Individual investors and local bias in the UK, 1870–1935

by J. Rutterford (Open University), D.P. Sotiropoulos (Open University), and C. van Lieshout (University of Cambridge)


In today’s financialised societies, households are exposed to financial risk. Researchers are currently exploring how such households make financial decisions and manage financial risk in practice. There are also substantial efforts being made by government, regulators, charities and financial players to increase the financial literacy of households to help them make better financial decisions.

This study explores the financial decisions made by a sample of late Victorian investors and attempts to draw some lessons from a period which, in its global outlook and investment opportunities, is similar to today.


The research shows that investors diversified their portfolios both internationally and across sectors, well before the mathematical benefits of diversification were modelled by Markowitz in the form of modern portfolio theory (MPT), which recommends that portfolio weights be chosen according to the returns and risks of individual securities but also according to the correlations between the various security returns. At the time of our study, though, contemporary investment publications also promoted the benefits of diversification in terms of enhanced yield without increased risk; they showed this by using historical data to quantify the greater returns achievable. So, nineteenth century UK investors were also aware of the benefits of spreading risk across different types of securities as recommended by MPT. The most common advice, though, was not to mathematically calculate correlation matrices, as does MPT, rather the advice was to invest equal amounts in a range of securities, the so-called 1/N or naïve diversification approach.

The paper breaks new ground in our understanding of what Victorian investors did in practice with their portfolios. Up to now, researchers have merely acknowledged that such diversification took place, or have used market prices to argue that Victorian investors ought to have diversified and quantified what such investors, had they had perfect foresight, would have gained in return terms. In contrast, this paper looks in detail at a sample of 508 investor portfolios at death, using carefully analysed probate data, for the period 1870 to 1902.

The results of the analysis of these investor portfolios allow us to draw a number of interesting conclusions. For example, the probate records of our sample show an almost equal number of women and men held financial portfolios at death, highlighting the importance of women investors in this period. Also, the research finds that, for these estates at death which included financial securities, investments represented on average a substantial 60% of gross assets, the remainder being property, life assurance, loans and cash.

The average number of financial securities held in a sample portfolio was 4.5, with a median of only 2. Surprisingly, though, this level of diversification is not dissimilar to that of portfolio holdings from US samples in the 1970s and 1990s, one hundred years later, and decades after MPT was formalised in the 1950s and 1960s. In our sample, the level of diversification was linked to wealth, with the top quartile in gross wealth terms holding an average of 11 securities in their portfolios, with men holding more diversified portfolios than women.

However, overall, investors did not hold securities in equal weights, as generally recommended in the investment literature of the period. They did not manage financial risk via naïve diversification. Nor did they evenly spread their risks across sectors and countries. For example, investors living outside London – – as well as less wealthy investors preferred the securities of domestic companies other than railways. This indicates a preference for local investment, which offers an alternative route to risk reduction, that of trust in local enterprise. This is in line with recent research on trust in the economic history literature. The research also finds that wealthier investors, who held more securities, were more willing to hold international and government securities than the less wealthy. In contrast, a surprising 35% of our sample of investors held only non-railway corporate securities in their portfolios.

In conclusion, individual investors in this late nineteenth century sample did diversify, but not as much as recommended by the contemporary literature. Instead, they relied more closely on local trust networks for their financial decision making. This does not mean that investors failed to see the benefits of international, sectoral or naïve diversification. Rather, and this is a key lesson for today’s decision makers, non-wealthy households who hold the majority of their wealth in non-tradable form and who are unable to easily hedge financial risk, are reluctant, as were their forebears, to embrace relatively sophisticated financial approaches to investment. They prefer, instead, to rely on trust, whether of the companies in which they invest or of their financial intermediaries.


The full paper: Rutterford J., D. P. Sotiropoulos, and C. van Lieshout (2017) “Individual investors and local bias in the UK, 1870–1935,” Economic History Review, 70, 4 (2017), pp. 1291–1320.    URL:

To contact Janette Rutterford on Twitter: @JRutterford


Historical Indian Banking M&A Motivations: Political or Economic?

by Tehreem Husain (The Express Tribune)

British India 10 Rupees by Reserve Bank of India for Government of Pakistan. From Wiki Commons.


