the law prohibits interest altogether, it does not prevent it. Many
people must borrow, and nobody will lend without such a consideration
for the use of their money as is suitable, not only to what can be made
by the use of it, but to the difficulty and danger of evading the law.
The high rate of interest among all Mahometan nations is accounted for
by M. Montesquieu, not from their poverty, but partly from this, and
partly from the difficulty of recovering the money.

The lowest ordinary rate of profit must always be something more than
what is sufficient to compensate the occasional losses to which every
employment of stock is exposed. It is this surplus only which is neat
or clear profit. What is called gross profit, comprehends frequently
not only this surplus, but what is retained for compensating such
extraordinary losses. The interest which the borrower can afford to pay
is in proportion to the clear profit only. The lowest ordinary rate of
interest must, in the same manner, be something more than sufficient to
compensate the occasional losses to which lending, even with tolerable
prudence, is exposed. Were it not, mere charity or friendship could be
the only motives for lending.

In a country which had acquired its full complement of riches, where, in
every particular branch of business, there was the greatest quantity of
stock that could be employed in it, as the ordinary rate of clear profit
would be very small, so the usual market rate of interest which could
be afforded out of it would be so low as to render it impossible for any
but the very wealthiest people to live upon the interest of their money.
All people of small or middling fortunes would be obliged to superintend
themselves the employment of their own stocks. It would be necessary
that almost every man should be a man of business, or engage in some
sort of trade. The province of Holland seems to be approaching near
to this state. It is there unfashionable not to be a man of business.
Necessity makes it usual for almost every man to be so, and custom
everywhere regulates fashion. As it is ridiculous not to dress, so is
it, in some measure, not to be employed like other people. As a man of
a civil profession seems awkward in a camp or a garrison, and is even
in some danger of being despised there, so does an idle man among men of

The highest ordinary rate of profit may be such as, in the price of the
greater part of commodities, eats up the whole of what should go to the
rent of the land, and leaves only what is sufficient to pay the labour
of preparing and bringing them to market, according to the lowest
rate at which labour can anywhere be paid, the bare subsistence of the
labourer. The workman must always have been fed in some way or other
while he was about the work, but the landlord may not always have been
paid. The profits of the trade which the servants of the East India
Company carry on in Bengal may not, perhaps, be very far from this rate.

The proportion which the usual market rate of interest ought to bear to
the ordinary rate of clear profit, necessarily varies as profit rises or
falls. Double interest is in Great Britain reckoned what the merchants
call a good, moderate, reasonable profit; terms which, I apprehend, mean
no more than a common and usual profit. In a country where the ordinary
rate of clear profit is eight or ten per cent. it may be reasonable that
one half of it should go to interest, wherever business is carried on
with borrowed money. The stock is at the risk of the borrower, who, as
it were, insures it to the lender; and four or five per cent. may, in
the greater part of trades, be both a sufficient profit upon the risk of
this insurance, and a sufficient recompence for the trouble of employing
the stock. But the proportion between interest and clear profit might
not be the same in countries where the ordinary rate of profit was
either a good deal lower, or a good deal higher. If it were a good deal
lower, one half of it, perhaps, could not be afforded for interest; and
more might be afforded if it were a good deal higher.

In countries which are fast advancing to riches, the low rate of profit
may, in the price of many commodities, compensate the high wages of
labour, and enable those countries to sell as cheap as their less
thriving neighbours, among whom the wages of labour may be lower.

In reality, high profits tend much more to raise the price of work than
high wages. If, in the linen manufacture, for example, the wages of the
different working people, the flax-dressers, the spinners, the weavers,
etc. should all of them be advanced twopence a-day, it would be
necessary to heighten the price of a piece of linen only by a number of
twopences equal to the number of people that had been employed about it,
multiplied by the number of days during which they had been so employed.
That part of the price of the commodity which resolved itself into the
wages, would, through all the different stages of the manufacture,
rise only in arithmetical proportion to this rise of wages. But if the
profits of all the different employers of those working people should
be raised five per cent. that part of the price of the commodity which
resolved itself into profit would, through all the different stages of
the manufacture, rise in geometrical proportion to this rise of profit.
The employer of the flax dressers would, in selling his flax, require
an additional five per cent. upon the whole value of the materials and
wages which he advanced to his workmen. The employer of the spinners
would require an additional five per cent. both upon the advanced price
of the flax, and upon the wages of the spinners. And the employer of the
weavers would require alike five per cent. both upon the advanced price
of the linen-yarn, and upon the wages of the weavers. In raising the
price of commodities, the rise of wages operates in the same manner as
simple interest does in the accumulation of debt. The rise of profit
operates like compound interest. Our merchants and master manufacturers
complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and
thereby lessening the sale of their goods, both at home and abroad. They
say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits; they are silent
with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains; they complain
only of those of other people.

© Art Branch Inc. | English Dictionary