Category Archives: Accounting History

The Enigma of Chinese Business Records

Discovering Economic History in Footnotes: The Story of the Tong Taisheng Merchant Archive (1790-1850)

By Debin Ma (London School of Economics) and Weipeng Yuan (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

 Abstract: The Tong Taisheng (统泰升) merchant account books in Ningjin county of northern China in 1800-1850 constitute the most complete and integrated surviving archive of a family business for pre-modern China. They contain unusually detailed and high-quality statistics on exchange rates, commodity prices and other information. Utilized once in the 1950s, the archive has been left largely untouched until our recent, almost accidental rediscovery. This article introduces this unique set of archives and traces the personal history of the original owner and donor. Our story of an archive encapsulates the history of modern China and how the preservation and interpretation of evidence and records of Chinese economic statistics were profoundly impacted by the development of political ideology and in modern and contemporary China. We briefly discuss the historiographical and epistemological implication of our finding in the current Great Divergence debate.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-9-11

Reviewed by Joyman Lee


Cover page of the Tong Taisheng account book


This paper is the first stage in a four-part project to set out the history of the Tong Taisheng archive, the history of the firm, the history of Ningin county, and the larger North China economy in the mid-nineteenth century on the eve of the Opium War. Tong Taisheng was a medium-sized family-owned local grocery store that sold a large variety of dry goods, and the discovery of a genealogy (1903) allows the family’s history to be traced back for 16 generations, or 491 years to 1404, when the family migrated to Ningjin and started life there as farmers. Through diligence and thrift, the family business expanded, and it came to own 300 mu of land (48 acres) before a temporary setback in the 7th and 8th generation. Afterwards, the family made a comeback through commerce, invested heavily in education (as one would expect for local elites), with the result that family wealth and business stabilized to between 300-800 m. As a sign of their social status, the family was frequently entrusted with mediating and resolving village disputes at the point the archive ended in the mid-nineteenth century.

This is an impressive and ambitious project that aims to uncover the history of an extraordinary business archive in Ningjin county, Shandong province in North China. Although the data from the archive was briefly utilized by the leading Chinese economic historian at the time, Yan Zhongping, in 1955, the archive has disappeared from view until its rediscovery by the authors. Surprisingly, most of the documents were donated by a member of the lineage operating the archive (and the business) in 1935, and were simply sitting untouched in the National Library and the Institute of Economic Research of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, both in Beijing. According to the authors, the data amounts to ‘over 11 thousand data points of copper-silver exchange rates with transaction dates and quantities, five and six different types of silver used, loans and interest rates of clients, all in daily frequency’ (p7), as well as detailed prices of about 40 or 50 types of commodities. Moreover, it offers the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of the Chinese accounting system, of the traditional monetary system and the impact of nineteenth-century opium trade and silver outflow, and to quantify China’s traditional marketing structure that forms the core of William Skinner’s landmark study on China’s macroeconomic regions (1964).

The authors offer a detailed description of the four categories of information available: firstly, original account books,  or journals or daily books (流水账) to record daily transactions of cash and goods in copper cash and silver, which constitute the bulk of the archive; secondly, postal account books, or general trade ledgers (交易总账), which were sorted by the name of the business house or customer; thirdly, summary account books, with information on strung coins account, profits and dividend account; and fourthly, miscellaneous account books, with details of temporary dealings and transactions, and accounts of loans, land purchases, and income from interest on loans. The entire archive was in traditional Chinese format with string-bound Chinese paper, was hand-written in classical Chinese, and requires specialized learning and expertise to decipher.


General trader ledger account from 1846, reflecting the ‘four columns’ (四柱法) system in traditional Chinese accounting


The richness of the archive should be self-evident, and it is all the more extraordinary in light of the paucity of detailed economic information on pre-imperial China. As the authors highlight, much of Robert Allen’s (2011) critique of the eighteenth-century Chinese data used by Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), centers on the data’s alleged imprecision in relation to Europe. As the authors put it, the paucity of Chinese historical data is in itself an intriguing historical question, as it invites us to question whether it is the result of poor record keeping, or whether it is more a reflection of the poor state of archival collection given China’s tumultuous modern history. Similarly, it will be valuable for scholars to consider whether China’s alleged lack of rich historical data is indeed suggestive of the lack of a high level of economic development or rationality compared to Europe.

As the authors point out, part of the need for uncovering and developing the Tong Taisheng archive is epistemological. Because of the invisibility of the type of sources that the archive represents – due partly to political manipulation – academic researchers in China have become unfamiliar with the bookkeeping and accounting methods in the documents. The disappearance from view of these documents meant that researchers came to be predisposed towards source materials that were more familiar to Western eyes. The unenviable consequence was an interpretation of the past through a “European” or colonial framework (p17).

