Monthly Archives: July 2014

Technology and Financial Inclusion in North America

Did Railroads Make Antebellum U.S. Banks More Sound?

By Jeremy Atack (Vanderbilt), Matthew Steven Jaremski (Colgate), and Peter Rousseau (Vanderbilt).

Abstract: We investigate the relationships of bank failures and balance sheet conditions with measures of proximity to different forms of transportation in the United States over the period from 1830-1860. A series of hazard models and bank-level regressions indicate a systematic relationship between proximity to railroads (but not to other means of transportation) and “good” banking outcomes. Although railroads improved economic conditions along their routes, we offer evidence of another channel. Specifically, railroads facilitated better information flows about banks that led to modifications in bank asset composition consistent with reductions in the incidence of moral hazard.


Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

Executive briefing

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-04-18. Atack, Jaremski and Rousseau (henceforward AJR) deal with the otherwise thorny issue of causation in the relationship between financial intermediation and economic growth. They focus on bank issued notes rather deposits; and argue for and provide empirical evidence of bi-directional causation based on empirical estimates that combine geography (ie GIS) and financial data. The nature of their reported causation emerges from their approach to railroads as a transport technology that shapes markets while also shaped by its users.


In this paper AJR study the effect of improved means of communication on market integration and particularly whether banks in previously remote areas of pre-Civil War USA had an incentive to over extend their liabilities. AJR’s paper is an important contribution: first, because they focus on bank issued notes and bills rather than deposits to understand how banks financed themselves. Second, because of the dearth of systematic empirical testing whether the improvements in the means of communication affected the operation of banks.


In 19th century north America and in the absence of a central bank, notes from local banks were substitutes among themselves and between them and payment in species. Those in the most remote communities (ie with little or no oversight) had an opportunity to misbehave “in ways that compromised the positions of their liability holders” (behaviour which AJR label “quasi-wildcatting”). Railroads, canals and boats connected communities and enabled better trading opportunities. But ease of communication also meant greater potential for oversight.


ACJ test bank failure rates (banks that didn’t redeem notes at full value), closed banks (ceased operation but redeem at full value), new banks and balance sheet management for 1,818 banks in existence in the US in 5 year increments between 1830 and 1862. Measures of distance between forms of communication (i.e. railroads, canals, steam navegable river, navegable lake and maritime trade) and bank location emerged from overlapping contemporary maps with GIS data. Financial data was collected from annual editions of the “Merchants and Bankers’ Almanac”. They distinguish between states that passed “free banking laws” (from 1837 to the early 1850s) and those that did not. They also considered changes in failure rates and balance sheet variance (applying the so called CAMEL model – to the best of data availability) for locations that had issuing banks before new transport infrastructure and those where banks appear only after new means of communication were deployed:

Improvements in finance over the period also provided a means of payment that promoted increasingly impersonal trade. To the extent that the railroads drew new banks closer to the centers of economic activity and allowed existing banks to participate in the growth opportunities afforded by efficient connections.(p. 2)


Railroads were the only transport technology that returned statistically significant effects. It suggested that the advent of railroads did indeed pushed bankers to reduce the risk in their portfolios. But regardless of transport variables, “[l]arger banks with more reserves, loans, and deposits and fewer bank notes were less likely to fail.” (p.20). It is thus likely that railroads impact banks’ operation as they brought about greater economic diversity, urbanisation and other measures of economic development which translated in larger volume of deposits but also greater scrutiny and oversight. In this sense railroads (as exogenous variable) made banks less likely to fail.

But ACJ note that means of transportation were not necessarily exogenous to banks. Reasons for the endogeneity of transport infrastructure included bankers promoting and investing in railroads to bring them to their communities. Also railways could find advantages to expand into vigorously active locations (where new banks could establish to capture a growing volume of deposits and serve a growing demand for loans).

