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Medieval Guilds

Gary Richardson, University of California, Irvine

Guilds existed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Guilds were groups of individuals with common goals. The term guild probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon root geld which meant ‘to pay, contribute.’ The noun form of geld meant an association of persons contributing money for some common purpose. The root also meant ‘to sacrifice, worship.’ The dual definitions probably reflected guilds’ origins as both secular and religious organizations.

The term guild had many synonyms in the Middle Ages. These included association, brotherhood, college, company, confraternity, corporation, craft, fellowship, fraternity, livery, society, and equivalents of these terms in Latin, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Romance languages such as ambach, arte, collegium, corporatio, fraternitas, gilda, innung, corps de métier, societas, and zunft. In the late nineteenth century, as a professional lexicon evolved among historians, the term guild became the universal reference for these groups of merchants, artisans, and other individuals from the ordinary (non-priestly and non-aristocratic) classes of society which were not part of the established religious, military, or governmental hierarchies.

Much of the academic debate about guilds stems from confusion caused by incomplete lexicographical standardization. Scholars study guilds in one time and place and then assume that their findings apply to guilds everywhere and at all times or assert that the organizations that they studied were the one type of true guild, while other organizations deserved neither the distinction nor serious study. To avoid this mistake, this encyclopedia entry begins with the recognition that guilds were groups whose activities, characteristics, and composition varied greatly across centuries, regions, and industries.

Guild Activities and Taxonomy

Guilds filled many niches in medieval economy and society. Typical taxonomies divide urban occupational guilds into two types: merchant and craft.

Merchant guilds were organizations of merchants who were involved in long-distance commerce and local wholesale trade, and may also have been retail sellers of commodities in their home cities and distant venues where they possessed rights to set up shop. The largest and most influential merchant guilds participated in international commerce and politics and established colonies in foreign cities. In many cases, they evolved into or became inextricably intertwined with the governments of their home towns.

Merchant guilds enforced contracts among members and between members and outsiders. Guilds policed members’ behavior because medieval commerce operated according to the community responsibility system. If a merchant from a particular town failed to fulfill his part of a bargain or pay his debts, all members of his guild could be held liable. When they were in a foreign port, their goods could be seized and sold to alleviate the bad debt. They would then return to their hometown, where they would seek compensation from the original defaulter.

Merchant guilds also protected members against predation by rulers. Rulers seeking revenue had an incentive to seize money and merchandise from foreign merchants. Guilds threatened to boycott the realms of rulers who did this, a practice known as withernam in medieval England. Since boycotts impoverished both kingdoms which depended on commerce and governments for whom tariffs were the principal source of revenue, the threat of retaliation deterred medieval potentates from excessive expropriations.

Merchant guilds tended to be wealthier and of higher social status than craft guilds. Merchants’ organizations usually possessed privileged positions in religious and secular ceremonies and inordinately influenced local governments.

Craft guilds were organized along lines of particular trades. Members of these guilds typically owned and operated small businesses or family workshops. Craft guilds operated in many sectors of the economy. Guilds of victuallers bought agricultural commodities, converted them to consumables, and sold finished foodstuffs. Examples included bakers, brewers, and butchers. Guilds of manufacturers made durable goods, and when profitable, exported them from their towns to consumers in distant markets. Examples include makers of textiles, military equipment, and metal ware. Guilds of a third type sold skills and services. Examples include clerks, teamsters, and entertainers.

These occupational organizations engaged in a wide array of economic activities. Some manipulated input and output markets to their own advantage. Others established reputations for quality, fostering the expansion of anonymous exchange and making everyone better off. Because of the underlying economic realities, victualling guilds tended towards the former. Manufacturing guilds tended towards the latter. Guilds of service providers fell somewhere in between. All three types of guilds managed labor markets, lowered wages, and advanced their own interests at their subordinates’ expense. These undertakings had a common theme. Merchant and craft guilds acted to increase and stabilize members’ incomes.

Non-occupational guilds also operated in medieval towns and cities. These organizations had both secular and religious functions. Historians refer to these organizations as social, religious, or parish guilds as well as fraternities and confraternities. The secular activities of these organizations included providing members with mutual insurance, extending credit to members in times of need, aiding members in courts of law, and helping the children of members afford apprenticeships and dowries.

The principal pious objective was the salvation of the soul and escape from Purgatory. The doctrine of Purgatory was the belief that there lay between Heaven and Hell an intermediate place, by passing though which the souls of the dead might cleanse themselves of guilt attached to the sins committed during their lifetime by submitting to a graduated scale of divine punishment. The suffering through which they were cleansed might be abbreviated by the prayers of the living, and most especially by masses. Praying devoutly, sponsoring masses, and giving alms were three of the most effective methods of redeeming one’s soul. These works of atonement could be performed by the penitent on their own or by someone else on their behalf.

Guilds served as mechanisms for organizing, managing, and financing the collective quest for eternal salvation. Efforts centered on three types of tasks. The first were routine and participatory religious services. Members of guilds gathered at church on Sundays and often also on other days of the week. Members marked ceremonial occasions, such as the day of their patron saint or Good Friday, with prayers, processions, banquets, masses, the singing of psalms, the illumination of holy symbols, and the distribution of alms to the poor. Some guilds kept chaplains on call. Others hired priests when the need arose. These clerics hosted regular religious services, such as vespers each evening or mass on Sunday morning, and prayed for the souls of members living and deceased.

The second category consisted of actions performed on members’ behalf after their deaths and for the benefit of their souls. Postmortem services began with funerals and burials, which guilds arranged for the recently departed. The services were elaborate and extensive. On the day before internment, members gathered around the corpse, lit candles, and sung a placebo and a dirge, which were the vespers and matins from the Office of the Dead. On the day of internment, a procession marched from churchyard to graveyard, buried the body, distributed alms, and attended mass. Additional masses numbering one to forty occurred later that day and sometimes for months thereafter. Postmortem prayers continued even further into the future and in theory into perpetuity. All guilds prayed for the souls of deceased members. These prayers were a prominent part of all guild events. Many guilds also hired priests to pray for the souls of the deceased. A few guilds built chantries where priests said those prayers.

The third category involved indoctrination and monitoring to maintain the piety of members. The Christian catechism of the era contained clear commandments. Rest on the Sabbath and religious holidays. Be truthful. Do not deceive others. Be chaste. Do not commit adultery. Be faithful to your family. Obey authorities. Be modest. Do not covet thy neighbors’ possessions. Do not steal. Do not gamble. Work hard. Support the church. Guild ordinances echoed these exhortations. Members should neither gamble nor lie nor steal nor drink to excess. They should restrain their gluttony, lust, avarice, and corporal impulses. They should pray to the Lord, live like His son, and give alms to the poor.

Righteous living was important because members’ fates were linked together. The more pious one’s brethren, the more helpful their prayers, and the quicker one escaped from purgatory. The worse one’s brethren, the less salutary their supplications and the longer one suffered during the afterlife. So, in hopes of minimizing purgatorial pain and maximizing eternal happiness, guilds beseeched members to restrain physical desires and forgo worldly pleasures.

Guilds also operated in villages and the countryside. Rural guilds performed the same tasks as social and religious guilds in towns and cities. Recent research on medieval England indicates that guilds operated in most, if not all, villages. Villages often possessed multiple guilds. Most rural residents belonged to a guild. Some may have joined more than one organization.

Guilds often spanned multiple dimensions of this taxonomy. Members of craft guilds participated in wholesale commerce. Members of merchant guilds opened retail shops. Social and religious guilds evolved into occupational associations. All merchant and craft guilds possessed religious and fraternal features.

In sum, guild members sought prosperity in this life and providence in the next. Members wanted high and stable incomes, quick passage through Purgatory, and eternity in Heaven. Guilds helped them coordinate their collective efforts to attain these goals.

Guild Structure and Organization

To attain their collective goals, guild members had to cooperate. If some members slacked off, all would suffer. Guilds that wished to lower the costs of labor had to get all masters to reduce wages. Guilds that wished to raise the prices of products had to get all members to restrict output. Guilds that wished to develop respected reputations had to get all members to sell superior merchandise. Guild members contributed money – to pay priests and purchase pious paraphernalia – and contributed time, emotion, and personal energy, as well. Members participated in frequent religious services, attended funerals, and prayed for the souls of the brethren. Members had to live piously, abstaining both from the pleasures of the flesh and the material temptations of secular life. Members also had to administer their associations. The need for coordination was a common denominator.

To convince members to cooperate and advance their common interests, guilds formed stable, self-enforcing associations that possessed structures for making and implementing collective decisions.

A guild’s members met at least once a year (and in most cases more often) to elect officers, audit accounts, induct new members, debate policies, and amend ordinances. Officers such as aldermen, stewards, deans, and clerks managed the guild’s day to day affairs. Aldermen directed guild activities and supervised lower-ranking officers. Stewards kept guild funds, and their accounts were periodically audited. Deans summoned members to meetings, feasts, and funerals, and in many cases, policed members’ behavior. Clerks kept records. Decisions were usually made by majority vote among the master craftsmen.

These officers administered a nexus of agreements among a guild’s members. Details of these agreements varied greatly from guild to guild, but the issues addressed were similar in all cases. Members agreed to contribute certain resources and/or take certain actions that furthered the guild’s occupational and spiritual endeavors. Officers of the guild monitored members’ contributions. Manufacturing guilds, for example, employed officers known as searchers who scrutinized members’ merchandise to make sure it met guild standards and inspected members’ shops and homes seeking evidence of attempts to circumvent the rules. Members who failed to fulfill their obligations faced punishments of various sorts.

Punishments varied across transgressions, guilds, time, and space, but a pattern existed. First time offenders were punished lightly, perhaps suffering public scolding and paying small monetary fines, and repeat offenders punished harshly. The ultimate threat was expulsion. Guilds could do nothing harsher because laws protected persons and property from arbitrary expropriations and physical abuse. The legal system set the rights of individuals above the interests of organizations. Guilds were voluntary associations. Members facing harsh punishments could quit the guild and walk away. The most the guild could extract was the value of membership. Abundant evidence indicates that guilds enforced agreements in this manner.

Other game-theoretic options existed, of course. Guilds could have punished uncooperative members by taking actions with wider consequences. Members of a manufacturing guild who caught one of their own passing off shoddy merchandise under the guilds’ good name could have punished the offender by collectively lowering the quality of their products for a prolonged period. That would lower the offender’s income, albeit at the cost of lowering the income of all other members as well. Similarly, members of a guild that caught one of their brethren shirking on prayers and sinning incessantly could have punished the offender by collectively forsaking the Lord and descending into debauchery. Then, no one would or could pray for the soul of the offender, and his period in Purgatory would be extended significantly. In broader terms, cheaters could have been punished by any action that reduced the average incomes of all guild members or increased the pain that all members expected to endure in Purgatory. In theory, such threats could have convinced even the most recalcitrant members to contribute to the common good.

But, no evidence exists that craft guilds ever operated in such a manner. None of the hundreds of surviving guild ordinances contains threats of such a kind. No surviving guild documents describe punishing the innocent along with the guilty. Guilds appear to have eschewed indiscriminant retaliation for several salient reasons. First, monitoring members’ behavior was costly and imperfect. Time and risk preferences varied across individuals. Uncertainty of many kinds influenced craftsmen’s decisions. Some members would have attempted to cheat regardless of the threatened punishment. Punishments, in other words, would have occurred in equilibrium. The cost of carrying out an equilibrium-sustaining threat of expulsion would have been lower than the cost of carrying out an equilibrium-sustaining threat that reduced average income. Thus, expelling members caught violating the rules was an efficient method of enforcing the rules. Second, punishing free riders by indiscriminately harming all guild members may not have been a convincing threat. Individuals may not have believed that threats of mutual assured destruction would be carried out. The incentive to renegotiate was strong. Third, skepticism probably existed about threats to do onto others as they had done onto you. That concept contradicted a fundamental teaching of the church, to do onto others as you would have them do onto you. It also contradicted Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek. Thus, indiscriminant retaliation based upon hair-trigger strategies was not an organizing principle likely to be adopted by guilds whose members hoped to speed passage through Purgatory.

A hierarchy existed in large guilds. Masters were full members who usually owned their own workshops, retail outlets, or trading vessels. Masters employed journeymen, who were laborers who worked for wages on short term contracts or a daily basis (hence the term journeyman, from the French word for day). Journeymen hoped to one day advance to the level of master. To do this, journeymen usually had to save enough money to open a workshop and pay for admittance, or if they were lucky, receive a workshop through marriage or inheritance.

Masters also supervised apprentices, who were usually boys in their teens who worked for room, board, and perhaps a small stipend in exchange for a vocational education. Both guilds and government regulated apprenticeships, usually to ensure that masters fulfilled their part of the apprenticeship agreement. Terms of apprenticeships varied, usually lasting from five to nine years.

The internal structure of guilds varied widely across Europe. Little is known for certain about the structure of smaller guilds, since they left few written documents. Most of the evidence comes from large, successful associations whose internal records survive to the present day. The description above is based on such documents. It seems likely that smaller organizations fulfilled many of the same functions, but their structure was probably less formal and more horizontal.

Relationships between guilds and governments also varied across Europe. Most guilds aspired to attain recognition as a self-governing association with the right to possess property and other legal privileges. Guilds often purchased these rights from municipal and national authorities. In England, for example, a guild which wished to possess property had to purchase from the royal government a writ allowing it to do so. But, most guilds operated without formal sanction from the government. Guilds were spontaneous, voluntary, and self-enforcing associations.

Guild Chronology and Impact

Reconstructing the history of guilds poses several problems. Few written records survive from the twelfth century and earlier. Surviving documents consist principally of the records of rulers – kings, princes, churches – that taxed, chartered, and granted privileges to organizations. Some evidence also exists in the records of notaries and courts, which recorded and enforced contracts between guild masters and outsiders, such as the parents of apprentices. From the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, records survive in larger numbers. Surviving records include statute books and other documents describing the internal organization and operation of guilds. The evidence at hand links the rise and decline of guilds to several important events in the history of Western Europe.

In the late Roman Empire, organizations resembling guilds existed in most towns and cities. These voluntary associations of artisans, known as collegia, were occasionally regulated by the state but largely left alone. They were organized along trade lines and possessed a strong social base, since their members shared religious observances and fraternal dinners. Most of these organizations disappeared during the Dark Ages, when the Western Roman Empire disintegrated and urban life collapsed. In the Eastern Empire, some collegia appear to have survived from antiquity into the Middle Ages, particularly in Constantinople, where Leo the Wise codified laws concerning commerce and crafts at the beginning of the tenth century and sources reveal an unbroken tradition of state management of guilds from ancient times. Some scholars suspect that in the West, a few of the most resilient collegia in the surviving urban areas may have evolved in an unbroken descent into medieval guilds, but the absence of documentary evidence makes it appear unlikely and unprovable.

In the centuries following the Germanic invasions, evidence indicates that numerous guild-like associations existed in towns and rural areas. These organizations functioned as modern burial and benefit societies, whose objectives included prayers for the souls of deceased members, payments of weregilds in cases of justifiable homicide, and supporting members involved in legal disputes. These rural guilds were descendents of Germanic social organizations known as gilda which the Roman historian Tacitus referred to as convivium.

During the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, considerable economic development occurred. The sources of development were increases in the productivity of medieval agriculture, the abatement of external raiding by Scandinavian and Muslim brigands, and population increases. The revival of long-distance trade coincided with the expansion of urban areas. Merchant guilds formed an institutional foundation for this commercial revolution. Merchant guilds flourished in towns throughout Europe, and in many places, rose to prominence in urban political structures. In many towns in England, for example, the merchant guild became synonymous with the body of burgesses and evolved into the municipal government. In Genoa and Venice, the merchant aristocracy controlled the city government, which promoted their interests so well as to preclude the need for a formal guild.

Merchant guilds’ principal accomplishment was establishing the institutional foundations for long-distance commerce. Italian sources provide the best picture of guilds’ rise to prominence as an economic and social institution. Merchant guilds appear in many Italian cities in the twelfth century. Craft guilds became ubiquitous during the succeeding century.

In northern Europe, merchant guilds rose to prominence a few generations later. In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, local merchant guilds in trading cities such as Lubeck and Bremen formed alliances with merchants throughout the Baltic region. The alliance system grew into the Hanseatic League which dominated trade around the Baltic and North Seas and in Northern Germany.

Social and religious guilds existed at this time, but few records survive. Small numbers of craft guilds developed, principally in prosperous industries such as cloth manufacturing, but records are also rare, and numbers appear to have been small.

As economic expansion continued in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the influence of the Catholic Church grew, and the doctrine of Purgatory developed. The doctrine inspired the creation of countless religious guilds, since the doctrine provided members with strong incentives to want to belong to a group whose prayers would help one enter heaven and it provided guilds with mechanisms to induce members to exert effort on behalf of the organization. Many of these religious associations evolved into occupational guilds. Most of the Livery Companies of London, for example, began as intercessory societies around this time.

The number of guilds continued to grow after the Black Death. There are several potential explanations. The decline in population raised per-capita incomes, which encouraged the expansion of consumption and commerce, which in turn necessitated the formation of institutions to satisfy this demand. Repeated epidemics decreased family sizes, particularly in cities, where the typical adult had on average perhaps 1.5 surviving children, few surviving siblings, and only a small extended family, if any. Guilds replaced extended families in a form of fictive kinship. The decline in family size and impoverishment of the church also forced individuals to rely on their guild more in times of trouble, since they no longer could rely on relatives and priests to sustain them through periods of crisis. All of these changes bound individuals more closely to guilds, discouraged free riding, and encouraged the expansion of collective institutions.

For nearly two centuries after the Black Death, guilds dominated life in medieval towns. Any town resident of consequence belonged to a guild. Most urban residents thought guild membership to be indispensable. Guilds dominated manufacturing, marketing, and commerce. Guilds dominated local politics and influenced national and international affairs. Guilds were the center of social and spiritual life.

The heyday of guilds lasted into the sixteenth century. The Reformation weakened guilds in most newly Protestant nations. In England, for example, the royal government suppressed thousands of guilds in the 1530s and 1540s. The king and his ministers dispatched auditors to every guild in the realm. The auditors seized spiritual paraphernalia and funds retained for religious purposes, disbanded guilds which existed for purely pious purposes, and forced craft and merchant guilds to pay large sums for the right to remain in operation. Those guilds that did still lost the ability to provide members with spiritual services.

In Protestant nations after the Reformation, the influence of guilds waned. Many turned to governments for assistance. They requested monopolies on manufacturing and commerce and asked courts to force members to live up to their obligations. Guilds lingered where governments provided such assistance. Guilds faded where governments did not. By the seventeenth century, the power of guilds had withered in England. Guilds retained strength in nations which remained Catholic. France abolished its guilds during the French Revolution in 1791, and Napoleon’s armies disbanded guilds in most of the continental nations which they occupied during the next two decades.

References

Basing, Patricia. Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts. London: British Library, 1990.

Cooper, R.C.H. The Archives of the City of London Livery Companies and Related Organizations. London: Guildhall Library, 1985.

Davidson, Clifford. Technology, Guilds, and Early English Drama. Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, 23. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1996

Epstein, S. R. “Craft Guilds, Apprenticeships, and Technological Change in Pre-Industrial Europe.” Journal of Economic History 58 (1998): 684-713.

Epstein, Steven. Wage and Labor Guilds in Medieval Europe. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Gross, Charles. The Gild Merchant; A Contribution to British Municipal History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890.

Gustafsson, Bo. “The Rise and Economic Behavior of Medieval Craft Guilds: An Economic-Theoretical Interpretation.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics 35, no. 1 (1987): 1-40.

Hanawalt, Barbara. “Keepers of the Lights: Late Medieval English Parish Gilds.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 14 (1984).

Hatcher, John and Edward Miller. Medieval England: Towns, Commerce and Crafts, 1086 – 1348. London: Longman, 1995.

Hickson, Charles R. and Earl A. Thompson. “A New Theory of Guilds and European Economic Development.” Explorations in Economic History. 28 (1991): 127-68.

Lopez, Robert. The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990

Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Frank Halsey (translator). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.

Richardson, Gary. “A Tale of Two Theories: Monopolies and Craft Guilds in Medieval England and Modern Imagination.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought (2001).

Richardson, Gary. “Brand Names Before the Industrial Revolution.” UC Irvine Working Paper, 2000.

Richardson, Gary. “Guilds, Laws, and Markets for Manufactured Merchandise in Late-Medieval England,” Explorations in Economic History 41 (2004): 1–25.

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Richardson, Gary. “The Prudent Village: Risk Pooling Institutions in Medieval English Agriculture,” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 2 (2005): 386–413.

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Thrupp, Sylvia. The Merchant Class of Medieval London 1300-1500. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Unwin, George. The Guilds and Companies of London. London: Methuen & Company, 1904.

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Citation: Richardson, Gary. “Medieval Guilds”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/medieval-guilds/

Gold Standard

Lawrence H. Officer, University of Illinois at Chicago

The gold standard is the most famous monetary system that ever existed. The periods in which the gold standard flourished, the groupings of countries under the gold standard, and the dates during which individual countries adhered to this standard are delineated in the first section. Then characteristics of the gold standard (what elements make for a gold standard), the various types of the standard (domestic versus international, coin versus other, legal versus effective), and implications for the money supply of a country on the standard are outlined. The longest section is devoted to the “classical” gold standard, the predominant monetary system that ended in 1914 (when World War I began), followed by a section on the “interwar” gold standard, which operated between the two World Wars (the 1920s and 1930s).

