Category Archives: Money & Banking

A Pre-Protestant Ethic?

Breaking the piggy bank: What can historical and archaeological sources tell us about late‑medieval saving behaviour?

By Jaco Zuijderduijn and Roos van Oosten (both at Leiden University)

Abstract

Using historical and archeological sources, we study saving behaviour in late-medieval Holland. Historical sources show that well before the Reformation – and the alleged emergence of a ‘Protestant ethic’ – many households from middling groups in society reported savings worth at least several months’ wages of a skilled worker. That these findings must be interpreted as an exponent of saving behaviour – as an economic strategy – is confirmed by an analysis of finds of money boxes: 14th and 15th-century cesspits used by middling-group and elite households usually contain pieces of money boxes. We argue this is particularly strong evidence of late-medieval saving strategies, as money boxes must be considered as ‘self-disciplining’ objects: breaking the piggy bank involved expenses and put a penalty on spending. We also show that the use of money boxes declined over time: they are no longer found in early-modern cesspits. We formulate two hypotheses to explain long-term shifts in saving behaviour: 1) late-medieval socioeconomic conditions were more conducive for small-time saving than those of the early-modern period, 2) in the early-modern Dutch Republic small-time saving was substituted by craft guild insurance schemes.

URL: EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:ucg:wpaper:0065

Circulated by NEP-HIS on 2015-06-20

Review by Stuart Henderson (Queen’s University Belfast)

Thrift is a central tenet of Max Weber’s Protestant-ethic thesis. That is, characterised by a new asceticism, Protestantism, and specifically Calvinism, encouraged capital accumulation by promoting saving and limiting excessive consumption. However, a recent paper by Jaco Zuijderduijn and Roos van Oosten, and distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-06-20, challenges this notion. It suggests that a saving ethic was already evident in Holland in the late‑medieval period – well before the Reformation years, and then actually diminished with the coming of Protestantism.

“De geldwisselaar en zijn vrouw (The Moneychanger and his wife)”, by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1497- c. 1546)

Such contradiction with the Weberian thesis is common in the literature, with recent scholarship finding no Protestant effect (Cantoni, forthcoming) or proposing an alternative causal mechanism (Becker and Woessmann, 2009). However, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten’s work adds a fresh perspective by focusing on savings and saving behaviour, and by employing a pre‑versus‑post investigation strategy. Notably, in relation to saving, the literature has generally been more sympathetic to the Weberian thesis, with Delacroix and Nielsen (2001) finding a positive Protestant saving effect, and more recent work by Renneboog and Spaenjers (2012) suggesting that Protestants have a heightened awareness of financial responsibility. Furthermore, the idea of a pre-Protestant ethic, as raised in this paper, has also been advocated in other inquiry. For example, Anderson et al. (2015) suggest that the Catholic Order of Cistercians propagated a Weberian-like cultural change in the appreciation of hard work and thrift before the coming of Protestantism – an analogy which Weber himself noted, and highlight how this had a long‑run effect in development.

Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090–1153 C.E.) belonged to the Cistercian Order of Benedictine monks.

Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090–1153 C.E.) belonged to the Cistercian Order of Benedictine monks.

In their novel approach, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten utilise both historical and archaeological sources to examine savings and saving behaviour over a period which envelopes the coming of the Reformation. This enables them to deal with two principal issues: first, the size and social distribution of savings by utilising tax records for the Dutch town of Edam and its surrounding area, and secondly, whether saving was strategic (or instead due to an inability to spend) by utilising archaeological evidence on the prevalence of money boxes in cesspits for several Dutch towns. Both sources yield complementary results.

The tax records reveal that middling groups were generally accumulating savings in excess of several months of a skilled worker’s wage well in advance of the Reformation. However, between 1514 and 1563, with the coming of Protestantism, the proportion of households holding cash actually fell, despite a rise in average sums held. Unsurprisingly, cash holding was consistently more common among the wealthier groups in society across all years. See figure 3 from the paper below.