Other empirical results include banks decreased the amount of excess reserves, notes in circulation and bond holdings while also increased the volume of loans after the arrival of a railroad. In short, considering railroads an endogenous variable also results in transport technologies lowering bank failure rates by encouraging banks to operate more safely.


The work of AJR is part of a growing and increasingly fruitful trend which combines GPS data with other more “traditional” sources. But for me the paper could also inform contemporary debates on payments. Specifically their focus is on banks of issue, in itself a novelty in the history of payment systems. For AJR technological change improves means of payment when it reduces transaction costs by increasing trust on the issuer. But as noted above, there are a number of alternative technologies which have, in principle, equal opportunity to succeed. In this regard AJR state:

Here, we describe a mechanism by which railroads not only affected finance on the extensive margin, but also led to efficiency changes that enhanced the intensity of financial intermediation. And, of course, it is the interaction of the intensity of intermediation along with its quantity that seems most important for long-run growth (Rousseau and Wachtel 1998, 2011). This relationship proves to be one that does not generalize to all types of transportation; rather, railroads seem to have been the only transportation methods that affected banks in this way.(p4)

In other words, financial inclusion and improvements in the payment system interact and enhance economic growth when the former take place through specific forms of technological change. It is the interaction with users that which helps railroads to dominate and effectively change the payments system. Moreover, this process involves changes in the portfolio (and overall level of risk) of individual banks.

The idea that users shape technology is not new to those well versed in the social studies of technology. However, AJR’s argument is novel not only for the study of the economic history of Antibellum America but also when considering that in today’s complex payments ecosystem there are a number or alternatives for digital payments, many of which are based on mobile phones. Yet it would seem that there is greater competition between mobile phone apps than between mobile and other payment solutions (cash and coins, Visa/Mastercard issued credit cards, PayPal, Bitcoin and digital currencies, etc.). AJR results would then suggest that, ceteris paribus, the technology with greater chance to succeed is that which has great bi-directional causality (i.e. significant exogenous and endogenous features). So people’s love for smart phones would suggest mobile payments might have greater chance to change the payment ecosystem than digital currencies (such as Bitcoin), but is early days to decide which of the different mobile apps has greater chance to actually do so.

Wall Street (1867)

Wall Street (1867)

Another aspect in which AJR’s has a contemporary slant refers to security and trust. These are key issues in today’s digital payments debate, yet the possibility of fraud is absence from AJR’s narrative. For this I mean not “wildcatting” but ascertaining whether notes of a trust worthy bank could have been forged. I am not clear how to capture this phenomenon empirically. It is also unlikely that the volume of forged notes of any one trusted issuer was significant. But the point is, as Patrice Baubeau (IDHES-Nanterre) has noted, that in the 19th century the technological effort for fraud was rather simple: a small furnace or a printing press. Yet today that effort is n-times more complex.

AJR also make the point that changes in the payments ecosystem are linked to bank stability and the fragility of the financial system. This is an argument that often escapes those discussing the digital payments debate.

Overall it is a short but well put together paper. It does what it says on the can, and thus highly recommended reading.

About the Historic Gap between Rich and Poor Italians

Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)

By Guido Alfani (Bocconi University)


Review by Emanuele Felice


The pioneering work by Simon Kuznets placed the evolution and determinants of economic inequality as one of the central subjects in economics and economic history. The recent success of Thomas Piketty’s latest book (see the Book Reviews section of the NEP-HIS Blog) bears witness to inequality being a topic of great interest to a wider public.

However, constructing reliable estimates of inequality for pre-industrial times is a highly-demanding task. This is the ultimate reason why, in spite of good theorizing and much speculation about the subject, we have so few “actual” figures for the Middle Ages and the Modern Era. The paper by Guido Alfani contributes to the latter, thus quenching our thirst for historical data. Indeed, other than van Zanden’s (1995) seminal work on the Low Countries, Alfani’s is the only comprehensive and thorough study of inequality for a large geography (i.e. the Piedmont region) over a long period of time (from the first half of the 14th century to the early 19th century). Moreover, Alfani provides some good interpretative hypotheses and viable explanations for the observed patterns: here there is much to think, and to learn, about the history of pre-industrial societies.