Countries and Dates on the Gold Standard

Countries on the gold standard and the periods (or beginning and ending dates) during which they were on gold are listed in Tables 1 and 2 for the classical and interwar gold standards. Types of gold standard, ambiguities of dates, and individual-country cases are considered in later sections. The country groupings reflect the importance of countries to establishment and maintenance of the standard. Center countries — Britain in the classical standard, the United Kingdom (Britain’s legal name since 1922) and the United States in the interwar period — were indispensable to the spread and functioning of the gold standard. Along with the other core countries — France and Germany, and the United States in the classical period — they attracted other countries to adopt the gold standard, in particular, British colonies and dominions, Western European countries, and Scandinavia. Other countries — and, for some purposes, also British colonies and dominions — were in the periphery: acted on, rather than actors, in the gold-standard eras, and generally not as committed to the gold standard.

Table 1Countries on Classical Gold Standard
Country Type of Gold Standard Period
Center Country
Britaina Coin 1774-1797b, 1821-1914
Other Core Countries
United Statesc Coin 1879-1917d
Francee Coin 1878-1914
Germany Coin 1871-1914
British Colonies and Dominions
Australia Coin 1852-1915
Canadaf Coin 1854-1914
Ceylon Coin 1901-1914
Indiag Exchange (British pound) 1898-1914
Western Europe
Austria-Hungaryh Coin 1892-1914
Belgiumi Coin 1878-1914
Italy Coin 1884-1894
Liechtenstein Coin 1898-1914
Netherlandsj Coin 1875-1914
Portugalk Coin 1854-1891
Switzerland Coin 1878-1914
Scandinavia
Denmarkl Coin 1872-1914
Finland Coin 1877-1914
Norway Coin 1875-1914
Sweden Coin 1873-1914
Eastern Europe
Bulgaria Coin 1906-1914
Greece Coin 1885, 1910-1914
Montenegro Coin 1911-1914
Romania Coin 1890-1914
Russia Coin 1897-1914
Middle East
Egypt Coin 1885-1914
Turkey (Ottoman Empire) Coin 1881m-1914
Asia
Japann Coin 1897-1917
Philippines Exchange (U.S. dollar) 1903-1914
Siam Exchange (British pound) 1908-1914
Straits Settlementso Exchange (British pound) 1906-1914
Mexico and Central America
Costa Rica Coin 1896-1914
Mexico Coin 1905-1913
South America
Argentina Coin 1867-1876, 1883-1885, 1900-1914
Bolivia Coin 1908-1914
Brazil Coin 1888-1889, 1906-1914
Chile Coin 1895-1898
Ecuador Coin 1898-1914
Peru Coin 1901-1914
Uruguay Coin 1876-1914
Africa
Eritrea Exchange (Italian lira) 1890-1914
German East Africa Exchange (German mark) 1885p-1914
Italian Somaliland Exchange (Italian lira) 1889p-1914

a Including colonies (except British Honduras) and possessions without a national currency: New Zealand and certain other Oceanic colonies, South Africa, Guernsey, Jersey, Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Bermuda, British West Indies, British Guiana, British Somaliland, Falkland Islands, other South and West African colonies.
b Or perhaps 1798.
c Including countries and territories with U.S. dollar as exclusive or predominant currency: British Honduras (from 1894), Cuba (from 1898), Dominican Republic (from 1901), Panama (from 1904), Puerto Rico (from 1900), Alaska, Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, Midway Islands (from 1898), Wake Island, Guam, and American Samoa.
d Except August – October 1914.
e Including Tunisia (from 1891) and all other colonies except Indochina.
f Including Newfoundland (from 1895).
g Including British East Africa, Uganda, Zanzibar, Mauritius, and Ceylon (to 1901).
h Including Montenegro (to 1911).
I Including Belgian Congo.
j Including Netherlands East Indies.
k Including colonies, except Portuguese India.
l Including Greenland and Iceland.
m Or perhaps 1883.
n Including Korea and Taiwan.
o Including Borneo.
p Approximate beginning date.

Sources: Bloomfield (1959, pp. 13, 15; 1963), Bordo and Kydland (1995), Bordo and Schwartz (1996), Brown (1940, pp.15-16), Bureau of the Mint (1929), de Cecco (1984, p. 59), Ding (1967, pp. 6- 7), Director of the Mint (1913, 1917), Ford (1985, p. 153), Gallarotti (1995, pp. 272 75), Gunasekera (1962), Hawtrey (1950, p. 361), Hershlag (1980, p. 62), Ingram (1971, p. 153), Kemmerer (1916; 1940, pp. 9-10; 1944, p. 39), Kindleberger (1984, pp. 59-60), Lampe (1986, p. 34), MacKay (1946, p. 64), MacLeod (1994, p. 13), Norman (1892, pp. 83-84), Officer (1996, chs. 3 4), Pamuk (2000, p. 217), Powell (1999, p. 14), Rifaat (1935, pp. 47, 54), Shinjo (1962, pp. 81-83), Spalding (1928), Wallich (1950, pp. 32-36), Yeager (1976, p. 298), Young (1925).

Table 2Countries on Interwar Gold Standard
Country Type ofGold Standard Ending Date
Exchange-RateStabilization CurrencyConvertibilitya
United Kingdomb 1925 1931
Coin 1922e Other Core Countries
Bullion 1928 Germany 1924 1931
Australiag 1925 1930
Exchange 1925 Canadai 1925 1929
Exchange 1925 Indiaj 1925 1931
Coin 1929k South Africa 1925 1933
Austria 1922 1931
Exchange 1926 Danzig 1925 1935
Coin 1925 Italym 1927 1934
Coin 1925 Portugalo 1929 1931
Coin 1925 Scandinavia
Bullion 1927 Finland 1925 1931
Bullion 1928 Sweden 1922 1931
Albania 1922 1939
Exchange 1927 Czechoslovakia 1923 1931
Exchange 1928 Greece 1927 1932
Exchange 1925 Latvia 1922 1931
Coin 1922 Poland 1926 1936
Exchange 1929 Yugoslavia 1925 1932
Egypt 1925 1931
Exchange 1925 Palestine 1927 1931
Exchange 1928 Asia
Coin 1930 Malayat 1925 1931
Coin 1925 Philippines 1922 1933
Exchange 1928 Mexico and Central America
Exchange 1922 Guatemala 1925 1933
Exchange 1922 Honduras 1923 1933
Coin 1925 Nicaragua 1915 1932
Coin 1920 South America
Coin 1927 Bolivia 1926 1931
Exchange 1928 Chile 1925 1931
Coin 1923 Ecuador 1927 1932
Exchange 1927 Peru 1928 1932
Exchange 1928 Venezuela 1923 1930

a And freedom of gold export and import.
b Including colonies (except British Honduras) and possessions without a national currency: Guernsey, Jersey, Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Bermuda, British West Indies, British Guiana, British Somaliland, Falkland Islands, British West African and certain South African colonies, certain Oceanic colonies.
cIncluding countries and territories with U.S. dollar as exclusive or predominant currency: British Honduras, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico, Alaska, Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, Midway Islands, Wake Island, Guam, and American Samoa.
dNot applicable; “the United States dollar…constituted the central point of reference in the whole post-war stabilization effort and was throughout the period of stabilization at par with gold.” — Brown (1940, p. 394)
e1919 for freedom of gold export.
f Including colonies and possessions, except Indochina and Syria.
g Including Papua (New Guinea) and adjoining islands.
h Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika.
I Including Newfoundland.
j Including Bhutan, Nepal, British Swaziland, Mauritius, Pemba Island, and Zanzibar.
k 1925 for freedom of gold export.
l Including Luxemburg and Belgian Congo.
m Including Italian Somaliland and Tripoli.
n Including Dutch Guiana and Curacao (Netherlands Antilles).
o Including territories, except Portuguese India.
p Including Liechtenstein.
q Including Greenland and Iceland.
r Including Greater Lebanon.
s Including Korea and Taiwan.
t Including Straits Settlements, Sarawak, Labuan, and Borneo.

Sources: Bett (1957, p. 36), Brown (1940), Bureau of the Mint (1929), Ding (1967, pp. 6-7), Director of the Mint (1917), dos Santos (1996, pp. 191-92), Eichengreen (1992, p. 299), Federal Reserve Bulletin (1928, pp. 562, 847; 1929, pp. 201, 265, 549; 1930, pp. 72, 440; 1931, p. 554; 1935, p. 290; 1936, pp. 322, 760), Gunasekera (1962), Jonung (1984, p. 361), Kemmerer (1954, pp. 301 302), League of Nations (1926, pp. 7, 15; 1927, pp. 165-69; 1929, pp. 208-13; 1931, pp. 265-69; 1937/38, p. 107; 1946, p. 2), Moggridge (1989, p. 305), Officer (1996, chs. 3-4), Powell (1999, pp. 23-24), Spalding (1928), Wallich (1950, pp. 32-37), Yeager (1976, pp. 330, 344, 359); Young (1925, p. 76).

Characteristics of Gold Standards

Types of Gold Standards

Pure Coin and Mixed Standards

In theory, “domestic” gold standards — those that do not depend on interaction with other countries — are of two types: “pure coin” standard and “mixed” (meaning coin and paper, but also called simply “coin”) standard. The two systems share several properties. (1) There is a well-defined and fixed gold content of the domestic monetary unit. For example, the dollar is defined as a specified weight of pure gold. (2) Gold coin circulates as money with unlimited legal-tender power (meaning it is a compulsorily acceptable means of payment of any amount in any transaction or obligation). (3) Privately owned bullion (gold in mass, foreign coin considered as mass, or gold in the form of bars) is convertible into gold coin in unlimited amounts at the government mint or at the central bank, and at the “mint price” (of gold, the inverse of the gold content of the monetary unit). (4) Private parties have no restriction on their holding or use of gold (except possibly that privately created coined money may be prohibited); in particular, they may melt coin into bullion. The effect is as if coin were sold to the monetary authority (central bank or Treasury acting as a central bank) for bullion. It would make sense for the authority to sell gold bars directly for coin, even though not legally required, thus saving the cost of coining. Conditions (3) and (4) commit the monetary authority in effect to transact in coin and bullion in each direction such that the mint price, or gold content of the monetary unit, governs in the marketplace.

Under a pure coin standard, gold is the only money. Under a mixed standard, there are also paper currency (notes) — issued by the government, central bank, or commercial banks — and demand-deposit liabilities of banks. Government or central-bank notes (and central-bank deposit liabilities) are directly convertible into gold coin at the fixed established price on demand. Commercial-bank notes and demand deposits might be converted not directly into gold but rather into gold-convertible government or central-bank currency. This indirect convertibility of commercial-bank liabilities would apply certainly if the government or central- bank currency were legal tender but also generally even if it were not. As legal tender, gold coin is always exchangeable for paper currency or deposits at the mint price, and usually the monetary authority would provide gold bars for its coin. Again, two-way transactions in unlimited amounts fix the currency price of gold at the mint price. The credibility of the monetary-authority commitment to a fixed price of gold is the essence of a successful, ongoing gold-standard regime.

A pure coin standard did not exist in any country during the gold-standard periods. Indeed, over time, gold coin declined from about one-fifth of the world money supply in 1800 (2/3 for gold and silver coin together, as silver was then the predominant monetary standard) to 17 percent in 1885 (1/3 for gold and silver, for an eleven-major-country aggregate), 10 percent in 1913 (15 percent for gold and silver, for the major-country aggregate), and essentially zero in 1928 for the major-country aggregate (Triffin, 1964, pp. 15, 56). See Table 3. The zero figure means not that gold coin did not exist, rather that its main use was as reserves for Treasuries, central banks, and (generally to a lesser extent) commercial banks.

Table 3Structure of Money: Major-Countries Aggregatea(end of year)
1885 1928
8 50
33 0d
18 21
33 99

a Core countries: Britain, United States, France, Germany. Western Europe: Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland. Other countries: Canada, Japan, Sweden.
b Metallic money, minor coin, paper currency, and demand deposits.
c 1885: Gold and silver coin; overestimate, as includes commercial-bank holdings that could not be isolated from coin held outside banks by the public. 1913: Gold and silver coin. 1928: Gold coin.
d Less than 0.5 percent.
e 1885 and 1913: Gold, silver, and foreign exchange. 1928: Gold and foreign exchange.
f Official gold: Gold in official reserves. Money gold: Gold-coin component of money supply.

Sources: Triffin (1964, p. 62), Sayers (1976, pp. 348, 352) for 1928 Bank of England dollar reserves (dated January 2, 1929).

An “international” gold standard, which naturally requires that more than one country be on gold, requires in addition freedom both of international gold flows (private parties are permitted to import or export gold without restriction) and of foreign-exchange transactions (an absence of exchange control). Then the fixed mint prices of any two countries on the gold standard imply a fixed exchange rate (“mint parity”) between the countries’ currencies. For example, the dollar- sterling mint parity was $4.8665635 per pound sterling (the British pound).

Gold-Bullion and Gold-Exchange Standards

In principle, a country can choose among four kinds of international gold standards — the pure coin and mixed standards, already mentioned, a gold-bullion standard, and a gold- exchange standard. Under a gold-bullion standard, gold coin neither circulates as money nor is it used as commercial-bank reserves, and the government does not coin gold. The monetary authority (Treasury or central bank) stands ready to transact with private parties, buying or selling gold bars (usable only for import or export, not as domestic currency) for its notes, and generally a minimum size of transaction is specified. For example, in 1925 1931 the Bank of England was on the bullion standard and would sell gold bars only in the minimum amount of 400 fine (pure) ounces, approximately £1699 or $8269. Finally, the monetary authority of a country on a gold-exchange standard buys and sells not gold in any form but rather gold- convertible foreign exchange, that is, the currency of a country that itself is on the gold coin or bullion standard.

Gold Points and Gold Export/Import

A fixed exchange rate (the mint parity) for two countries on the gold standard is an oversimplification that is often made but is misleading. There are costs of importing or exporting gold. These costs include freight, insurance, handling (packing and cartage), interest on money committed to the transaction, risk premium (compensation for risk), normal profit, any deviation of purchase or sale price from the mint price, possibly mint charges, and possibly abrasion (wearing out or removal of gold content of coin — should the coin be sold abroad by weight or as bullion). Expressing the exporting costs as the percent of the amount invested (or, equivalently, as percent of parity), the product of 1/100th of these costs and mint parity (the number of units of domestic currency per unit of foreign currency) is added to mint parity to obtain the gold-export point — the exchange rate at which gold is exported. To obtain the gold-import point, the product of 1/100th of the importing costs and mint parity is subtracted from mint parity.

If the exchange rate is greater than the gold-export point, private-sector “gold-point arbitrageurs” export gold, thereby obtaining foreign currency. Conversely, for the exchange rate less than the gold-import point, gold is imported and foreign currency relinquished. Usually the gold is, directly or indirectly, purchased from the monetary authority of the one country and sold to the monetary authority in the other. The domestic-currency cost of the transaction per unit of foreign currency obtained is the gold-export point. That per unit of foreign currency sold is the gold-import point. Also, foreign currency is sold, or purchased, at the exchange rate. Therefore arbitrageurs receive a profit proportional to the exchange-rate/gold-point divergence.

Gold-Point Arbitrage

However, the arbitrageurs’ supply of foreign currency eliminates profit by returning the exchange rate to below the gold-export point. Therefore perfect “gold-point arbitrage” would ensure that the exchange rate has upper limit of the gold-export point. Similarly, the arbitrageurs’ demand for foreign currency returns the exchange rate to above the gold-import point, and perfect arbitrage ensures that the exchange rate has that point as a lower limit. It is important to note what induces the private sector to engage in gold-point arbitrage: (1) the profit motive; and (2) the credibility of the commitment to (a) the fixed gold price and (b) freedom of foreign exchange and gold transactions, on the part of the monetary authorities of both countries.

Gold-Point Spread

The difference between the gold points is called the (gold-point) spread. The gold points and the spread may be expressed as percentages of parity. Estimates of gold points and spreads involving center countries are provided for the classical and interwar gold standards in Tables 4 and 5. Noteworthy is that the spread for a given country pair generally declines over time both over the classical gold standard (evidenced by the dollar-sterling figures) and for the interwar compared to the classical period.

Table 4Gold-Point Estimates: Classical Gold Standard
Countries Period Gold Pointsa(percent) Spreadd(percent) Method of Computation
Exportb Importc
U.S./Britain 1881-1890 0.6585 0.7141 1.3726 PA
U.S./Britain 1891-1900 0.6550 0.6274 1.2824 PA
U.S./Britain 1901-1910 0.4993 0.5999 1.0992 PA
U.S./Britain 1911-1914 0.5025 0.5915 1.0940 PA
France/U.S. 1877-1913 0.6888 0.6290 1.3178 MED
Germany/U.S. 1894-1913 0.4907 0.7123 1.2030 MED
France/Britain 1877-1913 0.4063 0.3964 0.8027 MED
Germany/Britain 1877-1913 0.3671 0.4405 0.8076 MED
Germany/France 1877-1913 0.4321 0.5556 0.9877 MED
Austria/Britain 1912 0.6453 0.6037 1.2490 SE
Netherlands/Britain 1912 0.5534 0.3552 0.9086 SE
Scandinaviae /Britain 1912 0.3294 0.6067 0.9361 SE

a For numerator country.
b Gold-import point for denominator country.
c Gold-export point for denominator country.
d Gold-export point plus gold-import point.
e Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

Method of Computation: PA = period average. MED = median exchange rate form estimate of various authorities for various dates, converted to percent deviation from parity. SE = single exchange-rate- form estimate, converted to percent deviation from parity.

Sources: U.S./Britain — Officer (1996, p. 174). France/U.S., Germany/U.S., France/Britain, Germany/Britain, Germany/France — Morgenstern (1959, pp. 178-81). Austria/Britain, Netherlands/Britain, Scandinavia/Britain — Easton (1912, pp. 358-63).

Table 5Gold-Point Estimates: Interwar Gold Standard
Countries Period Gold Pointsa(percent) Spreadd(percent) Method of Computation
Exportb Importc
U.S./Britain 1925-1931 0.6287 0.4466 1.0753 PA
U.S./France 1926-1928e 0.4793 0.5067 0.9860 PA
U.S./France 1928-1933f 0.5743 0.3267 0.9010 PA
U.S./Germany 1926-1931 0.8295 0.3402 1.1697 PA
France/Britain 1926 0.2042 0.4302 0.6344 SE
France/Britain 1929-1933 0.2710 0.3216 0.5926 MED
Germany/Britain 1925-1933 0.3505 0.2676 0.6181 MED
Canada/Britain 1929 0.3521 0.3465 0.6986 SE
Netherlands/Britain 1929 0.2858 0.5146 0.8004 SE
Denmark/Britain 1926 0.4432 0.4930 0.9362 SE
Norway/Britain 1926 0.6084 0.3828 0.9912 SE
Sweden/Britain 1926 0.3881 0.3828 0.7709 SE

a For numerator country.
b Gold-import point for denominator country.
c Gold-export point for denominator country.
d Gold-export point plus gold-import point.
e To end of June 1928. French-franc exchange-rate stabilization, but absence of currency convertibility; see Table 2.
f Beginning July 1928. French-franc convertibility; see Table 2.

Method of Computation: PA = period average. MED = median exchange rate form estimate of various authorities for various dates, converted to percent deviation from parity. SE = single exchange-rate- form estimate, converted to percent deviation from parity.

Sources: U.S./Britain — Officer (1996, p. 174). U.S./France, U.S./Germany, France/Britain 1929- 1933, Germany/Britain — Morgenstern (1959, pp. 185-87). Canada/Britain, Netherlands/Britain — Einzig (1929, pp. 98-101) [Netherlands/Britain currencies’ mint parity from Spalding (1928, p. 135). France/Britain 1926, Denmark/Britain, Norway/Britain, Sweden/Britain — Spalding (1926, pp. 429-30, 436).

The effective monetary standard of a country is distinguishable from its legal standard. For example, a country legally on bimetallism usually is effectively on either a gold or silver monometallic standard, depending on whether its “mint-price ratio” (the ratio of its mint price of gold to mint price of silver) is greater or less than the world price ratio. In contrast, a country might be legally on a gold standard but its banks (and government) have “suspended specie (gold) payments” (refusing to convert their notes into gold), so that the country is in fact on a “paper standard.” The criterion adopted here is that a country is deemed on the gold standard if (1) gold is the predominant effective metallic money, or is the monetary bullion, (2) specie payments are in force, and (3) there is a limitation on the coinage and/or the legal-tender status of silver (the only practical and historical competitor to gold), thus providing institutional or legal support for the effective gold standard emanating from (1) and (2).

Implications for Money Supply

Consider first the domestic gold standard. Under a pure coin standard, the gold in circulation, monetary base, and money supply are all one. With a mixed standard, the money supply is the product of the money multiplier (dependent on the commercial-banks’ reserves/deposit and the nonbank-public’s currency/deposit ratios) and the monetary base (the actual and potential reserves of the commercial banking system, with potential reserves held by the nonbank public). The monetary authority alters the monetary base by changing its gold holdings and its loans, discounts, and securities portfolio (non gold assets, called its “domestic assets”). However, the level of its domestic assets is dependent on its gold reserves, because the authority generates demand liabilities (notes and deposits) by increasing its assets, and convertibility of these liabilities must be supported by a gold reserve, if the gold standard is to be maintained. Therefore the gold standard provides a constraint on the level (or growth) of the money supply.

The international gold standard involves balance-of-payments surpluses settled by gold imports at the gold-import point, and deficits financed by gold exports at the gold-export point. (Within the spread, there are no gold flows and the balance of payments is in equilibrium.) The change in the money supply is then the product of the money multiplier and the gold flow, providing the monetary authority does not change its domestic assets. For a country on a gold- exchange standard, holdings of “foreign exchange” (the reserve currency) take the place of gold. In general, the “international assets” of a monetary authority may consist of both gold and foreign exchange.