Figure 3

While these tax records reveal the extent of saving, it is the archaeological evidence on money box prevalence which provides a means to link this cash holding with saving behaviour due to the disciplining process involved. Breaking the money box meant incurring an expense, and thus penalised spending. Complementing the historical evidence, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten find that, despite their early prevalence, money boxes decline and eventually disappear by the early‑modern period. Moreover, wealthier households, as gauged from the type of material lining the cesspit, tended to save more than poorer households. See figure 6 from the paper below. (Note: brick-lined cesspits were relatively expensive, wood-lined cesspits were less expensive, and unlined cesspits were least expensive.)

Figure 6

Though Zuijderduijn and van Oosten place considerable emphasis on religion in their work, they posit two alternative explanations for the transition in saving behaviour. First, they suggest that a shrinking share of middling groups in conjunction with prices rising quicker than wages (and even possibly a shortage of small change) may have reduced the ability of persons to engage in saving. In addition, they note the rise of craft guild insurance schemes which could have acted as a cushion against sickness or old age much in the same way that saving would have functioned in their absence. Given this, more work needs to be done on ascertaining the role of religion versus these other hypotheses, or alternatively making religion a less central theme in the paper. One potential avenue could be to attempt to identify if households were more likely Protestant or Catholic, or by utilising an alternative source where religious affiliation could be linked with financial holdings. While difficult, this would help to clarify the statement posed by Zuijderduijn and van Oosten in their introduction – “saving behaviour does not come naturally, and requires discipline. Did a Protestant ethic help converts to find such discipline?” Moreover, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten write in their conclusion that their evidence “suggests that the true champions of saving behaviour were the late-medieval adherents to the Church of Rome, and not the Protestants that gradually emerged in sixteenth‑century Holland” – a statement on which I need further convincing.

Further elaboration is also needed on historical context. In particular, the paper would benefit from further clarity on the evolution of finance in Holland during this period. For example, van Zanden et al. (2012, p. 16) suggest that cash holdings fell between 1462 and 1563, but due to investment in other financial asset alternatives. Furthermore, they comment that the capital markets were used a great deal during this period for investing savings (as well as obtaining credit) – in what would surely be a more profitable pursuit for rational Protestants as opposed to earning zero return holding cash.

Nonetheless, the interdisciplinary and natural-experiment-type approach adopted in this paper has provided inspiration for economic historians on how we can potentially use alternative methodologies to further our understanding of important questions which have previously gone unanswered. While this has been refreshing, the use of such sources demands a comprehensive understanding of historical context for accurate inference, and especially to differentiate between correlation and causation. Zuijderduijn and van Oosten have provided initial persuasive evidence pointing to a decline in saving behaviour in Holland at a time when Weber’s Protestant ethic should have been fostering thrift, but more work needs to be done to disentangle the effect of religious transition from an evolving capital market.

References

Anderson, Thomas B., Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard, and Paul Sharp, “Pre‑Reformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic,” Working Paper (July 2015): http://www.econ.ku.dk/dalgaard/Work/WPs/EJpaper_and_tables_final.pdf.

Becker, Sascha O., and Ludger Woessmann, “Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124 (2009), 531–596.

Cantoni, Davide, “The Economic Effects of the Protestant Reformation: Testing the Weber Hypothesis in the German Lands,” Journal of the European Economic Association, forthcoming.

Delacroix, Jacques, and François Nielsen, “The Beloved Myth: Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” Social Forces, 80 (2001), 509–553.

Renneboog, Luc, and Christophe Spaenjers, “Religion, Economic Attitudes, and Household Finance,” Oxford Economic Papers, 64 (2012), 103–127.

van Zanden, Jan L., Jaco Zuijderduijn, and Tine De Moor, “Small is Beautiful: The Efficiency of Credit Markets in the Late Medieval Holland,” European Review of Economic History, 16 (2012), 3–23.

Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London, UK: Allen and Unwin, 1930).