Guido Alfani

Guido Alfani

The article is well-organized and aims to expose as clearly as possible sources and methods − including some thorny, technical issues. Following an introduction where the relevance of the subject is highlighted in the context of previous systematic studies, a first section provides an overview of the progressive extension of and the fiscal reforms introduced by the House of Savoy into the Piedmont (from circa 1350 onwards). By the late 18th century the House of Savoy had become the most expansionist and successful of all the Italian states. However, it was perhaps not the most powerful one as the Bourbon’s rule in the south (i.e Naples and Sicily in the 17th and 18th centuries) was considerably larger and commanded more resources.

The Fountain of Life by  Giacomo Jaquerio ( c. 1375 – 1453) [one of the main exponents of Gothic painting in the Piedmont].

The Fountain of Life by Giacomo Jaquerio ( c. 1375 – 1453) [one of the main exponents of Gothic painting in the Piedmont].

In section 2, Alfani details the sources for his database. These included records of taxable property (estimi or catasti), which the communities of Piedmont compiled in order to distribute the fiscal burden among households. This because they had to decide how to pay the tasso, a direct tax imposed for the first time in 1562 which by the early 17th century had grown into the main fiscal instrument of the Sabaudian domains. About this source Alfini comments:

The “estimi” are particularly convenient for conducting large-scale studies, as they show an impressive stability through space and time. (p.8)

The Italian estimi can be divided in two categories: “per property” which include lands and buildings and were more common; and “per yield” which include capital, credits, and other movables.

Alfani points out that all the sources used in his estimates are based on estimi per property, which thus only track one of the components of wealth, real estates. But he also adds that there is good reason to believe that in pre-industrial societies (which were largely agricultural) wealth inequality is a good proxy of income inequality as the size of land holdings would determine income. Thus income and wealth would tend to move in the same direction − even more as they do today.

Based on the per property estimi, Alfani constructs a database made up of 16 communities and 12 times series. These include six cities and six series of rural communities (it is noted that seven rural communities are grouped in three aggregates, plus other three individual rural communities). This database is impressive indeed. The actual locations it covers are scattered throughout the Piedmont region, with benchmark years stretching from 1311 (Chieri) until 1772 (Saluzzo). A total of 55 estimi were used.

The Piedmont region is noted for its wine and cuisine

The Piedmont region is noted for its wine and cuisine

Sections 3 to 6 offer the main results of the article. In Section 3 he calculates and discusses a Gini index for each of the 55 estimi analysed. Other measures of inequality include the share of wealth owned by the top 5% and 10% of the population as well as inter-decile ratios. Section 4 delves into a discussion about the impact of disease and pandemics on inequality, from the Black Death to epidemics in the 17th century. Section 5 presents estimates of inequality at the regional level for the whole of the Piedmont: specifically estimates of Gini coefficients from the 16th to the end of the 18th centuries, which are then compared with those estimated for the Low Countries by van Zanden (1995). In this section Alfani also calculates the share of wealth owned by the top 10% and 5% at regional level from the 14th to the end of the 18th centuries.



From Alfani’s analysis, several findings stand out. Among these, the positive correlation between urban demographic growth and inequality, the fact that cities experienced greater inequality levels than rural areas, or the prominent role of the top rich in determining inequality changes. The most important result, however, is yet another one: the evidence that in Piedmont, during the Early Modern period (16th and 17th centuries), inequality was on the rise, both in cities and in rural areas, and independently from whether the economy was growing or stagnating. As the author states:

«This is a new finding that directly challenges earlier views that tended to explain inequality growth as the consequence of economic development.»(p. 43)

In this respect, it could even be argued that the well-known Kuznets curve should be relativized to a short phase of human history, the Industrial Revolution. This finding also has an impact on the debate about the Italian decline in the 17th century (e.g. Cipolla 1952), insofar as it provides empirical confirmation for an established literature (e.g. Romano 1972) holding that the Italian decline was also due to rising inequality, which reduced the opportunity for productive investments and the size of the national market, at a time of growing international competition.


