A New Take on Sovereign Debt and Gunboat Diplomacy

Going multilateral? Financial Markets’ Access and the League of Nations Loans, 1923-8


Juan Flores (The Paul Bairoch Institute of Economic History, University of Geneva) and
Yann Decorzant (Centre Régional d’Etudes des Populations Alpines)

Abstract: Why are international financial institutions important? This article reassesses the role of the loans issued with the support of the League of Nations. These long-term loans constituted the financial basis of the League’s strategy to restore the productive basis of countries in central and eastern Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. In this article, it is argued that the League’s loans accomplished the task for which they were conceived because they allowed countries in financial distress to access capital markets. The League adopted an innovative system of funds management and monitoring that ensured the compliance of borrowing countries with its programmes. Empirical evidence is provided to show that financial markets had a positive view of the League’s role as an external, multilateral agent, solving the credibility problem of borrowing countries and allowing them to engage in economic and institutional reforms. This success was achieved despite the League’s own lack of lending resources. It is also demonstrated that this multilateral solution performed better than the bilateral arrangements adopted by other governments in eastern Europe because of its lower borrowing and transaction costs.

Source: The Economic History Review (2016), 69:2, pp. 653–678

Review by Vincent Bignon (Banque de France, France)

Flores and Decorzant’s paper deals with the achievements of the League of Nations in helping some central and Eastern European sovereign states to secure market access during in the Interwar years. Its success is assessed by measuring the financial performance of the loans of those countries and is compared with the performance of the loans issued by a control group made of countries of the same region that did not received the League’s support. The comparison of the yield at issue and fees paid to issuing banks allows the authors to conclude that the League of Nations did a very good job in helping those countries, hence the suggestion in the title to go multilateral.

The authors argue that the loans sponsored by the League of Nation – League’s loan thereafter – solved a commitment issue for borrowing governments, which consisted in the non-credibility when trying to signal their willingness to repay. The authors mention that the League brought financial expertise related to the planning of the loan issuance and in the negotiations of the clauses of contracts, suggesting that those countries lacked the human capital in their Treasuries and central banks. They also describe that the League support went with a monitoring of the stabilization program by a special League envoy.


Empirical results show that League loans led to a reduction of countries’ risk premium, thus allowing relaxing the borrowing constraint, and sometimes reduced quantity rationing for countries that were unable to issue directly through prestigious private bankers. Yet the interests rates of League loans were much higher than those of comparable US bond of the same rating, suggesting that the League did not create a free lunch.

Besides those important points, the paper is important by dealing with a major post war macro financial management issue: the organization of sovereign loans issuance to failed states since their technical administrative apparatus were too impoverished by the war to be able to provide basic peacetime functions such as a stable exchange rate, a fiscal policy with able tax collection. Comparison is made of the League’s loans with those of the IMF, but the situation also echoes the unilateral post WW 2 US Marshall plan. The paper does not study whether the League succeeded in channeling some other private funds to those countries on top of the proceeds of the League loans and does not study how the funds were used to stabilize the situation.


The paper belongs to the recent economic history tradition that aims at deciphering the explanations for sovereign debt repayment away from the gunboat diplomacy explanation, to which Juan Flores had previously contributed together with Marc Flandreau. It is also inspired by the issue of institutional fixes used to signal and enforce credible commitment, suggesting that multilateral foreign fixes solved this problem. This detailed study of financial conditions of League loans adds stimulating knowledge to our knowledge of post WW1 stabilization plans, adding on Sargent (1984) and Santaella (1993). It’s also a very nice complement to the couple of papers on multilateral lending to sovereign states by Tunker and Esteves (2016a, 2016b) that deal with 19th century style multilateralism, when the main European powers guaranteed loans to help a few states secured market access, but without any founding of an international organization.

