Tag Archives: financial history

Debt forgiveness in the German mirror

The Economic Consequences of the 1953 London Debt Agreement

By Gregori Galofré-Vilà (Oxford), Martin McKee (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Chris Meissner (UC Davis) and David Stuckler (Oxford)

Abstract: In 1953 the Western Allied powers implemented a radical debt-relief plan that would, in due course, eliminate half of West Germany’s external debt and create a series of favourable debt repayment conditions. The London Debt Agreement (LDA) correlated with West Germany experiencing the highest rate of economic growth recorded in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. In this paper we examine the economic consequences of this historical episode. We use new data compiled from the monthly reports of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1948 to the 1960s. These reports not only provide detailed statistics of the German finances, but also a narrative on the evolution of the German economy on a monthly basis. These sources also contain special issues on the LDA, highlighting contemporaries’ interest in the state of German public finances and public opinion on the debt negotiation. We find evidence that debt relief in the LDA spurred economic growth in three main ways: creating fiscal space for public investment; lowering costs of borrowing; and stabilising inflation. Using difference-in-differences regression models comparing pre- and post LDA years, we find that the LDA was associated with a substantial rise in real per capita social expenditure, in health, education, housing, and economic development, this rise being significantly over and above changes in other types of spending that include military expenditure. We further observe that benchmark yields on long-term debt, an indication of default risk, dropped substantially in West Germany when LDA negotiations began in 1951 and then stabilised at historically low rates after the LDA was ratified. The LDA coincided with new foreign borrowing and investment, which in turn helped promote economic growth. Finally, the German currency, the deutschmark, introduced in 1948, had been highly volatile until 1953, after which time we find it largely stabilised.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:22557

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-09-04

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay (LSE)

The question of debt forgiveness is one that has drawn increased attention in recent years. Some have contended that the semi-permanent restructuring of Greece’s debt has been counterproductive and that what Greece needs is at least a partial cancellation of its debt. This, it is argued, would allow both faster growth and a higher likelihood of any remaining debt repayment. Any insistence on the part of creditors for Greece to pay back the full amount through austerity measures would be self-defeating.

One problem with this view is that we know very little about whether debt forgiveness can lead to faster growth. Reinhart and Trebesch (2016) test this assumption for 45 countries between 1920-1939 and 1978-2010, and do find a positive relationship. However they leave aside a particularly striking case: that of Germany in the 1950s, which benefited from one of the most generous write-offs in history while experiencing “miracle” growth of about 8% in subsequent years. This case has attracted much attention recently given German leaders’ own insistence on Greek debt repayments (see in particular Ritschl, 2011; 2012; Guinnane, 2015).

Eichengreen and Ritschl (2009), rejecting several popular theories of the German miracle, such as a reallocation of labour from agriculture to industry or the weakening of labour market rigidities, already hypothesized that such debt relief may have been an important factor in Germany’s super-fast and sustained post-war growth. Using new data from the monthly reports of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1948 to the 1960s, Gregori Galofré-Vilà, Martin McKee, Chris Meissner and David Stuckler (2016) attempt to formally test this assumption, and are quite successful in doing so.

By the end of WWII Germany had accumulated debt to Europe worth nearly 40% of its 1938 GDP, a substantial amount of which consisted in reparation relics from WWI. Some already argued at the time that these reparations and creditors’ stubbornness had plagued the German economy, which in the early 1930s felt constrained to implement harsh austerity measures, thus contributing to the rise of the National Socialists to power. It was partly to avoid a repeat of these events that the US designed the Marshall Plan to help the economic reconstruction of Europe post-WWII.



Marshall aid to Europe between 1948 and 1951 was less substantial than is commonly thought, but it came with strings attached which may have indirectly contributed to German growth. In particular, one of the conditions France and the UK had to fulfil in order to become recipients of Marshall aid was acceptance that Germany would not pay back any of its debt until it reimbursed its own Marshall aid. Currency reform in 1948 and the setting up of the European Payments Union facilitated this process.

Then came the London Debt Agreement, in 1953, which stipulated generous conditions for the repayment of half the amount due from Germany. Notably, it completely froze the other half, or at least until reunification, which parties to the agreement expected would take decades to occur. There was no conference in 1990 to settle the remainder.


Galofré-Vilà et al. admit not being able to directly test the hypothesis that German debt relief led to faster growth. Instead, making use of simple graphs, they look at how the 1953 London Debt Agreement (LDA) led to lower borrowing costs and lower inflation, which comes out as obvious and quite sustained on both charts.