The Classical Gold Standard

Dates of Countries Joining the Gold Standard

Table 1 (above) lists all countries that were on the classical gold standard, the gold- standard type to which each adhered, and the period(s) on the standard. Discussion here concentrates on the four core countries. For centuries, Britain was on an effective silver standard under legal bimetallism. The country switched to an effective gold standard early in the eighteenth century, solidified by the (mistakenly) gold-overvalued mint-price ratio established by Isaac Newton, Master of the Mint, in 1717. In 1774 the legal-tender property of silver was restricted, and Britain entered the gold standard in the full sense on that date. In 1798 coining of silver was suspended, and in 1816 the gold standard was formally adopted, ironically during a paper-standard regime (the “Bank Restriction Period,” of 1797-1821), with the gold standard effectively resuming in 1821.

The United States was on an effective silver standard dating back to colonial times, legally bimetallic from 1786, and on an effective gold standard from 1834. The legal gold standard began in 1873-1874, when Acts ended silver-dollar coinage and limited legal tender of existing silver coins. Ironically, again the move from formal bimetallism to a legal gold standard occurred during a paper standard (the “greenback period,” of 1861-1878), with a dual legal and effective gold standard from 1879.

International Shift to the Gold Standard

The rush to the gold standard occurred in the 1870s, with the adherence of Germany, the Scandinavian countries, France, and other European countries. Legal bimetallism shifted from effective silver to effective gold monometallism around 1850, as gold discoveries in the United States and Australia resulted in overvalued gold at the mints. The gold/silver market situation subsequently reversed itself, and, to avoid a huge inflow of silver, many European countries suspended the coinage of silver and limited its legal-tender property. Some countries (France, Belgium, Switzerland) adopted a “limping” gold standard, in which existing former-standard silver coin retained full legal tender, permitting the monetary authority to redeem its notes in silver as well as gold.

As Table 1 shows, most countries were on a gold-coin (always meaning mixed) standard. The gold-bullion standard did not exist in the classical period (although in Britain that standard was embedded in legislation of 1819 that established a transition to restoration of the gold standard). A number of countries in the periphery were on a gold-exchange standard, usually because they were colonies or territories of a country on a gold-coin standard. In situations in which the periphery country lacked its own (even-coined) currency, the gold-exchange standard existed almost by default. Some countries — China, Persia, parts of Latin America — never joined the classical gold standard, instead retaining their silver or bimetallic standards.

Sources of Instability of the Classical Gold Standard

There were three elements making for instability of the classical gold standard. First, the use of foreign exchange as reserves increased as the gold standard progressed. Available end-of- year data indicate that, worldwide, foreign exchange in official reserves (the international assets of the monetary authority) increased by 36 percent from 1880 to 1899 and by 356 percent from 1899 to 1913. In comparison, gold in official reserves increased by 160 percent from 1880 to 1903 but only by 88 percent from 1903 to 1913. (Lindert, 1969, pp. 22, 25) While in 1913 only Germany among the center countries held any measurable amount of foreign exchange — 15 percent of total reserves excluding silver (which was of limited use) — the percentage for the rest of the world was double that for Germany (Table 6). If there were a rush to cash in foreign exchange for gold, reduction or depletion of the gold of reserve-currency countries could place the gold standard in jeopardy.

Table 6Share of Foreign Exchange in Official Reserves(end of year, percent)
Country 1928b
Excluding Silverb
0 10
0 0c
0d 51
13 16
27 32

a Official reserves: gold, silver, and foreign exchange.
b Official reserves: gold and foreign exchange.
c Less than 0.05 percent.
d Less than 0.5 percent.

Sources: 1913 — Lindert (1969, pp. 10-11). 1928 — Britain: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System [cited as BG] (1943, p. 551), Sayers (1976, pp. 348, 352) for Bank of England dollar reserves (dated January 2, 1929). United States: BG (1943, pp. 331, 544), foreign exchange consisting of Federal Reserve Banks holdings of foreign-currency bills. France and Germany: Nurkse (1944, p. 234). Rest of world [computed as residual]: gold, BG (1943, pp. 544-51); foreign exchange, from “total” (Triffin, 1964, p. 66), France, and Germany.

Second, Britain — the predominant reserve-currency country — was in a particularly sensitive situation. Again considering end-of 1913 data, almost half of world foreign-exchange reserves were in sterling, but the Bank of England had only three percent of world gold reserves (Tables 7-8). Defining the “reserve ratio” of the reserve-currency-country monetary authority as the ratio of (i) official reserves to (ii) liabilities to foreign monetary authorities held in financial institutions in the country, in 1913 this ratio was only 31 percent for the Bank of England, far lower than those of the monetary authorities of the other core countries (Table 9). An official run on sterling could easily force Britain off the gold standard. Because sterling was an international currency, private foreigners also held considerable liquid assets in London, and could themselves initiate a run on sterling.

Table 7Composition of World Official Foreign-Exchange Reserves(end of year, percent)
1913a British pounds 77
2 French francs }2}

}

16
5b

a Excluding holdings for which currency unspecified.
b Primarily Dutch guilders and Scandinavian kroner.

Sources: 1913 — Lindert (1969, pp. 18-19). 1928 — Components of world total: Triffin (1964, pp. 22, 66), Sayers (1976, pp. 348, 352) for Bank of England dollar reserves (dated January 2, 1929), Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System [cited as BG] (1943, p. 331) for Federal Reserve Banks holdings of foreign-currency bills.

Table 8Official-Reserves Components: Percent of World Total(end of year)
Country 1928
Gold Foreign Exchange
0 7 United States 27 0a
0b 13 Germany 6 4
95 36 Table 9Reserve Ratiosa of Reserve-Currency Countries

(end of year)

Country 1928c
Excluding Silverc
0.31 0.33
90.55 5.45
2.38 not available
2.11 not available

a Ratio of official reserves to official liquid liabilities (that is, liabilities to foreign governments and central banks).
b Official reserves: gold, silver, and foreign exchange.
c Official reserves: gold and foreign exchange.

Sources : 1913 — Lindert (1969, pp. 10-11, 19). Foreign-currency holdings for which currency unspecified allocated proportionately to the four currencies based on known distribution. 1928 — Gold reserves: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System [cited as BG] (1943, pp. 544, 551). Foreign- exchange reserves: Sayers (1976, pp. 348, 352) for Bank of England dollar reserves (dated January 2, 1929); BG (1943, p. 331) for Federal Reserve Banks holdings of foreign-currency bills. Official liquid liabilities: Triffin (1964, p. 22), Sayers (1976, pp. 348, 352).

Third, the United States, though a center country, was a great source of instability to the gold standard. Its Treasury held a high percentage of world gold reserves (more than that of the three other core countries combined in 1913), resulting in an absurdly high reserve ratio — Tables 7-9). With no central bank and a decentralized banking system, financial crises were frequent. Far from the United States assisting Britain, gold often flowed from the Bank of England to the United States to satisfy increases in U.S. demand for money. Though in economic size the United States was the largest of the core countries, in many years it was a net importer rather than exporter of capital to the rest of the world — the opposite of the other core countries. The political power of silver interests and recurrent financial panics led to imperfect credibility in the U.S. commitment to the gold standard. Runs on banks and runs on the Treasury gold reserve placed the U.S. gold standard near collapse in the early and mid-1890s. During that period, the credibility of the Treasury’s commitment to the gold standard was shaken. Indeed, the gold standard was saved in 1895 (and again in 1896) only by cooperative action of the Treasury and a bankers’ syndicate that stemmed gold exports.

Rules of the Game

According to the “rules of the [gold-standard] game,” central banks were supposed to reinforce, rather than “sterilize” (moderate or eliminate) or ignore, the effect of gold flows on the monetary supply. A gold outflow typically decreases the international assets of the central bank and thence the monetary base and money supply. The central-bank’s proper response is: (1) raise its “discount rate,” the central-bank interest rate for rediscounting securities (cashing, at a further deduction from face value, a short-term security from a financial institution that previously discounted the security), thereby inducing commercial banks to adopt a higher reserves/deposit ratio and therefore decreasing the money multiplier; and (2) decrease lending and sell securities, thereby decreasing domestic assets and thence the monetary base. On both counts the money supply is further decreased. Should the central bank rather increase its domestic assets when it loses gold, it engages in “sterilization” of the gold flow and is decidedly not following the “rules of the game.” The converse argument (involving gold inflow and increases in the money supply) also holds, with sterilization involving the central bank decreasing its domestic assets when it gains gold.

Price Specie-Flow Mechanism

A country experiencing a balance-of-payments deficit loses gold and its money supply decreases, both automatically and by policy in accordance with the “rules of the game.” Money income contracts and the price level falls, thereby increasing exports and decreasing imports. Similarly, a surplus country gains gold, the money supply increases, money income expands, the price level rises, exports decrease and imports increase. In each case, balance-of-payments equilibrium is restored via the current account. This is called the “price specie-flow mechanism.” To the extent that wages and prices are inflexible, movements of real income in the same direction as money income occur; in particular, the deficit country suffers unemployment but the payments imbalance is nevertheless corrected.

The capital account also acts to restore balance, via interest-rate increases in the deficit country inducing a net inflow of capital. The interest-rate increases also reduce real investment and thence real income and imports. Similarly, interest-rate decreases in the surplus country elicit capital outflow and increase real investment, income, and imports. This process enhances the current-account correction of the imbalance.

One problem with the “rules of the game” is that, on “global-monetarist” theoretical grounds, they were inconsequential. Under fixed exchange rates, gold flows simply adjust money supply to money demand; the money supply is not determined by policy. Also, prices, interest rates, and incomes are determined worldwide. Even core countries can influence these variables domestically only to the extent that they help determine them in the global marketplace. Therefore the price-specie-flow and like mechanisms cannot occur. Historical data support this conclusion: gold flows were too small to be suggestive of these mechanisms; and prices, incomes, and interest rates moved closely in correspondence (rather than in the opposite directions predicted by the adjustment mechanisms induced by the “rules of the game”) — at least among non-periphery countries, especially the core group.

Discount Rate Rule and the Bank of England

However, the Bank of England did, in effect, manage its discount rate (“Bank Rate”) in accordance with rule (1). The Bank’s primary objective was to maintain convertibility of its notes into gold, that is, to preserve the gold standard, and its principal policy tool was Bank Rate. When its “liquidity ratio” of gold reserves to outstanding note liabilities decreased, it would usually increase Bank Rate. The increase in Bank Rate carried with it market short-term increase rates, inducing a short-term capital inflow and thereby moving the exchange rate away from the gold-export point by increasing the exchange value of the pound. The converse also held, with a rise in the liquidity ratio involving a Bank Rate decrease, capital outflow, and movement of the exchange rate away from the gold import point. The Bank was constantly monitoring its liquidity ratio, and in response altered Bank Rate almost 200 times over 1880- 1913.

While the Reichsbank (the German central bank), like the Bank of England, generally moved its discount rate inversely to its liquidity ratio, most other central banks often violated the rule, with changes in their discount rates of inappropriate direction, or of insufficient amount or frequency. The Bank of France, in particular, kept its discount rate stable. Unlike the Bank of England, it chose to have large gold reserves (see Table 8), with payments imbalances accommodated by fluctuations in its gold rather than financed by short-term capital flows. The United States, lacking a central bank, had no discount rate to use as a policy instrument.

Sterilization Was Dominant

As for rule (2), that the central-bank’s domestic and international assets move in the same direction; in fact the opposite behavior, sterilization, was dominant, as shown in Table 10. The Bank of England followed the rule more than any other central bank, but even so violated it more often than not! How then did the classical gold standard cope with payments imbalances? Why was it a stable system?

Table 10Annual Changes in Internationala and Domesticb Assets of Central BankPercent of Changes in the Same Directionc
1880-1913d Britain 33
__ France 33
31 British Dominionse 13
32 Scandinaviag 25
33 South Americai 23

a 1880-1913: Gold, silver and foreign exchange. 1922-1936: Gold and foreign exchange.
b Domestic income-earning assets: discounts, loans, securities.
c Implying country is following “rules of the game.” Observations with zero or negligible changes in either class of assets excluded.
d Years when country is off gold standard excluded. See Tables 1 and 2.
e Australia and South Africa.
f1880-1913: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, and Netherlands. 1922-1936: Austria, Italy, Netherlands, and Switzerland.
g Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
h1880-1913: Russia. 1922-1936: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
I Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay.

Sources: Bloomfield (1959, p. 49), Nurkse (1944, p. 69).

The Stability of the Classical Gold Standard

The fundamental reason for the stability of the classical gold standard is that there was always absolute private-sector credibility in the commitment to the fixed domestic-currency price of gold on the part of the center country (Britain), two (France and Germany) of the three remaining core countries, and certain other European countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Scandinavia). Certainly, that was true from the late-1870s onward. (For the United States, this absolute credibility applied from about 1900.) In earlier periods, that commitment had a contingency aspect: it was recognized that convertibility could be suspended in the event of dire emergency (such as war); but, after normal conditions were restored, convertibility would be re-established at the pre-existing mint price and gold contracts would again be honored. The Bank Restriction Period is an example of the proper application of the contingency, as is the greenback period (even though the United States, effectively on the gold standard, was legally on bimetallism).

Absolute Credibility Meant Zero Convertibility and Exchange Risk

The absolute credibility in countries’ commitment to convertiblity at the existing mint price implied that there was extremely low, essentially zero, convertibility risk (the probability that Treasury or central-bank notes would not be redeemed in gold at the established mint price) and exchange risk (the probability that the mint parity between two currencies would be altered, or that exchange control or prohibition of gold export would be instituted).

Reasons Why Commitment to Convertibility Was So Credible

There were many reasons why the commitment to convertibility was so credible. (1) Contracts were expressed in gold; if convertibility were abandoned, contracts would inevitably be violated — an undesirable outcome for the monetary authority. (2) Shocks to the domestic and world economies were infrequent and generally mild. There was basically international peace and domestic calm.

(3) The London capital market was the largest, most open, most diversified in the world, and its gold market was also dominant. A high proportion of world trade was financed in sterling, London was the most important reserve-currency center, and balances of payments were often settled by transferring sterling assets rather than gold. Therefore sterling was an international currency — not merely supplemental to gold but perhaps better: a boon to non- center countries, because sterling involved positive, not zero, interest return and its transfer costs were much less than those of gold. Advantages to Britain were the charges for services as an international banker, differential interest returns on its financial intermediation, and the practice of countries on a sterling (gold-exchange) standard of financing payments surpluses with Britain by piling up short-term sterling assets rather than demanding Bank of England gold.

(4) There was widespread ideology — and practice — of “orthodox metallism,” involving authorities’ commitment to an anti-inflation, balanced-budget, stable-money policy. In particular, the ideology implied low government spending and taxes and limited monetization of government debt (financing of budget deficits by printing money). Therefore it was not expected that a country’s price level or inflation would get out of line with that of other countries, with resulting pressure on the country’s adherence to the gold standard. (5) This ideology was mirrored in, and supported by, domestic politics. Gold had won over silver and paper, and stable-money interests (bankers, industrialists, manufacturers, merchants, professionals, creditors, urban groups) over inflationary interests (farmers, landowners, miners, debtors, rural groups).

(6) There was freedom from government regulation and a competitive environment, domestically and internationally. Therefore prices and wages were more flexible than in other periods of human history (before and after). The core countries had virtually no capital controls; the center country (Britain) had adopted free trade, and the other core countries had moderate tariffs. Balance-of-payments financing and adjustment could proceed without serious impediments.

(7) Internal balance (domestic macroeconomic stability, at a high level of real income and employment) was an unimportant goal of policy. Preservation of convertibility of paper currency into gold would not be superseded as the primary policy objective. While sterilization of gold flows was frequent (see above), the purpose was more “meeting the needs of trade” (passive monetary policy) than fighting unemployment (active monetary policy).

(8) The gradual establishment of mint prices over time ensured that the implied mint parities (exchange rates) were in line with relative price levels; so countries joined the gold standard with exchange rates in equilibrium. (9) Current-account and capital-account imbalances tended to be offsetting for the core countries, especially for Britain. A trade deficit induced a gold loss and a higher interest rate, attracting a capital inflow and reducing capital outflow. Indeed, the capital- exporting core countries — Britain, France, and Germany — could eliminate a gold loss simply by reducing lending abroad.

Rareness of Violations of Gold Points

Many of the above reasons not only enhanced credibility in existing mint prices and parities but also kept international-payments imbalances, and hence necessary adjustment, of small magnitude. Responding to the essentially zero convertibility and exchange risks implied by the credible commitment, private agents further reduced the need for balance-of-payments adjustment via gold-point arbitrage (discussed above) and also via a specific kind of speculation. When the exchange rate moved beyond a gold point, arbitrage acted to return it to the spread. So it is not surprising that “violations of the gold points” were rare on a monthly average basis, as demonstrated in Table 11 for the dollar, franc, and mark exchange rate versus sterling. Certainly, gold-point violations did occur; but they rarely persisted sufficiently to be counted on monthly average data. Such measured violations were generally associated with financial crises. (The number of dollar-sterling violations for 1890-1906 exceeding that for 1889-1908 is due to the results emanating from different researchers using different data. Nevertheless, the important common finding is the low percent of months encompassed by violations.)

Table 11Violations of Gold Points
Exchange Rate Time Period Number of Months Number dollar-sterling 240 0.4
1890-1906 3 dollar-sterling 76 0
1889-1908 12b mark-sterling 240 7.5

a May 1925 – August 1931: full months during which both United States and Britain on gold standard.
b Approximate number, deciphered from graph.

Sources: Dollar-sterling, 1890-1906 and 1925-1931 — Officer (1996, p. 235). All other — Giovannini (1993, pp. 130-31).

Stabilizing Speculation

The perceived extremely low convertibility and exchange risks gave private agents profitable opportunities not only outside the spread (gold-point arbitrage) but also within the spread (exchange-rate speculation). As the exchange value of a country’s currency weakened, the exchange rate approaching the gold-export point, speculators had an ever greater incentive to purchase domestic currency with foreign currency (a capital inflow); for they had good reason to believe that the exchange rate would move in the opposite direction, whereupon they would reverse their transaction at a profit. Similarly, a strengthened currency, with the exchange rate approaching the gold-import point, involved speculators selling the domestic currency for foreign currency (a capital outflow). Clearly, the exchange rate would either not go beyond the gold point (via the actions of other speculators of the same ilk) or would quickly return to the spread (via gold-point arbitrage). Also, the further the exchange rate moved toward the gold point, the greater the potential profit opportunity; for there was a decreased distance to that gold point and an increased distance from the other point.

This “stabilizing speculation” enhanced the exchange value of depreciating currencies that were about to lose gold; and thus the gold loss could be prevented. The speculation was all the more powerful, because the absence of controls on capital movements meant private capital flows were highly responsive to exchange-rate changes. Dollar-sterling data, in Table 12, show that this speculation was extremely efficient in keeping the exchange rate away from the gold points — and increasingly effective over time. Interestingly, these statements hold even for the 1890s, during which at times U.S. maintenance of currency convertibility was precarious. The average deviation of the exchange rate from the midpoint of the spread fell decade-by-decade from about 1/3 of one percent of parity in 1881-1890 (23 percent of the gold-point spread) to only 12/100th of one percent of parity in 1911-1914 (11 percent of the spread).

Table 12Average Deviation of Dollar-Sterling Exchange Rate from Gold-Point-Spread Midpoint
Percent of Parity Quarterly observations
0.32 1891-1900 19
0.15 1911-1914a 11
0.28 Monthly observations
0.24 1925-1931c 26

a Ending with second quarter of 1914.
b Third quarter 1925 – second quarter 1931: full quarters during which both United States and Britain on gold standard.
c May 1925 – August 1931: full months during which both United States and Britain on gold standard.

Source: Officer (1996, pp. 182, 191, 272).

Government Policies That Enhanced Gold-Standard Stability

Government policies also enhanced gold-standard stability. First, by the turn of the century South Africa — the main world gold producer — sold all its gold in London, either to private parties or actively to the Bank of England, with the Bank serving also as residual purchaser of the gold. Thus the Bank had the means to replenish its gold reserves. Second, the orthodox- metallism ideology and the leadership of the Bank of England — other central banks would often gear their monetary policy to that of the Bank — kept monetary policies harmonized. Monetary discipline was maintained.

Third, countries used “gold devices,” primarily the manipulation of gold points, to affect gold flows. For example, the Bank of England would foster gold imports by lowering the foreign gold-export point (number of units of foreign currency per pound, the British gold-import point) through interest-free loans to gold importers or raising its purchase price for bars and foreign coin. The Bank would discourage gold exports by lowering the foreign gold-import point (the British gold-export point) via increasing its selling prices for gold bars and foreign coin, refusing to sell bars, or redeeming its notes in underweight domestic gold coin. These policies were alternative to increasing Bank Rate.

The Bank of France and Reichsbank employed gold devices relative to discount-rate changes more than Britain did. Some additional policies included converting notes into gold only in Paris or Berlin rather than at branches elsewhere in the country, the Bank of France converting its notes in silver rather than gold (permitted under its “limping” gold standard), and the Reichsbank using moral suasion to discourage the export of gold. The U.S. Treasury followed similar policies at times. In addition to providing interest-free loans to gold importers and changing the premium at which it would sell bars (or refusing to sell bars outright), the Treasury condoned banking syndicates to put pressure on gold arbitrageurs to desist from gold export in 1895 and 1896, a time when the U.S. adherence to the gold standard was under stress.