But the main contribution of the paper, somewhat clouded by the comparison with the IMF, is to lead to a questioning of the functions fulfilled by the League of Nations in the Interwar political system. This bigger issue surfaced at two critical moments. First in the choice of the control group that focus on the sole Central and Eastern European countries, but does not include Germany and France despite that they both received external funding to stabilize their financial situation at the exact moment of the League’s loans. This brings a second issue, one of self-selection of countries into the League’s loans program. Indeed, Germany and France chose to not participate to the League’s scheme despite the fact that they both needed a similar type of funding to stabilize their macro situation. The fact that they did not apply for financial assistance means either that they have the qualified staff and the state apparatus to signal their commitment to repay, or that the League’s loan came with too harsh a monitoring and external constraint on financial policy. It is as if the conditions attached with League’ loans self-selected the good-enough failed states (new states created out of the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) but discouraged more powerful states to apply to the League’ assistance.


Now if one reminds that the promise of the League of Nations was the preservation of peace, the success of the League loans issuance was meager compared to the failure in preserving Europe from a second major war. This of course echoes the previous research of Juan Flores with Marc Flandreau on the role of financial market microstructure in keeping the world in peace during the 19th century. By comparison, the League of Nations failed. Yet a successful League, which would have emulated Rothschild’s 19th century role in peace-keeping would have designed a scheme in which all states in need -France and Germany included – would have borrowed through it.

This leads to wonder the function assigned by their political brokers to the program of financial assistance of the League. As the IMF, the League was only able to design a scheme attractive to the sole countries that had no allies ready or strong-enough to help them secure market access. Also why did the UK and the US chose to channel funds through the League rather than directly? Clearly they needed the League as a delegated agent. Does that means that the League was another form of money doctors or that it acts as a coalition of powerful countries made of those too weak to lend and those rich but without enforcement power? This interpretation is consistent with the authors’ view “the League (…) provided arbitration functions in case of disputes.”

In sum the paper opens new connections with the political science literature on important historical issues dealing with the design of international organization able to provide public goods such as peace and not just helping the (strategic) failed states.


Esteves, R. and Tuner, C. (2016a) “Feeling the blues. Moral hazard and debt dilution in eurobonds before 1914”, Journal of International Money and Finance 65, pp. 46-68.

Esteves, R. and Tuner, C. (2016b) “Eurobonds past and present: A comparative review on debt mutualization in Europe”, Review of Law & Economics (forthcoming).

Flandreau, M. and Flores, J. (2012) “The peaceful conspiracy: Bond markets and international relations during the Pax Britannica”, International Organization, 66, pp. 211-41.

Santaella, J. A (1993) ‘Stabilization programs and external enforcement: experience from the 1920s’, Staff Papers—International Monetary Fund (J. IMF Econ Rev), 40, pp. 584–621

Sargent, T. J., (1983) ‘The ends of four big inflations’, in R. E. Hall, ed., Inflation: Causes and Effects (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, pp. 41–97

From VOX – The railway mania: Not so great expectations?

Can financial crises be averted by identifying and dealing with overpriced assets before they cause instability? This column argues that during the British Railway Mania of the 1840s, railway shares were not obviously overpriced, even at the market peak, but prices still fell dramatically. This suggests that extreme asset price reversals can be difficult to forecast and prevent ex ante, and the financial system always needs to be prepared for substantial price declines.

by Gareth Campbell, 23 May 2009

Full article here: http://voxeu.org/article/railway-mania-not-so-great-expectations





From VOX – Service labour market: The engine of growth and inequality

Economic historians tend to explain US geographical development gaps in terms of industrialisation. But by the end of the 20th century, the richest counties had become specialised in services, rather than in manufacturing. This column evaluates how the service economy triggered this evident contrast between the urban and rural US. Market size causes localisation of non-agricultural activity, with the effect being stronger for services, especially knowledge services. Local policymakers can thus foster growth by attracting high-skilled workers to a region, with the multiplier effect eventually increasing the local market.

by Alexandra Lopez-Cermeño, 12 July 2015

Article here:




Review: Avner Offer and Gabriel Soderberg, The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn (Princeton University Press, 2016)

The Nobel Factor: On the eve of the announcement of the Nobel prize in economics we review Offer and Soderberg’s new book and ask “What relationship should economic historians have to economics? ” 


What relationship should economic historians have to economics? For those who see economic history as essentially applied economics, the answer is perhaps obvious. But for those of us who see ourselves as ‘historians who are interested in the economy’, the question is fundamental – and difficult to answer. EHS co-founder R. H. Tawney, rejecting the Marshallian economics of his day, asserted that ‘There is no such thing as a science of economics, nor ever will be. It is just cant…’

Tempting as such a wholehearted rejection might sometimes be, it plainly won’t do. Whatever one’s ultimate judgment about its knowledge claims, economics is the most powerful, influential social science. For good or ill, economic historians are fated to spend our lives grappling with the discipline.