Owing to the originality of the sources, Ma and Yuan’s ongoing study of the Tong Taisheng business archive is likely to be highly important not only for Chinese business history, but also for the business history of other non-Western regions plagued by similar problems of the paucity of data, as well as the lack of awareness among researchers of types of documents that are very different from the ones familiar to Western researchers.

Additional References

Allen, R, Bassino, J, Ma, D, Moll-Murata, C, Van Zanden, J. 2011. “Wages, Prices, and Living Standards in China, 1738-1925: In Comparison with Europe, Japan, and India”. Economic History Review 64, S1: 8-38.

Pomeranz, K. 2000. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Skinner, W. 1964. “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China”. Journal of Asian Studies 24: 3-43.

Lessons from ‘Too Big to Fail’ in the 1980s

Can a bank run be stopped? Government guarantees and the run on Continental Illinois

Mark A Carlson (Bank for International Settlements) and Jonathan Rose (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve)

Abstract: This paper analyzes the run on Continental Illinois in 1984. We find that the run slowed but did not stop following an extraordinary government intervention, which included the guarantee of all liabilities of the bank and a commitment to provide ongoing liquidity support. Continental’s outflows were driven by a broad set of US and foreign financial institutions. These were large, sophisticated creditors with holdings far in excess of the insurance limit. During the initial run, creditors with relatively liquid balance sheets nevertheless withdrew more than other creditors, likely reflecting low tolerance to hold illiquid assets. In addition, smaller and more distant creditors were more likely to withdraw. In the second and more drawn out phase of the run, institutions with relative large exposures to Continental were more likely to withdraw, reflecting a general unwillingness to have an outsized exposure to a troubled institution even in the absence of credit risk. Finally, we show that the concentration of holdings of Continental’s liabilities was a key dynamic in the run and was importantly linked to Continental’s systemic importance.


Distributed on NEP-HIS 2016-4-16

Review by Anthony Gandy (ifs University College)

I have to thank Bernardo Batiz-Lazo for spotting this paper and circulating it through NEP-HIS, my interest in this is less research focused than teaching focused. Having the honour of teaching bankers about banking, sometimes I am asked questions which I find difficult to answer. One such question has been ‘why are inter-bank flows seen as less volatile, than consumer deposits?’ In this very accessible paper, Carlson and Rose answers this question by analysing the reality of a bank run, looking at the raw data from the treasury department of a bank which did indeed suffer a bank run: Continental Illinois – which became the biggest banking failure in US history when it flopped in 1984.


For the business historian, the paper may lack a little character as it rather skimps over the cause of Continental’s demise, though this has been covered by many others, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (1997). The paper briefly explains the problems Continental faced in building a large portfolio of assets in both the oil and gas sector and developing nations in Latin America. A key factor in the failure of Continental in 1984, was the 1982 failure of the small bank Penn Square Bank of Oklahoma. Cushing, Oklahoma is the, quite literally, hub (and one time bottleneck) of the US oil and gas sector. The the massive storage facility in that location became the settlement point for the pricing of West Texas Intermediate (WTI), also known as Texas light sweet, oil. Penn Square focused on the oil sector and sold assets to Continental, according the FDIC (1997) to the tune of $1bn. Confidence in Continental was further eroded by the default of Mexico in 1982 thus undermining the perceived quality of its emerging market assets.

Depositors queuing outside the insolvent Penn Square Bank (1982)

Depositors queuing outside the insolvent Penn Square Bank (1982)

In 1984 the failure of Penn would translate into the failure of the 7th largest bank in the US, Continental Illinois. This was a great illustration of contagion, but contagion which was contained by the central authorities and, earlier, a panel of supporting banks. Many popular articles on Continental do an excellent job of explaining why its assets deteriorated and then vaguely discuss the concept of contagion. The real value of the paper by Carlson and Rose comes from their analysis of the liability side of the balance sheet (sections 3 to 6 in the paper). Carlson and Rose take great care in detailing the make up of those liabilities and the behaviour of different groups of liability holders. For instance, initially during the crisis 16 banks announced a advancing $4.5bn in short term credit. But as the crisis went forward the regulators (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) were required to step in to provide a wide ranging guarantee. This was essential as the bank had few small depositors who, in turn, could rely on the then $100,000 depositor guarantee scheme.


It would be very easy to pause and take in the implications of table 1 in the paper. It shows that on the 31st March 1984, Continental had a most remarkable liability structure. With $10.0bn of domestic deposits, it funded most of its books through $18.5bn of foreign deposits, together with smaller amounts of other wholesale funding. However, the research conducted by Carlson and Rose showed that the intolerance of international lenders, did become a factor but it was only one of a number of effects. In section 6 of the paper they look at the impact of funding concentration. The largest ten depositors funded Continental to the tune of $3.4bn and the largest 25 to $6bn dollars, or 16% of deposits. Half of these were foreign banks and the rest split between domestic banks, money market funds and foreign governments.