Perhaps more importantly, they measure the extent to which the LDA freed up space for social welfare investment. For this, they make use of the fact that Marshall aid had mainly been used for infrastructure building, so that the big difference with the LDA in terms of state expenditure should have been in terms of health, education, “economic development,” and housing. Then they compare the amount of spending on these four heads to spending in ten other categories before 1953, and check whether this difference gets any larger after the LDA. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does, and significantly so.

This way of testing the hypothesis that the LDA helped the German economy may strike some as too indirect and therefore insufficient. This is without mentioning possible minor criticisms such as the fact that housing expenditure is included in the treatment, not control group (despite the 1950 Housing Act), or that the LDA is chosen as the key event despite the importance of the Marshall Plan’s early debt relief measures.

Nevertheless testing such a hypothesis is necessarily a very difficult task, and Galofré-Vilà et al.’s empirical design can be considered quite creative. They are of course aware that this cannot be the end of the story, and they are careful to caution readers against hasty extrapolations from the post-war German case to the current Spanish or Greek situation. Some of their arguments have somewhat unclear implications (for instance, that Germany at the time represented 15% of the Western population at the time, whereas the Greek population represents only 2%).


Perhaps a stronger argument would be that Germany’s post-war debt was of a different character than Greek’s current debt: some would even call it “excusable” because it was mainly war debt; it was not (at least arguably) a result of past spending excesses. For this reason, one may at least ask whether debt forgiveness in the Greek context would have the same — almost non-existent — moral hazard effects as in the German case. Interestingly, the authors point out that German debt repayment after the LDA was linked to Germany’s economic growth and exports (so that the debt service/export revenue ratio could not exceed 3%). This sort of conditionality is strangely somewhat of a rarity among today’s sovereign debt contracts. It could be seen as a possible solution to fears of moral hazard, thereby mitigating any differences in efficiency of debt relief emanating from differences in the nature of the debt contracted.



Eichengreen, B., & Ritschl, A. (2009). Understanding West German economic growth in the 1950s. Cliometrica, 3(3), 191-219.

Guinnane, T. W. (2015). Financial vergangenheitsbewältigung: the 1953 London debt agreement. Yale University Economic Growth Center Discussion Paper, (880).

Reinhart, C. M., & Trebesch, C. (2014). A distant mirror of debt, default, and relief (No. w20577). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Ritschl, A. (2011). “Germany owes Greece a debt.” in The Guardian. Tuesday 21 June 2011.

Ritschl, A. (2012). “Germany, Greece and the Marshall Plan.” In The Economist. Friday 15 June.

Keynes and Actual Investment Decisions in Practice

Keynes and Wall Street

By David Chambers (Judge Business School, Cambridge University) and Ali Kabiri (University of Buckingham)

Abstract: This article examines in detail how John Maynard Keynes approached investing in the U.S. stock market on behalf of his Cambridge College after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. We exploit the considerable archival material documenting his portfolio holdings, his correspondence with investment advisors, and his two visits to the United States in the 1930s. While he displayed an enthusiasm for investing in common stocks, he was equally attracted to preferred stocks. His U.S. stock picks reflected his detailed analysis of company fundamentals and a pronounced value approach. Already in this period, therefore, it is possible to see the origins of some of the investment techniques adopted by professional investors in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Source: Business History Review (2016), 90(2,Summer), pp. 301-328 (Free access from October 4 to 18, 2016).

Reviewed by Janette Rutterford (Open University)

This short article looks at Keynes’ purchases of US securities in the period from after the Wall Street Crash until World War II. The investments the authors discuss are not Keynes’ personal investments but are those relating to the discretionary fund (the ‘Fund’) which formed part of the King’s College, Cambridge endowment fund and which was managed by Keynes. The authors rely for their analysis on previously unused archival material: the annual portfolio holdings of the endowment fund; the annual report on discretionary fund performance provided by Keynes to the endowment fund trustees; correspondence between Keynes and investment experts; and details of two visits by Keynes to the US in 1931 and 1934.


The authors look at various aspects of the investments in US securities made by Keynes. They first note the high proportion of equities in the endowment fund as a whole. They then focus in detail on the US holdings which averaged 33% by value of the Fund during the 1930s. They find that Keynes invested heavily in preferred stock, which he believed had suffered relatively more than ordinary shares in the Wall Street Crash and, in particular, where the preference dividends were in arrears. He concentrated on particular sectors – investment trusts, utilities and gold mining – which were all trading at discounts to underlying value, either to do with the amount of leverage or with the price of gold. He also made some limited attempts at timing the market with purchases and sales, though the available archival data for this is limited. The remainder of the paper explores the type of investment advice Keynes sought from brokers, and from those finance specialists and politicians he met on his US visits. The authors conclude that he used outside advice to supplement his own views and that, for the Fund, as far as investment in US securities was concerned, he acted as a long-term investor, making targeted, value investments rather than ‘following the herd’.