Over the past few decades rapid strides of financial globalization of capital markets, technological advancement and financial innovation gave rise to an environment supporting large M&A activity arose globally (Smith & Walter, 2002). Market driven business mergers has been an integral part of the commercial and financial history of advanced economies but has only gained recent momentum in the case of emerging markets (Gourlay, Ravishankar & Jones, 2006). This blog delves into an important historical episode of banking merger, perhaps the first ever, in British India where the Presidency banks of Bengal, Bombay and Madras merged into the Imperial Bank of India in 1921. It aims to determine the motivations behind the merger episode which set foundations for a central banking institution in British India.

Banking Merger Episode in British India

In recent times, the financial industry has been witness to major restructuring which amongst other causative factors includes episodes of M&A activity. Merger episodes are not just a recent phenomenon and have existed throughout history. Before discussing the specific merger episode in British India, it is illustrative to shed light on the business of banking in India. Formalized banking commenced in British India with the English agency houses in Calcutta and Bombay which served as bankers to the English East India Company. Up till 1876, the Presidency banks of Bengal, Bombay and Madras established in 1800, 1840 and 1843 respectively, were ‘quasi-public institutions’ managing government balances and being responsible for note circulation. From 1876, they became purely private concerns but still maintained close contact with the government (Rau, 1922).

They provided support to the government during the Great War but towards the end of the Great War, the directors of the Presidency Banks entered into negotiations amongst themselves and later with the government of India for their merger. A Government of India Finance Department Note No.230 of 1919 presented to Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India presented a proposal for the amalgamation of the Presidency Banks quoting an increase in capital, increase in branches and improvements in the future management of the rupee debt of India as key advantages from the merger. The Presidency Banks were merged into the Imperial Bank of India in 1921.

 Merger Motivations

 It is important to delve into some of the factors that led to the merger of the Presidency Banks. Historically and more so in today’s dynamic economy, financial corporations and otherwise have undergone restructuring their businesses in order to remain competitive. Norley (2008) defined restructuring as reorganizing the legal, ownership, operational or other structures of a company for the purpose of making it more profitable and better organized for its needs. This restructuring entails activities ranging from mergers and acquisitions to divestitures and spin-offs to reorganization under the protection of national bankruptcy laws (DePamphilis, 2017). In the context of M&A a merger represents the absorption of one company by another whereas an acquisition is the purchase of some portion of one company by another. Mergers occur due to various reasons. Firstly, they generate synergies between the acquirer and the target, which increases the value of the firm (Hitt et al, 2001). Mergers allows firms to capture synergies and improve efficiencies in order to survive economic contractions (Tarsalewska, 2015). Increasing market share, achieving economies of scale and scope, increasing profits and diversification of risk are other motivations behind mergers (Ntuli, 2017).

One other important motivation for merger is due to considerations of economic efficiency (Lin, 2013). Achieving economic efficiency is also a key motivation behind merger motivations in public sector organizations. Mergers can eliminate duplicated responsibilities, utilize synergies and obtain more resource efficiency (Grossman et al., 2012).

It is with this background in mind that the recognized international rating system ‘CAMELS’ was used on the Presidency Banks and the Imperial Bank of India to make sense of whether the inherent financial performance of the banks led to their merger. Individual balance sheets and profit and loss accounts for the three Presidency Banks and the Imperial Bank of India were used for the analysis. Dissecting the ‘CAMELS’ acronym, reveals that the system rates financial institutions based on their capital adequacy, asset quality, management, earnings, liquidity and sensitivity. Working with limited data, financial indicators over a two-decade period from Dec 1910 to Dec 1930 are analysed to make sense of how banks performed on each of these metrics. This approach is not exhaustive but is indicative nonetheless.

Analysing the financial performance of the Presidency banks and the Imperial Bank of India during the time period reveals the following.

