What Is Compounding?

Compounding is the process in which an asset's earnings, from either capital gains or interest, are reinvested to generate additional earnings over time. This growth, calculated using exponential functions,聽occurs聽because the investment will generate earnings from聽both its initial principal and the accumulated earnings from preceding periods. Compounding, therefore, differs from linear growth, where only the principal earns interest each period.

Key Takeaways

  • Compounding is the process whereby interest is credited to an existing principal amount as well as to interest already paid.
  • Compounding can thus be construed as interest on interest鈥攖he effect of which is to magnify returns to interest over time, the so-called "miracle of compounding."
  • When banks or financial institutions credit compound interest, they will use a compounding period such as annual, monthly, or daily.

Compounding: My Favorite Term

Understanding Compounding

Compounding typically refers to the聽increasing聽value of an asset due to the interest earned on both a聽principal and accumulated interest. This phenomenon, which is a direct realization of the time value of money (TMV) concept, is also known as compound interest.聽

Compound interest works on both assets and liabilities. While compounding聽boosts the value of an asset more rapidly, it can also increase the amount of money owed on a loan, as interest accumulates on the unpaid principal and previous interest charges.

To illustrate how compounding works, suppose聽$10,000 is held聽in an account that pays 5% interest annually. After the first year or compounding period, the total in the account has risen to $10,500, a simple reflection of $500 in interest being added to the $10,000 principal. In year two,聽the account聽realizes 5% growth on both the original principal and the $500 of first-year interest, resulting聽in a second-year gain of $525 and a balance of $11,025. After 10 years, assuming no withdrawals and a steady 5% interest rate, the account would grow to $16,288.95.

Special Considerations

The formula for the future value (FV) of a current asset relies on the concept of compound聽interest. It takes into account the present value of an asset, the annual聽interest rate, and the frequency of compounding (or the number of compounding periods) per year and the total number of years. The generalized formula for compound interest is:

FV=PV(1+i)nwhere:FV=Future聽valuePV=Present聽valuei=Annual聽interest聽rate\begin{aligned}&FV=PV\times(1+i)^n\\&\textbf{where:}\\&FV=\text{Future value}\\&PV=\text{Present value}\\&i=\text{Annual interest rate}\\&n=\text{Number of compounding periods per year}\end{aligned}FV=PV(1+i)nwhere:FV=Future聽valuePV=Present聽valuei=Annual聽interest聽rate

Increased Compounding Periods

The effects of compounding strengthen as the frequency of compounding increases. Assume a one-year time period. The more compounding periods throughout this one year, the聽higher the future value of the investment, so naturally, two compounding periods per year are better than one, and four compounding periods per year are better than two.

To illustrate this effect, consider the following example given the above formula. Assume that an investment of $1 million earns 20% per year. The resulting future value, based on a varying number of compounding periods, is:

  • Annual compounding (n = 1): FV = $1,000,000 x [1 + (20%/1)]聽(1 x 1) = $1,200,000
  • Semi-annual compounding (n = 2): FV = $1,000,000 x [1 + (20%/2)]聽(2 x 1) = $1,210,000
  • Quarterly compounding (n = 4): FV = $1,000,000 x [1 + (20%/4)]聽(4 x 1) = $1,215,506
  • Monthly compounding (n = 12): FV = $1,000,000 x [1 + (20%/12)]聽(12 x 1) = $1,219,391
  • Weekly compounding (n = 52): FV = $1,000,000 x [1 + (20%/52)] (52 x 1) = $1,220,934
  • Daily compounding (n = 365): FV = $1,000,000 x [1 + (20%/365)] (365 x 1) = $1,221,336

As evident, the future value increases by a smaller margin even as the number of compounding periods per year increases significantly. The frequency of compounding over a set length of time has a limited effect on an investment's growth. This limit, based on calculus, is known as continuous compounding and can be聽calculated using the formula:

FV=Pertwhere:e=Irrational聽number聽2.7183r=Interest聽rate\begin{aligned}&FV=P\times e^{rt}\\&\textbf{where:}\\&e=\text{Irrational number 2.7183}\\&r=\text{Interest rate}\\&t=\text{Time}\end{aligned}FV=Pertwhere:e=Irrational聽number聽2.7183r=Interest聽rate

In the above example, the future value with continuous compounding equals: FV = $1,000,000 x 2.7183 (0.2 x 1) = $1,221,403.

Example of聽Compounding

Compounding is crucial in finance, and the gains attributable to its effects are the motivation behind many investing strategies. For example, many corporations offer聽dividend reinvestment聽plans that allow investors to reinvest their cash dividends to purchase additional shares of stock. Reinvesting in more of聽these聽dividend-paying shares compounds investor聽returns because the increased number of shares will consistently increase future income from dividend payouts, assuming steady dividends.

Investing in dividend growth stocks on top of reinvesting dividends adds another layer of compounding to this strategy that some investors聽refer to as "double compounding." In this case,聽not only are dividends being reinvested to buy more聽shares, but these dividend growth stocks are also increasing their per-share聽payouts.