Initially, `run off’, from the largest creditors was an important challenge. But this was related to liquidity preference. Those institutions which needed to retain a highly liquid position were quick to move their deposits out of Continental. One could only speculate that these withdrawals would probably have been made by money market funds. Only later, in a more protracted run off, which took place even after interventions, does the size of the exposure and distance play a disproportionate role. What is clear is the unwillingness of distant banks to retain exposure to a failing institution. After the initial banking sector intervention and then the US central authority intervention, foreign deposits rapidly decline.

It’s a detailed study, one which can be used to illustrate to students both issues of liquidity preference and the rationale for the structures of the new prudential liquidity ratios, especially the Net Stable Funding Ratio. It can also be used to illustrate the problems of concentration risk – but I would enliven the discussion with the addition of the more colourful experience of Penn Square Bank- a banks famed for drinking beer out of cowboy boots!


Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 1997. Chapter 7 `Continental Illinois and `Too Big to Fail’ In: History of the Eighties, Lessons for the Future, Volume 1. Available on line at:

More general reads on Continental and Penn Square:

Huber, R. L. (1992). How Continental Bank outsourced its” crown jewels. Harvard Business Review, 71(1), 121-129.

Aharony, J., & Swary, I. (1996). Additional evidence on the information-based contagion effects of bank failures. Journal of Banking & Finance, 20(1), 57-69.

Coinucopia: Dealing with Multiple Currencies in the Medieval Low Countries

Enter the ghost: cashless payments in the Early Modern Low Countries, 1500-1800

by Oscar Gelderblom and Joost Jonker (both at Utrecht University)

Abstract: We analyze the evolution of payments in the Low Countries during the period 1500-1800 to argue for the historical importance of money of account or ghost money. Aided by the adoption of new bookkeeping practices such as ledgers with current accounts, this convention spread throughout the entire area from the 14th century onwards. Ghost money eliminated most of the problems associated with paying cash by enabling people to settle transactions in a fictional currency accepted by everyone. As a result two functions of money, standard of value and means of settlement, penetrated easily, leaving the third one, store of wealth, to whatever gold and silver coins available. When merchants used ghost money to record credit granted to counterparts, they in effect created a form of money which in modern terms might count as M1. Since this happened on a very large scale, we should reconsider our notions about the volume of money in circulation during the Early Modern Era.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2015-11-21

Review by Bernardo Batiz-Lazo

In a recent contribution to the Payments Journal, Mira Howard noted:

It’s no secret that the payments industry has been undergoing a period of enormous growth and innovation. Payments has transformed from a steadfast, predictable industry to one with solutions so advanced they sound futuristic. Inventions such as selfie-pay, contactless payments, crypto currency, and biotechnology are just examples of the incredible solutions coming out of the payments industry. However, many payments companies are so anxious to deliver “the future” to merchants and consumers that they overlook merchants that are still stuck using outdated technologies.

The paper by Gelderblom and Jonker is timely and talks to the contemporary concerns of Mira Howard by reminding us of the long history of innovation in retail payments. Specifically, the past and (in their view) under appreciated use of ledger technology (you may want to read its current application behind Bitcoin inThe Economist Insights).

Gelderblom and Jonker set out to explain high economic growth in the Low Countries during the 17th and 18th centuries in a context of scarce media to pay by cash given low coinage, recurrent debasements and devaluations. Their argument is that scarcity of cash did not force people to use credit. Instead silver and gold coins were used as a store of value while daily transactions were recorded in ledgers while translated into a “fictional” currency (“a fictive currency, money of account or ghost money”, p. 7). This provided a common denominator in the use of different types of coin. For instance they cite a merchant house in Leiden transacting in 28 different coin types.


Gelderblom and Jonker build their argument using different sources including a re-examination of relevant literature, probates and merchant accounts. Together they build a fascinating and thought provoking mosaic of the financial aspects everyday life in the Early Modern age. One can only praise Gelderblom and Jonker for their detail treatment of these sources, including a balanced discussion on the potential limitations and bias they could introduce to their study (notably their discussion on probate data).


The use of a unit of account in a ledger to deal with multiple currencies was by no means unique to the Low Countries nor to the Medieval period. For instance, early Medieval accounting records of the Cathedral of Seville followed the standard practice of keeping track of donations using “maravadies” while 19th century Kuwaiti merchant arithmetic of trade across the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf was expressed in Indian rupees [1]. Gelderblom and Jonker, however, go a step beyond using trends in probate data to explore whether there was widespread use of credit and also, extant literature to determine the scarcity of different coins and precious metals.

