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.

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 […]

via How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility? — The NEP-HIS Blog

Credit, Currency & Commerce: New Perspectives in Financial and Monetary History

Conference Report: University of Cambridge, 13-14 September 2016
by Sabine Schneider, University of Cambridge

‘Dividend Day at the Bank of England’ by George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914), Bank of England Museum. Copyright: The Governor and Company of the Bank of England


Retracing the path to the Great Recession, Barry Eichengreen has observed how ‘The historical past is a rich repository of analogies that shape perceptions and guide public policy decisions.’[1] Certainly, recent years have shown that analogies drawn from historical experience are most in demand ‘when there is no time for reflection.’[2] Beyond the study of banking crises and financial regulation, the past decade of economic turmoil has generated renewed scholarly interest in the evolution and politics of financial capitalism. While the legacy of the Great Recession has profoundly shaken established tenets of mainstream economics, it has also stressed the need for new historical narratives that understand the world economy within the specific cultural contexts, economic ideas and political debates of the past. On 13 and 14 September, the Centre for Financial History at Darwin College, Cambridge, hosted an early career conference to foster an interdisciplinary dialogue about histories of finance, global trade and monetary policy. Over the two conference days, twenty early career scholars and doctoral researchers presented papers that ranged, in period and geography, from medieval Catalonia and eighteenth-century Scotland to pre-war China and post-war Britain. This review will reflect on three major themes of the conference: the art and science of central banking, studies in political economy, and cultural approaches to the history of finance.

Central banking and the formation of monetary policy have resurfaced as key concerns for economic historians since the 2007/8 financial crisis. The debate over the Bank of England’s evolving role as Lender of Last Resort, for instance, was re-examined by Dr Paul Kosmetatos (Edinburgh). His paper analysed Adam Smith’s and Henry Thornton’s differing recommendations for crisis containment as a starting-point for evaluating the Bank’s conduct in 1763 and 1772. Kosmetatos concluded that the Bank’s timely injection of liquidity via the banknote channel during the latter crisis showed that ‘the attitude and means of intervention described by Thornton were already practically in place.’ Pamfili Antipa (Banque de France/Paris School of Economics) presented new Bank of England balance sheet data that adds considerably to our knowledge of how the British government financed the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars. Her joint research with Professor Christophe Chamley (Boston) revealed that the Bank strategically operated in the secondary market for Exchequer bills in order to re-direct funds to the Treasury. For the post-war period, Oliver Bush’s paper (Bank of England/LSE) investigated Britain’s approach to monetary and macroprudential policies in the years after the UK Radcliffe Report (1959). Based on collaborative research with Dr David Aikman (Bank of England) and Professor Alan M. Taylor (California), Bush presented new findings on the ‘causal impacts of interest rates and credit controls’ on inflation and economic activity.[3]

The evolution and management of modern central banks in mainland Europe and Great Britain formed the focus of three further papers. Starting with the foundation of Germany’s Reichsbank in 1876, Ousmène Mandeng (LSE) explored the role of competition and monetary stability as integral elements of the operation of Germany’s central bank prior to 1890. Mandeng argued that the Reichsbank’s flexible reserve requirements, as well as its rivalry with regional note issuing banks in the market for bills, created an effective, incentives-based system of central banking. Enrique Jorge-Sotelo (LSE) took a micro-historical approach to the Spanish banking crisis of 1931, assessing the criteria the Banco de España employed for the provision and conditions of its emergency loans. In her closing keynote, Dr Anne Murphy (Hertfordshire) examined the origins of modern management practices at the Bank of England.[4] Shedding light on the Bank’s working processes, recruitment, and staff training during the 1780s, Dr Murphy demonstrated that the Bank took important steps towards fostering and monitoring good managerial practice, which over the long run may have aided ‘the development of trust in the British public finances.’[5]