This paper adds a small element to an area of research which is as yet in its infancy: the analysis of actual investment decision making in practice, and the evolution of investment strategies over time. In terms of strategies, Keynes used both value investing and, to a lesser extent, market timing for the Fund. Keynes was influenced by Lawrence Smith’s 1925 book which recommended equity investment over bond investment on the basis of total returns (dividends plus retained earnings) rather than just dividend yield, the then common equity valuation method. Keynes appears not to have known Benjamin Graham but came to the same conclusion – namely that, post Wall Street Crash, value investing would lead to outperformance. He experimented with market timing in his own personal portfolio but only to a limited extent in the Fund. He was thus an active investor tilting his portfolio away from the market, by ignoring both US and UK railway and banks securities. Another fascinating aspect which is only touched on in this paper is the quality of investment advice at the time. How does it stack up compared to current broker research?


The paper highlights the fact that issues which are still not settled today were already a concern before WWII. Should you buy the market or try to outperform? What is the appropriate benchmark portfolio against which to judge an active strategy? How should performance be reported to the client (in this case the trustees) and how often? How can one decide how much outperformance comes from the asset allocation choice of shares over bonds, from the choice of a particular sector, at a particular time, whilst making allowance for forced cash outflows or sales such as occurred during WWII? More research on how these issues were addressed in the past will better inform the current debate.

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.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:bis:biswps:554

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: https://www.fdic.gov/bank/historical/history/vol1.html

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.

URL: https://ideas.repec.org/p/ucg/wpaper/0074.html

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.


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)


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.

Banking in Genoa in the 14th century.

Banking in Genoa in the 14th century.

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.


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).

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

The European Crisis in the Context of the History of Previous Financial Crisis

by Michael Bordo & Harold James

Abstract – There are some striking similarities between the pre 1914 gold standard and EMU today. Both arrangements are based on fixed exchange rates, monetary and fiscal orthodoxy. Each regime gave easy access by financially underdeveloped peripheral countries to capital from the core countries. But the gold standard was a contingent rule—in the case of an emergency like a major war or a serious financial crisis –a country could temporarily devalue its currency. The EMU has no such safety valve. Capital flows in both regimes fuelled asset price booms via the banking system ending in major crises in the peripheral countries. But not having the escape clause has meant that present day Greece and other peripheral European countries have suffered much greater economic harm than did Argentina in the Baring Crisis of 1890.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:bog:spaper:18

Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2015-01-26

Reviewed by: Stephen Billington (Queen’s University of Belfast)


In this paper Bordo and James seek to analyse the impact of the financial crisis of 2007-8 in the context of previous crisis. Specifically by comparing the experience of periphery countries of the Eurozone with those of the “classic” Gold Standard.


In their paper Bordo and James give a synopsis of the similarities which emerged between both monetary regimes. By adhering to a gold parity there was an expansion in the banking system, through large capital inflows, which was underpinned by a strong effective state to allow for greater borrowing. A nation was effective if it held an international diplomatic commitment, which in turn required them to sign into international systems, all the while this played into the hands of radical political parties who played on civilian nationalism[1]; these events combined lead to great inflows of capital into peripheral countries which inevitably led to fiscal instability and a resulting crisis. Similar dilemmas occurred within the EMU, but much more intensely.


This brings me to the main point that the authors emphasize, that of the contingency rule of the classic gold standard. The latter allowed member countries a “safety valve for fiscal policy”. Essentially this was an escape clause that permitted a country to temporarily devalue its currency in an emergency, such as the outbreak of war or a financial crisis, but would return to normalcy soon after, that is, they would return to previous levels. Bordo and James’ argument is that this lack of a contingency within the EMU allowed for a more severe financial crisis to afflict the periphery countries (Greece, Ireland and Portugal) than had affected gold standard peripheries (Argentina, Italy and Australia) as modern day EMU countries did (and do) not have to option to devalue their currency.


Bordo and James point out that crisis during the gold standard were very sharp, but did not last as long as the 2007-8 crisis. This because the exclusion clause during the gold standard enabled a “breathing space” and as a result most countries were back to growth within a few short years. The EMU story is quite different, say Bordo and James. Mundell (1961) argued that a successful monetary union requires the existence of a well-functioning mechanism for adjustment, what we see in the EMU are a case of worse dilemmas due primarily to this absence of an escape clause.