As part of their arguments Gelderblom and Jonker also question the “efficiency” of the so called “stage theory of money”. This echoes calls that for some time economic anthropologist have made, as they have provided empirical support questioning notion of the barter economy prior to the emergence of money and thus pointing to the illusion of the “coincidence of and wants” (for a quick read see The Atlantic on The Myth of the Barter Economy and for an in depth discussion see Bell, 2001). The same sources agree that the Middle Ages was a second period of demonetization. Moreover, systems of weight and measures, both being per-conditions for barter, were in place by the Early Modern period in Europe then a barter or credit economy rather than the gift economy that characterized pre-monetary societies was a possible response to the scarcity of cash. Gelderblom and Jonker provide evidence to reject the idea of a credit economy while conclude that “barter was probably already monetized” (p. 18) and therefore

“we need to abandon the stage theory of monetization progressing from barter via chas to credit because it simply does not work. … we need to pus the arguments of Muldrew, Vickers, and Kuroda further and start appreciating the social dimensions of payments”.(pp. 18-19)

I could not agree more and so would, I presume, Georg Simmel, Bill Maurer, Viviana Zelizer, Yuval Millo and many others currently working around the sociology of finance and the anthropology of money.

References and Notes

Bell, Stephanie. 2001. “The Role of the State in the Hierarchy of Money.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 25 (149-163).

[1] Many thanks to Julian Borreguero (Seville) and Madihah Alfadhli (Bangor) for their comments.


Coming back to @PostOffice #Savings? The #east-west comparative.

Postal financial services, development and inclusion: Building on the past and looking to the future


Gonzales d’Alcantara ( Emeritus Professor of Econometrics at the University of Antwerp and d’Alcantara Economic Consulting

Paul H. Dembinski ( ) University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Odile Pilley, ( International Consultant, formerly with International Bureau of the Universal Postal Union

Abstract: Post offices, inherited from the Industrial Revolution, were monolithic telephone and postal administrations. They were intimately linked to the fabric of nations and made significant contributions to state finances. From the 1960s onwards, integrators, such as UPS and FEDEX, started offering end-to-end express services, thus challenging the postal monopoly in new high added value services. Gradually, the liberalization paradigm gained ground. Telecommunications and sometimes financial services were spun off from postal operations. More recently, new policies and priorities started to emerge especially on the development agenda where financial inclusion has become a top priority in the developing world. The question to be addressed is which role, if any, the posts play or could play in ensuring inclusion. Despite an exceptionally scarce research in the field, this paper provides an overview of how these shifts in paradigm have affected postal policy, the postal financial services regulatory framework, the status of the organizations delivering those services and the offerings themselves in developing as well as in developed countries. After a research review, including the regulatory dimension, the paper focuses on how postal financial services institutions in their legal framework have developed bringing to the fore a panorama of a dozen of promising transformations of financial postal services in developing countries.


Review by Mark Crowley

This paper by d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley was circulated byNEP-HIS on 2014-09-12. The approach is unique in the sense that it seeks to compare the nature of Post Offices in Europe and the developing world, focusing primarily on their role in the savings movement. Its historical approach shows how the western Post Offices developed as a movement that sought to encourage thrift among a profligate working class, whereas in the developing world, the development of a Postal Savings movement was more in line with the growing financial markets across these nations, and the desire for individual customers to express choice in their banking processes. Moreover, it effectively shows how, following a crisis in trust experienced in the banking industry, more people across both the developed and developing world are turning to the government-backed Post Office as a safe haven for their savings in response to the perceived dangers of investing in private banks.


Citing the latter nineteenth century as the beginning of the Post Office savings movement, with British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s initiative to open a Post Office Savings Bank, this paper demonstrates that the influence of the government over consumer spending has long roots. The authors deftly show that certainly in its embryonic stages, the Post Office savings movement in developed countries focused on the provision of a secure place for working-class savings, while also encouraging thrift. Building on the lack of trust displayed by the working-class towards other alternatives, such as friendly societies, and their exclusion from private sector banks, the savings option offered by Post Offices had fertile ground on which it could flourish.              
gladstone 2

The paper also documents the differences between the supervisory natures of the Post Office Savings activities in developing countries, comparing them to that in the developed world. Citing the Asian and Latin American examples, the authors show that the levels of government control over the activities of postal savings banks were significantly more than that in the developed world, with the respective central banks exerting a supervisory role over postal and financial affairs. In the developed world, following with the liberalisation of financial services, the level of central government control over deposits made in postal savings banks has significantly diminished, with initiatives to delegate the administration of post office banking activity to private banks. Although responsibility is still being underwritten by central government (with Bank of Ireland UK as the example for postal savings in the UK) the level of micro-management previously present has now diminished.

