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

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‘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.

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The full conference report and programme are available at https://camfinancialhistory2016.wordpress.com/

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: www.ehs.org.uk

 

[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.