Equally important can be the results about the consequences of epidemics for inequality. In this case, Alfani’s inquiry does not confirm earlier hypotheses based on Tuscan data (actually, on the Tuscan city of Pistoia), according to which after the Black Death there was a rise in inequality (Herlihy 1967). The case study of Piedmont tells us quite the contrary, and appears to be consistent with a vast literature stressing the decline of inequality due to higher wages, after the Black Death. The opposite, however, occurred after the plague of the 17th century: now, the rise in inequality (or at least the fact that in the medium term the plague did not prevent inequality from rising) was probably due to «the institutional adaptation that occurred in-between» (p. 44); namely, to the creation of institutions that prevented the fragmentation of inheritance, and thus of real estates, such as the fideicommissa. Quite correctly, in my view, the author reminds us that after the Black Death adaptation to a new environment, where epidemics had become endemic, occurred:

«and for the human species, adaptation also means institutional adaptation» (p. 23).

Alfani_Calamities and the Economy_Palgrave, London, 2013


Cipolla, C.M. (1952) ‘The Decline of Italy: The Case of a Fully Matured Economy’, The Economic History Review, 5(2): 178-187.

Herlihy, D. (1967) Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town, 1200-1430. New Haven, CO: Yale University Press.

Romano, R. (1972) ‘Una tipologia economica’, in R. Romano and C. Vivanti (eds.), Storia d’Italia. I caratteri originali. Turin: Einaudi, pp. 254-304.

Van Zanden, J.L. (1995) ‘Tracing the beginning of the Kuznets curve: Western Europe during the early modern period’, The Economic History Review, 48(4): 643-664.

Immigration and the Economy: An Interdisciplinary Subject

Immigrant Diversity and Economic Development in Cities: A Critical Review

By Thomas Kemeny (London School of Economics)

Abstract: This paper reviews a growing literature investigating how ‘immigrant’ diversity relates to urban economic performance. As distinct from the labor-supply focus of much of the economics of immigration, this paper reviews work that examines how growing heterogeneity in the composition of the workforce may beneficially or harmfully affect the production of goods, services and ideas, especially in regional economies. Taking stock of the existing literature, the paper argues that the low-hanging fruit in this field has now been picked, and lays out a set of open issues that need to be taken up in future research in order to fulfil the promise of this work.


Revised by: Anthony C. Evans (final year graduate Business Studies & Marketing, Bangor University – Wales)


Kemeny’s paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-12-06 and it seeks to understand the relationship between immigrant diversity and economic performance, primarily by considering the effects of “interactions among a diverse populace” (p.1).

The review is motivated by the theory that “immigrant-diverse individuals could simultaneously improve economic outcomes by bringing together different perspectives and heuristics, and reduce performance by making co-operation more costly.” (p.2) This additional cost of co-operation is associated with Tajfel’s (1974) Social Identity theory, and is supported by the quoted findings of Richard et al. (2002), Bandiera et al. (2005) and O’Reilly et al. (1989); that teams who share few commonalities find it hard to integrate and suffer from reduced co-operation and higher staff turnover. Empirical studies by Hoffman and Maier (1961) and Joshi and Roh (2009) are cited, and display a modest positive economic impact of workplace diversity.


Kemeny quotes Ottaviano and Peri’s (2006) findings that a 0.1 increase in the Fractionalization index increased native wages by 13% and rents more so within the US. Kemeny (2012) and Spaber (2010) find similar results, as does Bellini et al.’s (2013) European work. Alesina et al.’s (2013) global study finds birthplace diversity is positively related to GDP per capita and total factor productivity, with the strongest association in rich countries for high-skill workers.