d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley also document the necessity of a world legal framework and understanding to evolve with the growing influence of the postal savings movement, especially in the developed world. Citing the aim for legal and financial autonomy to be awarded to postal savings institutions as part of the United Nations millennium goals, it effectively demonstrates the challenges that both the developed and the developing world face in terms of striking the right balance to facilitate the effective supervision of the financial system at a time when the role of private investment banks have been criticised for their excessive risk taking. While many countries in the west still pride themselves on liberal nature of their governments and markets, the definition of this is likely to change in the name of ensuring proportionality and responsibility concerning financial affairs in an age when consumer confidence in private banks is at an all-time low.


While seeking to emphasise the differences between the postal savings movement in the developed and developing world, this paper also draws on examples of convergence. In the period after the 2008 world financial crisis, there has been evidence that consumers, once more, have come back to the government-backed Post Office savings banks in response to not only their anger about the actions of private banks, but also the perception that government-backed savings institutions are safer in terms of securing deposits during periods of financial crisis. For example, in 2008, much resentment was created in the UK when the government bailed out banks deemed “too big to fail”, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. While such action ensured that the deposits of savers were guaranteed, many responded angrily that taxpayer’s money was being used to save banks that had shown financial irresponsibility on such a grand scale.

post office uk

The paper ends on an optimistic note for the savings movement in Asia, with particular reference to China. In noting that the Chinese Postal Savings Bank is the fourth largest in China, with its customer base expanding beyond the traditional labouring classes to include students and businesspeople, the authors argue that this has been a triumph for the postal savings movement in the world’s most populous country. While it is worth noting that the level of central government control over all banks in China is possibly significantly more than in any other developed nation, it is a point well made that in a country with a flourishing middle class population, it is the postal savings movement that seems to be gaining the biggest traction.

posb china


d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley covered a huge chronological and geographical period in their analysis, and have effectively compared the nature of the postal savings movement in the developed and developing world. Perhaps an area that could be explored further is the western government’s ideas of financial liberalisation as a principle that stops short of a full-scale privatisation of Post Office counters (which include financial services)? For example, Margaret Thatcher, despite pursuing a very ambitious privatisation programme in the 1980s, stopped short of privatising Post Office counters, despite taking steps to remove the ‘Giro’ from government control. Deeming the issue to be too much of a political hot potato, Thatcher left financial services at the Post Office largely untouched, encouraging only the intervention of private banks to compete for the option of underwriting (with the support of government) Post Office financial services. Today, both in the US and the UK, Post Office counters, and individual postmasters complain vehemently about their struggle for survival in the face of growing competition from private banks that now include the offers of financial services by supermarkets, and initiatives that have reduced the numerous functions of Post Office counters, including direct debit payments. Perhaps the question the authors could explore is why do western governments, while taking efforts to remove services from the Post Offices (such as bill payments) do not embark on a full scale privatisation, whereas in developing countries, where the extent of government control over the savings movement, including postal savings, is significantly stronger, the movement appears to be going from strength to strength?

Further Reading

Booth, Alan and Mark Billings, ‘Techno-nationalism, the Post Office and the creation of Britain’s National Giro’ in B Bátiz-Lazo, J.C. Maixé-Altés and P. Thomes Technological Innovation in Retail Finance: International Historical Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).

Campbell-Kelly, Martin, ‘Data Processing and Technological Change’ Technology and Culture, 39, 1 (Jan. 1998), pp. 1-32.

Campbell Smith, Duncan, Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of Royal Mail (London: Penguin, 2011).

Crowley, Mark J. Saving for the Nation: The Post Office and National Consumerism, c1860-1945’ in Erika Rappaport, Sandra Dawson and Mark J Crowley (eds.), Consuming Behaviours: Identity, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth Century Britain (forthcoming Bloomsbury, 2015).

Cold, Calculating Political Economy’: Fixed costs, the Rate of Profit and the Length of the Working Day in the Factory Act Debates, 1832-1847

By Steve Toms (Leeds University Business School)


The paper re-analyses the evidence presented by pro and anti-regulation interests during the debates on factory reform. To do so it considers the interrelationship between fixed costs, the rate of profit and the length of the working day. The interrelationship casts new light on the lobbying positions on either side of the debate. It does so by comparing the evidence presented in the debates before parliament and associated pamphlets with actual figures contained in the business records of implicated firms. As a result the paper identifies the compromise position of the working day length compatible with reasonable rates of profit based on actual cost structures. It is thereby able to reinterpret the validity of the claims of contemporary political economy used to support the cases for and against factory regulation.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-03-22 and its a follow up to that reviewed by Masayoshi Noguchi in an earlier post on the NEP-HIS blog (click here)