Fourth, the monetary system was adept at conserving gold, as evidenced in Table 3. This was important, because the increased gold required for a growing world economy could be obtained only from mining or from nonmonetary hoards. While the money supply for the eleven- major-country aggregate more than tripled from 1885 to 1913, the percent of the money supply in the form of metallic money (gold and silver) more than halved. This process did not make the gold standard unstable, because gold moved into commercial-bank and central-bank (or Treasury) reserves: the ratio of gold in official reserves to official plus money gold increased from 33 to 54 percent. The relative influence of the public versus private sector in reducing the proportion of metallic money in the money supply is an issue warranting exploration by monetary historians.

Fifth, while not regular, central-bank cooperation was not generally required in the stable environment in which the gold standard operated. Yet this cooperation was forthcoming when needed, that is, during financial crises. Although Britain was the center country, the precarious liquidity position of the Bank of England meant that it was more often the recipient than the provider of financial assistance. In crises, it would obtain loans from the Bank of France (also on occasion from other central banks), and the Bank of France would sometimes purchase sterling to push up that currency’s exchange value. Assistance also went from the Bank of England to other central banks, as needed. Further, the credible commitment was so strong that private bankers did not hesitate to make loans to central banks in difficulty.

In sum, “virtuous” two-way interactions were responsible for the stability of the gold standard. The credible commitment to convertibility of paper money at the established mint price, and therefore the fixed mint parities, were both a cause and a result of (1) the stable environment in which the gold standard operated, (2) the stabilizing behavior of arbitrageurs and speculators, and (3) the responsible policies of the authorities — and (1), (2), and (3), and their individual elements, also interacted positively among themselves.

Experience of Periphery

An important reason for periphery countries to join and maintain the gold standard was the access to the capital markets of the core countries thereby fostered. Adherence to the gold standard connoted that the peripheral country would follow responsible monetary, fiscal, and debt-management policies — and, in particular, faithfully repay the interest on and principal of debt. This “good housekeeping seal of approval” (the term coined by Bordo and Rockoff, 1996), by reducing the risk premium, involved a lower interest rate on the country’s bonds sold abroad, and very likely a higher volume of borrowing. The favorable terms and greater borrowing enhanced the country’s economic development.

However, periphery countries bore the brunt of the burden of adjustment of payments imbalances with the core (and other Western European) countries, for three reasons. First, some of the periphery countries were on a gold-exchange standard. When they ran a surplus, they typically increased — and with a deficit, decreased — their liquid balances in London (or other reserve-currency country) rather than withdraw gold from the reserve-currency country. The monetary base of the periphery country would increase, or decrease, but that of the reserve-currency country would remain unchanged. This meant that such changes in domestic variables — prices, incomes, interest rates, portfolios, etc.–that occurred to correct the surplus or deficit, were primarily in the periphery country. The periphery, rather than the core, “bore the burden of adjustment.”

Second, when Bank Rate increased, London drew funds from France and Germany, that attracted funds from other Western European and Scandinavian countries, that drew capital from the periphery. Also, it was easy for a core country to correct a deficit by reducing lending to, or bringing capital home from, the periphery. Third, the periphery countries were underdeveloped; their exports were largely primary products (agriculture and mining), which inherently were extremely sensitive to world market conditions. This feature made adjustment in the periphery compared to the core take the form more of real than financial correction. This conclusion also follows from the fact that capital obtained from core countries for the purpose of economic development was subject to interruption and even reversal. While the periphery was probably better off with access to the capital than in isolation, its welfare gain was reduced by the instability of capital import.

The experience on adherence to the gold standard differed among periphery groups. The important British dominions and colonies — Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and India — successfully maintained the gold standard. They were politically stable and, of course, heavily influenced by Britain. They paid the price of serving as an economic cushion to the Bank of England’s financial situation; but, compared to the rest of the periphery, gained a relatively stable long-term capital inflow. In undeveloped Latin American and Asia, adherence to the gold standard was fragile, with lack of complete credibility in the commitment to convertibility. Many of the reasons for credible commitment that applied to the core countries were absent — for example, there were powerful inflationary interests, strong balance-of-payments shocks, and rudimentary banking sectors. For Latin America and Asia, the cost of adhering to the gold standard was very apparent: loss of the ability to depreciate the currency to counter reductions in exports. Yet the gain, in terms of a steady capital inflow from the core countries, was not as stable or reliable as for the British dominions and colonies.

The Breakdown of the Classical Gold Standard

The classical gold standard was at its height at the end of 1913, ironically just before it came to an end. The proximate cause of the breakdown of the classical gold standard was political: the advent of World War I in August 1914. However, it was the Bank of England’s precarious liquidity position and the gold-exchange standard that were the underlying cause. With the outbreak of war, a run on sterling led Britain to impose extreme exchange control — a postponement of both domestic and international payments — that made the international gold standard non-operational. Convertibility was not legally suspended; but moral suasion, legalistic action, and regulation had the same effect. Gold exports were restricted by extralegal means (and by Trading with the Enemy legislation), with the Bank of England commandeering all gold imports and applying moral suasion to bankers and bullion brokers.

Almost all other gold-standard countries undertook similar policies in 1914 and 1915. The United States entered the war and ended its gold standard late, adopting extralegal restrictions on convertibility in 1917 (although in 1914 New York banks had temporarily imposed an informal embargo on gold exports). An effect of the universal removal of currency convertibility was the ineffectiveness of mint parities and inapplicability of gold points: floating exchange rates resulted.

Interwar Gold Standard

Return to the Gold Standard

In spite of the tremendous disruption to domestic economies and the worldwide economy caused by World War I, a general return to gold took place. However, the resulting interwar gold standard differed institutionally from the classical gold standard in several respects. First, the new gold standard was led not by Britain but rather by the United States. The U.S. embargo on gold exports (imposed in 1917) was removed in 1919, and currency convertibility at the prewar mint price was restored in 1922. The gold value of the dollar rather than of the pound sterling would typically serve as the reference point around which other currencies would be aligned and stabilized. Second, it follows that the core would now have two center countries, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Third, for many countries there was a time lag between stabilizing a country’s currency in the foreign-exchange market (fixing the exchange rate or mint parity) and resuming currency convertibility. Given a lag, the former typically occurred first, currency stabilization operating via central-bank intervention in the foreign-exchange market (transacting in the domestic currency and a reserve currency, generally sterling or the dollar). Table 2 presents the dates of exchange- rate stabilization and currency convertibility resumption for the countries on the interwar gold standard. It is fair to say that the interwar gold standard was at its height at the end of 1928, after all core countries were fully on the standard and before the Great Depression began.

Fourth, the contingency aspect of convertibility conversion, that required restoration of convertibility at the mint price that existed prior to the emergency (World War I), was broken by various countries — even core countries. Some countries (including the United States, United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Japan, Argentina) stabilized their currencies at the prewar mint price. However, other countries (France, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Finland, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Chile) established a gold content of their currency that was a fraction of the prewar level: the currency was devalued in terms of gold, the mint price was higher than prewar. A third group of countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary) stabilized new currencies adopted after hyperinflation. A fourth group (Czechoslovakia, Danzig, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) consisted of countries that became independent or were created following the war and that joined the interwar gold standard. A fifth group (some Latin American countries) had been on silver or paper standards during the classical period but went on the interwar gold standard. A sixth country group (Russia) had been on the classical gold standard, but did not join the interwar gold standard. A seventh group (Spain, China, Iran) joined neither gold standard.

The fifth way in which the interwar gold standard diverged from the classical experience was the mix of gold-standard types. As Table 2 shows, the gold coin standard, dominant in the classical period, was far less prevalent in the interwar period. In particular, all four core countries had been on coin in the classical gold standard; but, of them, only the United States was on coin interwar. The gold-bullion standard, nonexistent prewar, was adopted by two core countries (United Kingdom and France) as well as by two Scandinavian countries (Denmark and Norway). Most countries were on a gold-exchange standard. The central banks of countries on the gold-exchange standard would convert their currencies not into gold but rather into “gold-exchange” currencies (currencies themselves convertible into gold), in practice often sterling, sometimes the dollar (the reserve currencies).

Instability of the Interwar Gold Standard

The features that fostered stability of the classical gold standard did not apply to the interwar standard; instead, many forces made for instability. (1) The process of establishing fixed exchange rates was piecemeal and haphazard, resulting in disequilibrium exchange rates. The United Kingdom restored convertibility at the prewar mint price without sufficient deflation, resulting in an overvalued currency of about ten percent. (Expressed in a common currency at mint parity, the British price level was ten percent higher than that of its trading partners and competitors). A depressed export sector and chronic balance-of-payments difficulties were to result. Other overvalued currencies (in terms of mint parity) were those of Denmark, Italy, and Norway. In contrast, France, Germany, and Belgium had undervalued currencies. (2) Wages and prices were less flexible than in the prewar period. In particular, powerful unions kept wages and unemployment high in British export industries, hindering balance-of-payments correction.

(3) Higher trade barriers than prewar also restrained adjustment.

(4) The gold-exchange standard economized on total world gold via the gold of reserve- currency countries backing their currencies in their reserves role for countries on that standard and also for countries on a coin or bullion standard that elected to hold part of their reserves in London or New York. (Another economizing element was continuation of the move of gold out of the money supply and into banking and official reserves that began in the classical period: for the eleven-major-country aggregate, gold declined to less than œ of one percent of the money supply in 1928, and the ratio of official gold to official-plus-money gold reached 99 percent — Table 3). The gold-exchange standard was inherently unstable, because of the conflict between (a) the expansion of sterling and dollar liabilities to foreign central banks to expand world liquidity, and (b) the resulting deterioration in the reserve ratio of the Bank of England, and U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve Banks.

This instability was particularly severe in the interwar period, for several reasons. First, France was now a large official holder of sterling, with over half the official reserves of the Bank of France in foreign exchange in 1928, versus essentially none in 1913 (Table 6); and France was resentful that the United Kingdom had used its influence in the League of Nations to induce financially reconstructed countries in Europe to adopt the gold-exchange (sterling) standard. Second, many more countries were on the gold-exchange standard than prewar. Cooperation in restraining a run on sterling or the dollar would be difficult to achieve. Third, the gold-exchange standard, associated with colonies in the classical period, was viewed as a system inferior to a coin standard.

(5) In the classical period, London was the one dominant financial center; in the interwar period it was joined by New York and, in the late 1920s, Paris. Both private and official holdings of foreign currency could shift among the two or three centers, as interest-rate differentials and confidence levels changed.

(6) The problem with gold was not overall scarcity but rather maldistribution. In 1928, official reserve-currency liabilities were much more concentrated than in 1913: the United Kingdom accounted for 77 percent of world foreign-exchange reserves and France less than two percent (versus 47 and 30 percent in 1913 — Table 7). Yet the United Kingdom held only seven percent of world official gold and France 13 percent (Table 8). Reflecting its undervalued currency, France also possessed 39 percent of world official foreign exchange. Incredibly, the United States held 37 percent of world official gold — more than all the non-core countries together.

(7) Britain’s financial position was even more precarious than in the classical period. In 1928, the gold and dollar reserves of the Bank of England covered only one third of London’s liquid liabilities to official foreigners, a ratio hardly greater than in 1913 (and compared to a U.S. ratio of almost 5œ — Table 9). Various elements made the financial position difficult compared to prewar. First, U.K. liquid liabilities were concentrated on stronger countries (France, United States), whereas its liquid assets were predominantly in weaker countries (such as Germany). Second, there was ongoing tension with France, that resented the sterling-dominated gold- exchange standard and desired to cash in its sterling holding for gold to aid its objective of achieving first-class financial status for Paris.

(8) Internal balance was an important goal of policy, which hindered balance-of-payments adjustment, and monetary policy was affected greatly by domestic politics rather than geared to preservation of currency convertibility. (9) Especially because of (8), the credibility in authorities’ commitment to the gold standard was not absolute. Convertibility risk and exchange risk could be well above zero, and currency speculation could be destabilizing rather than stabilizing; so that when a country’s currency approached or reached its gold-export point, speculators might anticipate that currency convertibility would not be maintained and the currency devalued. Hence they would sell rather than buy the currency, which, of course, would help bring about the very outcome anticipated.

(10) The “rules of the game” were infrequently followed and, for most countries, violated even more often than in the classical gold standard — Table 10. Sterilization of gold inflows by the Bank of England can be viewed as an attempt to correct the overvalued pound by means of deflation. However, the U.S. and French sterilization of their persistent gold inflows reflected exclusive concern for the domestic economy and placed the burden of adjustment on other countries in the form of deflation.

(11) The Bank of England did not provide a leadership role in any important way, and central-bank cooperation was insufficient to establish credibility in the commitment to currency convertibility.

Breakdown of the Interwar Gold Standard

Although Canada effectively abandoned the gold standard early in 1929, this was a special case in two respects. First, the action was an early drastic reaction to high U.S. interest rates established to fight the stock-market boom but that carried the threat of unsustainable capital outflow and gold loss for other countries. Second, use of gold devices was the technique used to restrict gold exports and informally terminate the Canadian gold standard.

The beginning of the end of the interwar gold standard occurred with the Great Depression. The depression began in the periphery, with low prices for exports and debt-service requirements leading to insurmountable balance-of-payments difficulties while on the gold standard. However, U.S. monetary policy was an important catalyst. In the second half of 1927 the Federal Reserve pursued an easy-money policy, which supported foreign currencies but also fed the boom in the New York stock market. Reversing policy to fight the Wall Street boom, higher interest rates attracted monies to New York, which weakened sterling in particular. The stock market crash in October 1929, while helpful to sterling, was followed by a passive monetary policy that did not prevent the U.S. depression that started shortly thereafter and that spread to the rest of the world via declines in U.S. trade and lending. In 1929 and 1930 a number of periphery countries either formally suspended currency convertibility or restricted it so that their currencies went beyond the gold-export point.

It was destabilizing speculation, emanating from lack of confidence in authorities’ commitment to currency convertibility that ended the interwar gold standard. In May 1931 there was a run on Austria’s largest commercial bank, and the bank failed. The run spread to Germany, where an important bank also collapsed. The countries’ central banks lost substantial reserves; international financial assistance was too late; and in July 1931 Germany adopted exchange control, followed by Austria in October. These countries were definitively off the gold standard.

The Austrian and German experiences, as well as British budgetary and political difficulties, were among the factors that destroyed confidence in sterling, which occurred in mid-July 1931. Runs on sterling ensued, and the Bank of England lost much of its reserves. Loans from abroad were insufficient, and in any event taken as a sign of weakness. The gold standard was abandoned in September, and the pound quickly and sharply depreciated on the foreign- exchange market, as overvaluation of the pound would imply.

Amazingly, there were no violations of the dollar-sterling gold points on a monthly average basis to the very end of August 1931 (Table 11). In contrast, the average deviation of the dollar-sterling exchange rate from the midpoint of the gold-point spread in 1925-1931 was more than double that in 1911-1914, by either of two measures (Table 12), suggesting less- dominant stabilizing speculation compared to the prewar period. Yet the 1925-1931 average deviation was not much more (in one case, even less) than in earlier decades of the classical gold standard. The trust in the Bank of England had a long tradition, and the shock to confidence in sterling that occurred in July 1931 was unexpected by the British authorities.

Following the U.K. abandonment of the gold standard, many countries followed, some to maintain their competitiveness via currency devaluation, others in response to destabilizing capital flows. The United States held on until 1933, when both domestic and foreign demands for gold, manifested in runs on U.S. commercial banks, became intolerable. The “gold bloc” countries (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Poland) and Danzig lasted even longer; but, with their currencies now overvalued and susceptible to destabilizing speculation, these countries succumbed to the inevitable by the end of 1936. Albania stayed on gold until occupied by Italy in 1939. As much as a cause, the Great Depression was a consequence of the gold standard; for gold-standard countries hesitated to inflate their economies for fear of weakening the balance of payments, suffering loss of gold and foreign-exchange reserves, and being forced to abandon convertibility or the gold parity. So the gold standard involved “golden fetters” (the title of the classic work of Eichengreen, 1992) that inhibited monetary and fiscal policy to fight the depression. Therefore, some have argued, these fetters seriously exacerbated the severity of the Great Depression within countries (because expansionary policy to fight unemployment was not adopted) and fostered the international transmission of the Depression (because as a country’s output decreased, its imports fell, thus reducing exports and income of other countries).

The “international gold standard,” defined as the period of time during which all four core countries were on the gold standard, existed from 1879 to 1914 (36 years) in the classical period and from 1926 or 1928 to 1931 (four or six years) in the interwar period. The interwar gold standard was a dismal failure in longevity, as well as in its association with the greatest depression the world has known.

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Citation: Officer, Lawrence. “Gold Standard”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/gold-standard/

The Economic History of the Fur Trade: 1670 to 1870

Ann M. Carlos, University of Colorado
Frank D. Lewis, Queen’s University

Introduction

A commercial fur trade in North America grew out of the early contact between Indians and European fisherman who were netting cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and on the Bay of Gaspé near Quebec. Indians would trade the pelts of small animals, such as mink, for knives and other iron-based products, or for textiles. Exchange at first was haphazard and it was only in the late sixteenth century, when the wearing of beaver hats became fashionable, that firms were established who dealt exclusively in furs. High quality pelts are available only where winters are severe, so the trade took place predominantly in the regions we now know as Canada, although some activity took place further south along the Mississippi River and in the Rocky Mountains. There was also a market in deer skins that predominated in the Appalachians.

The first firms to participate in the fur trade were French, and under French rule the trade spread along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, and down the Mississippi. In the seventeenth century, following the Dutch, the English developed a trade through Albany. Then in 1670, a charter was granted by the British crown to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which began operating from posts along the coast of Hudson Bay (see Figure 1). For roughly the next hundred years, this northern region saw competition of varying intensity between the French and the English. With the conquest of New France in 1763, the French trade shifted to Scottish merchants operating out of Montreal. After the negotiation of Jay’s Treaty (1794), the northern border was defined and trade along the Mississippi passed to the American Fur Company under John Jacob Astor. In 1821, the northern participants merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and for many decades this merged company continued to trade in furs. Finally, in the 1990s, under pressure from animal rights groups, the Hudson’s Bay Company, which in the twentieth century had become a large Canadian retailer, ended the fur component of its operation.

Figure 1
Hudson’s Bay Company Hinterlands
 Hudson's Bay Company Hinterlands (map)

Source: Ray (1987, plate 60)

The fur trade was based on pelts destined either for the luxury clothing market or for the felting industries, of which hatting was the most important. This was a transatlantic trade. The animals were trapped and exchanged for goods in North America, and the pelts were transported to Europe for processing and final sale. As a result, forces operating on the demand side of the market in Europe and on the supply side in North America determined prices and volumes; while intermediaries, who linked the two geographically separated areas, determined how the trade was conducted.

The Demand for Fur: Hats, Pelts and Prices

However much hats may be considered an accessory today, they were for centuries a mandatory part of everyday dress, for both men and women. Of course styles changed, and, in response to the vagaries of fashion and politics, hats took on various forms and shapes, from the high-crowned, broad-brimmed hat of the first two Stuarts to the conically-shaped, plainer hat of the Puritans. The Restoration of Charles II of England in 1660 and the Glorious Revolution in 1689 brought their own changes in style (Clarke, 1982, chapter 1). What remained a constant was the material from which hats were made – wool felt. The wool came from various animals, but towards the end of the fifteenth century beaver wool began to be predominate. Over time, beaver hats became increasingly popular eventually dominating the market. Only in the nineteenth century did silk replace beaver in high-fashion men’s hats.

Wool Felt

Furs have long been classified as either fancy or staple. Fancy furs are those demanded for the beauty and luster of their pelt. These furs – mink, fox, otter – are fashioned by furriers into garments or robes. Staple furs are sought for their wool. All staple furs have a double coating of hair with long, stiff, smooth hairs called guard hairs which protect the shorter, softer hair, called wool, that grows next to the animal skin. Only the wool can be felted. Each of the shorter hairs is barbed and once the barbs at the ends of the hair are open, the wool can be compressed into a solid piece of material called felt. The prime staple fur has been beaver, although muskrat and rabbit have also been used.

Wool felt was used for over two centuries to make high-fashion hats. Felt is stronger than a woven material. It will not tear or unravel in a straight line; it is more resistant to water, and it will hold its shape even if it gets wet. These characteristics made felt the prime material for hatters especially when fashion called for hats with large brims. The highest quality hats would be made fully from beaver wool, whereas lower quality hats included inferior wool, such as rabbit.

Felt Making

The transformation of beaver skins into felt and then hats was a highly skilled activity. The process required first that the beaver wool be separated from the guard hairs and the skin, and that some of the wool have open barbs, since felt required some open-barbed wool in the mixture. Felt dates back to the nomads of Central Asia, who are said to have invented the process of felting and made their tents from this light but durable material. Although the art of felting disappeared from much of western Europe during the first millennium, felt-making survived in Russia, Sweden, and Asia Minor. As a result of the Medieval Crusades, felting was reintroduced through the Mediterranean into France (Crean, 1962).

In Russia, the felting industry was based on the European beaver (castor fiber). Given their long tradition of working with beaver pelts, the Russians had perfected the art of combing out the short barbed hairs from among the longer guard hairs, a technology that they safeguarded. As a consequence, the early felting trades in England and France had to rely on beaver wool imported from Russia, although they also used domestic supplies of wool from other animals, such rabbit, sheep and goat. But by the end of the seventeenth century, Russian supplies were drying up, reflecting the serious depletion of the European beaver population.