The politics of currency, taxation, and trade shaped a second major strand of the conference. Professor Martin Daunton (Cambridge) delivered a wide-ranging keynote on ‘Bretton Woods Revisited: Currency, Commerce and Contestation’. Shifting the focus away from the predominant narrative of US-UK rivalry at Bretton Woods, Daunton re-evaluated the specific domestic concerns of several Western European and Commonwealth countries, which affected their negotiating positions at the 1944 summit and at subsequent international trade conferences. The League of Nations’ work in the field of trade finance in the years leading up to the Great Depression was re-examined by Jamieson Gordon Myles (Geneva). His paper investigated the League’s failed internationalist efforts, and traced how economic nationalism and beggar-thy-neighbour policies could take hold in the inter-war period. New research on France, China, and Germany prompted further reflections on the impact of global integration in capital markets, and its effect on nations’ public finances. Jerome Greenfield (Cambridge), for example, investigated the political economy of France’s fiscal constitution between 1789 and 1852. Greenfield’s paper elucidated the central government’s rationale for re-introducing and extending indirect taxes after they had been abolished during the French Revolution. Ghassan Moazzin (Cambridge) discussed the Chinese state’s practice of raising capital for public expenses through foreign bond markets in the early twentieth century. His paper demonstrated that the interventions of Western bankers to uphold China’s credit had a critical influence on the political outcome of the Republican Revolution of 1911. Considering the nexus between finance and diplomacy, Sabine Schneider (Cambridge) appraised the role of cosmopolitan financial elites in Germany’s conversion to a gold standard. Her paper examined the semi-official position of Gerson von Bleichröder, private banker and economic advisor to Bismarck, and his interventions in the monetary reforms Germany pursued after unification.

Several papers pointed to the underexplored potential of cultural and social history to broaden our understanding of how economic cultures, ideologies and policies are themselves socially constructed. Owen Brittan’s paper (Cambridge) drew on autobiographical evidence to assess men’s anxiety over bankruptcy and debt in later Stuart England, and revealed how such fears were mediated through ideals of masculinity, honour and economic independence. Henry Sless (Reading) discussed the news reporting of financial events in the Victorian era, while Damian Clavel (Geneva) revisited the speculative bubble in Latin American bonds that gripped investors in the 1820s, focusing, in particular, on how underwriters constructed the notorious story of the ‘fictitious country of Poyais’.[6] Exploring changing cultural attitudes to speculation, Kieran Heinemann (Cambridge) traced the practices of brokers and investors in Britain’s grey market for stocks and shares during the half-century leading up to the Prevention of Fraud Act of 1939. Heinemann recovered a largely forgotten ‘discursive struggle over the boundaries between investment, speculation and gambling’, which still resonates with the concerns of investors and regulators today.

Credit, Currency & Commerce brought together thirty-six junior researchers and senior academics from across history, economics, development economics, business management, and philosophy. Their contributions from a variety of disciplinary angles and methodologies produced lively exchanges on the trajectory of financial and monetary history, and the opportunities it holds for mastering a deeper understanding of the world economy.


The full conference report and programme are available at

The conference was generously funded by the Economic History Society, the Centre for Financial History and the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. For more information on grants and conference funds:


[1] Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession and the Uses and Misuses of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 377.

[2] Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors, 377.

[3] David Aikman, Oliver Bush, and Alan M. Taylor, ‘Monetary Versus Macroprudential Policies: Causal Impacts of Interest Rates and Credit Controls in the Era of the UK Radcliffe Report’, NBER Working Paper No. 22380 (June 2016).

[4] Anne Murphy, ‘The Bank of England and the Genesis of Modern Management’, eabh Working Paper, No. 16-02 (August 2016); see also, Anne Murphy, ‘“Writes a fair hand and appears to be well qualified”: the recruitment of Bank of England clerks, 1800-1815’, Financial History Review, 22 (2015), 19-44.

[5] Murphy, ‘The Bank of England and the Genesis of Modern Management’, 29.

[6] Carmen M. Reinhardt and Kenneth S. Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 93.

The Great War and Evolution of Central Banking in India

by Tehreem Husain, The Express Tribune


Post global financial crisis, there has been increased importance on exploring financial history of advanced economies and emerging markets to identify episodes of boom, crisis and regulatory responses from which parallels can be drawn today. In this blog, Tehreem Husain discusses an episode from early twentieth century Indian financial history which narrates the tale of a crisis and the evolution of a regulatory institution-the central bank in its wake.