This second paper by Toms draws on a range of archival materials from both government and businesses to explore in detail the implications of legislative changes on British business during the industrial revolution.  It shows how the debates concerning the implementation of stricter working hours were contentious. Outlining the difficulties faced by the government and businesses to uniformly apply these new measures, particularly since businesses were exposed to different pressures according to their contribution to society, it shows how these factors further influencing the implementation and drafting of these measures.   By citing the debates of the anti-regulation bodies in Parliament, and also Parliamentary debates, it exemplifies how the interpretations of profit influenced the debates tabled by the Ten Hours movement – the pressure group created with a view to enshrine, in legislation, a maximum 10 hour working day.   This perspective in itself is new, particularly since it moves away from the traditional approaches adopted by trade union historians such as Alistair Reid and others who have examined the influence of unions in these disputes, but have examined them from the perspective of strikes (Reid, 2005).



Adopting a theoretical approach, especially in its examination of different interpretations of profit in the nineteenth century, this paper scrutinizes the range of factors that determined wages in nineteenth century factories, concluding that the reasons were much more complex than originally assumed.  In claiming that accounting manipulators were used as a major force in setting these wages, Toms shows how the considerations governing the decisions about wages were based on a range of accounting methods, although these methods at this time were not well-developed.  Furthermore, he claims convincingly that accountancy was poorly practiced in the nineteenth century, primarily owing to the apparent paucity of regulations governing the profession.   In adopting this approach, Toms highlights the two sides of the debate suggested by historians so far concerning the role of accountancy, that being: that it did not have an important role at all; or that it played a role that was sufficient to encourage competition.  By doing so, he has lucidly integrated the laissez faire ideology to elucidate the role of accountants in the policymaking process.

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Pressures on workers and the arduous hours did result in greater pressure on government to develop measures to regulate working hours

Much of the debates concerning workplace rights have adopted either a policy history perspective (examining the efforts of the government to regulate the economy) or a social history perspective (examining the perceived improvement in rights for workers).  Yet a detailed analysis of the implications of company accounting on government policy decisions has not yet been undertaken.  While economic historians such as Nicholas Crafts have used econometrics as a method to try and explain the causes of the industrial revolution, (Crafts, 2012) little attention has been given to the implications of these changes in terms of workplace legislation on not only the workers themselves, but on the calculations affecting industrial output and their response to government intervention.  Through examining the role of prominent socialists such as Robert Owen, this paper highlights the complex nature of the debates concerning profits, loss and its correlation with productivity to show that while the pro-regulation movement sought to protect the rights of individual workers, the anti-regulation movement created an inextricable link between the reduction of profit and the justification for longer working days. Locating this argument within the debate concerning fixed costs, it demonstrates how the definitions and arbiters of profits, loss and value was a moveable feast.

Robert Owen's ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

Robert Owen’s ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

This approach to the data has led to a different account of the costs faced by businesses than has hitherto been suggested by historians, and while Toms is careful to claim that this does not resolve the conceptual disputes surrounding the practice of accounting in the nineteenth century, it does provide a platform for further debate and a re-examination of the figures.  For example, in the analysis of the Ashworth accounts, Toms claims that the adoption of a variable approach to costing of volume-based products shows an annual running cost of £2500 per year, £3800 less than Boyson concluded in his 1970 study.  In his analysis of profit, Toms concludes that there could be a 3 hour variable that would not have detrimentally affected the profitability of companies.  Claiming that profitability would be at last 10 percent with 58 hour or 55 hour working week, this challenges previous assumptions those longer working hours would yield greater profits.  However, he highlights that the only significant difference would be that if these figures were compared to the onerous 69 hour week, where the profit margins could be expected to rise by a further 5 percent, although the pro-regulation body, for the purposes of strengthening their argument, presented this variable as high as 15 percent.

The final part of the paper lucidly examines the impact of foreign competition.  Citing the increased costs of British production when compared with European counterparts, with Manchester reported to be 50 percent higher in terms of spinning production costs than Switzerland, Toms shows how superficially the justification for maintaining the British market was now becoming even more difficult.  However, a deeper analysis of the figures reveals a different story, and to illustrate the point, evidence from Mulhausen is juxtaposed with Lancashire to show how wages were on average 18 d per day higher in Lancashire, although their productivity was almost double that of their German counterpart, and concludes that in effect, the overseas threat to the British market was as substantial as originally assumed.