  • To determine capital adequacy, the capital to assets ratio was used. In the post-merger episode, the Imperial bank of India witnessed an average capital to assets of 10.7 percent relative to an average of 5.5 percent for the Presidency Banks. This exhibits that through merger, Imperial Bank of India was well capitalized and capital adequacy ratio was improved. Post financial crisis of 2007, the Basel Committee of Banking Supervision has also introduced the leverage ratio to judge capital adequacy. The deposits to equity ratio was used as an indicator to determine the amount of leverage that is used to finance the banks’ assets. The Imperial Bank of India has exhibited a relatively stable leverage position since its inception marking an average of 15.1 percent. This is in contrast to the Bank of Bombay which faced high leverage during the Great War reaching almost 31 percent in December 1917. Keeping all other factors constant, higher leverage ratios indicate higher bank riskiness.
  • In order to judge of asset quality, the investment to total assets ratio is used which focuses on the proportion of total assets that are being invested by banks to protect itself from the risk of non-performing assets (Paul, 2017). Data shows that the merger resulted in an improvement in asset quality based on this indicator. The Imperial Bank of India performed significantly well in comparison to the Presidency Banks. It maintained an average of almost 20 percent from its inception till 1930, compared to an average of 15.5 percent of all three Presidency banks.
  • In terms of profitability, the return on assets and return on equity have been calculated. The ratios measure how profitable are the banks relative to their assets and the net income returned as a percentage of shareholders equity respectively. Both ratios exhibit great fluctuation and variability for the Imperial Bank of India but were on the upward trend for the Presidency Banks. A case in point is the return on equity which stood at an average of 13.4 percent for the Presidency banks compared to 10.1 percent for the Imperial Bank of India. This indicates that the merger did not create additional revenues that could accrue to shareholders as increased equity.
  • In measuring liquidity, the deposits to assets ratio is used. Data shows that through the Presidency banks faced issues on the liquidity front. The ratio, remained within the recommended band of 80 to 90 percent for the Imperial Bank of India whilst touching 78 percent for the Bank of Bengal in December 1919. This shows that the merger resulted in an improved liquidity position for the Imperial Bank of India.

This blog attempts to analyse the merger episode using modern CAMELS indicators. Some of the financial indicators employed have presented a persuasive case for merger as the Bank of Bombay and Madras did not exhibit sound financial fundamentals during the early part of the twentieth century. There was also substantial evidence that the Presidency banks should be merged due to administrative reasons. The financial crisis in British India during 1913-18 were attributed partly due to the exigencies imposed by the Great War and the absence of a financial regulatory body as discussed here. Future research can explore these questions in greater detail.

The merger led to greater ‘financialization’ of British India as the Imperial Bank of India pursued a vigorous policy of opening new branches, specifically in areas where banking facilities did not exist. This can be evidenced from the fact that from 70 branches in 1920, the bank had 202 branches by 1928 (Singh, 1965).

The above discussion primarily employs technical reasons to argue a case for the merger of the Presidency Banks. It would also be quite instructive to explore the political climate at the formation of the Imperial Bank of India and the incentives of the governments both in Britain and in India in doing so.

ORIGINS OF BRITAIN’S HOUSING CRISIS: ‘Stop-go’ policy and the covert restriction of private residential house-building

by Peter Scott and James T. Walker (Henley Business School at the University of Reading)

University of the West of England, The History of Council Housing. Copyright of Bristol Record Office

‘Stop-go’ aggregate demand management policy represents one of the most distinctive, and controversial, aspects of British macroeconomic policy during the post-war ‘long boom’. This was, in turn, linked to an over-riding priority among an influential section of policy-makers in the Treasury and the Bank of England to restore sterling as a ‘strong’ currency (second only to the dollar) and to re-establish the City of London as a major financial and trading centre, despite heavy war-time debts and low currency reserves.

This policy is often viewed as having had damaging impacts on major sectors of the British economy – especially the manufacture of cars, white goods and other consumer durables, which were deliberately depressed in order to support sterling and thereby facilitate the growth of Britain’s financial sector.

This research explores an important but neglected impact of ‘stop-go’ policy: restrictions on house-building. This has been overlooked in the general stop-go literature, largely because the policy was mainly undertaken covertly, without public announcement or parliamentary discussion.

In addition to publicly announced restrictions on public sector house-building – by restricting local authority borrowing and raising interest rates on that borrowing – the government covertly depressed private house purchases and mortgage lending by restricting house mortgage funds to well below market clearing levels.