Northern Lights: Computers and Banks in Nordic Countries

ICT the Nordic Way and European Savings Banks

by J. Carles Maixé-Altés (maixe@udc.es) Universidad da Coruña

Abstract: This paper discusses the world industry of savings banks, a genuine world collaborative consortium, through which, from the 1950s, the International Savings Banks Institute (nowadays, the World Savings Banks Institute and European Savings Banks Group) was highly active in introducing ICT to retail banking. In this environment, Nordic savings banks, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, their Central Savings Banks and their industry associations occupied a separate place in European movements around developments of computerization and automation in retail financial services. The synergies in Nordic countries were superior to the rest of Europe and collaboration was intense. This paper highlights the leadership and the influence that the ICT development models of Nordic savings banks had on their European retail banking associates.

URL http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/58252.htm

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

Introduction

In today’s world Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups. Swedish success stories include familiar names such as file sharing site The Pirate Bay (established 2003), video chat and calls Skype (established 2003) and music streaming Spotify (established 2008). These developments have not gone unnoticed by the media (see article by Forbes) nor by historians. There is a growing and vibrant body of systematic studies on the economic, business and technological history of Nordic computing as reflected by the fourth edition of History of IT in the Nordics (HiNC4) confrence on August, 2014. All of these HiNC conferences have been followed by an edited book of accepted papers, published by Springer’s increasingly succcessful History of Computing series (a series under the stewardship of Martin Campbell-Kelly (Warwick)).

Nordic-Startup-Awards

Summary

The paper by Joan Carles Maixé-Altés contributes to above mentioned literature and was distributed by Nep-His on 2014-11-1. In it he succesfully intertwined topics of great importance which, with the exception of Scott & Zachariadis (2012 and 2013), have been dealt in isolation, namely: not for profit financial institutions, technological innovation in the late 20th century and international competitive collaboration.

Maixé-Altés gained access to previously unexplored archival material from the International Savings Banks Institute (nowadays the World Savings Banks Institute and European Savings Banks Group). The focus of this first instalment of Maixé-Altés’ research deals with the efforts by Nordic savings banks (i.e. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden) to gain scale in information and comunication technology (ICT) through co-operation. Savings banks were born in 1810 in Rothwell, Scotland as part of the 19th century “thrift movement”. This organizational form was replicated across Europe and British colonial dominions. Today savings banks have dissapeared from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and most European countries. This regardless of whether they had narrow (e.g. UK) or broad operations (e.g. Sweden, Spain). However, they remain important players in retail banking in Germany, Norway and Portugal.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered to be the Scandinavian countries and the Nordic Countries are these three plus the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Greenland.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered to be the Scandinavian countries and the Nordic Countries are these three plus the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Greenland.

Analytically, this paper proposes a double point of view. Firstly, Nordic countries are considered early adopters of computer technologies and, simultaneously, ingintegral to the processes of dissemination and appropriation of foreign business models. Secondly and whilst detailing the efforts by Nordic savings banks on computarisation, Maixé-Altés reminds us of the heteregoneity of organizatonal forms in retail finance during the 20th century. Also how the democratic principles behind these particular form of corporate governance led to an “open door” policy for the sharing of best organizational practice as well as to collaborate across borders with “sister institutions” to faclitate their economic and social objetives. But as was pretty much the case across retail banking in the 1960s and 1970s, savings banks in Nordic countries adopted computer technology with the twin hope of increasing efficiency of operation and counter attack the growth of commercial banks within the market for retail deposits.

With those analytical aims in mind the paper structures in four main sections while preceeded by an introduction and finalised by a concluding section. Maixé-Altés starts his story with the first steps of co-operation within national borders. These led, for instance, to the establishment of “central savings banks” or institutions that help gain critical mass in whole sale financial markets. This to substantiate his claim that collaboration is well embeded within savings banks. He then moves to explore co-operation within electronic data processing in general while providing details of an “emblematic case” of this collaboration: Nordisk Spardata.

J. Carles Maixé-Altés

J. Carles Maixé-Altés

Critique / Comentary

I very much liked the paper. However, I will advance a couple of ideas which future work on these archives could bear in mind.

First, Maixé-Altés’ emphasis on changes in hardware as an index for co-operation in data processing suffers from a common shortcoming in this literature (an issue shared by many econometric studies of technological change in financial institutions), namely its focus on back-office transaction processing and an over reliance in hardware and central processing units while “missing .. the choices being made between operating systems, programming languages, network technologies, databases, or the source of application software.” (Gandy 2013: 1228). More could then be said about these choices and the formation of standards and computer networks.