However, Kemeny notes that many studies, including Suedekum et al.’s (2009) study of Germany and Nathan’s (2011) study of the UK, have demonstrated a negative economic effect of immigrant diversity, especially upon those in lower skilled jobs.

Citing empirical studies by Stephan and Levin (2001), Bosetti et al. (2012) and Hunt and Gauthier-Loiselle (2010), immigrant diversity is found to be positively linked to the number of research papers published and to the number of patent applications for highly skilled industries.

Kemeny finds that there is inconsistent evidence as to the link between immigration and entrepreneurship in Mariano et al. (2012), Audretsch et al. (2010) and Cheng and Li’s (2011) extant work.


Through his review Kemeny identifies a number of stylised facts across the relevant literature. Some of these follow.

The paper refers to a growing body of work supporting Bakens et al.’s (2013) findings that the individual’s characteristics emerge as the primary determinants of variation in wages and rents. Kemeny proposes individual heterogeneity may overstate diversity’s positive impact upon productivity, as immigrants may self-select areas based upon higher wages, personal interests and their skill level. The validity of the shift share instruments used to address reverse causality rely upon initial waves of immigrants having chosen locations based upon extra-economic concerns, which likely may not be the case.

Kemeny’s (2012) previous work finds that wages in areas with high levels of social capital, often promoted by regional institutions, are typically 7% higher than those living in equally diverse areas with lower levels of social capital, a consideration not accounted for by other authors.

Overall the paper finds little consensus as to the impact of team diversity within the organizational literature.

Several issues with the measurements currently used are highlighted. Productivity gains for lower-skilled labour may not necessarily result in wage increases, and process innovation within this segment may not be patented. Kemeny cites Alesina et al.’s (2013) findings that skin colour or language spoken at home are less likely to result in production complementarities than social values are. Their research finds ethnic fractionalization and birthplace diversity are largely unrelated, whilst birthplace also fails to capture the importance of second-generation immigrants. Under Roback’s (1982) Spatial Equilibrium, higher wages may either reflect greater productivity brought about by diversity, or compensate workers for the disutility of living in a diverse area. Because of this paradox one cannot determine from wages alone how productivity and diversity may be linked.

Kemeny condemns an inherent assumption of urban studies; that “bio-diversity reflects intellectual diversity” (p.35) and contends “the idea that national culture shapes heuristics and perspectives ought to be subject to empirical validation.” (p.37)

Kemeny argues, that based upon the literature reviewed, diversity is generally positively related to wages, and either rents, productivity or cultural amenities, with least square analysis’ demonstrating the direction of causality is from diversity to economic gain. It is reasoned that this indicates the productivity augmenting effects of immigrant diversity outweigh the cost of transacting across cultures.

Kemeny proposes that further work into the role of institutions, the relative importance of city specific manifestations of diversity and the differing impact of diversity between skill levels and industries would advance this modern field.



Value and Implications of the Research

Kemeny provides a useful viewpoint by combining the findings of both economic geography and organizational theory. In identifying limitations in the methodologies of both fields, future work can seek to address these issues and generate a better understanding of the relationship between immigrant diversity and economic development. This understanding may help inform frequently inaccurate (Economist, 2013) popular debates on immigration, which argue that immigration results in fewer jobs for natives (Kemeny, 2013) and a drain on state welfare (Economist, 2013). Furthermore greater understanding of how immigration affects the economy should result in better-informed immigration policy. The finding that institutions can augment economic gains may be beneficial to both immigrants and natives, and represent a pragmatic way to enhance the quality of life for both parties.

Limitations and Future Research

By omitting the level at which quoted results were found to be statistically significant, the paper makes it difficult to interpret the frequently contradicting results of the various research cited.