The Treasury used a combination of informal pressure and, less frequently, formal requests, to get the building societies’ cartel (the Building Societies Association) to set their interest rates at levels that forced them to ration mortgage lending in order to maintain acceptable reserves. Officials particularly valued this instrument of stop-go policy owing to its effectiveness and its ‘invisibility’ (mortgage lending restriction was not publicly announced and was not generally even subject to cabinet discussion).

Meanwhile political pressure for action to increase house-building and home ownership (especially in the run-up to national elections) led to a perverse situation whereby government was sometimes simultaneously boosting demand for house purchases and covertly restricting the supply of mortgages – feeding into a growing house price spiral that has become an enduring characteristic of the British housing market.

This study shows that the application of stop-go policy to mortgage lending for most of the period between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s had a major cumulative impact on the British economy: depressing the long-term rate of capital formation in housing; creating inflationary expectations for house purchasers; having negative impacts on living standards (especially for lower-income families); and damaging the growth, productivity, and capacity of the house-building sector and the building society movement.

Democracy and taxation in Greece: a long history of rural favouritism

by Pantelis Kammas (University of Ioannina) and Vassilis Sarantides (University of Sheffield)


Some of the basic characteristics of the current tax system in Greece seem to have deep historical roots. One is the amazingly low tax burden that has fallen on the incomes of the agricultural population throughout the history of the Greek state.

This is because governing authorities always keep an eye on the welfare of the politically powerful group of peasants and farmers to gain support. Another deep-rooted characteristic is significant reliance on indirect versus direct taxes, which can be attributed to analogous political economy reasons.

The main concern of the governing authorities in the agrarian new-born Greek state of the nineteenth century was the legitimisation of their authority. On this basis, a number of economic benefits through tax (and other) policies were provided to the rural population that became politically powerful after 1864, the date that voting rights were granted to all adult males.

In that way, authorities aimed to ensure a minimum level of social consensus and to convince the citizens of the young Greek state that the public demands of the war of Independence – ‘social justice’, ‘democracy’ and ‘equality of political rights’ – would be satisfied.

This research highlights the importance of economic development in the relationship between democracy and taxation, focusing mainly in the case of Greece during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Notably, Greece established universal male suffrage in 1864 while it was still a developing, pure agrarian economy with 76% of the population in the agricultural sector.

In contrast with Greece, other democratic European countries had significantly narrower agricultural sectors in the nineteenth century – the majority of them at a level below 40% of the total working population.

Building on a unique tax dataset that contains 13 different tax categories of the newborn Greek state during the period 1833-1933, the results conclude that the extension of the voting franchise in 1864 did not affect the size of the government – but it did change the structure of taxation in favour of the rural population.

Universal male suffrage was accompanied by a long-run reduction in the percentage of rural (for example, taxes on land) to total taxes by 8.25%. This reduction was balanced by increases in indirect taxes – mostly custom and excises duties – leaving the overall level of taxation constant over time.

The research interprets these empirical findings in terms of a political economy motivation. In particular, the Greek governments changed the composition of taxation, reducing rural taxes to satisfy the large majority of the electorate who were poor peasants and farmers.

In turn, the findings for Greece are compared with that for a sample of 12 West European countries that were substantially more developed on democratisation.

The analysis suggests that in more industrialised European economies, democratisation revealed the political preferences of a more urbanised electorate – mostly consisting of workers and middle class capitalists – leading to a different pattern of ‘reshapement’ of the tax system.

This is consistent with the theoretical priors that the level of development, and the consequent structure of the economy, will result in a differentiated effect of democratisation on fiscal policy.


Ottoman stock returns during the Turco-Italian and Balkan Wars of 1910-1914

by Avni önder Hanedar (Dokuz Eylül University and Sakarya University, Turkey) and Elmas Yaldız Hanedar (Yeditepe University, Turkey)


Were the military conflicts of 19101914 related to higher risks for market investors at the İstanbul Stock Exchange? Wars are often perceived as bad news, correlated with increasing risks for investors and fluctuations in volatility: there would be fall in stock prices due to expected macroeconomic costs, such as higher inflation and lower production, as companies’ activities and expected returns decrease. On the other hand, if wars’ outcomes were perceived as unimportant for companies’ activities and expected returns, then there would be no significant changes in stock prices and volatility.