Coincident with the decline in European beaver stocks was the emergence of a North American trade. North American beaver (castor canadensis) was imported through agents in the English, French and Dutch colonies. Although many of the pelts were shipped to Russia for initial processing, the growth of the beaver market in England and France led to the development of local technologies, and more knowledge of the art of combing. Separating the beaver wool from the felt was only the first step in the felting process. It was also necessary that some of the barbs on the short hairs be raised or open. On the animal these hairs were naturally covered with keratin to prevent the barbs from opening, thus to make felt, the keratin had to be stripped from at least some of the hairs. The process was difficult to refine and entailed considerable experimentation by felt-makers. For instance, one felt maker “bundled [the skins] in a sack of linen and boiled [them] for twelve hours in water containing several fatty substances and nitric acid” (Crean, 1962, p. 381). Although such processes removed the keratin, they did so at the price of a lower quality wool.

The opening of the North American trade not only increased the supply of skins for the felting industry, it also provided a subset of skins whose guard hairs had already been removed and the keratin broken down. Beaver pelts imported from North America were classified as either parchment beaver (castor sec – dry beaver), or coat beaver (castor gras – greasy beaver). Parchment beaver were from freshly caught animals, whose skins were simply dried before being presented for trade. Coat beaver were skins that had been worn by the Indians for a year or more. With wear, the guard hairs fell out and the pelt became oily and more pliable. In addition, the keratin covering the shorter hairs broke down. By the middle of the seventeenth century, hatters and felt-makers came to learn that parchment and coat beaver could be combined to produce a strong, smooth, pliable, top-quality waterproof material.

Until the 1720s, beaver felt was produced with relatively fixed proportions of coat and parchment skins, which led to periodic shortages of one or the other type of pelt. The constraint was relaxed when carotting was developed, a chemical process by which parchment skins were transformed into a type of coat beaver. The original carrotting formula consisted of salts of mercury diluted in nitric acid, which was brushed on the pelts. The use of mercury was a big advance, but it also had serious health consequences for hatters and felters, who were forced to breathe the mercury vapor for extended periods. The expression “mad as a hatter” dates from this period, as the vapor attacked the nervous systems of these workers.

The Prices of Parchment and Coat Beaver

Drawn from the accounts of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Table 1 presents some eighteenth century prices of parchment and coat beaver pelts. From 1713 to 1726, before the carotting process had become established, coat beaver generally fetched a higher price than parchment beaver, averaging 6.6 shillings per pelt as compared to 5.5 shillings. Once carotting was widely used, however, the prices were reversed, and from 1730 to 1770 parchment exceeded coat in almost every year. The same general pattern is seen in the Paris data, although there the reversal was delayed, suggesting slower diffusion in France of the carotting technology. As Crean (1962, p. 382) notes, Nollet’s L’Art de faire des chapeaux included the exact formula, but it was not published until 1765.

A weighted average of parchment and coat prices in London reveals three episodes. From 1713 to 1722 prices were quite stable, fluctuating within the narrow band of 5.0 and 5.5 shillings per pelt. During the period, 1723 to 1745, prices moved sharply higher and remained in the range of 7 to 9 shillings. The years 1746 to 1763 saw another big increase to over 12 shillings per pelt. There are far fewer prices available for Paris, but we do know that in the period 1739 to 1753 the trend was also sharply higher with prices more than doubling.

Table 1
Price of Beaver Pelts in Britain: 1713-1763
(shillings per skin)

Year Parchment Coat Averagea Year Parchment Coat Averagea
1713 5.21 4.62 5.03 1739 8.51 7.11 8.05
1714 5.24 7.86 5.66 1740 8.44 6.66 7.88
1715 4.88 5.49 1741 8.30 6.83 7.84
1716 4.68 8.81 5.16 1742 7.72 6.41 7.36
1717 5.29 8.37 5.65 1743 8.98 6.74 8.27
1718 4.77 7.81 5.22 1744 9.18 6.61 8.52
1719 5.30 6.86 5.51 1745 9.76 6.08 8.76
1720 5.31 6.05 5.38 1746 12.73 7.18 10.88
1721 5.27 5.79 5.29 1747 10.68 6.99 9.50
1722 4.55 4.97 4.55 1748 9.27 6.22 8.44
1723 8.54 5.56 7.84 1749 11.27 6.49 9.77
1724 7.47 5.97 7.17 1750 17.11 8.42 14.00
1725 5.82 6.62 5.88 1751 14.31 10.42 12.90
1726 5.41 7.49 5.83 1752 12.94 10.18 11.84
1727 7.22 1753 10.71 11.97 10.87
1728 8.13 1754 12.19 12.68 12.08
1729 9.56 1755 12.05 12.04 11.99
1730 8.71 1756 13.46 12.02 12.84
1731 6.27 1757 12.59 11.60 12.17
1732 7.12 1758 13.07 11.32 12.49
1733 8.07 1759 15.99 14.68
1734 7.39 1760 13.37 13.06 13.22
1735 8.33 1761 10.94 13.03 11.36
1736 8.72 7.07 8.38 1762 13.17 16.33 13.83
1737 7.94 6.46 7.50 1763 16.33 17.56 16.34
1738 8.95 6.47 8.32

a A weighted average of the prices of parchment, coat and half parchment beaver pelts. Weights are based on the trade in these types of furs at Fort Albany. Prices of the individual types of pelts are not available for the years, 1727 to 1735.

Source: Carlos and Lewis, 1999.

The Demand for Beaver Hats

The main cause of the rising beaver pelt prices in England and France was the increasing demand for beaver hats, which included hats made exclusively with beaver wool and referred to as “beaver hats,” and those hats containing a combination of beaver and a lower cost wool, such as rabbit. These were called “felt hats.” Unfortunately, aggregate consumption series for the eighteenth century Europe are not available. We do, however, have Gregory King’s contemporary work for England which provides a good starting point. In a table entitled “Annual Consumption of Apparell, anno 1688,” King calculated that consumption of all types of hats was about 3.3 million, or nearly one hat per person. King also included a second category, caps of all sorts, for which he estimated consumption at 1.6 million (Harte, 1991, p. 293). This means that as early as 1700, the potential market for hats in England alone was nearly 5 million per year. Over the next century, the rising demand for beaver pelts was a result of a number factors including population growth, a greater export market, a shift toward beaver hats from hats made of other materials, and a shift from caps to hats.

The British export data indicate that demand for beaver hats was growing not just in England, but in Europe as well. In 1700 a modest 69,500 beaver hats were exported from England and almost the same number of felt hats; but by 1760, slightly over 500,000 beaver hats and 370,000 felt halts were shipped from English ports (Lawson, 1943, app. I). In total, over the seventy years to 1770, 21 million beaver and felt hats were exported from England. In addition to the final product, England exported the raw material, beaver pelts. In 1760, £15,000 in beaver pelts were exported along with a range of other furs. The hats and the pelts tended to go to different parts of Europe. Raw pelts were shipped mainly to northern Europe, including Germany, Flanders, Holland and Russia; whereas hats went to the southern European markets of Spain and Portugal. In 1750, Germany imported 16,500 beaver hats, while Spain imported 110,000 and Portugal 175,000 (Lawson, 1943, appendices F & G). Over the first six decades of the eighteenth century, these markets grew dramatically, such that the value of beaver hat sales to Portugal alone was £89,000 in 1756-1760, representing about 300,000 hats or two-thirds of the entire export trade.

European Intermediaries in the Fur Trade

By the eighteenth century, the demand for furs in Europe was being met mainly by exports from North America with intermediaries playing an essential role. The American trade, which moved along the main water systems, was organized largely through chartered companies. At the far north, operating out of Hudson Bay, was the Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered in 1670. The Compagnie d’Occident, founded in 1718, was the most successful of a series of monopoly French companies. It operated through the St. Lawrence River and in the region of the eastern Great Lakes. There was also an English trade through Albany and New York, and a French trade down the Mississippi.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Compagnie d’Occident, although similar in title, had very different internal structures. The English trade was organized along hierarchical lines with salaried managers, whereas the French monopoly issued licenses (congés) or leased out the use of its posts. The structure of the English company allowed for more control from the London head office, but required systems that could monitor the managers of the trading posts (Carlos and Nicholas, 1990). The leasing and licensing arrangements of the French made monitoring unnecessary, but led to a system where the center had little influence over the conduct of the trade.

The French and English were distinguished as well by how they interacted with the Natives. The Hudson’s Bay Company established posts around the Bay and waited for the Indians, often middlemen, to come to them. The French, by contrast, moved into the interior, directly trading with the Indians who harvested the furs. The French arrangement was more conducive to expansion, and by the end of the seventeenth century, they had moved beyond the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers into the western Great Lakes region (see Figure 1). Later they established posts in the heart of the Hudson Bay hinterland. In addition, the French explored the river systems to the south, setting up a post at the mouth of the Mississippi. As noted earlier, after Jay’s Treaty was signed, the French were replaced in the Mississippi region by U.S. interests which later formed the American Fur Company (Haeger, 1991).

The English takeover of New France at the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1763 did not, at first, fundamentally change the structure of the trade. Rather, French management was replaced by Scottish and English merchants operating in Montreal. But, within a decade, the Montreal trade was reorganized into partnerships between merchants in Montreal and traders who wintered in the interior. The most important of these arrangements led to the formation of the Northwest Company, which for the first two decades of the nineteenth century, competed with the Hudson’s Bay Company (Carlos and Hoffman, 1986). By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company had, combined, a system of trading posts across North America, including posts in Oregon and British Columbia and on the Mackenzie River. In 1821, the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company then ran the trade as a monopsony until the late 1840s when it began facing serious competition from trappers to the south. The Company’s role in the northwest changed again with the Canadian Confederation in 1867. Over the next decades treaties were signed with many of the northern tribes forever changing the old fur trade order in Canada.

The Supply of Furs: The Harvesting of Beaver and Depletion

During the eighteenth century, the changing technology of felt production and the growing demand for felt hats were met by attempts to increase the supply of furs, especially the supply of beaver pelts. Any permanent increase, however, was ultimately dependent on the animal resource base. How that base changed over time must be a matter of speculation since no animal counts exist from that period; nevertheless, the evidence we do have points to a scenario in which over-harvesting, at least in some years, gave rise to serious depletion of the beaver and possibly other animals such as marten that were also being traded. Why the beaver were over-harvested was closely related to the prices Natives were receiving, but important as well was the nature of Native property rights to the resource.

Harvests in the Fort Albany and York Factory Regions

That beaver populations along the Eastern seaboard regions of North America were depleted as the fur trade advanced is widely accepted. In fact the search for new sources of supply further west, including the region of Hudson Bay, has been attributed in part to dwindling beaver stocks in areas where the fur trade had been long established. Although there has been little discussion of the impact that the Hudson’s Bay Company and the French, who traded in the region of Hudson Bay, were having on the beaver stock, the remarkably complete records of the Hudson’s Bay Company provide the basis for reasonable inferences about depletion. From 1700 there is an uninterrupted annual series of fur returns at Fort Albany; the fur returns from York Factory begin in 1716 (see Figure 1).

The beaver returns at Fort Albany and York Factory for the period 1700 to 1770 are described in Figure 2. At Fort Albany the number of beaver skins over the period 1700 to 1720 averaged roughly 19,000, with wide year-to-year fluctuations; the range was about 15,000 to 30,000. After 1720 and until the late 1740s average returns declined by about 5,000 skins, and remained within the somewhat narrower range of roughly 10,000 to 20,000 skins. The period of relative stability was broken in the final years of the 1740s. In 1748 and 1749, returns increased to an average of nearly 23,000. Following these unusually strong years, the trade fell precipitously so that in 1756 fewer than 6,000 beaver pelts were received. There was a brief recovery in the early 1760s but by the end decade trade had fallen below even the mid-1750s levels. In 1770, Fort Albany took in just 3,600 beaver pelts. This pattern – unusually large returns in the late 1740s and low returns thereafter – indicates that the beaver in the Fort Albany region were being seriously depleted.

Figure 2
Beaver Traded at Fort Albany and York Factory 1700 – 1770

Source: Carlos and Lewis, 1993.

The beaver returns at York Factory from 1716 to 1770, also described in Figure 2, have some of the key features of the Fort Albany data. After some low returns early on (from 1716 to 1720), the number of beaver pelts increased to an average of 35,000. There were extraordinary returns in 1730 and 1731, when the average was 55,600 skins, but beaver receipts then stabilized at about 31,000 over the remainder of the decade. The first break in the pattern came in the early 1740s shortly after the French established several trading posts in the area. Surprisingly perhaps, given the increased competition, trade in beaver pelts at the Hudson’s Bay Company post increased to an average of 34,300, this over the period 1740 to 1743. Indeed, the 1742 return of 38,791 skins was the largest since the French had established any posts in the region. The returns in 1745 were also strong, but after that year the trade in beaver pelts began a decline that continued through to 1770. Average returns over the rest of the decade were 25,000; the average during the 1750s was 18,000, and just 15,500 in the 1760s. The pattern of beaver returns at York Factory – high returns in the early 1740s followed by a large decline – strongly suggests that, as in the Fort Albany hinterland, the beaver population had been greatly reduced.

The overall carrying capacity of any region, or the size of the animal stock, depends on the nature of the terrain and the underlying biological determinants such as birth and death rates. A standard relationship between the annual harvest and the animal population is the Lotka-Volterra logistic, commonly used in natural resource models to relate the natural growth of a population to the size of that population:
F(X) = aX – bX2, a, b > 0 (1)

where X is the population, F(X) is the natural growth in the population, a is the maximum proportional growth rate of the population, and b = a/X, where X is the upper limit to population size. The population dynamics of the species exploited depends on the harvest each period:

DX = aX – bX2- H (2)

where DX is the annual change in the population and H is the harvest. The choice of parameter a and maximum population X is central to the population estimates and have been based largely on estimates from the beaver ecology literature and Ontario provincial field reports of beaver densities (Carlos and Lewis, 1993).

Simulations based on equation 2 suggest that, until the 1730s, beaver populations remained at levels roughly consistent with maximum sustained yield management, sometimes referred to as the biological optimum. But after the 1730s there was a decline in beaver stocks to about half the maximum sustained yield levels. The cause of the depletion was closely related to what was happening in Europe. There, buoyant demand for felt hats and dwindling local fur supplies resulted in much higher prices for beaver pelts. These higher prices, in conjunction with the resulting competition from the French in the Hudson Bay region, led the Hudson’s Bay Company to offer much better terms to Natives who came to their trading posts (Carlos and Lewis, 1999).

Figure 3 reports a price index for furs at Fort Albany and at York Factory. The index represents a measure of what Natives received in European goods for their furs. At Fort Albany, fur prices were close to 70 from 1713 to 1731, but in 1732, in response to higher European fur prices and the entry of la Vérendrye, an important French trader, the price jumped to 81. After that year, prices continued to rise. The pattern at York Factory was similar. Although prices were high in the early years when the post was being established, beginning in 1724 the price settled down to about 70. At York Factory, the jump in price came in 1738, which was the year la Vérendrye set up a trading post in the York Factory hinterland. Prices then continued to increase. It was these higher fur prices that led to over-harvesting and, ultimately, a decline in beaver stocks.

Figure 3
Price Index for Furs: Fort Albany and York Factory, 1713 – 1770

Source: Carlos and Lewis, 2001.

Property Rights Regimes

An increase in price paid to Native hunters did not have to lead to a decline in the animal stocks, because Indians could have chosen to limit their harvesting. Why they did not was closely related their system of property rights. One can classify property rights along a spectrum with, at one end, open access, where anyone can hunt or fish, and at the other, complete private property, where a sole owner has full control over the resource. Between, there are a range of property rights regimes with access controlled by a community or a government, and where individual members of the group do not necessarily have private property rights. Open access creates a situation where there is less incentive to conserve, because animals not harvested by a particular hunter will be available to other hunters in the future. Thus the closer is a system to open access the more likely it is that the resource will be depleted.

Across aboriginal societies in North America, one finds a range of property rights regimes. Native Americans did have a concept of trespass and of property, but individual and family rights to resources were not absolute. Sometimes referred to as the Good Samaritan principle (McManus, 1972), outsiders were not permitted to harvest furs on another’s territory for trade, but they were allowed to hunt game and even beaver for food. Combined with this limitation to private property was an Ethic of Generosity that included liberal gift-giving where any visitor to one’s encampment was to be supplied with food and shelter.

Why a social norm such as gift-giving or the related Good Samaritan principle emerged was due to the nature of the aboriginal environment. The primary objective of aboriginal societies was survival. Hunting was risky, and so rules were put in place that would reduce the risk of starvation. As Berkes et al.(1989, p. 153) notes, for such societies: “all resources are subject to the overriding principle that no one can prevent a person from obtaining what he needs for his family’s survival.” Such actions were reciprocal and especially in the sub-arctic world were an insurance mechanism. These norms, however, also reduced the incentive to conserve the beaver and other animals that were part of the fur trade. The combination of these norms and the increasing price paid to Native traders led to the large harvests in the 1740s and ultimately depletion of the animal stock.

The Trade in European Goods

Indians were the primary agents in the North American commercial fur trade. It was they who hunted the animals, and transported and traded the pelts or skins to European intermediaries. The exchange was a voluntary. In return for their furs, Indians obtained both access to an iron technology to improve production and access to a wide range of new consumer goods. It is important to recognize, however, that although the European goods were new to aboriginals, the concept of exchange was not. The archaeological evidence indicates an extensive trade between Native tribes in the north and south of North America prior to European contact.

The extraordinary records of the Hudson’s Bay Company allow us to form a clear picture of what Indians were buying. Table 2 lists the goods received by Natives at York Factory, which was by far the largest of the Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts. As is evident from the table, the commercial trade was more than in beads and baubles or even guns and alcohol; rather Native traders were receiving a wide range of products that improved their ability to meet their subsistence requirements and allowed them to raise their living standards. The items have been grouped by use. The producer goods category was dominated by firearms, including guns, shot and powder, but also includes knives, awls and twine. The Natives traded for guns of different lengths. The 3-foot gun was used mainly for waterfowl and in heavily forested areas where game could be shot at close range. The 4-foot gun was more accurate and suitable for open spaces. In addition, the 4-foot gun could play a role in warfare. Maintaining guns in the harsh sub-arctic environment was a serious problem, and ultimately, the Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to send gunsmiths to its trading posts to assess quality and help with repairs. Kettles and blankets were the main items in the “household goods” category. These goods probably became necessities to the Natives who adopted them. Then there were the luxury goods, which have been divided into two broad categories: “tobacco and alcohol,” and “other luxuries,” dominated by cloth of various kinds (Carlos and Lewis, 2001; 2002).

Table 2
Value of Goods Received at York Factory in 1740 (made beaver)

We have much less information about the French trade. The French are reported to have exchanged similar items, although given their higher transport costs, both the furs received and the goods traded tended to be higher in value relative to weight. The Europeans, it might be noted, supplied no food to the trade in the eighteenth century. In fact, Indians helped provision the posts with fish and fowl. This role of food purveyor grew in the nineteenth century as groups known as the “home guard Cree” came to live around the posts; as well, pemmican, supplied by Natives, became an important source of nourishment for Europeans involved in the buffalo hunts.

The value of the goods listed in Table 2 is expressed in terms of the unit of account, the made beaver, which the Hudson’s Bay Company used to record its transactions and determine the rate of exchange between furs and European goods. The price of a prime beaver pelt was 1 made beaver, and every other type of fur and good was assigned a price based on that unit. For example, a marten (a type of mink) was a made beaver, a blanket was 7 made beaver, a gallon of brandy, 4 made beaver, and a yard of cloth, 3? made beaver. These were the official prices at York Factory. Thus Indians, who traded at these prices, received, for example, a gallon of brandy for four prime beaver pelts, two yards of cloth for seven beaver pelts, and a blanket for 21 marten pelts. This was barter trade in that no currency was used; and although the official prices implied certain rates of exchange between furs and goods, Hudson’s Bay Company factors were encouraged to trade at rates more favorable to the Company. The actual rates, however, depended on market conditions in Europe and, most importantly, the extent of French competition in Canada. Figure 3 illustrates the rise in the price of furs at York Factory and Fort Albany in response to higher beaver prices in London and Paris, as well as to a greater French presence in the region (Carlos and Lewis, 1999). The increase in price also reflects the bargaining ability of Native traders during periods of direct competition between the English and French and later the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company. At such times, the Native traders would play both parties off against each other (Ray and Freeman, 1978).

The records of the Hudson’s Bay Company provide us with a unique window to the trading process, including the bargaining ability of Native traders, which is evident in the range of commodities received. Natives only bought goods they wanted. Clear from the Company records is that it was the Natives who largely determined the nature and quality of those goods. As well the records tell us how income from the trade was being allocated. The breakdown differed by post and varied over time; but, for example, in 1740 at York Factory, the distribution was: producer goods – 44 percent; household goods – 9 percent; alcohol and tobacco – 24 percent; and other luxuries – 23 percent. An important implication of the trade data is that, like many Europeans and most American colonists, Native Americans were taking part in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century (de Vries, 1993; Shammas, 1993). In addition to necessities, they were consuming a remarkable variety of luxury products. Cloth, including baize, duffel, flannel, and gartering, was by far the largest class, but they also purchased beads, combs, looking glasses, rings, shirts, and vermillion among a much longer list. Because these items were heterogeneous in nature, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s head office went to great lengths to satisfy the specific tastes of Native consumers. Attempts were also made, not always successfully, to introduce new products (Carlos and Lewis, 2002).

Perhaps surprising, given the emphasis that has been placed on it in the historical literature, was the comparatively small role of alcohol in the trade. At York Factory, Native traders received in 1740 a total of 494 gallons of brandy and “strong water,” which had a value of 1,976 made beaver. More than twice this amount was spent on tobacco in that year, nearly five times was spent on firearms, twice was spent on cloth, and more was spent on blankets and kettles than on alcohol. Thus, brandy, although a significant item of trade, was by no means a dominant one. In addition, alcohol could hardly have created serious social problems during this period. The amount received would have allowed for no more than ten two-ounce drinks per year for the adult Native population living in the region.

