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

Medieval History and its Relevance to Modern Business

Joint publication review with The NEP-HIS Blog

Title: The Medieval Origins of a Culture of Cooperation and Inclusive Political Institutions


By: Carmine Guerriero (ACLE, University of Amsterdam)

Abstract: This paper evaluates the relative importance of a “culture of cooperation,” understood as the implicit reward from cooperating in prisoner’s dilemma and investment types of activities, and “inclusive political institutions,” which enable the citizenry to check the executive authority. I divide Europe into 120 km X 120 km grid cells, and I exploit exogenous variation in both institutions driven by persistent medieval history. To elaborate, I document strong first-stage relationships between present-day norms of trust and respect and the severity of consumption risk-i.e., climate volatility-over the 1000-1600 period and between present-day regional political autonomy and the factors that raised the returns on elite-citizenry investments in the Middle Ages, i.e., the terrain ruggedness and the direct access to the coast. Using this instrumental variables approach, I show that only culture has a first order effect on development, even after controlling for country fixed effects, medieval innovations, the present-day role of medieval geography, and the factors modulating the impact of institutions. Crucially, the excluded instruments have no direct impact on development, and the effect of culture holds within pairs of adjacent grid cells with different medieval climate volatility. An explanation for these results is that culture, but not a more inclusive political process, is necessary to produce public-spirited politicians and push voters to punish political malfeasance. Micro-evidence from Italian Parliament data supports this idea.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:pra:mprapa:70879

Circulated by NEP-SOC on 2016-05-14

Reviewed by Catherine Casson (University of Manchester) and Mark Casson (University of Reading)

This paper takes a long-run approach to an investigation of the importance of a ‘culture of cooperation’ and ‘inclusive political institutions’. The author defines a ‘culture of cooperation’ as the behavioural characteristics of ‘trust, respect, control and obedience’, while the term ‘inclusive political institutions’ is defined as institutions which ‘enable the citizenry to check the executive authority’.

Analysis is focused on Europe and on the agrarian economy. The author suggests that cooperation in the middle ages was particularly associated with the monastic orders of the Cistercians and Franciscans. Their houses were generally located, the author argues, in areas with unpredictable climates. The ability of the monks to farm the land in a way that put such unproductive land to productive use attracted the support and cooperation of the local community. In addition these monastic orders also introduced new financial practices, including improvements in access to credit, which also fostered local community cooperation. Inclusive political institutions, the author suggests, were especially associated with the success of long-distance trade. This created a shared goal between the elite and citizens.


The paper suggests that contemporary cultures of cooperation and inclusive political institutions are influenced by medieval ones. The medieval data used for ‘culture’ is climate data and the modern data is the 2008 European Value Study. For inclusive political institutions the medieval data is ‘the discounted number of years Cistercian and Franciscan houses were active per square km over the 1000-1600 period’ (p. 9) while the modern data is on prosecutions of members of parliament in Italy in 1948-87.

Later in the paper some more specific hypotheses are presented as controls for change over time:

  1. That Atlantic trade impacted on modern economic development
  2. That micro-credit systems introduced by the Franciscan order strengthened contemporary credit markets
  3. That monastic orders influenced religious beliefs in general, and that this influence may have had other, less defined, influences, on economic practice
  4. That distance to Wittenberg, where Protestantism began, influenced the development of a ‘culture of cooperation’
  5. Early transition to agriculture led to ‘higher inequality in gender roles’
  6. That genetic diversity in a country had a negative impact on cooperation
  7. That the suitability of soil for potato growing contributed to the development of institutions
  8. That the Black Death raised standards of living
  9. That education influenced the development of institutions and economic growth

The paper argues that the impact of the medieval culture of cooperation originating in the Cistercian and Franciscan monastic houses can be seen today. It also argues that this culture of cooperation has had a greater influence as a check on executive authority than inclusive political institutions.

Conflict, rather than cooperation, is often the term most associated with the middle ages. One of the benefits of this paper is that it highlights the presence of, and impact of, collaboration. Monastic orders are recognised in both history and economics literature for their important economic, as well as religious, impact. Their use to assess a culture of cooperation is therefore helpful, but they are perhaps a less obvious choice for an assessment of inclusive political institutions. One potential way in which the paper could be developed would be by expanding the scope to cover both urban and rural locations. Such an extension would retain the presence of monastic orders (and indeed extend it to cover urban ones) and, more significantly, allow urban political institutions to be considered. The presence of these institutions is briefly discussed on p. 12 but the issue is not developed further. Many of these town governments had as a shared goal the long-distance trade alluded to in the paper. They also offer more equivalent data to the contemporary data used as a proxy for inclusive political institutions.


