Monthly Archives: November 2011

On the Status and the Future of Economic History in the World

by Joerg Baten ( and Julia Muschallik (


How many economic historians are there in the world? In which countries or world regions are they concentrated? Can we explain differences in the number of economic historians who are participating in world congresses, and which determinants encourage or limit participation propensity? Using an e-mail questionnaire, we analyse the global situation of this discipline. Overall 59 countries were available to be surveyed in this overview. We estimate the overall number of economic historians in the world to be around 10,400 scholars.

Joerg Baten and Julia Muschallik offer a worthwhile account of the state of economic history as a discipline today. Their effort to establish its distribution around the wold as well as estimating the number of participants in the field is significant and convincing. A number of interesting challenges had to be sorted to arrive at this estimates and cross checking by aggregating through annual conferences and journal publications reinforces the message. But perhaps these estimates could have been more convincing if they had considered the distribution and authorship of working papers distributed by nep-his or SSRN.

This paper opens a number of interesting debates. First, it has made clear we know little as to the actual emergence and evolution of the discipline around the world. There is thus an opportunity to report how and why economic historians became self aware, establish themselves as an area of knowledge and its teaching and research was adopted in different counties. A history of the discipline and its participants if you like.

Secondly, there is an issue about how they dealt with different “tribes”. Establishing the limits of your search always has to deal with “gray areas”. Baten and Muschallik argue that it is in countries with high degree of specialisation such as the US and the UK where business and economic historians can be identified as separate groups. But precisely because economic history combines methods and rhetorical styles of other disciplines, there could have been a bit more sensitivity in the questionnaire to those which feed from economic history and vice versa, namely to allow respondents to identify if they felt to the part of (or actually being active in) business history, marketing history, accounting history and increasingly some within critical management studies. Of course, if according to Baten and Muschallik economic historians are indeed something of a “luxury product”, then what are these other people/areas?

Thirdly, I found the link between the number of academics in a country and its GDP particularly interesting. Coming back to my theme above of a history of the discipline, this opens up questions such as why has specialisation taken place? Why and when did this happen? Is there collaboration or antagonism between these groups? But as mentioned, the line has to be drawn somewhere and answering these sort of questions was not their intent.

Finally, to items for further reflection: a) it will be interesting to see the extent to which, ceteris paribus, their predictions on participants to the World Congress in South Africa are on the mark. b) I was quite happy to see their estimates of total economic historians around the world at 10.5k people, specially as of today nep-his has about 6.5k unique subscribers.

PS Have a look at:

New Bloomberg Economic & Business History Blog, “Echoes”.

The Economic History of Banking

by Richard S. Grossman (

[No abstract by author]

If you have ever come across any of my publications, you’ll know I was bound to comment on this one.

Without the benefit of an abstract by the author, I’ll summarise the paper briefly: this is a contribution to Parker & Wharple’s The Routledge Handbook of Modern Economic History and rather than an original piece, it reads as an abridged version of Grossman’s Unsettled Account: The Evolution of Banking in the Industrialized World since 1800 – see his blog.

As the latter suggests and after a haphazard introduction on the economics of financial intermediation, the thrust of the story deals with developments since the 19th Century. Throughout the piece there are inconsistencies in the use of “bank” as it sometimes refers to commercial banking activities (i.e. deposit taking and management of payment systems) and others at investment banking (i.e. financing firms). From the outset there is certainly great concern with the way surplus funds are made available to firms in the “real economy” rather than why capitalism developed institutions to manage payment systems, help to accumulate savings and provide credit to individuals, governments and firms.

I am no fan of populist versions of the history of financial institutions (e.g. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money), but the broad stroke account of how banking emerged in Medieval and Renaissance Europe is unconvincing. For instance, there is only a superficial discussion of how for quite a long time there was no clear distinction between financial and commercial activities, with firms providing credit to customers and suppliers as part of their everyday activities (e.g. cases of Madrid and Barcelona based firms during the 17th and 18th centuries documented by J. Carles Maixé-Altés).

Throughout the paper, there is a blurring line between financing firms and individuals; whilst there is no reference to alternative forms of governance such as government owned banks, mutual and co-operative financial institutions (of which, admittedly, Mark Billings and I are to publish a special edition of Business History – with a foreword by Jonathan Michie ). Hence a lost opportunity to mention of early forms to finance individuals such as savings banks (1810 in Scotland) and building societies (1770s – Birmingham). To be fair, focusing on the for-profit model is a common oversight of US-authored histories of financial intermediation. But as a result, there is no acknowledgment that these were often the first financial institutions subject to strict and detailed control by the state (for instance building societies in 1833 and savings banks even earlier – see my recent piece with Masayoshi Noguchi). More could have been made of different attitudes to thrift and usury laws in Catholic and Protestant Europe (e.g. the work of Chris Colvin or Timothy Guinnane), John Turner’s and others work on “free banking” as well as made some allowances to developments outside of Europe and the US, such as the early use of fiat money in China.

We are told that “economic history suggests that securities markets are more efficient intermediators.” (p. 2) but not explained why or how come large economies such as Germany, Japan and Spain relied on a financial institutions rather than markets to finance economic growth. There was a need to explain how and why market let finance takes prominence from say 1970 and particularly during the 1980s, even in the afore mentioned nations.

On the whole, Grossman comes across as “whiggish history” or an inevitable progression to the large, diversified, multinational/global, “bank”. It was rather disappointing that this is neither a state of the art review nor a proper historiography of financial intermediation, commercial or investment banking; a map of how different institutions and/or markets emerged and developed. This is not, in any way, to under estimate his account of post 1800 developments and particularly those of the early 20th Century. Here Grossman’s command of the area is evident but clearly contrast with the rather weak start and end of his story.