Many researchers on financial economics have created a large literature on the effects of different wars, and addressed mixed findings. A pioneering research for the political crises of 1880–1914 is Ferguson (2006), contributing to answering how did investors at the London Stock Exchange view the conflicts on the eve of the First World War. He showed the absence of higher war risk on bonds of Great Powers[1] traded on the London Stock Exchange. In addition, Hanedar et al. (2015) evince that the outbreak of the Turco-Italian and Balkan wars were correlated with a lower likelihood of Ottoman debt repayments, using data on two Ottoman government bonds traded on the İstanbul bourse. As the literature on the İstanbul bourse is limited, new light on this question required to explore risk perceived by stock investors due to the historical conflicts.

A column of Tanin presenting the value of bonds and stocks on 14 November 1910

We focus on the influence of stock returns at the İstanbul bourse during the Turco-Italian and Balkan wars, using unique data on stock prices of 9 popular domestic joint-stock companies in the Ottoman Empire. All these companies played a crucial role for the Ottoman economy and operated in the most attractive sectors, i.e. banking, mining, agriculture, and transportation. Some of them are the Ottoman General Insurance company (Osmanlı Sigorta Şirket-i Umûmiyesi), the Regie (Tobacco) company (Tütün Rejisi), and the Imperial Ottoman Bank (Bank-ı Osmanî-i Şâhâne). The data are manually collected from Tanin, which was a widely circulated daily Ottoman newspaper. This research is the first to provide a historical narrative explaining the changes of Ottoman stock returns due to the wars that took place on the eve of the First World War. It observes only small reactions to the Turco-Italian war, and only for three stocks out of ten examined (see Table 1). This is interesting, as previously (Hanedar et al., 2015) we observed higher responsiveness of government bond prices during the same period.



It would be possible to argue that investors might have believed that the war would not be that harmful for the non-governmental economic and financial sectors. An important aspect supporting the finding is that the companies were either established or supported by foreign investors. Great Powers protected their home countries’ investments both economically and politically. The companies obtained revenue guarantees and privileges from the Ottoman state, making the investors’ investments secure. Great Powers that invested in the Ottoman Empire were expecting its demise soon. Therefore, investors were likely to invest in the companies just for the sake of having territorial claim without much consideration of risk. During the nineteenth century, wars were important sources of the solvency problem, which could explain the sensitivity of government bond prices to the conflicts studied here.

The working paper can be downloaded here

References to this blog post here

[1] The UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary.

Do the rules of the game matter? Monetary regimes and financial stability since 1920

by German Forero-Laverde (Universidad Externado de Colombia / Universitat de Barcelona)

Financial crises come in many shapes and forms. They can occur in stock markets, private or public debt markets, housing markets or any asset class you may think of (yes, even tulips). Attempts to predict the timing and asset class where the next crisis will show its ugly head have been unsuccessful in part due to the amount and diversity of forces at play. The veil of uncertainty that surrounds them and the negative effect they have on long-run economic growth makes the study of crises both pertinent and challenging.

The research, presented at the 2017 EHS annual conference, studies one possible factor that may be related to the frequency and intensity of booms and busts in stock and credit markets: the rules of the game. It studies the possibility that the monetary regime, competing decisions on monetary policy, exchange rates and capital flows, is related to the evolution of financial aggregates to different time horizons. The underlying idea, following the Bank for International Settlements, is that different regimes endow the financial system with varying levels of elasticity, allowing for imbalances to accumulate in the form of booms and unwind in the form of crises at different rates and intensity.

This is a stepping stone in the road to answer a question that has troubled policy makers for over a century: Should authorities and regulators intervene in the market trying to anticipate crisis, or is the best course of action to react once crises ensue? If regimes do play a role, and the channels of accumulation of imbalances are contingent on the institutions at play, it is possible that authorities may have a wider array of tools at their disposal to avoid the accumulation of financial stability.