In an ideal world, economic historians would be equipped with a profound knowledge of economics, coupled with a profound scepticism about its capacity to help us understand how things work. This book demonstrates that its authors possess both these virtues. They use the Nobel prize in economics, awarded since 1969, as a means of examining the nature and role of economics in a book whose depth and breadth of vision make it a hugely important contribution to our understanding of the ‘market turn’ in economic policy over the last 40 years.

The Nobel prize in economics arose from an initiative of the Swedish central bank to raise the prestige of both itself and the discipline of economics, in the context of the bank’s struggle with Sweden’s governing Social Democrats. Like most central banks, the Riksbank prioritised low inflation and limited government; and it was hostile to the stabilising and equalising policies pursued by Sweden’s dominant political party.

Offer and Soderberg offer a sustained analysis of the pattern of winners of the prize. Over its whole history, there has been a careful attempt to award the prize to a balance of economists, with the most famous case being the 1974 joint prize awarded to Friedrich Hayek and the Swedish social democratic theorist, Gunnar Myrdal.

This balancing act has helped to maintain the high prestige of the prize, while also acting to undermine the ‘scientific’ pretensions of the discipline. Not only have the prize-winners come from a wide range of positions in economics, but several have also been acknowledged for contributions that directly or indirectly contradict the work of other recipients.

Much of the most detailed analysis of economics here concentrates on undermining the claims of the ‘market liberals’, a term embracing proponents of the new classical macroeconomics, rational expectations and public choice. The book is scathing about the claims made for these (and other) theories, arguing that they ultimately rest on ethical presuppositions, while showing little capacity to explain empirical changes in the economy.

The failure of the awarders of the Nobel prize to be concerned with empirical validity is seen as their biggest failing in how they have made their judgments. As the authors suggest, while Hayek opposed the scientistic pretensions of many economists, his own work, most notably his Road to Serfdom, has been ‘grotesquely falsified’ (p.9). The expansion of the state in post-war Western Europe, far from leading to a slippery slope of ‘serfdom’ has been combined with an enlargement of freedom, however that capacious term is defined. (While Hayek, Milton Friedman and other Nobel prize-winners were keen supporters of the Chilean dictator and murderer Pinochet in the name of ‘economic freedom’).

Despite their aversion to the ‘theoretical mumbo jumbo’ (p.212) of some economics and their dismissal of the scientific claims of many of the practitioners of the discipline, the authors by no means share Tawney’s dismissive attitude. Economics they proclaim, in one of the books many bon mots, ‘is not easy to master, but it is easy to believe.’ (p.2).

Their response is to undermine such ready belief, by showing that the effort at mastery is not wasted, as it allows us to exercise informed discrimination. Some economics is extremely useful. They are particularly enthusiastic about national accounting: ‘The best empirical programme in twentieth-century economics… an empirical, pragmatic and practical model of general equilibrium, based on a deep understanding and knowledge of the economy.’ (p.153)

This book is hugely persuasive about economics, where the knowledge displayed is extraordinary and the judgments highly persuasive. On social democracy, it is perhaps not so strong. There is some fascinating discussion of the development of Swedish social democracy and its relationship to key Swedish economists.

Most attention is given to Assar Lindbeck, a long-term member of the Nobel prize committee and its chair from 1980 to 1994. His work and role is subject to a blistering attack, coupled with a persuasive defence of the benefits of his country’s version of social democracy, which he renounced and then bitterly attacked.