Secondly, I fundamentally disagree with Maixe-Altes’ claims around the use of “real time” computing. As I have argued in Bátiz-Lazo et al. (2014) as well by Martin (2012) (and evidence in Scott & Zachariadis (2012 and 2013)), in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s distant devices and computers could be connected but the nature of the banking business meant that form of “on line” communitation still required human intervention and therefore it was not “real time”. Moreover, Haigh’s (2006) seminal contribution documents how database and database management systems were still in its infancy in the 1970s. This effectively meant there was no random access to electronic data. Updates had to be run in “batches”. Full digitalization of customer accounts was “work in progress” and very much an effort that starts in the late 1950s in Sweden (as documented by Bátiz-Lazo et al., 2014) but doesnt materialise until at least the late 1980s.

There is some indirect evidence of this in, for instance, the fact that in the 1980s, human tellers at retail branches supplied indiviuals with balance of available funds “as of last night”, that is, once a central processing unit had been able to gather and sort through all the transactions earlier in the working day (Indeed, I have personal recollections of programming with COBOL in the mid 1980s and having to script sorting programmes). Another telling example is that automated teller machines (ATM) relied on combination of information stored on the activation token’s magnetic stripe and a list of overdrawn or otherwise delinquent and cancelled accounts stored on a cassette tape inside the machine itself (see image below). In short, Maixe-Altes’ claims around the use of “real time” computing’could be tone down a notch.

Back of RT650 by Burroughs Corp. (undated)

Back of RT650 by Burroughs Corp. (circa 1980). Source: Charles Babbage Institute (Ascension 90, Series 75, Box 44, Folder 2).)

In summary, Maixe-Altes’ is an interesting part of the history of computing, banking and financial history. It points out there is much more to be said about understanding the technologies of the late 20th century as well as the economic history of competition, cross-border collaboration and not-for-profit financial institutions. On top of this Maixe-Altes ventures into histories of networking and real-time computing, and, more importantly, puts the historical discussions in the context of banking strategy. As such, an intersting new addition to this growing literature.

References

Bátiz-Lazo, B., Karlson, T. and Thodenius, B. (2014) “The Origins of the Cashless Society: Cash Dispensers, Direct to Account Payments and the Development of On-line, Real-time Networks, c. 1965-1985”, Essays in Economic and Business History 32(May): 100-137.

Gandy, A. (2013) “Book Review: Technological Innovation in Retail Finance (2012, Routledge)”, Economic History Review 66(4): 1227-12278.

Haigh, T. (2006) “’A Veritable Bucket of Facts’:Origins of the Data Base Management System”, ACM SIGMOD Record 35(2): 33-49.

Martin, I. (2012) “Too Far Ahead of Its Time: Barclays, Burroughs and Real-Time Banking”, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 34(1): 2-16.

Scott, S., Zachariadis, M. (2012) “Origins and Development of SWIFT, 1973–2009” Business History 54(3): 462-483.

Scott, S., Zachariadis, M. (2013) The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT): Cooperative Governance for Network Innovation, Standards, and Community. London: Routledge (Global Institutions Series).

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

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

By

Gonzales d’Alcantara (gonzales.dalcantara@ua.ac.be) Emeritus Professor of Econometrics at the University of Antwerp and d’Alcantara Economic Consulting

Paul H. Dembinski (pawel.dembinski@unifr.ch ) University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Odile Pilley, (odile.pilley@blueyonder.co.uk) 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.

URL http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:fri:fribow:fribow00451

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.

Summary

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.

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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

Critique

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).