In order to do it, the research proposes three new measures for the evolution of the stock market and credit aggregates since 1922 until today for France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. The new measures, the Boom Bust Indicators – BBIs, result from a variation on our earlier work, and allow us to characterize booms and busts depending on their effects to different horizons: explosive ones affect the short-run (up to one year); expansive ones have an effect up to the third year; and pervasive ones show effects after 5 years.

BBIs complement what has been traditionally done in the financial crisis literature. They depart from decomposition techniques such as spectral analysis in that they use all the information in the original series instead of extracting a part of the data. They depart from turning point analysis and other crises dating techniques since the outcome is a triplet of continuous series instead of a summary sequence of dates for booms and crashes. They complement measures like the severity index which pays unduly little attention to explosive booms and busts to the benefit of lengthier events. Finally, the measures allows for comparisons across countries and time. A sample of the three measures for the UK stock market is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Boom Bust Indicator for the UK stock market 1922-2015

Forero-Laverde - Figure 1

The research studies the evolution of BBIs for credit and stock markets under five different regimes: the gold exchange standard (GES), the fixed peg rate of Bretton Woods (PEG), the managed float of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (MF), the periods of free floatation (FF) and the European Monetary Union (EMU). To characterize the differences in behavior under each regime we pool all countries together and measure the statistically significant differences in means and volatility for BBIs under each regime. They were graphed in a scatter plot, where the X axis represents volatility and the Y axis represents the mean. Results for the long-run measure are presented in Figure 2. The farther a regime appears from the origin, the more elastic it is as it coincides with stronger variability in the indicator.

Figure 2: Regimes according to mean value and volatility of long-run BBIs

Forero-Laverde - Figure 2

Although the mechanisms through which the regime impinges on the boom-bust cycle of credit and stocks still remains unclear, it is possible to highlight several findings. First, there is a role for the monetary regime on the evolution of asset prices and credit. Second, some sort of currency peg, with commitments to exchange rate stability and capital controls, favors financial stability both in the short and long run. However, stricter pegs are favorable for controlling stock market booms but increase both short run and medium run volatility of credit growth. Finally, a nominal anchor of the currency, through the gold exchange standard or the European Monetary Union, appears to be insufficient in generating financial stability as they coincide with booms and heightened volatility in stock and credit markets.


Religion and economics: early Methodism was underpinned by sophisticated financial management

by Clive Norris (Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University)


John Wesley’s efforts to spread the Gospel throughout the British Isles and beyond in the later eighteenth century relied on resources generated and managed using a wide range of techniques. This study of contemporary financial records shows that the evangelistic energy and fervour of Methodist preachers and members was supported – but also frequently constrained – by the movement’s approach to financial management.

The central priority of Wesley’s movement or ‘Connexion’ was to supply enough preachers to meet the needs of the membership and attract new converts. Members’ dues provided the core financing for the growing cadre of travelling preachers, while tools such as central grants channelled resources from richer to poorer areas.

Although the increasing number of married preachers with children raised per capita costs, the annual preachers’ conference tried to keep the deployment of preachers within the envelope of the resources available. By 1800, preaching costs probably exceeded £40,000 a year, met by around 110,000 members.

A second preoccupation was the capital and revenue funding of the expanding network of Wesleyan chapels, which numbered almost one thousand by 1800, costing perhaps £9,000 in annual debt interest alone.

From the 1760s, increasing use was made of an essentially commercial model, overseen by a central committee of business advisers. The opportunity to provide loans at attractive interest rates was offered to wealthier members and supporters, and these both financed chapel construction and offered a good home for their surplus funds. Interest costs were met by renting out seats in chapel, though some seats were always made available free to the poor.

Proposals for new chapels were reviewed annually by the Wesleyan conference, and although many were built without its approval, the resulting pressure on the movement’s finances became marked only after 1800. Chapels also enabled the Connexion to draw income from non-members, who typically outnumbered members by three to one in congregations.

Third, Wesleyan Methodists sought to spread the Gospel through the publication and distribution of cheap and readable publications, including Charles Wesley’s hymnals.

From the 1750s, the so-called Book Room became increasingly profitable, largely because by 1780, almost every aspect of production and distribution had been brought in-house. In particular, Wesleyan preachers were exhorted to market the publications to their members and congregations, and received 10% commission on sales. By 1800, the Book Room’s profits – typically £2,000 annually – were making a significant contribution to overall Connexional finances.