The Labor Supply of Natives

Another important question can be addressed using the trade data. Were Natives “lazy and improvident” as they have been described by some contemporaries, or were they “industrious” like the American colonists and many Europeans? Central to answering this question is how Native groups responded to the price of furs, which began rising in the 1730s. Much of the literature argues that Indian trappers reduced their effort in response to higher fur prices; that is, they had backward-bending supply curves of labor. The view is that Natives had a fixed demand for European goods that, at higher fur prices, could be met with fewer furs, and hence less effort. Although widely cited, this argument does not stand up. Not only were higher fur prices accompanied by larger total harvests of furs in the region, but the pattern of Native expenditure also points to a scenario of greater effort. From the late 1730s to the 1760s, as the price of furs rose, the share of expenditure on luxury goods increased dramatically (see Figure 4). Thus Natives were not content simply to accept their good fortune by working less; rather they seized the opportunity provided to them by the strong fur market by increasing their effort in the commercial sector, thereby dramatically augmenting the purchases of those goods, namely the luxuries, that could raise their living standards.

Figure 4
Native Expenditure Shares at York Factory 1716 – 1770

Source: Carlos and Lewis, 2001.

A Note on the Non-commercial Sector

As important as the fur trade was to Native Americans in the sub-arctic regions of Canada, commerce with the Europeans comprised just one, relatively small, part of their overall economy. Exact figures are not available, but the traditional sectors; hunting, gathering, food preparation and, to some extent, agriculture must have accounted for at least 75 to 80 percent of Native labor during these decades. Nevertheless, despite the limited time spent in commercial activity, the fur trade had a profound effect on the nature of the Native economy and Native society. The introduction of European producer goods, such as guns, and household goods, mainly kettles and blankets, changed the way Native Americans achieved subsistence; and the European luxury goods expanded the range of products that allowed them to move beyond subsistence. Most importantly, the fur trade connected Natives to Europeans in ways that affected how and how much they chose to work, where they chose to live, and how they exploited the resources on which the trade and their survival was based.

References

Berkes, Fikret, David Feeny, Bonnie J. McCay, and James M. Acheson. “The Benefits of the Commons.” Nature 340 (July 13, 1989): 91-93.

Braund, Kathryn E. Holland.Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Carlos, Ann M., and Elizabeth Hoffman. “The North American Fur Trade: Bargaining to a Joint Profit Maximum under Incomplete Information, 1804-1821.” Journal of Economic History 46, no. 4 (1986): 967-86.

Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. “Indians, the Beaver and the Bay: The Economics of Depletion in the Lands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1700-1763.” Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1993): 465-94.

Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. “Property Rights, Competition and Depletion in the Eighteenth-Century Canadian Fur Trade: The Role of the European Market.” Canadian Journal of Economics 32, no. 3 (1999): 705-28.

Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. “Property Rights and Competition in the Depletion of the Beaver: Native Americans and the Hudson’s Bay Company.” In The Other Side of the Frontier: Economic Explorations in Native American History, edited by Linda Barrington, 131-149. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. “Trade, Consumption, and the Native Economy: Lessons from York Factory, Hudson Bay.” Journal of Economic History61, no. 4 (2001): 465-94.

Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. “Marketing in the Land of Hudson Bay: Indian Consumers and the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1770.” Enterprise and Society 2 (2002): 285-317.

Carlos, Ann and Nicholas, Stephen. “Agency Problems in Early Chartered Companies: The Case of the Hudson’s Bay Company.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 4 (1990): 853-75.

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Corner, David. “The Tyranny of Fashion: The Case of the Felt-Hatting Trade in the Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Textile History 22, no.2 (1991): 153-178.

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Heidenreich, Conrad E., and Arthur J. Ray. The Early Fur Trade: A Study in Cultural Interaction. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Helm, Jane, ed. Handbook of North American Indians 6, Subarctic. Washington: Smithsonian, 1981.

Innis, Harold. The Fur Trade in Canada (revised edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1956.

Krech III, Shepard. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: Norton, 1999.

Lawson, Murray G. Fur: A Study in English Mercantilism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1943.

McManus, John. “An Economic Analysis of Indian Behavior in the North American Fur Trade.” Journal of Economic History 32, no.1 (1972): 36-53.

Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Hunters, Trappers and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660-1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Ray, Arthur J. and Donald Freeman. “Give Us Good Measure”: An Economic Analysis of Relations between the Indians and the Hudson’s Bay Company before 1763. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Ray, Arthur J. “Bayside Trade, 1720-1780.” In Historical Atlas of Canada 1, edited by R. Cole Harris, plate 60. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Rich, E. E. Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670 – 1870. 2 vols. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960.

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Citation: Carlos, Ann and Frank Lewis. “Fur Trade (1670-1870)”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-the-fur-trade-1670-to-1870/

An Economic History of Finland

Riitta Hjerppe, University of Helsinki

Finland in the early 2000s is a small industrialized country with a standard of living ranked among the top twenty in the world. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was a poor agrarian country with a gross domestic product per capita less than half of that of the United Kingdom and the United States, world leaders at the time in this respect. Finland was part of Sweden until 1809, and a Grand Duchy of Russia from 1809 to 1917, with relatively broad autonomy in its economic and many internal affairs. It became an independent republic in 1917. While not directly involved in the fighting in World War I, the country went through a civil war during the years of early independence in 1918, and fought against the Soviet Union during World War II. Participation in Western trade liberalization and bilateral trade with the Soviet Union required careful balancing of foreign policy, but also enhanced the welfare of the population. Finland has been a member of the European Union since 1995, and has belonged to the European Economic and Monetary Union since 1999, when it adopted the euro as its currency.

Gross Domestic Product per capita in Finland and in EU 15, 1860-2004, index 2004 = 100

Sources: Eurostat (2001–2005)

Finland has large forest areas of coniferous trees, and forests have been and still are an important natural resource in its economic development. Other natural resources are scarce: there is no coal or oil, and relatively few minerals. Outokumpu, the biggest copper mine in Europe in its time, was depleted in the 1980s. Even water power is scarce, despite the large number of lakes, because of the small height differences. The country is among the larger ones in Europe in area, but it is sparsely populated with 44 people per square mile, 5.3 million people altogether. The population is very homogeneous. There are a small number of people of foreign origin, about two percent, and for historical reasons there are two official language groups, the Finnish-speaking majority and a Swedish-speaking minority. In recent years population has grown at about 0.3 percent per year.

The Beginnings of Industrialization and Accelerating Growth

Finland was an agrarian country in the 1800s, despite poor climatic conditions for efficient grain growing. Seventy percent of the population was engaged in agriculture and forestry, and half of the value of production came from these primary industries in 1900. Slash and burn cultivation finally gave way to field cultivation during the nineteenth century, even in the eastern parts of the country.

Some iron works were founded in the southwestern part of the country in order to process Swedish iron ore as early as in the seventeenth century. Significant tar burning, sawmilling and fur trading brought cash with which to buy a few imported items such as salt, and some luxuries – coffee, sugar, wines and fine cloths. The small towns in the coastal areas flourished through the shipping of these items, even if restrictive legislation in the eighteenth century required transport via Stockholm. The income from tar and timber shipping accumulated capital for the first industrial plants.

The nineteenth century saw the modest beginnings of industrialization, clearly later than in Western Europe. The first modern cotton factories started up in the 1830s and 1840s, as did the first machine shops. The first steam machines were introduced in the cotton factories and the first rag paper machine in the 1840s. The first steam sawmills were allowed to start only in 1860. The first railroad shortened the traveling time from the inland towns to the coast in 1862, and the first telegraphs came at around the same time. Some new inventions, such as electrical power and the telephone, came into use early in the 1880s, but generally the diffusion of new technology to everyday use took a long time.

The export of various industrial and artisan products to Russia from the 1840s on, as well as the opening up of British markets to Finnish sawmill products in the 1860s were important triggers of industrial development. From the 1870s on pulp and paper based on wood fiber became major export items to the Russian market, and before World War I one-third of the demand of the vast Russian empire was satisfied with Finnish paper. Finland became a very open economy after the 1860s and 1870s, with an export share equaling one-fifth of GDP and an import share of one-fourth. A happy coincidence was the considerable improvement in the terms of trade (export prices/import prices) from the late 1860s to 1900, when timber and other export prices improved in relation to the international prices of grain and industrial products.

Openness of the economies (exports+imports of goods/GDP, percent) in Finland and EU 15, 1960-2005

Sources: Heikkinen and van Zanden 2004; Hjerppe 1989.

Finland participated fully in the global economy of the first gold-standard era, importing much of its grain tariff-free and a lot of other foodstuffs. Half of the imports consisted of food, beverages and tobacco. Agriculture turned to dairy farming, as in Denmark, but with poorer results. The Finnish currency, the markka from 1865, was tied to gold in 1878 and the Finnish Senate borrowed money from Western banking houses in order to build railways and schools.

GDP grew at a slightly accelerating average rate of 2.6 percent per annum, and GDP per capita rose 1.5 percent per year on average between 1860 and 1913. The population was also growing rapidly, and from two million in the 1860s it reached three million on the eve of World War I. Only about ten percent of the population lived in towns. The investment rate was a little over 10 percent of GDP between the 1860s and 1913 and labor productivity was low compared to the leading nations. Accordingly, economic growth depended mostly on added labor inputs, as well as a growing cultivated area.

Catching up in the Interwar Years

The revolution of 1917 in Russia and Finland’s independence cut off Russian trade, which was devastating for Finland’s economy. The food situation was particularly difficult as 60 percent of grain required had been imported.

Postwar reconstruction in Europe and the consequent demand for timber soon put the economy on a swift growth path. The gap between the Finnish economy and Western economies narrowed dramatically in the interwar period, although it remained the same among the Scandinavian countries, which also experienced fast growth: GDP grew by 4.7 percent per annum and GDP per capita by 3.8 percent in 1920–1938. The investment rate rose to new heights, which also improved labor productivity. The 1930s depression was milder than in many other European countries because of the continued demand for pulp and paper. On the other hand, Finnish industries went into depression at different times, which made the downturn milder than it would have been if all the industries had experienced their troughs simultaneously. The Depression, however, had serious and long-drawn-out consequences for poor people.

The land reform of 1918 secured land for tenant farmers and farm workers. A large number of new, small farms were established, which could only support families if they had extra income from forest work. The country remained largely agrarian. On the eve of World War II, almost half of the labor force and one-third of the production were still in the primary industries. Small-scale agriculture used horses and horse-drawn machines, lumberjacks went into the forest with axes and saws, and logs were transported from the forest by horses or by floating. Tariff protection and other policy measures helped to raise the domestic grain production to 80–90 percent of consumption by 1939.

Soon after the end of World War I, Finnish sawmill products, pulp and paper found old and new markets in the Western world. The structure of exports became more one-sided, however. Textiles and metal products found no markets in the West and had to compete hard with imports on the domestic market. More than four-fifths of exports were based on wood, and one-third of industrial production was in sawmilling, other wood products, pulp and paper. Other growing industries included mining, basic metal industries and machine production, but they operated on the domestic market, protected by the customs barriers that were typical of Europe at that time.

The Postwar Boom until the 1970s

Finland came out of World War II crippled by the loss of a full tenth of its territory, and with 400.000 evacuees from Karelia. Productive units were dilapidated and the raw material situation was poor. The huge war reparations to the Soviet Union were the priority problem of the decision makers. The favorable development of the domestic machinery and shipbuilding industries, which was based on domestic demand during the interwar period and arms deliveries to the army during the War made war-reparations deliveries possible. They were paid on time and according to the agreements. At the same time, timber exports to the West started again. Gradually the productive capacity was modernized and the whole industry was reformed. Evacuees and soldiers were given land on which to settle, and this contributed to the decrease in farm size.

Finland became part of the Western European trade-liberalization movement by joining the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Bretton Woods agreement in 1948, becoming a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) two years later, and joining Finnefta (an agreement between the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and Finland) in 1961. The government chose not to receive Marshall Aid because of the world political situation. Bilateral trade agreements with the Soviet Union started in 1947 and continued until 1991. Tariffs were eased and imports from market economies liberated from 1957. Exports and imports, which had stayed at internationally high levels during the interwar years, only slowly returned to the earlier relative levels.

The investment rate climbed to new levels soon after War World II under a government policy favoring investments and it remained on this very high level until the end of the 1980s. The labor-force growth stopped in the early 1960s, and economic growth has since depended on increases in productivity rather than increased labor inputs. GDP growth was 4.9 percent and GDP per capita 4.3 percent in 1950–1973 – matching the rapid pace of many other European countries.

Exports and, accordingly, the structure of the manufacturing industry were diversified by Soviet and, later, on Western orders for machinery products including paper machines, cranes, elevators, and special ships such as icebreakers. The vast Soviet Union provided good markets for clothing and footwear, while Finnish wool and cotton factories slowly disappeared because of competition from low-wage countries. The modern chemical industry started to develop in the early twentieth century, often led by foreign entrepreneurs, and the first small oil refinery was built by the government in the 1950s. The government became actively involved in industrial activities in the early twentieth century, with investments in mining, basic industries, energy production and transmission, and the construction of infrastructure, and this continued in the postwar period.

The new agricultural policy, the aim of which was to secure reasonable incomes and favorable loans to the farmers and the availability of domestic agricultural products for the population, soon led to overproduction in several product groups, and further to government-subsidized dumping on the international markets. The first limitations on agricultural production were introduced at the end of the 1960s.

The population reached four million in 1950, and the postwar baby boom put extra pressure on the educational system. The educational level of the Finnish population was low in Western European terms in the 1950s, even if everybody could read and write. The underdeveloped educational system was expanded and renewed as new universities and vocational schools were founded, and the number of years of basic, compulsory education increased. Education has been government run since the 1960s and 1970s, and is free at all levels. Finland started to follow the so-called Nordic welfare model, and similar improvements in health and social care have been introduced, normally somewhat later than in the other Nordic countries. Public child-health centers, cash allowances for children, and maternity leave were established in the 1940s, and pension plans have covered the whole population since the 1950s. National unemployment programs had their beginnings in the 1930s and were gradually expanded. A public health-care system was introduced in 1970, and national health insurance also covers some of the cost of private health care. During the 1980s the income distribution became one of the most even in the world.

Slower Growth from the 1970s

The oil crises of the 1970s put the Finnish economy under pressure. Although the oil reserves of the main supplier, the Soviet Union, showed no signs of running out, the price increased in line with world market prices. This was a source of devastating inflation in Finland. On the other hand, it was possible to increase exports under the terms of the bilateral trade agreement with the Soviet Union. This boosted export demand and helped Finland to avoid the high and sustained unemployment that plagued Western Europe.

Economic growth in the 1980s was somewhat better than in most Western economies, and at the end of the 1980s Finland caught up with the sluggishly-growing Swedish GDP per capita for the first time. In the early 1990s the collapse of the Soviet trade, Western European recession and problems in adjusting to the new liberal order of international capital movement led the Finnish economy into a depression that was worse than that of the 1930s. GDP fell by over 10 percent in three years, and unemployment rose to 18 percent. The banking crisis triggered a profound structural change in the Finnish financial sector. The economy revived again to a brisk growth rate of 3.6 percent in 1994-2005: GDP growth was 2.5 percent and GDP per capita 2.1 percent between 1973 and 2005.

Electronics started its spectacular rise in the 1980s and it is now the largest single manufacturing industry with a 25 percent share of all manufacturing. Nokia is the world’s largest producer of mobile phones and a major transmission-station constructor. Connected to this development was the increase in the research-and- development outlay to three percent of GDP, one of the highest in the world. The Finnish paper companies UPM-Kymmene and M-real and the Finnish-Swedish Stora-Enso are among the largest paper producers in the world, although paper production now accounts for only 10 percent of manufacturing output. The recent discussion on the future of the industry is alarming, however. The position of the Nordic paper industry, which is based on expensive, slowly-growing timber, is threatened by new paper factories founded near the expanding consumption areas in Asia and South America, which use local, fast-growing tropical timber. The formerly significant sawmilling operations now constitute a very small percentage of the activities, although the production volumes have been growing. The textile and clothing industries have shrunk into insignificance.

What has typified the last couple of decades is the globalization that has spread to all areas. Exports and imports have increased as a result of export-favoring policies. Some 80 percent of the stocks of Finnish public companies are now in foreign hands: foreign ownership was limited and controlled until the early 1990s. A quarter of the companies operating in Finland are foreign-owned, and Finnish companies have even bigger investments abroad. Most big companies are truly international nowadays. Migration to Finland has increased, and since the collapse of the eastern bloc Russian immigrants have become the largest single foreign group. The number of foreigners is still lower than in many other countries – there are about 120.000 people with foreign background out of a population of 5.3 million.

The directions of foreign trade have been changing because trade with the rising Asian economies has been gaining in importance and Russian trade has fluctuated. Otherwise, almost the same country distribution prevails as has been common for over a century. Western Europe has a share of three-fifths, which has been typical. The United Kingdom was for long Finland’s biggest trading partner, with a share of one-third, but this started to diminish in the 1960s. Russia accounted for one-third of Finnish foreign trade in the early 1900s, but the Soviet Union had minimal trade with the West at first, and its share of the Finnish foreign trade was just a few percentage points. After World War II Soviet-Finnish trade increased gradually until it reached 25 percent of Finnish foreign trade in the 1970s and early 1980s. Trade with Russia is now gradually gaining ground again from the low point of the early 1990s, and had risen to about ten percent in 2006. This makes Russia one of Finland’s three biggest trading partners, Sweden and Germany being the other two with a ten percent share each.

The balance of payments was a continuing problem in the Finnish economy until the 1990s. Particularly in the post-World War II period inflation repeatedly eroded the competitive capacity of the economy and led to numerous devaluations of the currency. An economic policy favoring exports helped the country out of the depression of the 1990s and improved the balance of payments.

Agriculture continued its problematic development of overproduction and high subsidies, which finally became very unpopular. The number of farms has shrunk since the 1960s and the average size has recently risen to average European levels. The share of agricultural production and labor are also on the Western European levels nowadays. Finnish agriculture is incorporated into the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union and shares its problems, even if Finnish overproduction has been virtually eliminated.

The share of forestry is equally low, even if it supplies four-fifths of the wood used in Finnish sawmills and paper factories: the remaining fifth is imported mainly from the northwestern parts of Russia. The share of manufacturing is somewhat above Western European levels and, accordingly, that of services is high but slightly lower than in the old industrialized countries.

Recent discussion on the state of the economy mainly focuses on two issues. The very open economy of Finland is very much influenced by the rather sluggish economic development of the European Union. Accordingly, not very high growth rates are to be expected in Finland either. Since the 1990s depression, the investment rate has remained at a lower level than was common in the postwar period, and this is cause for concern.

The other issue concerns the prominent role of the public sector in the economy. The Nordic welfare model is basically approved of, but the costs create tensions. High taxation is one consequence of this and political parties discuss whether or not the high public-sector share slows down economic growth.

The aging population, high unemployment and the decreasing numbers of taxpayers in the rural areas of eastern and central Finland place a burden on the local governments. There is also continuing discussion about tax competition inside the European Union: how does the high taxation in some member countries affect the location decisions of companies?

Development of Finland’s exports by commodity group 1900-2005, percent

Source: Finnish National Board of Customs, Statistics Unit

Note on classification: Metal industry products SITC 28, 67, 68, 7, 87; Chemical products SITC 27, 32, 33, 34, 5, 66; Textiles SITC 26, 61, 65, 84, 85; Wood, paper and printed products SITC 24, 25, 63, 64, 82; Food, beverages, tobacco SITC 0, 1, 4.

Development of Finland’s imports by commodity group 1900-2005, percent

Source: Finnish National Board of Customs, Statistics Unit

Note on classification: Metal industry products SITC 28, 67, 68, 7, 87; Chemical products SITC 27, 32, 33, 34, 5, 66; Textiles SITC 26, 61, 65, 84, 85; Wood, paper and printed products SITC 24, 25, 63, 64, 82; Food, beverages, tobacco SITC 0, 1, 4.

References:

Heikkinen, S. and J.L van Zanden, eds. Explorations in Economic Growth. Amsterdam: Aksant, 2004.

Heikkinen, S. Labour and the Market: Workers, Wages and Living Standards in Finland, 1850–1913. Commentationes Scientiarum Socialium 51 (1997).

Hjerppe, R. The Finnish Economy 1860–1985: Growth and Structural Change. Studies on Finland’s Economic Growth XIII. Helsinki: Bank of Finland Publications, 1989.

Jalava, J., S. Heikkinen and R. Hjerppe. “Technology and Structural Change: Productivity in the Finnish Manufacturing Industries, 1925-2000.” Transformation, Integration and Globalization Economic Research (TIGER), Working Paper No. 34, December 2002.

Kaukiainen, Yrjö. A History of Finnish Shipping. London: Routledge, 1993.

Myllyntaus, Timo. Electrification of Finland: The Transfer of a New Technology into a Late Industrializing Economy. Worcester, MA: Macmillan, Worcester, 1991.

Ojala, J., J. Eloranta and J. Jalava, editors. The Road to Prosperity: An Economic History of Finland. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2006.

Pekkarinen, J. and J. Vartiainen. Finlands ekonomiska politik: den långa linjen 1918–2000, Stockholm: Stiftelsen Fackföreningsrörelsens institut för ekonomisk forskning FIEF, 2001.

Citation: Hjerppe, Riitta. “An Economic History of Finland”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/an-economic-history-of-finland/

The Euro and Its Antecedents

Jerry Mushin, Victoria University of Wellington

The establishment, in 1999, of the euro was not an isolated event. It was the latest installment in the continuing story of attempts to move towards economic and monetary integration in western Europe. Its relationship with developments since 1972, when the Bretton Woods system of fixed (but adjustable) exchange rates in terms of the United States dollar was collapsing, is of particular interest.

