Chapter 13: Interest Rates and the Markets for Capital and Natural Resources

Start Up: Building the “Internet in the Sky”

The race to build the “Internet in the Sky” started in the early 1990s. One plan was to build 840 low earth-orbiting (LEO) satellites that would allow information to be sent and received instantaneously anywhere on the face of the globe. At least that was the plan.

A number of telecommunication industry giants, as well as some large manufacturing companies, were impressed with the possibilities. They saw what they thought was a profitable opportunity and decided to put up some financial capital. Craig McCaw, who made a fortune developing and then selling to AT&T, the world’s largest cellular phone network, became chair of Teledesic, the company he formed to build the LEO satellite system. McCaw put up millions of dollars to fund the project, as did Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. Boeing, Motorola, and Matra Marconi Space, Europe’s leading satellite manufacturer, became corporate partners. Altogether, the company raised almost a billion dollars. The entire project was estimated to cost $9 billion.

But, alas, a decade later the company had shifted into very low gear. From the initial plan for 840 satellites, the project was scaled back to 300 satellites and then to a mere 30. Then, in 2003 in a letter to the U.S. Federal Communications commission, it announced that it was giving up its license to use a large part of the radio spectrum.Peter B. De Selding, “Teledesic Plays Its Last Card, Leaves the Game,” Space News Business Report online, July 7, 2005.

What happened to this dream? The development of cellular networks to handle data and video transmissions may have made the satellite system seem unnecessary. In contrast to a satellite system that has to be built in total in order to bring in a single customer, wireless companies were able to build their customer base city by city.

Even if the project had become successful, the rewards to the companies and to the individuals that put their financial capital into the venture would have been a long time in coming. Service was initially scheduled to begin in 2001, but Teledesic did not even sign a contract to build its first two satellites until February 2002, and six months later the company announced that work on those had been suspended.

Teledesic’s proposed venture was bigger than most capital projects, but it shares some basic characteristics with any acquisition of capital by firms. The production of capital—the goods used in producing other goods and services—requires sacrificing consumption. The returns to capital will be spread over the period in which the capital is used. The choice to acquire capital is thus a choice to give up consumption today in hopes of returns in the future. Because those returns are far from certain, the choice to acquire capital is inevitably a risky one.

For all its special characteristics, however, capital is a factor of production. As we investigate the market for capital, the concepts of marginal revenue product, marginal factor cost, and the marginal decision rule that we have developed will continue to serve us. The big difference is that the benefits and costs of holding capital are distributed over time.

We will also examine markets for natural resources in this chapter. Like decisions involving capital, choices in the allocation of natural resources have lasting effects. For potentially exhaustible natural resources such as oil, the effects of those choices last forever.

For the analysis of capital and natural resources, we shift from the examination of outcomes in the current period to the analysis of outcomes distributed over many periods. Interest rates, which link the values of payments that occur at different times, will be central to our analysis.


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