Fourth, the Connexion developed a portfolio of other activities, including educational services such as Sunday schools, poor relief programmes and overseas missions, especially in the West Indies. Most of these activities were not financed directly by the membership.

A key approach was to appeal for public subscriptions, which were widely used outside Methodism to fund public buildings and services such as hospitals, but there were many variations. In the West Indies, for example, some Wesleyan missionaries supplied spiritual services to slave-owners under contract.

One major result of these developments was that the Wesleyan Methodist movement became increasingly dependent on its richer members and supporters. For example, though its areas of greatest membership strength were Yorkshire and the South West of England, subscription income came disproportionately from wealthy London.

But until well into the nineteenth century, this seems not to have blunted its expansion: membership almost doubled between 1800 and 1820. Indeed, the complex and flexible financial policies and practices that underpinned the movement were crucially important in enabling it to respond to the spiritual and (to an extent) material needs of Britain’s growing and geographically shifting population.

How accounting made financial markets in the Early Modern age

by Nadia Matringe, London School of Economics


In the early modern age, accounting was the site of finance.

From the sixteenth century onwards, the unprecedented growth of international trade and banking gave rise to the great exchange fairs (Lyon, Bisenzone, Castile, Frankfurt, etc.), with international clearing and banking functions. To exploit these new opportunities while limiting risks, a growing number of banks at the fair locations specialised in the commission business, which required a high demand for goods and capital to yield substantial profits.

Both these transformations deeply affected the international payments system. In particular, they gave rise to new uses of accounting as a payment and credit instrument.

The research, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference, analyses this transformation and highlights the role of accounting in shaping early modern financial markets. It shows that at that time, accounting tables were not only used as local means of payment through book transfers initiated by oral order: they also became the sole material support for a growing number of international fund transfers and credit operations.

Indeed, as chains of commission increased in length and density, both the exchange and the deposit business changed in form and started to be increasingly operated through the accounting medium.

The classical exchange operations, which usually involved four parties (a drawer, a remitter, a payer and a payee) and the circulation of a bill of exchange between two markets, could now be conducted by two parties through their corresponding accounting systems, on behalf of several clients.

In these transactions, bank A would draw on and remit monies to bank B on behalf of clients who appeared as drawers and remitters by proxy. Payments on both markets took the form of book transfers, and no bill of exchange was issued: banker A simply informed banker B in his usual correspondence to credit and debit the pertinent accounts according to agreed exchange rates.

Such transactions performed multilateral clearance between distant regions of the world, where the bankers’ clients had business.

Two-party exchange transactions reduced to accounting entries also served banking activity at the local level. In this case, at least one side of the exchange transaction (the remittance or the draft) was meant to lend or to borrow money in one of the two markets. The exchange was followed by a rechange in the opposite direction, and at a different rate, and interest was charged according to the differences in exchange rates.

Finally, the taxation of overdrafts on current accounts at the fair location enabled clients to buy bills of exchange on foreign markets without provision, and to postpone payment of those drawn on them. Consequently, deposits in Lyon, Antwerp or Castile could create credit in Florence, Paris, London, etc.

Furthermore, this old fair custom of deferments gave rise in the sixteenth century to autonomous deposit markets whose rate circulated publicly, enabling ‘outsiders’ who otherwise had no business in the fairs, to invest their savings there.

The research thus shows that in the context of the rapid development of international banking centres and the correlated rise of commission trading, accounting made financial markets.

Its function was similar to that of modern algorithms used to match orders and perform financial transactions. Accounting tables were used to make payments, transfer funds, operate clearance and grant interest-bearing loans – all of which could be combined in a single game of book entries in the accounts of corresponding partners.

International trade and banking were supported by a network of interconnected accounting systems. This accounting network appears as a major infrastructure of early modern trade, without which the whole European payment system would have collapsed.

Agency House Crises in India: What Role Did Indigo Play?

by Tehreem Husain

English, Dutch, and Danish factories at Mocha, 1680 ca. Public Domain picture


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).


From NEP-HIS Blog: ‘The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism’, by Avner Offer

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford ( Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses […]

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