Who Will Get the Bill? Lessons from #EconHis on Scottish Independence #indyref

State dissolution, sovereign debt and default: Lessons from the UK and Ireland, 1920-1938

by

Nathan FOLEY-FISHER (nathan.c.foley-fisher@frb.gov)  Federal Reserve Board

Eoin MCLAUGHLIN  (eoin.mclaughlin@st-andrews.ac.uk) University of St Andrews

ABSTRACT

We study Ireland´s inheritance of debt following its secession from the United Kingdom at the beginning of the twentieth century. Exploiting structural differences in bonds guaranteed by the UK and Irish governments, we can identify perceived uncertainty about fiscal responsibility in the aftermath of the sovereign breakup. We document that Ireland´s default on intergovernmental payments was an important event. Although payments from the Irish government ceased, the UK government instructed its Treasury to continue making interest and principal repayments. As a result, the risk premium on the bonds the UK government had guaranteed fell to about zero. Our findings are consistent with persistent ambiguity about fiscal responsibility far-beyond sovereign breakup. We discuss the political and economic forces behind the Irish and UK governments´ decisions, and suggest lessons for modern-day states that are eyeing dissolution. “Further, in view of all the historical circumstances, it is not equitable that the Irish people should be obliged to pay away these moneys” – Eamon De Valera, 12 October 1932 —

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/zbwqucehw/1406.htm

Review by Anna Missiaia

The current public debate on the possible secession of Scotland has largely focused on the economic effects for Scotland (as opposed to the rest of the UK). Paul Krugman’s eloquent post “Scots, What the Heck?” warns on the monetary issues that would arise after a victory of the “yes” to Scottish independence on September 18th, while Martin Wolf’s article “What happens after a Yes vote will shock the Scots” explains how Scotland would face years of negotiations and uncertainty before settling down. All of which would come at a cost.  But do all economic consequences of independence really fall exclusively on those who leave?  Economic history can bring some insights on the matter.

scots

The paper by Nathan Foley-Fisher Eoin McLaughlin was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-09-05. This research explores how the Irish independence of 1921 was dealt with in terms of public debt inheritance by Ireland.  

After independence and as a result of the negotiations on sovereign debt, the Irish committed to repay land bonds that were previously used to implement a land reform in that country. In 1932 the Irish Government decided to stop interest and principal repayments of these bonds. Ireland effectively defaulted on public debt that it had inherited from the UK. However, the Irish default had no consequences on bondholders because the British Government decided to asume those liabilities and continue with the payments.

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Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin looked at the evolution of the spread between Irish land bonds and the “regular” British bonds to assess the reaction of investors. Their methodology was very intuitive and straightforward: it encompassed the identification of structural breaks in the spread series to assess which events affected the risk premium.  The two main breaks correspond to the Anglo-Irish War, during which there was an elevated risk of default by farmers and the second one in 1932, when the possibility of Ireland defaulting on the land bonds started to emerge.  

Irish_War_Of_Independence

The estimates of Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin suggest that that the increased spread (originated by both breaks) remained “high” long after independence and in spite of the formal commitments by both the Irish (to repay) and British (to guarantee payments). Following the Irish default, the spread return to zero once the UK Government started to repay bondholder.

The authors identify several reasons why the British Government decided to back the Irish rather than pass the burden of the default on to the bondholders. These reasons included the relatively contained cost for the UK Treasure, the fact that most bondholders were based in the UK and the fear by the UK to be accused of a lack of commitment. Therefore, the cost of the default was greater for the British. Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin also point out that the willingness by the British to take up such a burden depended on the particular situation between Ireland and the UK. In other cases, such as the default of Newfoundland in 1932, the British government was happy to let its former colony default as the consequences of this default was low or negligible for British bondholders.

scots2

In summary, the paper by Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin goes straight on to the point, is well organised and engaging. With a fairly simple empirical strategy they show insights that are easily read by economic historians but also those who are now commenting the Scottish referendum. The “take home” message from this history is the following: after independence, a risk premium on inherited public debt has to be paid and this risk premium can be requested by investors for many years after secession. The Treasury of the former union might (or not) decide to guarantee all the former debt in case the new independent state decides to default. However, the choice of doing so depends on many factors, and these factors are not all foreseen. In the words of Martin Wolf: “however amicably a divorce begins, that is rarely how it ends” and the wealthy abandoned spouse might decide to guarantee for the debts of its other half. Or not.

2014_76

Soltaire courtesy of Chilanga Cement

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.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/nbrnberwo/20032.htm

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.

Summary

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

Comment

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.