by Tehreem Husain
History provides us with many examples of asset bubbles which have led to systemic crises in the economy. Popular examples are that of the Tulip mania and the South Sea Bubble. This blog discusses the case of an indigo price bubble in nineteenth century India, perhaps the first of its kind, which lead to a contagion like crises in the economy.
Almost 17.4% of Indian GDP was derived from the agricultural sector in 2015-16, with nearly half of the Indian population being dependent on agriculture and allied activities for livelihood. This makes smooth functioning of commodity markets of considerable importance to policymakers. Throughout time, there have been many episodes of commodity price surges and ensuing market volatility due to traditional demand-supply gaps, monetary stress and financialization of commodity markets inclusive of speculation (Varadi, 2012). What role did agriculture play in commodity market volatility during the late 18th/ early 19th century? Little is known about perhaps the first asset bubble of its kind in India – the indigo crisis, the reasons attributed to it and the cost it imposed on different sectors of the economy.
With the advent of the East India Company, India was a global trade destination for a number of commodities including cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre and tea. In order to trade these commodities with global markets, European traders needed banks to finance foreign trade. Indigenous bankers in India did not provide this particular banking function and hence the East India Company diversified its business by introducing agency houses in Calcutta which amongst others also performed banking functions. These agency houses performed all the banking functions of receiving deposits, making advances and issuing paper money. Their responsibility of note circulation crucially helped them in carrying out their diversified lines of businesses as ship-owners, land owners, farmers, manufacturers, money lenders and bankers (Cooke, 1830). It was the agency house of Messrs. Alexander & Co. which started the first European bank in India, called the Bank of Hindostan, in 1770 (Singh, 1966).
In the early nineteenth century these agency houses were tested for their endurance and continuance due to three factors. Firstly and most importantly, during the early 1820s, agency houses borrowed money at low interest rates and invested it prodigally in indigo concerns-the crop being the only profitable means of remittance in Europe. The crisis multiplied when newly formed agency houses, besides investing capital in their own indigo concerns, fiercely competed with the old houses in making indiscriminate advances to indigo planters and paid little regard to the actual state of the market. Excessive demand of indigo fuelled the prices in the mid 1820s and encouraged increased production of the commodity which eventually led to a glut in the market and sharp decline in its price. This rise and fall in prices is evident from the fact that the indigo price shot up from Rs. 130/maund in 1813 to Rs. 300 in 1824, and then fell to Rs. 145/maund in 1832 (Singh, 1966).
The second challenge, along with indigo price volatility, was the start of the first Anglo Burmese war in 1825. This further led to stressed monetary conditions resulting in a scarcity of metal in Calcutta (Sinha, 1927).
Thirdly, in terms of the global landscape, this period marked the peak of investment boom in Britain, which characterized an explosion of company promotions and bond issues by foreign governments, mining companies, railways, utilities, docks and steamships. In total during 1824-25 some 624 companies hoping to raise £372 million were brought to the market. However, with the investment boom peaking out in 1825, market conditions had changed. Interest rates had risen making borrowing more expensive, investor sentiment had become more cautious which eventually led to a panic like situation resulting in bank failures and bankruptcies (Brunnermeier & Schnabel, 2015).
In such times of local and global economic stress, several minor agency houses failed in 1827 which shook investor confidence in the remaining agency houses. A notable case is that of the agency house of Messrs. Palmer and Co., known as the ‘indigo king of Bengal’, which faced heavy withdrawals from their partners and eventually led to the closure of their private bank and finally their own demise in 1830. This panicked the market and led to further withdrawals of capital investments.
During this period agency houses made desperate appeals to the government for financial relief and highlighted their importance in the Indian financial system at that time. In a minute dated 14th May 1830, Lord William Bentick, Governor General of India from 1828-35, accentuated systemic importance of agency houses. He highlighted that not only would there be a dislocation of trade in some staple commodities, any damage to the ‘conglomerate’ nature of the agency houses would cause severe disruptions in other industries, most notably shipping. Finally, loans were granted to these houses in the form of treasury notes bearing 6 percent interest.
Despite the monetary aids provided by the government, the wave of agency house failures could not be curbed. More agency houses failed in January 1832. In addition to this, the unexpected fall in the price of indigo created difficulties for one of the biggest agency houses Messrs. Alexander & Co. It is important to note that the relief package came under stringent conditions. They were obliged to withdraw their bank notes from circulation, and were given an extended period for the payment of their debts provided they end their banking operations (Savkar, 1938). This resulted in the demise of the Bank of Hindostan and the Commercial Bank.
Overall seven great Agency Houses of Calcutta failed within a short span of four years which had detrimental effects on the Indian economy at that time. It may be summarized that speculation in indigo and mixing of trading and agency business were the pivotal reasons behind the failure of these agency houses. More importantly, this episode of a commodity price bubble spreading its tentacles to the entire economy had a phenomenal impact on the structure of business. It is recoded that from a handful of firms in the year before 1850, there were 170 firms working as joint stock organizations in 1868. The first commercial register to identify firms with tradable stock was established in 1843 which listed eights firms (Aldous, 2015). Joint stock organizational form also entered banking. A key example is the rise of the Union Bank of Calcutta (Cooke, 1830). The crisis also led to the establishment of a number of private banks by the British expats (Jones, 1995).