“Gold outflows, and, with money and credit growth tied to gold, lower money and credit growth. The lower money and credit growth would cause prices and wages to fall (or would lead to reductions in the growth rates of prices and wages), helping to restore competitiveness, thus eliminating the external deficits”

The above quote provided by Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) highlights how the gold standard allowed a country to adjust to a deficit. This point reinforces how Bordo & James argue that due to the constricting nature of the EMU there is no “safety valve” to allowed EU countries to release the steam from increasing debt levels. With respect to the Argentine Baring Crisis of 1890, while the crisis was very sharp in terms of real GDP, pre-crisis levels of GDP were again reached by 1893 – clearly a contrast with the Euro as some countries are still in recession with very little progress having been made as suggested by the following headline: “Greece’s current GDP is stuck in ancient Greece” – Business Insider (2013).

The following graph highlights the issue that in Europe most countries are still lagging behind the pre-crisis levels of GDP.


Bordo and James clearly support this argument. Delles and Tavlas (2013) also argue that the adjustment mechanism of core and periphery countries limited the size and persistence of external deficits. They put forward that the durability of the gold standard relied on this mechanism. This is reinforced by Bloomfield (1959) who states it “facilitated adjustments to balance of payments disequilibrium”.

Vinals (1996) further supports the authors’ sentiments by arguing that the Treaty of Maastricht restricts an individual member’s room to manoeuvre as the Treaty requires sound fiscal policies, with debt limited to 60% of GDP and annual deficits no greater than 3% of GDP – meaning a member cannot smooth over these imbalances through spending or taxation.

Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) state “a major cost of monetary unions is the reduced flexibility to adjust to asymmetric shocks”. They argue that internal devaluations must occur to adjust to fiscal imbalances, but go on to argue that these are much harder to implement than in theory, again supported by Vinals (1996).


Bordo and James focus primarily on three EU periphery countries which are doing badly, namely Greece, Ireland and Portugal. However they neglect the remaining countries within the EU which can also be classed as a periphery. According the Wallerstein (1974) the periphery can be seen as the less developed countries, these could include further countries such as those from eastern Europe[2]. By looking at a more expansive view of peripheral countries we can see that these other peripherals had quick recoveries with sharp decreases in GDP growth, as in the case of the Gold standard countries, but swiftly recovered to high levels of growth again while the main peripheral countries the authors analyse do lag behind.

Untitled2See note 3

Bordo and James do provide a strong insight into the relationship between an adjustment mechanism to combating fiscal imbalances as a means of explaining the poor recovery of certain peripheral countries (i.e. Greece, Ireland, Portugal) and highlight the implications of this in the future of the EMU. If the EMU cannot find a contingency rule as the gold standard then recessions may leave them as vulnerable in the future as they are now.


1) This process can be thought of as a trilemma, Obstfeld, Taylor and Shambaugh (2004) give a better explanation. In the EU the problem was intensified as governments could back higher levels of debt, and there was no provision for European banking supervision, the commitment to EU integration let markets believe that there were no limits to debt levels. This led to inflows in periphery countries where banks could become too big to be rescued.

2) Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and even Cyprus can be included based on low GDP per capita which is equivalent to Greece.

3) Data taken from Eurostat comparing real GDP growth levels of lesser developed countries within the Eurozone who all use the euro and would be locked into the same system of no adjustment.


Bloomfield, A. (1959) Monetary Policy under the International Gold Standard. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Business Insider (2013). Every Country in Europe Should be Glad it’s Not Greece. http://www.businessinsider.com/european-gdp-since-pre-crisis-chart-2013-8?IR=T [Accessed 19/03/2015].

Eurostat, Real GDP Growth Rates http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/graph.do?tab=graph&plugin=1&pcode=tec00115&language=en&toolbox=data [Accessed 21/03/2015].

Dellas, Harris; Tavlas, George S. (2013). The Gold Standard, The Euro, and The Origins of the Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis. Cato Journal 33(3): 491-520.

Gibson, Heather D; Palivos, Theodore; Tavlas, George S. (2014). The Crisis in the Euro Area: An Analytic Overview.Journal of Macroeconomics 39: 233-239.

Mundell, Robert A. (1961). A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas. The American Economic Review 51(4): 657-665.

Obstfeld, Maurice. Taylor, Alan. Shambaugh, Jay C. (2004). The Trilemma in History: Trade-Offs among Exchange Rates, Monetary Policies and Capital Mobility. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER working paper 10396).

Vinals, Jose. (1996). European Monetary Integration: A Narrow or Wide EMU?. European Economic Review 40(3-5): 1103-1109.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974). The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.

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


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)).



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.


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).