One issue Kemeny fails to address is whether mild racial or cultural preferences can produce extreme segregation in urban areas, as is illustrated by Schelling’s (1978) famous checkerboard model. Becker (1971) observed that the economic penalty to employers who display taste-based discrimination increased as the size of the group being discriminated against increased, therefore larger populations of immigrants should experience less discrimination and thus higher wages than smaller populations. Further discussion of the link between immigration and discrimination, and the economic impact of the latter may provide valuable insight to public policy debate and formulation.

Whilst Kemeny addresses the fact that many studies fail to acknowledge that individual competencies play a significant role, an issue the research does not expand upon is difference between immigrants of different cultural backgrounds. Immigrants from nations with similar language and cultural values will experience lower transactional costs (Rokeach, 1979), which correspond with Hofstede’s (2001) organizational research findings. Goodhart (2013) finds significant differences in economic prosperity between immigrants of different national origin in Britain during the 20th Century.

Whilst a controversial topic it must be noted that the recent consensus in psychology research is that there is a strong heritability of “intelligence” (Bouchard, 2004). As measures of “intelligence” have been shown to be linked to wage differentials (Benjamin et al. 2012), then it should be considered that the economic prosperity brought by immigrants may be related to their genetic makeup and enhancing genetic diversity (Ashraf and Galor, 2013; Ager and Bruckner, 2013). There is a growing body of work in this field of genoeconomics, broadly covered in Benjamin et al. (2012) and Navarro’s (2009) reviews of the existing literature, which could further enhance Kemeny’s spatial economics paper.

An additional source of heterogeneity is the individuals’ decision to emigrate. Ruiz and Vargas-Silva’s (2013) work finds that forced migration produces different economic effects to that of voluntary migration. An improved understanding of the reason for immigration may help explain the differences between skilled and unskilled labour, as one could hypothesise that those in skilled segments may be moving due to prearranged employment. The effect of capital stock brought by immigrants is also not considered, which would increase the steady state under the Solow (1956) model.

With the growing economic importance of Asia and Latin America (Mpoyi, 2012) future research considering immigration from the West to these nations would be of value to this field.


Ager, P.; Bruckner, M.; (2013) Immigrants’ Genes: Genetic Diversity and Economic Development in the US. Munich Personal RePEc Archive. Paper No. 51906

Ashraf, Q. and Galor, O. (2013) The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review. Vol. 103(1) pp.1-46

Becker, G. (1971) The Economics of Discrimination. 2nd Edition. University Of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Benjamin, D.; Cesarini, D.; Chabris, C.; Glaeser, E.; Laibson, D.; Guðnason, V.; Harris, T. et al. (2012) The promises and pitfalls of genoeconomics. Annual Review of Economics. Vol. 4 pp.627-662.

Bouchard, T. (2004) Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits: A Survey. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 13(4) pp.148-151

Goodhart, D. (2013) The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration. Atlantic Books. London.

Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. 2nd Edition. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.

Kemeny, T. (2013) Immigrant Diversity and Economic Development in Cities: A Critical Review. Spatial Economics Research Centre. London School of Economics. Discussion Paper 149

Mpoyi, R. (2012) The Impact of the “BRIC Thesis” and the Rise of Emerging Economies on Global Competitive Advantage: Will There Be a Shift from West to East? Journal of Applied Business & Economics. Vol. 13(3) pp.36-47

Navarro, A. (2009) Genoeconomics: Promises and Caveats for a New Field. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Vol. 1167 pp. 57–65

Rokeach, M. (1979) Understanding Human Values. The Free Press. New York. NY.

Schelling, T. (1978) Micromotives and Macrobehavior. Norton. New York, NY.

Solow, R. (1956) A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth. The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol. 70(1) pp. 65-94

The Economist (Dec 21st 2013) British immigration. You’re Welcome.

The Economist (Nov 9th 2013) Little England or Great Britain.

Zhang, J. (2009) Tipping and residential segregation: a unified Schelling model. IZA Discussion Papers. No. 4413