THE FINANCIAL POWER OF THE POWERLESS: Evidence from Ottoman Istanbul on socio-economic status, legal protection and the cost of borrowing

In Ottoman Istanbul, privileged groups such as men, Muslims and other elites paid more for credit than the under-privileged – the exact opposite of what happens in a modern economy.

New research by Professors Timur Kuran (Duke University) and Jared Rubin (Chapman University), published in the March 2018 issue of the Economic Journal, explains why: a key influence on the cost of borrowing is the rule of law and in particular the extent to which courts will enforce a credit contract.

In pre-modern Turkey, it was the wealthy who could benefit from judicial bias to evade their creditors – and who, because of this default risk, faced higher interest rates on loans. Nowadays, it is under-privileged people who face higher borrowing costs because there are various institutions through which they can escape loan repayment, including bankruptcy options and organisations that will defend poor defaulters as victims of exploitation.

In the modern world, we take it for granted that the under-privileged incur higher borrowing costs than the upper socio-economic classes. Indeed, Americans in the bottom quartile of the US income distribution usually borrow through pawnshops and payday lenders at rates of around 450% per annum, while those in the top quartile take out short-term loans through credit cards at 13-16%. Unlike the under-privileged, the wealthy also have access to long-term credit through home equity loans at rates of around 4%.

The logic connecting socio-economic status to borrowing costs will seem obvious to anyone familiar with basic economics: the higher costs of the poor reflect higher default risk, for which the lender must be compensated.

The new study sets out to test whether the classic negative correlation between socio-economic status and borrowing cost holds in a pre-modern setting outside the industrialised West. To this end, the authors built a data set of private loans issued in Ottoman Istanbul during the period from 1602 to 1799.

These data reveal the exact opposite of what happens in a modern economy: the privileged paid more for credit than the under-privileged. In a society where the average real interest rate was around 19%, men paid an interest surcharge of around 3.4 percentage points; Muslims paid a surcharge of 1.9 percentage points; and elites paid a surcharge of about 2.3 percentage points (see Figure 1).


What might explain this reversal of relative borrowing costs? Why did socially advantaged groups pay more for credit, not less?

The data led the authors to consider a second factor contributing to the price of credit, often taken for granted: the partiality of the law. Implicit in the logic that explains relative credit costs in modern lending markets is that financial contracts are enforceable impartially when the borrower is able to pay. Thus, the rich pay less for credit because they are relatively unlikely to default and because, if they do, lenders can force repayment through courts whose verdicts are more or less impartial.

But in settings where the courts are biased in favour of the wealthy, creditors will expect compensation for the risk of being unable to obtain restitution. The wealth and judicial partiality effects thus work against each other. The former lowers the credit cost for the rich; the latter raises it.

Islamic Ottoman courts served all Ottoman subjects through procedures that were manifestly biased in favour of clearly defined groups. These courts gave Muslims rights that they denied to Christians and Jews. They privileged men over women.

Moreover, because the courts lacked independence from the state, Ottoman subjects connected to the sultan enjoyed favourable treatment. Theory developed in the new study explains why their weak legal power may translate into strong financial power.

More generally, this research suggests that in a free financial market, any hindrance to the enforcement of a credit contract will raise the borrower’s credit cost. Just as judicial biases in favour of the wealthy raise their interest rates on loans, institutions that allow the poor to escape loan repayment – bankruptcy options, shielding of assets from creditors, organisations that defend poor defaulters as victims of exploitation – raise interest rates charged to the poor.

Today, wealth and credit cost are negatively correlated for multiple reasons. The rich benefit both from a higher capacity to post collateral and from better enforcement of their credit obligations relative to those of the poor.