This paper is extremely ambitious in its scope and development, and has covered significant ground in its analysis.  Its conclusions are convincing and are based on deep theoretical and conceptual understandings of the accountancy process.  My only suggestion is that the final section of the paper examining the ideological theories of profit could be fleshed out more so as to fully contextualise the political, legislative and business developments at this time.  It may also be possible to connect these issues with the contemporary debates concerning ‘thrift’, and the development of commercial banking.  For example, the idea of thrift was widely debated with the growth of friendly societies, and the decision of the government to open a Post Office Savings Bank to enable workers to deposit their savings.  Therefore, was there any connection between contemporary ideas of profit and thrift, and if so, was there a common ideological strand that linked people together in terms of their perceptions of money and its role in the wider society?



Crafts, NFR., “British Relative Economic Decline Revisited: the Role of Competition”, Explorations in Economic History (2012), 49, 17-29

Reid, Alastair J., United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions (London: Penguin, 2005).


Accounting for Deception in the Industrial Revolution

Creative accounting in the British Industrial Revolution: Cotton manufacturers and the ‘Ten Hours’ Movement

By Steve Toms and Alice Shepherd (both at the University of Leeds Business School)


The paper examines an early case of creative accounting, and how, during British industrialization, accounting was enlisted by the manufacturers’ interest to resist demands, led by the ‘Ten hours’ movement, for limiting the working day. In contrast to much of the prior literature, which argues that entrepreneurs made poor use of accounting techniques in the British industrial revolution, the paper shows that there was considerable sophistication in their application to specific purposes, including political lobbying and accounting for the accumulation of capital. To illustrate lobbying behaviour, the paper examines entrepreneurs’ use of accounting to resist the threat of regulation of working time in textile mills. It explains why accounting information became so important in the debate over factory legislation. In doing so, it shows that a significant element was the accounting evidence of one manufacturer in particular, Robert Hyde Greg, which had a strong impact on the outcome of the parliamentary process. The paper uses archival evidence to illustrate how accounting was used in Greg’s enterprise and the reality of its economic performance. The archival evidence of actual performance is then contrasted with the figures presented by Greg to the Factories Inquiry Commission, convened by the House of Commons in 1833-1834 to hear witnesses from the manufacturing interest. These sets of figures are compared and contrasted and discrepancies noted. Conclusions show that the discrepancies were substantial, motivated by Greg’s incentives to present a particular view of low profits, high fixed costs, and the threat of cheaper overseas competition. The figures appeared to lend some credibility to the apparent plight of manufacturers and to Nassau Senior’s flawed argument about all profit being earned in the ‘last hour’ of the working day. The consequence was a setback for the Ten Hours movement, leading to a further intensification of political struggles over working conditions in the 1840s.


Review by Masayoshi Noguchi

The paper by Toms and Shepherd was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-11-22. It makes a welcomed contribution to researching the role of accounting information within the British Industrial Revolution, as great debate still continues over the extent to which accounting technology was used for management decision making during that period.

The aim of Toms and Shepherd is to examine “the use of accounting by entrepreneurs to resist the threat of regulation of working time in textile mills in the early 1830s” (p. 2). This by analyzing the extent of “anti-regulation lobbying on working hours and child labour was influenced by accounting manipulation” (p. 2).

Archival evidence was sourced in the business records of the partnerships of Samuel H. Greg and Sons. As is well known, one distinctive feature of accounting system of partnerships until present day is profit-sharing amongst principals. Toms and Shepherd also examines in detail the level of “sophistication in recording capital appropriations and accumulations” (p. 4) among partners. This as the partnerships’ accounting system recognised implied interest charges of capital and used them to arrive at the balance carried forward. However, this criteria sharply contrasted with the absence of any other criteria for accounting for fixed assets (including depreciation). Fixed assets were treated as part of “[Greg’s] private estate and not assigned to the partnership” (p. 14). The practice at Greg and Sons thus provides a further case to support Pollard’s critical assessment of the limited use of accounting information for decision purposes (p.14).

Business records recording the actual performance of the business are then contrasted with evidence submitted by Robert Hyde Greg to the Factories Inquiry Commission of 1833. Toms and Shepherd then argue that the latter accounting evidence was distorted by the manufacturer’s interest to oppose the introduction of regulation stipulating the working day in textile factories. In particular, Greg manipulated accounting evidence submitted to the Factories Inquiry Commission by exaggerating “the importance of wages as an expense” (p. 22). This by assuming that most of the production costs in general, and wages in particular, were fixed costs and thus “reducing the working day would increase the burden of fixed charges” (p. 21) on profit.

