Category Archives: Mutuals

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).

Mutuality and Financial Innovation

The New Deal and the Origins of the Modern American Real Estate Loan Contract in the Building and Loan Industry

Jonathan D. Rose (Federal Reserve Board) (jonathan.d.rose@frb.gov)

Kenneth Snowden (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)(snowden@uncg.edu)

URL a href=’http://ideas.repec.org/p/ris/uncgec/2012_006.html

Abstract
We treat the direct reduction loan contract as an instance of financial innovation and describe its adoption within the building and loan (B&L) industry beginning in the 1880s and culminating in the 1930s. A long chain of complementary innovations at B&Ls gradually reduced the costs of adoption, leading to moderate use by the 1920s and potential for far greater use. In the 1930s, extreme dissatisfaction with other contracts radically altered the adoption calculus, as did new competition from FHA-insured lenders. Federal savings and loan charters built upon the accumulated innovations at B&Ls by emulating the small segment of the industry that had adopted direct reduction lending by the 1920s. Other policies helped restructure the liabilities of B&Ls to accommodate the loss of credit risk sharing and mutuality inherent to older contracts. New Deal policies therefore built upon and facilitated the ongoing process of financial innovation that brought the familiar modern loan contract to the conventional loan market.

Keywords: New Deal; Building and Loan

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

When Mark Billings and I edited the special volume for Business History – Volume 54, Issue 3 (New perspectives on not-for-profit financial institutions: Organisational form, performance and governance), we were overwhelm with the response of proposals. The paper by Rose and Snowden is witness to this and the fact there are interesting questions to be answered when revisiting why, where and when mutuality and co-operativism offer superior corporate governance to deal with particular risk/reward transactions within retal finance.

Jonathan D. Rose

Their paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2012-05-22. Its stated aim is to explore the origins of the direct reduction loan contract (i.e., fully amortized loans with equal monthly payments) and why measures during the New Deal led to its widespread adoption. Rose and Snowden convincingly argue that even though it offered more certainty to borrowers, “widespread adoption of this contract did not follow immediately after its inception, nor did it necessarily appear inevitable ex ante“.

Rose and Snowden take us back to the origins of the building and loan (B&L) society in the USA circa 1830’s, a mutual retail financial institution which was imported from the UK (where it was born in the Midlans circa 1780). These offered share accumulation loans where a borrower committed to make monthly purchases of equity shares until them plus retained dividends equalled the value of the loans. All savers eventually became borrowers and the society was terminated when everyone had received/paid their monies.

Kenneth Snowden

The share accumulation contract was to dominate B&L well into 1893 and it was until the 1920s and 1930s when it was abandoned as its risks became more apparent. New Deal institutions strongly favoured direct reduction contracts and very much help for its widespread adoption. But to get to this stage there was a long process of transformation which included the emergence a sinking fund as well as the so-called “permanent societies” (which Rose and Snowden prefer to call “non serial”).

Rose and Snowden’s is a fascinating account of financial innovation which has touched on a point largely overlooked by the literature on mutuality and certainly by studies of British building societies. One is thus left wondering why share accumulation loans lasted so long in the UK as well as offers a framework to revisit the demutalization debate.