But social democracy comes in many different forms, whereas in this book, the ‘Swedish model’ is used to define a singular form, characterised, we are told, by a collective provision response to insecurity over the lifecycle. Thus, ‘The difference between Social Democracy and economic market doctrine is easy to draw. It is about how to deal with uncertainty.’ (p.5)

While this stark, one-dimensional, definition is somewhat qualified elsewhere, the persistent assertion of its foundational status raises two problems. First, there is a question about how far such positioning is exclusive to social democracy. Most obviously, perhaps, would not Beveridge-style social insurance fit this definition? The Liberal William Beveridge proclaimed ‘social insurance for all and for every contingency’; with all its mid-twentieth century trappings, surely a clear advocacy of a collective response to security over the lifestyle?

Conversely, social democrats outside Sweden have focused less on redistribution of income over the lifecycle and more, for example, on more direct ‘vertical’ redistribution or on collective control of the means of production or on economic planning. They may have been strategically mistaken, but that is surely no reason to deny them the ‘social democrat’ label?

Jim Tomlinson

University of Glasgow

How (much) were British workers paid ? Evidence beyond wage rates

J. Cobden (1953) The White Slaves of England

Since Phelps Brown Hopkins published ‘Seven centuries’ in the mid 1950s economic historians and cliometricians have used ‘day wages’ – day rates for masons, carpenters and bricklayers taken from building accounts – to estimate the earnings of workers of the past. Whilst recent work has shown that these rates were not what the masons, carpenters and bricklayers actually received [1] many historians have been working on the means of earnings of other groups. A wage formation conference at the Institute of Historical Research on 16 September aimed to bring the notion that wages are more multifarious than day rates to the fore. The programme brought research on lead and coal miners, hostmen, keelmen, laundresses, sailors, bankers, spinners, agricultural labourers and clergy to debate, and the features that all these groups had in common in their pay before 1900 was an observation that all who attended shared.

Kicking off the day in opening remarks, Leigh Shaw-Taylor put the conclusions that authors such as Greg Clark, and Robert Allen and others have drawn from long run compilations of builder’s day rates within a theoretical context of structural change, pointing out that the role of real wages and average wages has been confused by cliometricians, and reminding us that Malthus predicted shifts in the wages of the poor, not of the average worker.

In the first presented case of the day Jane Humphries and Ben Schneider (Oxford) overturned the notion, common in recent historiography, that spinners were well paid and part of a high wage economy in England in the 18th century; rather they showed only the most productive spinners in England earned what Arthur Young described, moreover many spinners were employed by parishes at low piece rates under the poor laws. Amy Ridgway (Exeter) presented the only data from agriculture at the conference. Using the records of Kingston Lacy in Dorset she showed that the number of day labourers hired on a casual basis increased throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century, contrary to the established literature. Kathryn Gary (Lund) presented a new wage series for unskilled men in Sweden in the long run. She showed definitively that the wages unskilled men were not enough to support a family.

Four papers presented at the workshop dealt with the earnings of miners or those engaged in the coal industry. Andy Burn (Durham) showed that the keelmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne in the late 17th and early 18th century had pay that consisted of variable elements. Part was for hauling, another part for loading, and the rates varied according to location and season. Although the men were relatively well-paid when they were at work, the seasonality of the trade challenged living standards, and created a public order problem for the authorities. Tim Barmby (Newcastle) has been researching the Allendale lead miners. There men and mine owners bargained a price per fathom to be mined. To bargain effectively they needed to be able to predict, or have better information about the seams and geology that they were mining. Barmby shows that wage bargains were a means by which the mine owners extracted information from the more knowledgable miners. Unsurprisingly, the system produced unequal gains, with the best teams repeatedly winning the bargains. Guy Solomon (Exeter), who has fully quantitatively analysed Peter Kirby’s 2010 data shows that piece rates in coal mining in Northumberland brought about large variations in wage amongst workers doing the same job. Matthew Pawelski (Lancaster) showed how a Derbyshire free miner of the mid 18th century, John Naylor, used his own rights to common mining land to earn a large amount to take him out of a period of significant indebtedness. The case shows that as well as having his own resources, Naylor took local work with other employers when he could, and highlights the multifarious nature of earning for men of this class, and the role of book credit in such small enterprise.