Continuity and change over time is a key focus on the paper and the author shows an awareness of some key developments that occurred from the medieval to the modern period. The selection of the controls shows an engagement with recent secondary literature but does introduce additional time periods (such as the Neolithic), specific events (for example the Black Death) and general trends (for example the expansion of education). The paper could be strengthened by more clearly outlining the chronology of these events, and perhaps by narrowing the list of controls used.

Connections between contemporary and historic business have been increasingly recognised and explored in academic literature. The subject of this paper is therefore related to a growing trend to examine the medieval origins of many economic processes. Monasteries have been identified as key players in the ‘multinational enterprise’ of medieval pilgrimage and as originations of sophisticated forms of financial transactions (Bell and Dale, 2011; Bell, Brooks and Dryburgh, 2007). They were also important speculators in the property market (Baker and Holt, 2004; Bouchard, 1991; Casson and Casson, 2016).


Financial crises are a further topic that can be examined through the surviving qualitative and quantitative sources from the middle ages. In the light of the financial crisis of 2008 there has been a recognition that a long-run perspective, starting as early as the middle ages, provides the opportunity to study cycles of growth and decline. Surviving medieval records from the English government, for example, provide detailed data that can be subjected to statistical analysis, as shown in the work of Bell, Brooks and Moore (Bell, Brooks and Moore, 2014; Bell, Brooks and Moore, 2013). The importance of medieval data has also been highlighted in recent work on historic GDP (Broadberry et al, 2015).

Innovation and knowledge acquisition in the middle ages have recently been examined using both modelling approaches from economics, and historical case studies. De la Croix, Doepke and Mokyr (2016) have shown, using their combined expertise in the fields of economics and history, the important foundation that medieval guilds provided in the transmission of knowledge across Europe before the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile Davids and de Munck’s edited collection on Innovation and Creativity in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Cities has used historical case studies to demonstrate that medieval cities saw a clear connection between the skills of their population and the overall economic performance of their city, and developed strategies that were intended to make their city economically resilient (Davids and De Munck, 2014; Casson, 2012).

Entrepreneurship can also be examined in a long-run context. Business records, letters, literary sources and government records all demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, the origins of enterprise lie in the middle ages rather than the Industrial Revolution. Medieval entrepreneurs were involved in a range of activities, including infrastructure developments, property speculation and factory foundation (Casson and Casson, 2013a; Casson and Casson, 2013b; Landes, Mokyr and Baumol, 2012)

Overall, one of the key strengths of this paper is the contribution that it makes to this broader research agenda on the parallels between medieval and modern business.



Baker, N. and R. Holt (2004), Urban Growth and the Medieval Church: Gloucester and Worcester (Routledge, Aldershot).

Bell, A. R., Brooks, C. and Moore, T. K. (2014), ‘The credit relationship between Henry III and merchants of Douai and Ypres, 1247-70’, Economic History Review, 67 (1), 123-145. doi: 10.1111/1468-0289.12013.

Bell, A., Brooks, C. and Moore, T. (2013), ‘Medieval foreign exchange: A time series anaylsis’ in M. Casson and N. Hashimzade (eds.) Large Databases in Economic History: Research Methods and Case Studies (Routledge, Abingdon), 97-123.

Bell, A. R. and Dale, R. S. (2011), ‘The medieval pilgrimage business’, Enterprise and Society, 12 (3), 601-627. doi: 10.1093/es/khr014.

Bell, A. R., C. Brooks, C. and P. R. Dryburgh, P. R. (2007), The English Wool Market, c.1230-1327 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).

Broadberry, S., B. Campbell, A. Klein, M. Overton and B. van Leeuwen (2015), British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Bouchard, C. B. (1991), Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights, and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-century Burgundy (Ithaca, NY).

Casson, C. (2012), ‘Reputation and Responsibility in Medieval English Towns: Civic Concerns with the Regulation of Trade’, Urban History 39 (3), 387-408. doi:10.1017/S0963926812000193.

Casson, C. and Casson, M. (2016), ‘Location, Location, Location? Analysing Property Rents in Medieval Gloucester’ Economic History Review 69: 2 pp. 575-99 DOI:10.1111/ehr.12117.

Casson, M. and Casson C. (2013), The Entrepreneur in History: From Medieval Merchant to Modern Business Leader (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

Casson, M. and Casson C. eds. (2013), History of Entrepreneurship: Innovation and Risk Taking, 1200-2000 (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2 vols).

Davids, K. and B. de Munck, eds. (2014), Innovation and Creativity in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Cities (Ashgate: Farnham).

De la Croix, D., M. Doepke and J. Mokyr (2016), ‘Clans, Guilds, and Markets: Apprenticeship Institutions and Growth in the Pre-Industrial Economy’ NBER Working Paper No. 22131, circulated by NEP-HIS on 2016-04-16.

Landes, D. S., J. Mokyr & W. J. Baumol (2012), The Invention of Enterprise:Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (Princeton, Princeton University Press).