Political moves towards monetary cooperation in western Europe began at the end of the Second World War, but events before 1972 are beyond the scope of this article. Coffey and Presley (1971) have described and analyzed relevant events between 1945 and 1971.

The Snake

In May 1972, at the end of the Bretton Woods (adjustable-peg) system, many countries in western Europe attempted to stabilize their currencies in relation to each other’s currencies. The arrangements known as the Snake in the Tunnel (or, more frequently, as the Snake), which were set up by members of the European Economic Community (EEC), one of the forerunners of the European Union, lasted until 1979. Each member agreed to limit, by market intervention, the fluctuations of its currency’s exchange rate in terms of other members’ currencies. The maximum divergence between the strongest and the weakest currencies was 2.25%. The agreement meant that the French government, for example, would ensure that the value of the French franc would show very limited fluctuation in terms of the Italian lira or the Netherlands guilder, but that there would be no commitment to stabilize its fluctuations against the United States dollar, the Japanese yen, or other currencies outside the agreement.

This was a narrower objective than the aim of the adjustable-peg system, which was intended to stabilize the value of each currency in terms of the values of all other major currencies, but for which the amount of reserves held by governments had proved to be insufficient. It was felt that this limited objective could be achieved with the amount of reserves available to member governments.

The agreement also had a political dimension. Stable exchange rates are likely to encourage international trade, and it was hoped that the new exchange-rate regime would stimulate members’ trade within western Europe at the expense of their trade with the rest of the world. This was one of the objectives of the EEC from its inception.

Exchange rates within the group of currencies were to be managed by market intervention; member governments undertook to buy and sell their currencies in sufficiently large quantities to influence their exchange rates. There was an agreed maximum divergence between the strongest and weakest currencies. Exchange rates of the whole group of currencies fluctuated together against external denominators such as the United States dollar.

The Snake is generally regarded as a failure. Membership was very unstable; the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic withdrew after less than one month, and only the German Federal Republic remained a member for the whole of its existence. Other members withdrew and rejoined, and some did this several times. In addition, the political context of the Snake was not clearly defined. Sweden and Norway participated in the Snake although, at that time, neither of these countries was a member of the EEC and Sweden was not a candidate for admission.

The curious name of the Snake in the Tunnel comes from the appearance of exchange-rate graphs. In terms of a non-member currency, the value of each currency in the system could fluctuate but only within a narrow band that was also fluctuating. The trend of each exchange rate showed some resemblance to a snake inside the narrow confines of a tunnel.

European Monetary System

The Snake came to an end in 1979 and was replaced with the European Monetary System (EMS). The exchange-rate mechanism of the EMS had the same objectives as the Snake, but the procedure for allocating intervention responsibilities among member governments was more precisely specified.

The details of the EMS arrangements have been explained by Adams (1990). Membership of the EMS involved an obligation on each EMS-member government to undertake to stabilize its currency value with respect to the value of a basket of EMS-member currencies called the European Currency Unit (ECU). Each country’s currency had a weight in the ECU that was related to the importance of that country’s trade within the EEC. An autonomous shift in the external value of any EMS-member currency changed the value of the ECU and therefore imposed exchange-rate adjustment obligations on all members of the system. The magnitude of each of these obligations was related to the weight allocated to the currency experiencing the initial disturbance.

The effects of the EMS requirements on each individual member depended upon that country’s weight in the ECU. The system ensured that major members delegated to their smaller partners a greater proportion of their exchange-rate adjustment responsibilities than the less important members imposed on the dominant countries. The explanation for this lack of symmetry depends on the fact that a particular percentage shift in the external value of the currency of a major member of the EMS (with a high weight in the ECU) had a greater effect on the external value of the ECU than had the same percentage disturbance to the external value of the currency of a less important member. It therefore imposed greater exchange-rate adjustment responsibilities on the remaining members than did the same percentage shift applied to the external value of the less important currency. While each of the major members of the EMS could delegate to the remaining members a high proportion of its adjustment obligations, the same is not true for the smaller countries in the system. This burden was, however, seen by the smaller nations (including Denmark, Belgium, and Netherlands) as an acceptable price for exchange-rate stability with their main trading partners (including France and the German Federal Republic).

The position of the Irish Republic, which joined the EMS in 1979 despite both the very low weight of its currency in the ECU and the absence of the UK, its dominant trading partner, appears to be anomalous. The explanation of this decision is that it was principally concerned about the significant problem of imported inflation that was derived from the rising price level of its British imports. This was based on the assumption that, once the rigid link between the two currencies was broken, inflation in the UK would lead to a fall in the value of the British pound relative to the value of the Irish Republic pound. However, purchasing power is not the only determinant of exchange rates, and the value of the British pound increased sharply in 1979 causing increased imported inflation in the Irish Republic. The appreciation of the British pound was probably caused principally by developments in the UK oil industry and by the monetarist style of UK macroeconomic policy.

Partly because it had different rules for different countries, the EMS had a more stable membership than had the Snake. The standard maximum exchange-rate fluctuation from its reference value that was permitted for each EMS currency was ±2.25%. However, there were wider bands (±6%) for weaker members (Italy from 1979, Spain from 1989, and the UK from 1990) and the Netherlands observed a band of ±1%. The system was also subject to frequent realignments of the parity grid. The Irish Republic joined the EMS in 1979 but the UK did not, thus ending the link between the British pound and the Irish Republic pound. The UK joined in 1990 but, as a result of substantial international capital flows, left in 1992. The bands were increased in width to ±15% in 1992.

Incentives to join the EMS were comparable to those that applied to the Snake and included the desire for stable exchange rates with a country’s principal trading partners and the desire to encourage trade within the group of EMS members rather than with countries in the rest of the world. Cohen (2003), in his analysis of monetary unions, has explained the advantages and disadvantages of trans-national monetary integration.

The UK decided not to participate in the exchange-rate mechanism of the EMS at its inception. It was influenced by the fact that the weight allocated to the British pound (0.13) in the definition of the ECU was insufficient to allow the UK government to delegate to other EMS members a large proportion of the exchange-rate stabilization responsibilities that it would acquire under EMS rules. The outcome of EMS membership for the UK in 1979 would have been, therefore, in marked contrast to the outcome for France (with an ECU-weight of 0.20) and, especially, for the German Federal Republic (with an ECU-weight of 0.33). The proportion of the UK’s exports that, at that time, was sold in EMS countries was low relative to the proportion of any other EMS-member’s exports, and this was reflected in its ECU weight. The relationship between the weight assigned to an individual EMS-member’s currency in the definition of the ECU and the ability of that country to delegate adjustment responsibilities was that a particular percentage shift in the external value of the currency of a major member of the EMS had a greater effect on the value of the ECU than the same percentage disturbance to the external value of the currency of a less important member, and it therefore imposed greater exchange-rate adjustment responsibilities on the remaining EMS members than did the same percentage shift applied to the external value of the less important EMS-member currency.

A second reason for the refusal of the UK to join the EMS in 1979 was that membership would not have led to greater stability of its exchange rates with respect to the currencies of its major trading partners, which were, at that time, outside the EMS group of countries.

An important reason for the British government’s continued refusal, for more than eleven years, to participate in the EMS was its concern about the loss of sovereignty that membership would imply. A floating exchange rate (even a managed floating exchange rate such as was operated by the UK government from 1972 to 1990) permits an independent monetary policy, but EMS obligations make this impossible. Monetarist views on the efficacy of restraining the rate of inflation by controlling the rate of growth of the money supply were dominant during the early years of the EMS, and an independent monetary policy was seen as being particularly significant.

By 1990, when the UK government decided to join the EMS, a number of economic conditions had changed. It is significant that the proportion of UK exports sold in EMS countries had risen markedly. Following substantial speculative selling of British currency in September 1992, however, the UK withdrew from the EMS. One of the causes of this was the substantial flow of short-term capital from the UK, where interest rates were relatively low, to Germany, which was implementing a very tight monetary policy and hence had very high interest rates. This illustrates that a common monetary policy is one of the necessary conditions for the operation of agreements, such as the EMS, that are intended to limit exchange-rate fluctuations.

The Euro

Despite the partial collapse of the EMS in 1992, a common currency, the euro, was introduced in 1999 by eleven of the fifteen members of the European Union, and a twelfth country joined the euro zone in 2001. From 1999, each national currency in this group had a rigidly fixed exchange rate with the euro (and, hence, with each other). Fixed exchange rates, in national currency units per euro, are listed in Table 1. In 2002, euro notes and coins replaced national currencies in these countries. The intention of the new currency arrangement is to reduce transactions costs and encourage economic integration. The Snake and the EMS can perhaps be regarded as transitional structures leading to the introduction of the euro, which is the single currency of a single integrated economy.

Table 1
Value of the Euro (in terms of national currencies)

Austria 13.7603
Belgium 40.3399
Finland 5.94573
France 6.55957
Germany 1.95583
Greece 340.750
Irish Republic 0.787564
Italy 1936.27
Luxembourg 40.3399
Netherlands 2.20371
Portugal 200.482
Spain 166.386

Source: European Central Bank

Of the members of the European Union, to which participation in this innovation was restricted, Denmark, Sweden, and the UK chose not to introduce the euro in place of their existing currencies. The countries that adopted the euro in 1999 were Austria, Belgium, France, Finland, Germany, Irish Republic, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.

Greece, which adopted the euro in 2001, was initially excluded from the new currency arrangement because it had failed to satisfy the conditions described in the Treaty of Maastricht, 1991. The maximum value for each of five variables for each country that was specified in the Treaty is listed in Table 2.

Table 2
Conditions for Euro Introduction (Treaty of Maastricht, 1991)

Inflation rate 1.5 percentage points above the average of the three euro countries with the lowest rates
Long-term interest rates 2.0 percentage points above the average of the three euro countries with the lowest rates
Exchange-rate stability fluctuations within the EMS band for at least two years
Budget deficit/GDP ratio 3%
Government debt/GDP ratio 60%

Source: The Economist, May 31, 1997.

The euro is also used in countries that, before 1999, used currencies that it has replaced: Andorra (French franc and Spanish peseta), Kosovo (German mark), Monaco (French franc), Montenegro (German mark), San Marino (Italian lira), and Vatican (Italian lira). The euro is also the currency of French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, Réunion, and St Pierre-Miquelon that, as départements d’outre-mer, are constitutionally part of France.

The euro was adopted by Slovenia in 2007, by Cyprus (South) and Malta in 2008, by Slovakia in 2009, by Estonia in 2011,  by Latvia in 2014, and by Lithuania in 2015. Table 3 shows the exchange rates between the euro and the currencies of these countries.

Table 3 Value of the Euro (in terms of national currencies)

         Cyprus (South) 0.585274
         Estonia 15.6466
         Latvia 0.702804
         Lithuania 3.4528
         Malta 0.4293
         Slovakia 30.126
         Slovenia 239.64

Source: European Central Bank

Currencies whose exchange rates were, in 1998, pegged to currencies that have been replaced by the euro have had exchange rates defined in terms of the euro since its inception. The Communauté Financière Africaine (CFA) franc, which is used by Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sénégal, and Togo was defined in terms of the French franc until 1998, and is now pegged to the euro. The Comptoirs Français du Pacifique (CFP) franc, which is used in the three French territories in the south Pacific (Wallis and Futuna Islands, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia), was also defined in terms of the French franc and is now pegged to the euro. The Comoros franc has similarly moved from a French-franc peg to a euro peg. The Cape Verde escudo, which was pegged to the Portuguese escudo, is also now pegged to the euro. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria, which previously operated currency-board arrangements with respect to the German mark, now fix the exchange rates of their currencies in terms of the euro. Botswana, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iran, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, São Tomé-Príncipe, and Serbia also peg their currencies to the euro. Additional countries that peg their currencies to a basket that includes the euro are Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Fiji, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Samoa (Western), Singapore, Syria, and Vanuatu. Switzerland, which does not operate a fixed exchange-rate system, occasionally intervenes to smooth extreme fluctuations, in terms of the euro, of its exchange rate (European Central Bank, 2018).

The group of countries that use the euro or that have linked the values of their currencies to the euro might be called the “greater euro zone.” It is interesting that membership of this group of countries has been determined largely by historical accident. Its members exhibit a marked absence of macroeconomic commonality. Within this bloc, macroeconomic indicators, including the values of GDP and of GDP per person, have a wide range of values. The degree of financial integration with international markets also varies substantially in these countries. Countries that stabilize their exchange rates with respect to a basket of currencies that includes the euro have adjustment systems that are less closely related to its value. This weaker connection means that these countries should not be regarded as part of the greater euro zone.

The establishment of the euro is a remarkable development whose economic effects, especially in the long term, are uncertain. This type of exercise, involving the rigid fixing of certain exchange rates and then the replacement of a group of existing currencies, has rarely been undertaken in the recent past. Other than the introduction of the euro, and the much less significant case of the merger in 1990 of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (Aden) and the former Arab Republic of Yemen (Sana’a), the monetary union that accompanied the expansion of the German Federal Republic to incorporate the former German Democratic Republic in 1990 is the sole recent example. However, the very distinctive political situation of post-1945 Germany (and its economic consequences) make it difficult to draw relevant conclusions from this experience. The creation of the euro is especially noteworthy at a time when the majority, and an increasing proportion, of countries have chosen floating (or managed floating) exchange rates for their currencies. With the important exception of China, this includes most major economies. This statement should be treated with caution, however, because countries that claim to operate a managed floating exchange rate frequently aim, as described by Calvo and Reinhart (2002), to stabilize their currencies with respect to the United States dollar.

When the euro was established, it replaced national currencies. However, this is not the same as the process known as dollarization, in which a country adopts another country’s currency. For example, the United States dollar is the sole legal tender in Ecuador, El Salvador, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Panama, Timor-Leste, and Zimbabwe. It is also the sole legal tender in the overseas possessions of the United States (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands), in two British territories (Turks and Caicos Islands and British Virgin Islands) and in the Caribbean Netherlands. Like the countries that use the euro, a dollarized country cannot operate an independent monetary policy. A euro-using country will, however, have some input into the formation of monetary policy, whereas dollarized countries have none. In addition, unlike euro-using countries, dollarized countries probably receive none of the seigniorage that is derived from the issue of currency.

Prospects for the Euro

The expansion of the greater euro zone, which is likely to continue with the economic integration of the new members of the European Union, and with the probable admission of additional new members, has enhanced the importance of the euro. However, this expansion is unlikely to make the greater euro zone into a major currency bloc comparable to, for example, the Sterling Area even at the time of its collapse in 1972.  Mushin (2012) has described the nature and role of the Sterling Area

Mundell (2003) has predicted that the establishment of the euro will be the model for a new currency bloc in Asia. However, there is no evidence yet of any significant movement in this direction. Eichengreen et al (1995) have argued that monetary unification in the emerging industrial economies of Asia is unlikely to occur. A feature of Mundell’s paper is that he assumes that the benefits of joining a currency area almost necessarily exceed the costs, but this remains unproven.

The creation of the euro will have, and might already have had, macroeconomic consequences for the countries that comprise the greater euro zone. Since 1999, the influences on the import prices and export prices of these countries have included the effects of monetary policy run by the European Central Bank (www.ecb.int), a non-elected supra-national institution that is directly accountable neither to individual national governments nor to individual national parliaments, and developments, including capital flows, in world financial markets. Neither of these can be relied upon to ensure stable prices at an acceptable level in price-taking economies. The consequences of the introduction of the euro might be severe in some parts of the greater euro zone, especially in the low-GDP economies. For example, unemployment might increase if exports cease to have competitive prices. Further, domestic macroeconomic policy is not independent of exchange-rate policy. One of the costs of joining a monetary union is the loss of monetary-policy independence.

Data on Exchange-rate Policies

The best source of data on exchange-rate policies is probably the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (see www.imf.org). Almost all countries of significant size are members of the IMF; notable exceptions are Cuba (since 1964), the Republic of China (Taiwan) (since 1981), and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea). The most significant IMF publications that contain exchange-rate data are International Financial Statistics and the Annual Report on Exchange Arrangements and Exchange Restrictions.

Since 2009, the IMF has allocated each country’s exchange rate policy to one of ten categories. Unfortunately, the definitions of these mean that the members of the greater euro zone are not easy to identify. In this taxonomy, the exchange rate systems of countries that are part of a monetary union are classified according to the arrangements that govern the joint currency. The exchange rate policies of the eleven countries that introduced the euro in 1999, Cyprus (South), Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, and Slovenia are classified as “Free floating.” Kosovo, Montenegro, and San Marino have “No separate legal tender.” Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria have “Currency boards.” Cape Verde, Comoros, Denmark, Fiji, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the fourteen African countries that use the CFA franc have “Conventional pegs.” Botswana has a “crawling peg.” Croatia, Macedonia, and Singapore have a “Stabilized arrangement.” Croatia has a “Crawl-like arrangement.” Andorra, Monaco, Vatican, and the three territories in the south Pacific that use the CFP franc are not IMF members. Anderson, Habermeier, Kokenyne, and Veyrune (2009) explain and discuss the definitions of these categories and compare them to the definitions that were used by the International Monetary Fund until 2010. Information on the exchange-rate policy of each of its members is published by the International Monetary Fund (2018).

Other Monetary Unions in Europe

The establishment of the Snake, the EMS, and the euro have affected some of the other monetary unions in Europe. The monetary unions of Belgium-Luxembourg, of France-Monaco, and of Italy-Vatican-San Marino predate the Snake, survived within the EMS, and have now been absorbed into the euro zone. Unchanged by the introduction of the euro are the UK-Gibraltar-Guernsey-Isle of Man-Jersey monetary union (which is the remnant of the Sterling Area that also includes Falkland Islands and St. Helena), the Switzerland-Liechtenstein monetary union, and the use of the Turkish lira in Northern Cyprus.

The relationship between the currencies of the Irish Republic (previously the Irish Free State) and the UK is an interesting case study of the interaction of political and economic forces on the development of macroeconomic (including exchange-rate) policy. Despite the non-participation of the UK, the Irish Republic was a foundation member of the EMS. This ended the link between the British pound and the Irish Republic pound (also called the punt) that had existed since the establishment of the Irish currency following the partition of Ireland (1922), so that a step towards one monetary union destroyed another. Until 1979, the Irish Republic pound had a rigidly fixed exchange rate with the British pound, and each of the two banking systems cleared the other’s checks as if denominated in its own currency. These very close financial links meant that every policy decision of monetary importance in the UK coincided with an identical change in the Irish Republic, including the currency reforms of 1939 (US-dollar peg), 1949 (devaluation), 1967 (devaluation), 1971 (decimalization), 1972 (floating exchange rate), and 1972 (brief membership of the Snake). From 1979 until 1999, when the Irish Republic adopted the euro, there was a floating exchange rate between the British pound and the Irish Republic pound. South of the Irish border, the dominant political mood in the 1920s was the need to develop a distinct non-British national identity, but there were perceived to be good economic grounds for retaining a very close link with the British pound. By 1979, although political rhetoric still referred to the desire for a united Ireland, the economic situation had changed, and the decision to join the EMS without the membership of the UK meant that, for the first time, different currencies were used on each side of the Irish border. In both of these cases, political objectives were tempered by economic pressures.

Effects of the Global Financial Crisis

One of the ways of analyzing the significance of a new system is to observe the effects of circumstances that have not been predicted. The global financial crisis [GFC] that began in 2007 provides such an opportunity. In the UK and in the Irish Republic, whose business cycles are usually comparable, the problems that followed the GFC were similar in nature and in severity. In both of these countries, major banks (and therefore their depositors) were rescued from collapse by their governments. However, the macroeconomic outcomes have been different. The increase in the unemployment rate has been much greater in the Irish Republic than in the UK. The explanation for this is that an independent monetary policy is not possible in the Irish Republic, which is part of the euro zone. The UK, which does not use the euro, responded to the GFC by operating a very loose monetary policy (with a very low discount rate and large scale “quantitative easing”). The effects of this have been compounded by depreciation of the British pound. Although, partly because of the common language, labor is mobile between the UK and the Irish Republic, the unemployment rate in the Irish Republic remains high because its real exchange rate is high and its real interest rates are high. The effect of the GFC is that the Irish Republic now has an overvalued currency, which has made an inefficient economy more inefficient. Simultaneously, the more efficient economies in the euro zone (and some countries that are outside the euro zone, including the UK, whose currencies have depreciated) now have undervalued currencies, which have encouraged their economies to expand. This illustrates one of the consequences of membership of the euro zone. Had the GFC been predicted, the estimation of the economic benefits for the Irish Republic (and for Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and other countries) would probably have been different. The political consequences for the more efficient countries in the euro zone, including Germany, might also be significant. At great cost, these countries have provided financial assistance to the weaker members of the euro zone, especially Greece.

Conclusion

The future role of the euro is uncertain. Especially in view of the British decision to withdraw from the European Union, even its survival is not guaranteed. It is clear, however, that the outcome will depend on both political and economic forces.

References:

Adams, J. J. “The Exchange-Rate Mechanism in the European Monetary System.” Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin 30, no. 4 (1990): 479-81.

Anderson, Harald, Karl Habermeier, Annamaria Kokenyne, and Romain Veyrune. Revised System for the Classification of Exchange Rate Arrangements, Washington DC: International Monetary Fund, 2009.

Calvo, Guillermo and Carmen Reinhart. “Fear of Floating.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 117, no 2 (2002): 379-408.

Coffey, Peter and John Presley. European Monetary Integration. London: Macmillan Press, 1971.