Richard Blakemore (Reading) has spent the last three years looking at how sailors were paid. He debunked the common myth that sailors were an early modern global proletariat paid poorly wages. Instead he shows that Sailors earnings were, again, highly variable – many mariners made money from trading goods between ports. The form in which sailors were paid varied according to risk. Blakemore showed that the bargaining systems between shipowners and mariners benefited both parties at different times. Laundresses – a vital group never properly examined before – are the subject of Kathryne Crossley’s (Oxford) research. Drawing on the records of Oxford Colleges she shows that their status, and the means by which they were paid shifted over the 17th and 18th centuries. In the earlier period they operated as enterprising sole traders, in the 19th century they were integrated into the discipline of college staff. Anne Murphy (Hertfordshire) brought some badly needed research into white collar workers. Bank of England clerks had much in common with sailors – and laundresses – it turns out. The basic salary that the clerks received was at the very lowest end of white-collar earnings in in London. Variation and extra income were earned by the clerks through gratuities, frequently for favours for clients, and trading illegitimately as brokers. Judy Stephenson (Oxford) gave a review approach, centred around the question of trying to work out how representative day wages used in macroeconomics series really are of earners in London across the long eighteenth century. Early research, funded by Cambridge Humanities Grant, indicates that few London workers were paid by the day before 1800. Wouter Marchand (Utrecht) demonstrated that the pay of clergy in early modern Friesland was dependent on the quality of land that church lands produced income from. The clergy are one of those groups that economists love to refer to as sacrificing wages for status. Marchand shows that their wages were not determined by custom. The best paid clergy were in merged or combined parishes on fertile soil.

The commonalities between the cases presented at the workshop was remarkable. These kept coffee breaks and lunch and dinner abuzz with debate, conversation and connections. The most marked was the observation of varying levels of income due to the effects of piece rates, bargaining and variable pay structures. Variation in earnings of people doing the same jobs was a consistent theme throughout the cases presented. Moreover, nearly all the cases showed only small part of income came from basic pay, and auxiliary rates, gratuities, alternate employment and bargains, were used to meet the problems of information asymmetry, seasonality or uncertainty. This was directly related to the materiality of some of the occupations. It was also noted that the agency or bargaining power of workers in a number of sectors was a determinant of their income. A final comment was that that ‘custom’, which dominates a great deal of historical literature, was not mentioned all day as as a determining variable in any of the cases presented.

The conference reinforced the idea held by many participants that wages in the early modern period and nineteenth century were a more complex issue than the use of real wages in long run studies have suggested, but it also showed that the topic of wage formation is ripe for further research. The full proceedings and papers will be published at a later date.

Judy Stephenson. Judy.Stephenson@wadh.ox.ac.uk

[1] Stephenson, EcHR, forthcoming.

Keynes and Actual Investment Decisions in Practice — The NEP-HIS Blog

Keynes and Wall Street By David Chambers (Judge Business School, Cambridge University) and Ali Kabiri (University of Buckingham) Abstract: This article examines in detail how John Maynard Keynes approached investing in the U.S. stock market on behalf of his Cambridge College after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. We exploit the considerable archival material documenting his […]

via Keynes and Actual Investment Decisions in Practice — The NEP-HIS Blog

Market anomalies and market crashes: Historical perspectives on modern finance

Early Victorian observers would have found our financial markets familiar,
but would likely expect a crash, writes Andrew Odlyzko*



What would early Victorians make of today’s markets?  Such questions are more than just idle curiosities.  For example, the recent wide acceptance around the world of negative interest rates was a surprise. Why didn’t the money go into cash?  Yet observers should not have been startled by this development.  In Britain in the early 1850s, Exchequer Bills effectively offered negative rates.  The convenience of those paper instruments gave them higher value than stacks of gold coins, just as today the convenience of electronic ledger balances is worth something compared to having to handle containers full of banknotes.