The importance of India amongst the pool of emerging market economies can be gauged from the fact that it contributed 6.8 per cent to global GDP on PPP basis in 2014. Sustaining this growth track requires robust financial regulatory frameworks which can only come with a thorough understanding of its history and the events which led to the evolution of its crucial building block-the central bank. Researching early twentieth century Indian financial history suggests that the onset of the Great War and the financial crisis that ensued in India gave impetus to the creation of a central banking institution in the country.

The Great War, one of the most expensive wars in history, caused untold loss of human life and damages to economic and social resources. Britain at the forefront of the war went through insurmountable stress to meet financing needs of the war. Stephen Broadberry and other eminent economic historians have estimated that the cost of the Great War to Britain exceeded one-third of the total national income of war years. As the war continued in Europe, its stress spilled over the boundaries of mainland Britain and British colonies also became entangled in human and financial costs. For instance, not only did India contribute approximately 1.5 million men recruited during the war, but Indian taxpayers also made a significant contribution of £146 million to Britain to finance the war.

War times impose huge costs on the entire economy but more so for banks, due to the key role that they play in financing it. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a special volume on the effect of war on banking in 1943. One of the chapters, ‘Banking System and War Finance’, highlighted the crucial importance of commercial banks for Treasury borrowing. Banks constituted the largest purchasers of government obligations in addition to being the single most important outlet for the sale of government obligations to the public during World War II. Going back, similar to the experience of other countries, during the Great War Indian treasury borrowed heavily from the banking system. Debt archives from 1918 show that Rs 503.3 million were raised in the form of loans, Treasury Bills and Post Office Cash Certificates. At the same time government continued to issue fresh currency notes, which contributed to extraordinary liquidity flushing the banking sector (evidenced by a high cash-to-deposit ratio).

Studying the Indian economy during that time period using macro-financial indicator analysis, the relation between the British involvements in the Great War and the evolution of central banking is explored in India. Evidence suggests that exigencies of war-finance and government resorting to banking system to finance expenditures, the latter came under huge strain. A stressed macro and financial environment during the war years further weakened the fragile and fragmented Indian banking system. It led to a contagion like financial crisis accelerating bank failures in the war years and beyond. This crisis went unabated due to lack of a formal regulatory structure.

The near absence of regulatory oversight leading to financial crisis gave impetus to the creation of a central banking authority. Although the idea of a ‘banking establishment for India’ dates back to 1836, as a consequence of this episode, restructuring and reforms process ensued. This led to the introduction of a quasi-central banking institution, the Imperial Bank of India in 1921 and finally the creation of a full fledged central bank – the Reserve Bank of India, in 1935. In general, as argued by economists Stijn Claessens and M. Ayhan Kose (2013) deficiencies in regulatory oversight[1] leading to currency and maturity mismatches and resultant financial crisis are applicable to this episode as well.

Interestingly, this episode was not unique to India. In the presence of no regulatory institutions, management and resolution of financial crisis becomes increasingly complex. Historian Harold James has written that the global financial panic of 1907 demonstrated the necessity to America the need to mobilize financial power themselves in the form of a central bank analogous to the Bank of England. The Federal Reserve was created in 1913.

To conclude, one can argue that absence of a formal central banking institution in India resulted in many stressed scenarios for Indian financial system and missed opportunities for the imperial government. This meant that at that time there was no liquidity support available to the failing commercial banks, no control and coordination of credit creation (i.e. no reserve requirements), no mechanism or support for price discovery of the securities to be traded in the primary and secondary markets, etc. A similar argument was given by Keynes in his book ‘Indian Currency and Finance’ supporting the idea of an Indian central bank. Had there been a central bank in India it would have performed three essential functions: (a) assist the government in flotation of bonds or other government securities to the commercial banks, (b) provide direct lending to treasury in the form of ways-and-means advances or by purchase of government securities, and (c) provide reserves to the commercial banks to help them buy government obligations and offer them guidance and support to carry on as much of their traditional task of financing trade and industry as was compatible with a maximum war effort.

This article was based on the working paper ‘’Great War and Evolution of Central Banking in India”.

[1] Claessens, S., and Kose, M.A, 2013,” Financial Crises: Explanations, Types and Implications”, IMF Working Paper WP/13/28

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:





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:

* 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,