Robert Hyde Greg (1795-1875)

Using the information recorded in Greg’s accounts of the partnership, Toms and Shepherd offer some factual and contra-factual exercises, including the calculation of “implied” rate of return on capital (pp.32-33). They then compare these results with the evidence provided by Greg to the Commission thus providing clear evidence of the manufacturer’s accounting manipulation. However, as the authors themselves admit, the concept of “return on capital is not referred to specifically in Greg’s evidence (only ratios of profit to output)” (p. 31), even though “the committee (sic) could easily draw conclusions from his tabulated appendices” (p. 31). Personally I would like to know more about the effect of writing-off the asset values exercised in 1832 (pp. 27, 30) on Greg’s submission of the accounting evidence to the commission in 1933.

With the skilled manipulation, the evidence submitted by Greg was successful to achieve a political effect with the final report of the Commission incorporated the entrepreneurs’ argument against the regulation on working hours. The authors conclude that accounting information could be used “not so much as an aid to [rational] management decisions, but as a [opportunistic] means of influencing others” (p. 36).

La Deutsche Vida

Foreign family business and capital flight. The case for a fraud to fail

By Giovanni Favero, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia (

The research here proposed is a micro-analysis of a business ending in bankruptcy in the aftermaths of the first oil shock, concerning the Italian subsidiary of a German wareenamelling group established in the town of Bassano in 1925. Following the budget reports and the interviews with the former entrepreurs, the company flourished until the 1960s, when managerial and entrepreneurial successions emphasized the growing difficulties deriving from growing labour costs. A tentative reorganization of the company was hindered in 1968 by union resistance and political pressures for the preservation of employment levels. In 1975 the board of directors decided to declare bankruptcy as a consequence of the huge budget losses. However, a subsequent inquiry of the Italian tax authority discovered an accounting fraud concerning hidden profits in 1974 and 1975. The fraud disclosure shows how historical conditions could create the convenience for performance understatement not only for fiscal purposes, but also in order to make divestment possible. However, it is also used here as an element to argue that business sources and the story they tell should not be taken at their face value, and that a different reconstruction of the company’s path to failure is possible. The literature concerning the missed recognition of opportunities is then mobilised in order to interpret the inconsistencies that emerge from the triangulation of business archives, press columns and interviews with union representatives and politicians. This allows to put back into perspective what results as an obsession of company management with labour costs, concealing the importance of other competitive elements, such as the increasing specialisation of the producers of home appliances. This ‘refractive error’ may be typical of businesses operating in (presumed) mature industries at international level, where wage differentials offer the opportunity to pursue quite literally exploitation much further.


Reviewed by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-12-15 and offers an interesting combination of business and accounting history around the long-term performance of the Italian assets of an Austrian family business (named Westens). The investment relates to a enamelling plant in the town of Bassano in 1925 (called Smalteria Metallurgica Veneta or SMV, today part of BDR Thermea). The Bassano plant was one of the largest factories of glazed products (for use in electric water heaters, bathtubs and heating products like radiators). Favero’s story takes us from its origins until the Westens leave the company in 1975. Activities, however, continued and by “the end of the 1970s the company focused its production in the heating sector… In the mid-eighties the company expanded into foreign markets. “[see further here].

Air photo of original factory (Source:

Air photo of original factory (Source:

The narrative gyrates around the Bassano plant, some three generations of Westens and an equal number of internal grown talent at the helm of SMV. Favero argues that the reason behind the origins of SMV and other similar investments in Central and Easter Europe by the Westens was to overcome growing protectionism and the end of Empire. However, the number of secondary references suggests the SMV case is relevant for Italian business history and perhaps, more could have been said about this. Nevertheless, we can follow the changes in corporate governance, the attitude of the family to foreign investments, the changing relationship between national branches and SMV’s “strategy” (a term used rather loosely by the author) as the 20th century progresses. Also how the plant was established on the basis of a then unique process of enamelling, a source of competitive advantage that also erodes as time goes by. Some discussion about the role of Chandler’s “first mover advantage” within family business would have been desirable here.

It is evident that Favero has had access to a large number of source material (including oral histories and fiscal authority memoranda and investigative papers). Yet the case is rather short and this result in the narrative progressing some time in jumps rather than a smooth flow. For instance, it is only until the end that we learn why the fraud was discovered five years after the original owners declared bankruptcy. Namely the intervention of the Italian government to maintain employment kept the plant (or the company, its not clear) afloat. There is also reference to some “bad blood” between the Westens and the Italians but we are not totally sure why and when. There are indications of growing tensions with unions and Favero tries to make a case about “management’s “obsession with labour costs”. We could also benefit from learning about the inconsistencies Favero between different sources. Perhaps an idea would be to add a timeline where one side maps changes in strategy, corporate governance or in the ruling family and the other side maps changes in the environment.

However, in its present form this makes a potentially useful teaching case in a world economic history, international business or globalisation course. Favero also claims the SMV case is part of a larger project looking at Westens’ investments in different countries. I certainly look forward to future instalments.

Giovanni Favero

Giovanni Favero