To contact the authors:
Timur Kuran (; Jared Rubin (

How did investors view the reforms and supervisory organisations of the late nineteenth century?

by Avni Önder Hanedar (Sakarya University)

In the last couple of decades, high debt burden in emerging economies created financial crises and the low growth rate during the 2008 financial crisis led to a default problem for Greece. Some reforms were proposed, such as institutional changes and the establishment of an entity under control of the other Eurozone members to supervise the repayment of debts. These events have some similarities with the default of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (OPDA) (Düyun-u Umumiye). To deal with the inefficiencies in the Ottoman economy and political system, reforms were implemented, as supervisory organizations were established during the nineteenth century. Important ones were the adoption of the gold standard in 1880, the Administration of Six Indirect Revenues (Rüsum-u Sitte) (ASIR) in 1879, and the OPDA in 1881. It seems that many of them were not seen by investors as promising, since a British weekly magazine, Punch or The London Charivari, illustrated these events as bubbles. A paper of  Elmas Yaldız Hanedar, Avni Önder Hanedar, and Ferdi Çelikay examined how such events were perceived at the İstanbul bourse, which could shed light on today’s realities.

Cartoon of Punch or The London Charivari on 6 January 1877 about the Ottoman reforms.a caption


The paper manually collected historical data on the price of the General Debt bond traded at the İstanbul bourse between 1873 and 1883 from volumes of daily Ottoman newspapers, i.e., Basiret, Ceride-i Havadis, and Vakit. This bond was the most actively traded one at the İstanbul bourse in 1881, during the foundation of the OPDA.

A column of Vakit pointing out the values of bonds, stocks, and foreign currencies at the İstanbul bourse on 6 October 1875 (Vakit. (6 October 1875). Sarafiye, Galata piyasası, 2)

The paper is the first to measure in econometrically sophisticated manner investors’ beliefs at the İstanbul bourse in reference to the reforms and financial control organizations. Historical research does not include detailed empirical information for the effects of reforms and financial control organizations on the İstanbul bourse during the default period. Using unique data on the most actively traded Ottoman government bond, the paper extends the historical literature on the İstanbul bourse (See Hanedar et al. (2017)) and reforms (See Mauro et al. (2006), Birdal (2010), Mitchener and Weidenmier (2010) looking at bond markets in multiple developing countries, with samples that include the Ottoman Empire).

The methodology in the paper was to analyse the variance of returns (derived from the price showed in above) as a proxy of financial instabilities and risks. To model volatility, the paper estimated a GARCH model with dummy variables for reforms and financial control organizations at and after the dates of the events (i.e., short- and long-run).







The General Debt bond price (Turkish Liras) and key events. The data are derived from Vakit, Ceride-i Havadis, and Basiret, 187383.

The empirical results indicated a permanent decrease in volatility after the establishment of the OPDA and the gold standard. The foundation of a locally controlled finance commission in 1874 was correlated with a lower volatility level at the date of the event, but increased volatility in the long term. The Ottoman case is instructive for the understanding of today’s economic situation in emerging markets such as Greece, while it could be argued that long-lived and comprehensive measures with foreign creditors’ supervision on fiscal and monetary systems matter more for investors’ perceptions. Lowering government interventions on economic system and transaction costs due to bimetallism were viewed as promising. Investor beliefs that the local and short-lived reforms and supervisory organizations were ineffective could be due to several factors such as lack of measures to limit public expenditures.


Volatility changes in the General Debt bond return, 1873–83. * and *** denote statistically significant coefficients at 10% and 1%.



Vakit. (6 October 1875). Sarafiye, Galata piyasası, 2.

Birdal, M. (2010). The Political economy of Ottoman public debt, insolvency and European control in the late nineteenth century. London: I. B. Tauris and Co Ltd.

Hanedar, A. Ö., Hanedar, E. Y., Torun, E., & Ertuğrul, H. M. (2017). Dissolution of an Empire: Insights from the İstanbul Bourse and the Ottoman War Bond. Defence and Peace Economics, (Forthcoming).

Mauro, P., Sussman, N., & Yafeh, Y. (2006). Emerging markets and financial globalization: Sovereign bond spreads in 1870-1913 and today. Oxford: Oxford University press.

Mitchener, K. J. & Weidenmier, M. D. (2010). Super sanctions and sovereign debt repayment. Journal of International Money and Finance, 29(1), 19–36.

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.