The Exchequer Bills episode is just one minor finding from recent studies that integrate data from the ledgers in the Bank of England Archive with price reports, press coverage, and other sources. Previously unknown  statistics about completeness of price reports, turnover rates, and dealer activity have been obtained.  It has also been found that the London Stock Exchange was a key part of the “shadow banking system” of the time.

Aside from statistics, we can also obtain some qualitative insights about modern finance from these investigations.  Our basic laws and institutions are clear linear descendants of those created at that time. If some of those early Victorians were to come alive today, they would have no difficulty recognizing all the modern financial instruments and services, although they would surely marvel at such concoctions as CDO squareds.  Many current concerns would have been familiar to them as well.  While they did not talk about climate change, they did worry about natural resource depletion, and effects of globalization. Inequality was even greater than today.  Deflation and the analog of our “Great Savings Glut” were visible, and seemed natural.  Although the terms secular stagnation and liquidity trap had not yet been invented, they corresponded to widely held attitudes.

Although the financial system was far smaller than today, public opinions about it were not dissimilar.  Respect was often mixed with fear and loathing,  as in an 1850 magazine article that called the London Stock Exchange “an institution destitute of moral principle, but at the same time omnipotent in its influence upon the moral and social condition of nations.”

So what would have surprised those early Victorians observers the most, were they to come alive today?  One candidate would surely be our touching acceptance of financial innovation as socially productive.  Another would have been our faith in central planning, in the presumed ability of policy makers to ensure smooth and steady growth.  The Minsky Instability Hypothesis would have been regarded as obviously true.  What we find in the 19th century are opinions, such as that of The Times, that crashes occur about once a decade, and that they lead people to “the reflection that they are at least the wiser for it, that they will not be taken in a second time,” and yet “the next fit comes on them like the rest, and they go through all the stages of the disease with pathological accuracy.”

The Efficient Market Hypothesis would have seemed to the early Victorians as amusing, but a fantasy.  They understood that some semblance of efficiency could be achieved, but only through diligent efforts of experienced traders.  And even those traders could not always control market irrationalities, and were themselves subject to limitations of groupthink.

Perhaps the greatest and hardest to accept surprise in modern markets would have been the combination of high equity prices and low long term interest rates.  Today’s commentators regard this as natural, and keep reassuring investors that low interest rates help sustain record-high corporate profits, which justify the high share prices. There is certainly evidence that in the short run, low interest rates do boost profits.  But on a long scale, basic economic logic says that interest rate and profits should move the same way. After all, bonds and equity are just different ways to fund ventures, and interest and profits are the cost of capital.  There is a difference between the two, reflecting different risks.  But there should be a strong positive correlation.  And that is how the early Victorians thought about it.  The theoretician Robert Hamilton wrote about it in the 1810s. So did James Morrison, one of the richest merchant bankers of that era, in the 1840s.  And so did others.  Were they to come alive today, they would surely be astounded.  They would wonder why, if Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, was indeed “doing God’s work,” was he not mobilizing all that low-cost money lying around in order to compete away the extravagantly high equity returns?  And they would surely conjecture that once capitalism started working properly again, this anomaly would disappear, and either bond or share prices (or both) would crash.


Notes: this post is based on the author’s papers “Financialization of the early Victorian economy and the London Stock Exchange“, and “Supplementary material for
`Economically irrational pricing of 19th century British government
bonds’” .

This research was presented at the annual conference of the Economic History Society in Cambridge, April 1-3, 2016.

The post gives the views of its author, not the position of the University of Minnesota.

The post is being co-published with the LSE Business Review: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/

* Andrew Odlyzko has had a long career in research and research management
at Bell Labs, AT&T Labs, and most recently at the University of Minnesota,
where he built an interdisciplinary research center, and is now a
Professor in the School of Mathematics.  He has written over 150 technical
papers in a variety of of fields, and has three patents.  In recent
years he has also been working in electronic commerce, economics of data
networks, and economic history, especially on diffusion of technological
innovation.  More information, including papers and presentation decks,
is available on his web site, http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/.