by John Turner (Queen’s University Centre for Economic History)
Liquidity is the ease with which an asset such as a share or a bond can be converted into cash. It is important for financial systems because it enables investors to liquidate and diversify their assets at a low cost. Without liquid markets, portfolio diversification becomes very costly for the investor. As a result, firms and governments must pay a premium to induce investors to buy their bonds and shares. Liquid capital markets also spur firms and entrepreneurs to invest in long-run projects, which increases productivity and economic growth.
From an historical perspective, share liquidity in the UK played a major role in the widespread adoption of the company form in the second half of the nineteenth century. Famously, as I discuss in a recent book chapter published in the Research Handbook on the History of Corporate and Company Law, political and legal opposition to share liquidity held up the development of the company form in the UK.
However, given the economic and historical importance of liquidity, very little has been written on the liquidity of UK capital markets before 1913. Ron Alquist (2010) and Matthieu Chavaz and Marc Flandreau (2017) examine the liquidity risk and premia of various sovereign bonds which were traded on the London Stock Exchange during the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. Along with Graeme Acheson (2008), I document the thinness of the market for bank shares in the nineteenth century, using the share trading records of a small number of banks.
In a major study, Gareth Campbell (Queen’s University Belfast), Qing Ye (Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University) and I have recently attempted to understand more about the liquidity of the Victorian capital market. To this end, we have just published a paper in the Economic History Review which looks at the liquidity of the London share and bond markets from 1825 to 1870. The London capital market experienced considerable growth in this era. The liberalisation of incorporation law and Parliament’s liberalism in granting company status to railways and other public-good providers, resulted in the growth of the number of business enterprises having their shares and bonds traded on stock exchanges. In addition, from the 1850s onwards, there was an increase in the number of foreign countries and companies raising bond finance on the London market.
How do we measure the liquidity of the market for bonds and stocks in the 1825-70 era? Using end-of-month stock price data from a stockbroker list called the Course of the Exchange and end-of-month bond prices from newspaper sources, we calculate for each security, the number of months in the year where it had a zero return and divide that by the number of months it was listed in the year. Because zero returns are indicative of illiquidity (i.e., that a security has not been traded), one minus our illiquidity ratio gives us a liquidity measure for each security in our sample. We calculate the overall market liquidity for shares and bonds by taking averages. Figure 1 displays market liquidity for bonds and stocks for the period 1825-70.
Figure 1 reveals that bond market liquidity was relatively high throughout this period but shows no strong trend over time. By way of contrast, there was a strong secular increase in stock liquidity from 1830 to 1870. This increase may have stimulated greater participation in the stock market by ordinary citizens. It may also have affected the growth and deepening of the overall stock market and resulted in higher economic growth.
We examine the cross-sectional differences in liquidity between stocks in order to understand the main determinants of stock liquidity in this era. Our main finding in this regard is that firm size and the number of issued shares were major correlates of liquidity, which suggests that larger firms and firms with a greater number of shares were more frequently traded. Our study also reveals that unusual features which were believed to impede liquidity, such as extended liability, uncalled capital or high share denominations, had little effect on stock liquidity.
We also examine whether asset illiquidity was priced by investors, resulting in higher costs of capital for firms and governments. We find little evidence that the illiquidity of stock or bonds was priced, suggesting that investors at the time did not put much emphasis on liquidity in their valuations. Indeed, this is consistent with J. B. Jefferys (1938), who argued that what mattered to investors during this era was not share liquidity, but the dividend or coupon they received.
In conclusion, the vast majority of stocks and bonds in this early capital market were illiquid. It is remarkable, however, that despite this illiquidity, the UK capital market grew substantially between 1825 and 1870. There was also an increase in investor participation, with investing becoming progressively democratised in this era.
Acheson, G.G., and Turner, J.D. “The Secondary Market for Bank Shares in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Financial History Review 15, no. 2 (October 2008): 123–51. doi:10.1017/S0968565008000139.
Alquist, R. “How Important Is Liquidity Risk for Sovereign Bond Risk Premia? Evidence from the London Stock Exchange.” Journal of International Economics 82, no. 2 (November 1, 2010): 219–29. doi:10.1016/j.jinteco.2010.07.007.
Campbell, G., Turner, J.D., and Ye, Q. “The Liquidity of the London Capital Markets, 1825–70†.” The Economic History Review 71, no. 3 (August 1, 2018): 823–52. doi:10.1111/ehr.12530.
Chavaz, M., and Flandreau, M. “‘High & Dry’: The Liquidity and Credit of Colonial and Foreign Government Debt and the London Stock Exchange (1880–1910).” The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 3 (September 2017): 653–91. doi:10.1017/S0022050717000730.
Jefferys, J.B. Trends in Business Organisation in Great Britain Since 1856: With Special Reference to the Financial Structure of Companies, the Mechanism of Investment and the Relations Between the Shareholder and the Company. University of London, 1938.