Cohen, Benjamin. “Monetary Unions.” In Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History, edited by Robert Whaples, 2003. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/monetary-unions/

Eichengreen, Barry, James Tobin, and Charles Wyplosz. “Two Cases for Sand in the Wheels of International Finance.” Economic Journal 105, no. 1 (1995): 162-72.

European Central Bank.  The International Role of the Euro.  2018.

International Monetary Fund. Annual Report of the Executive Board, 2018.

Mundell, Robert. “Prospects for an Asian Currency Area.” Journal of Asian Economics 14, no. 1 (2003): 1-10.

Mushin, Jerry. “The Sterling Area.” In Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History, edited by Robert Whaples, 2012.  http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-sterling-area/

Endnote:

Jerry Mushin can be reached at  jerry.mushin1@outlook.com.  This article includes material from some of the author’s publications:

Mushin, Jerry. “A Simulation of the European Monetary System.” Computer Education 35 (1980): 8-19.

Mushin, Jerry. “The Irish Pound: Recent Developments.” Atlantic Economic Journal 8, no, 4 (1980): 100-10.

Mushin, Jerry. “Exchange-Rate Adjustment in a Multi-Currency Monetary System.” Simulation 36, no 5 (1981): 157-63.

Mushin, Jerry. “Non-Symmetry in the European Monetary System.” British Review of Economic Issues 8, no 2 (1986): 85-89.

Mushin, Jerry. “Exchange-Rate Stability and the Euro.” New Zealand Banker 11, no. 4 (1999): 27-32.

Mushin, Jerry. “A Taxonomy of Fixed Exchange Rates.” Australian Stock Exchange Perspective 7, no. 2 (2001): 28-32.

Mushin, Jerry. “Exchange-Rate Policy and the Efficacy of Aggregate Demand Management.” The Business Economist 33, no. 2 (2002): 16-24.

Mushin, Jerry. Output and the Role of Money. New York, London and Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2002.

Mushin, Jerry. “The Deceptive Resilience of Fixed Exchange Rates.” Journal of Economics, Business and Law 6, no. 1 (2004): 1-27.

Mushin, Jerry. “The Uncertain Prospect of Asian Monetary Integration.” International Economics and Finance Journal 1, no. 1 (2006): 89-94.

Mushin, Jerry. “Increasing Stability in the Mix of Exchange Rate Policies.” Studies in Business and Economics 14, no. 1 (2008): 17-30.

Mushin, Jerry. “Predicting Monetary Unions.” International Journal of Economic Research 5, no. 1 (2008): 27-33.

Mushin, Jerry. Interest Rates, Prices, and the Economy. Jodhpur: Scientific Publishers (India), 2009.

Mushin, Jerry. “Infrequently Asked Questions on the Monetary Union of the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.” Economics and Business Journal: Inquiries and Perspectives, 3, no. 1, (2010): 1-12.

Mushin, Jerry. “Common Currencies: Economic and Political Causes and Consequences.” The Business Economist 42, no. 2, (2011): 19-26.

Mushin, Jerry. “Exchange Rates, Monetary Aggregates, and Inflation,” Bulletin of Political Economy 7, no. 1 (2013): 69-88.

Citation: Mushin, Jerry. “The Euro and Its Antecedents”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 9, 2018. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-euro-and-its-antecedents/

The U.S. Economy in the 1920s

Gene Smiley, Marquette University

Introduction

The interwar period in the United States, and in the rest of the world, is a most interesting era. The decade of the 1930s marks the most severe depression in our history and ushered in sweeping changes in the role of government. Economists and historians have rightly given much attention to that decade. However, with all of this concern about the growing and developing role of government in economic activity in the 1930s, the decade of the 1920s often tends to get overlooked. This is unfortunate because the 1920s are a period of vigorous, vital economic growth. It marks the first truly modern decade and dramatic economic developments are found in those years. There is a rapid adoption of the automobile to the detriment of passenger rail travel. Though suburbs had been growing since the late nineteenth century their growth had been tied to rail or trolley access and this was limited to the largest cities. The flexibility of car access changed this and the growth of suburbs began to accelerate. The demands of trucks and cars led to a rapid growth in the construction of all-weather surfaced roads to facilitate their movement. The rapidly expanding electric utility networks led to new consumer appliances and new types of lighting and heating for homes and businesses. The introduction of the radio, radio stations, and commercial radio networks began to break up rural isolation, as did the expansion of local and long-distance telephone communications. Recreational activities such as traveling, going to movies, and professional sports became major businesses. The period saw major innovations in business organization and manufacturing technology. The Federal Reserve System first tested its powers and the United States moved to a dominant position in international trade and global business. These things make the 1920s a period of considerable importance independent of what happened in the 1930s.

National Product and Income and Prices

We begin the survey of the 1920s with an examination of the overall production in the economy, GNP, the most comprehensive measure of aggregate economic activity. Real GNP growth during the 1920s was relatively rapid, 4.2 percent a year from 1920 to 1929 according to the most widely used estimates. (Historical Statistics of the United States, or HSUS, 1976) Real GNP per capita grew 2.7 percent per year between 1920 and 1929. By both nineteenth and twentieth century standards these were relatively rapid rates of real economic growth and they would be considered rapid even today.

There were several interruptions to this growth. In mid-1920 the American economy began to contract and the 1920-1921 depression lasted about a year, but a rapid recovery reestablished full-employment by 1923. As will be discussed below, the Federal Reserve System’s monetary policy was a major factor in initiating the 1920-1921 depression. From 1923 through 1929 growth was much smoother. There was a very mild recession in 1924 and another mild recession in 1927 both of which may be related to oil price shocks (McMillin and Parker, 1994). The 1927 recession was also associated with Henry Ford’s shut-down of all his factories for six months in order to changeover from the Model T to the new Model A automobile. Though the Model T’s market share was declining after 1924, in 1926 Ford’s Model T still made up nearly 40 percent of all the new cars produced and sold in the United States. The Great Depression began in the summer of 1929, possibly as early as June. The initial downturn was relatively mild but the contraction accelerated after the crash of the stock market at the end of October. Real total GNP fell 10.2 percent from 1929 to 1930 while real GNP per capita fell 11.5 percent from 1929 to 1930.

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Price changes during the 1920s are shown in Figure 2. The Consumer Price Index, CPI, is a better measure of changes in the prices of commodities and services that a typical consumer would purchase, while the Wholesale Price Index, WPI, is a better measure in the changes in the cost of inputs for businesses. As the figure shows the 1920-1921 depression was marked by extraordinarily large price decreases. Consumer prices fell 11.3 percent from 1920 to 1921 and fell another 6.6 percent from 1921 to 1922. After that consumer prices were relatively constant and actually fell slightly from 1926 to 1927 and from 1927 to 1928. Wholesale prices show greater variation. The 1920-1921 depression hit farmers very hard. Prices had been bid up with the increasing foreign demand during the First World War. As European production began to recover after the war prices began to fall. Though the prices of agricultural products fell from 1919 to 1920, the depression brought on dramatic declines in the prices of raw agricultural produce as well as many other inputs that firms employ. In the scramble to beat price increases during 1919 firms had built up large inventories of raw materials and purchased inputs and this temporary increase in demand led to even larger price increases. With the depression firms began to draw down those inventories. The result was that the prices of raw materials and manufactured inputs fell rapidly along with the prices of agricultural produce—the WPI dropped 45.9 percent between 1920 and 1921. The price changes probably tend to overstate the severity of the 1920-1921 depression. Romer’s recent work (1988) suggests that prices changed much more easily in that depression reducing the drop in production and employment. Wholesale prices in the rest of the 1920s were relatively stable though they were more likely to fall than to rise.

Economic Growth in the 1920s

Despite the 1920-1921 depression and the minor interruptions in 1924 and 1927, the American economy exhibited impressive economic growth during the 1920s. Though some commentators in later years thought that the existence of some slow growing or declining sectors in the twenties suggested weaknesses that might have helped bring on the Great Depression, few now argue this. Economic growth never occurs in all sectors at the same time and at the same rate. Growth reallocates resources from declining or slower growing sectors to the more rapidly expanding sectors in accordance with new technologies, new products and services, and changing consumer tastes.

Economic growth in the 1920s was impressive. Ownership of cars, new household appliances, and housing was spread widely through the population. New products and processes of producing those products drove this growth. The combination of the widening use of electricity in production and the growing adoption of the moving assembly line in manufacturing combined to bring on a continuing rise in the productivity of labor and capital. Though the average workweek in most manufacturing remained essentially constant throughout the 1920s, in a few industries, such as railroads and coal production, it declined. (Whaples 2001) New products and services created new markets such as the markets for radios, electric iceboxes, electric irons, fans, electric lighting, vacuum cleaners, and other laborsaving household appliances. This electricity was distributed by the growing electric utilities. The stocks of those companies helped create the stock market boom of the late twenties. RCA, one of the glamour stocks of the era, paid no dividends but its value appreciated because of expectations for the new company. Like the Internet boom of the late 1990s, the electricity boom of the 1920s fed a rapid expansion in the stock market.

Fed by continuing productivity advances and new products and services and facilitated by an environment of stable prices that encouraged production and risk taking, the American economy embarked on a sustained expansion in the 1920s.

Population and Labor in the 1920s

At the same time that overall production was growing, population growth was declining. As can be seen in Figure 3, from an annual rate of increase of 1.85 and 1.93 percent in 1920 and 1921, respectively, population growth rates fell to 1.23 percent in 1928 and 1.04 percent in 1929.

These changes in the overall growth rate were linked to the birth and death rates of the resident population and a decrease in foreign immigration. Though the crude death rate changed little during the period, the crude birth rate fell sharply into the early 1930s. (Figure 4) There are several explanations for the decline in the birth rate during this period. First, there was an accelerated rural-to-urban migration. Urban families have tended to have fewer children than rural families because urban children do not augment family incomes through their work as unpaid workers as rural children do. Second, the period also saw continued improvement in women’s job opportunities and a rise in their labor force participation rates.

Immigration also fell sharply. In 1917 the federal government began to limit immigration and in 1921 an immigration act limited the number of prospective citizens of any nationality entering the United States each year to no more than 3 percent of that nationality’s resident population as of the 1910 census. A new act in 1924 lowered this to 2 percent of the resident population at the 1890 census and more firmly blocked entry for people from central, southern, and eastern European nations. The limits were relaxed slightly in 1929.

The American population also continued to move during the interwar period. Two regions experienced the largest losses in population shares, New England and the Plains. For New England this was a continuation of a long-term trend. The population share for the Plains region had been rising through the nineteenth century. In the interwar period its agricultural base, combined with the continuing shift from agriculture to industry, led to a sharp decline in its share. The regions gaining population were the Southwest and, particularly, the far West.— California began its rapid growth at this time.

 Real Average Weekly or Daily Earnings for Selected=During the 1920s the labor force grew at a more rapid rate than population. This somewhat more rapid growth came from the declining share of the population less than 14 years old and therefore not in the labor force. In contrast, the labor force participation rates, or fraction of the population aged 14 and over that was in the labor force, declined during the twenties from 57.7 percent to 56.3 percent. This was entirely due to a fall in the male labor force participation rate from 89.6 percent to 86.8 percent as the female labor force participation rate rose from 24.3 percent to 25.1 percent. The primary source of the fall in male labor force participation rates was a rising retirement rate. Employment rates for males who were 65 or older fell from 60.1 percent in 1920 to 58.0 percent in 1930.

With the depression of 1920-1921 the unemployment rate rose rapidly from 5.2 to 8.7 percent. The recovery reduced unemployment to an average rate of 4.8 percent in 1923. The unemployment rate rose to 5.8 percent in the recession of 1924 and to 5.0 percent with the slowdown in 1927. Otherwise unemployment remained relatively low. The onset of the Great Depression from the summer of 1929 on brought the unemployment rate from 4.6 percent in 1929 to 8.9 percent in 1930. (Figure 5)

Earnings for laborers varied during the twenties. Table 1 presents average weekly earnings for 25 manufacturing industries. For these industries male skilled and semi-skilled laborers generally commanded a premium of 35 percent over the earnings of unskilled male laborers in the twenties. Unskilled males received on average 35 percent more than females during the twenties. Real average weekly earnings for these 25 manufacturing industries rose somewhat during the 1920s. For skilled and semi-skilled male workers real average weekly earnings rose 5.3 percent between 1923 and 1929, while real average weekly earnings for unskilled males rose 8.7 percent between 1923 and 1929. Real average weekly earnings for females rose on 1.7 percent between 1923 and 1929. Real weekly earnings for bituminous and lignite coal miners fell as the coal industry encountered difficult times in the late twenties and the real daily wage rate for farmworkers in the twenties, reflecting the ongoing difficulties in agriculture, fell after the recovery from the 1920-1921 depression.

The 1920s were not kind to labor unions even though the First World War had solidified the dominance of the American Federation of Labor among labor unions in the United States. The rapid growth in union membership fostered by federal government policies during the war ended in 1919. A committee of AFL craft unions undertook a successful membership drive in the steel industry in that year. When U.S. Steel refused to bargain, the committee called a strike, the failure of which was a sharp blow to the unionization drive. (Brody, 1965) In the same year, the United Mine Workers undertook a large strike and also lost. These two lost strikes and the 1920-21 depression took the impetus out of the union movement and led to severe membership losses that continued through the twenties. (Figure 6)

Under Samuel Gompers’s leadership, the AFL’s “business unionism” had attempted to promote the union and collective bargaining as the primary answer to the workers’ concerns with wages, hours, and working conditions. The AFL officially opposed any government actions that would have diminished worker attachment to unions by providing competing benefits, such as government sponsored unemployment insurance, minimum wage proposals, maximum hours proposals and social security programs. As Lloyd Ulman (1961) points out, the AFL, under Gompers’ direction, differentiated on the basis of whether the statute would or would not aid collective bargaining. After Gompers’ death, William Green led the AFL in a policy change as the AFL promoted the idea of union-management cooperation to improve output and promote greater employer acceptance of unions. But Irving Bernstein (1965) concludes that, on the whole, union-management cooperation in the twenties was a failure.

To combat the appeal of unions in the twenties, firms used the “yellow-dog” contract requiring employees to swear they were not union members and would not join one; the “American Plan” promoting the open shop and contending that the closed shop was un-American; and welfare capitalism. The most common aspects of welfare capitalism included personnel management to handle employment issues and problems, the doctrine of “high wages,” company group life insurance, old-age pension plans, stock-purchase plans, and more. Some firms formed company unions to thwart independent unionization and the number of company-controlled unions grew from 145 to 432 between 1919 and 1926.

Until the late thirties the AFL was a voluntary association of independent national craft unions. Craft unions relied upon the particular skills the workers had acquired (their craft) to distinguish the workers and provide barriers to the entry of other workers. Most craft unions required a period of apprenticeship before a worker was fully accepted as a journeyman worker. The skills, and often lengthy apprenticeship, constituted the entry barrier that gave the union its bargaining power. There were only a few unions that were closer to today’s industrial unions where the required skills were much less (or nonexistent) making the entry of new workers much easier. The most important of these industrial unions was the United Mine Workers, UMW.

The AFL had been created on two principles: the autonomy of the national unions and the exclusive jurisdiction of the national union.—Individual union members were not, in fact, members of the AFL; rather, they were members of the local and national union, and the national was a member of the AFL. Representation in the AFL gave dominance to the national unions, and, as a result, the AFL had little effective power over them. The craft lines, however, had never been distinct and increasingly became blurred. The AFL was constantly mediating jurisdictional disputes between member national unions. Because the AFL and its individual unions were not set up to appeal to and work for the relatively less skilled industrial workers, union organizing and growth lagged in the twenties.

Agriculture

The onset of the First World War in Europe brought unprecedented prosperity to American farmers. As agricultural production in Europe declined, the demand for American agricultural exports rose, leading to rising farm product prices and incomes. In response to this, American farmers expanded production by moving onto marginal farmland, such as Wisconsin cutover property on the edge of the woods and hilly terrain in the Ozark and Appalachian regions. They also increased output by purchasing more machinery, such as tractors, plows, mowers, and threshers. The price of farmland, particularly marginal farmland, rose in response to the increased demand, and the debt of American farmers increased substantially.

This expansion of American agriculture continued past the end of the First World War as farm exports to Europe and farm prices initially remained high. However, agricultural production in Europe recovered much faster than most observers had anticipated. Even before the onset of the short depression in 1920, farm exports and farm product prices had begun to fall. During the depression, farm prices virtually collapsed. From 1920 to 1921, the consumer price index fell 11.3 percent, the wholesale price index fell 45.9 percent, and the farm products price index fell 53.3 percent. (HSUS, Series E40, E42, and E135)

Real average net income per farm fell over 72.6 percent between 1920 and 1921 and, though rising in the twenties, never recovered the relative levels of 1918 and 1919. (Figure 7) Farm mortgage foreclosures rose and stayed at historically high levels for the entire decade of the 1920s. (Figure 8) The value of farmland and buildings fell throughout the twenties and, for the first time in American history, the number of cultivated acres actually declined as farmers pulled back from the marginal farmland brought into production during the war. Rather than indicators of a general depression in agriculture in the twenties, these were the results of the financial commitments made by overoptimistic American farmers during and directly after the war. The foreclosures were generally on second mortgages rather than on first mortgages as they were in the early 1930s. (Johnson, 1973; Alston, 1983)

A Declining Sector

A major difficulty in analyzing the interwar agricultural sector lies in separating the effects of the 1920-21 and 1929-33 depressions from those that arose because agriculture was declining relative to the other sectors. A relatively very slow growing demand for basic agricultural products and significant increases in the productivity of labor, land, and machinery in agricultural production combined with a much more rapid extensive economic growth in the nonagricultural sectors of the economy required a shift of resources, particularly labor, out of agriculture. (Figure 9) The market induces labor to voluntarily move from one sector to another through income differentials, suggesting that even in the absence of the effects of the depressions, farm incomes would have been lower than nonfarm incomes so as to bring about this migration.

The continuous substitution of tractor power for horse and mule power released hay and oats acreage to grow crops for human consumption. Though cotton and tobacco continued as the primary crops in the south, the relative production of cotton continued to shift to the west as production in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California increased. As quotas reduced immigration and incomes rose, the demand for cereal grains grew slowly—more slowly than the supply—and the demand for fruits, vegetables, and dairy products grew. Refrigeration and faster freight shipments expanded the milk sheds further from metropolitan areas. Wisconsin and other North Central states began to ship cream and cheeses to the Atlantic Coast. Due to transportation improvements, specialized truck farms and the citrus industry became more important in California and Florida. (Parker, 1972; Soule, 1947)

The relative decline of the agricultural sector in this period was closely related to the highly inelastic income elasticity of demand for many farm products, particularly cereal grains, pork, and cotton. As incomes grew, the demand for these staples grew much more slowly. At the same time, rising land and labor productivity were increasing the supplies of staples, causing real prices to fall.

Table 3 presents selected agricultural productivity statistics for these years. Those data indicate that there were greater gains in labor productivity than in land productivity (or per acre yields). Per acre yields in wheat and hay actually decreased between 1915-19 and 1935-39. These productivity increases, which released resources from the agricultural sector, were the result of technological improvements in agriculture.

Technological Improvements In Agricultural Production

In many ways the adoption of the tractor in the interwar period symbolizes the technological changes that occurred in the agricultural sector. This changeover in the power source that farmers used had far-reaching consequences and altered the organization of the farm and the farmers’ lifestyle. The adoption of the tractor was land saving (by releasing acreage previously used to produce crops for workstock) and labor saving. At the same time it increased the risks of farming because farmers were now much more exposed to the marketplace. They could not produce their own fuel for tractors as they had for the workstock. Rather, this had to be purchased from other suppliers. Repair and replacement parts also had to be purchased, and sometimes the repairs had to be undertaken by specialized mechanics. The purchase of a tractor also commonly required the purchase of new complementary machines; therefore, the decision to purchase a tractor was not an isolated one. (White, 2001; Ankli, 1980; Ankli and Olmstead, 1981; Musoke, 1981; Whatley, 1987). These changes resulted in more and more farmers purchasing and using tractors, but the rate of adoption varied sharply across the United States.

Technological innovations in plants and animals also raised productivity. Hybrid seed corn increased yields from an average of 40 bushels per acre to 100 to 120 bushels per acre. New varieties of wheat were developed from the hardy Russian and Turkish wheat varieties which had been imported. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Experiment Stations took the lead in developing wheat varieties for different regions. For example, in the Columbia River Basin new varieties raised yields from an average of 19.1 bushels per acre in 1913-22 to 23.1 bushels per acre in 1933-42. (Shepherd, 1980) New hog breeds produced more meat and new methods of swine sanitation sharply increased the survival rate of piglets. An effective serum for hog cholera was developed, and the federal government led the way in the testing and eradication of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. Prior to the Second World War, a number of pesticides to control animal disease were developed, including cattle dips and disinfectants. By the mid-1920s a vaccine for “blackleg,” an infectious, usually fatal disease that particularly struck young cattle, was completed. The cattle tick, which carried Texas Fever, was largely controlled through inspections. (Schlebecker, 1975; Bogue, 1983; Wood, 1980)

Federal Agricultural Programs in the 1920s

Though there was substantial agricultural discontent in the period from the Civil War to late 1890s, the period from then to the onset of the First World War was relatively free from overt farmers’ complaints. In later years farmers dubbed the 1910-14 period as agriculture’s “golden years” and used the prices of farm crops and farm inputs in that period as a standard by which to judge crop and input prices in later years. The problems that arose in the agricultural sector during the twenties once again led to insistent demands by farmers for government to alleviate their distress.

Though there were increasing calls for direct federal government intervention to limit production and raise farm prices, this was not used until Roosevelt took office. Rather, there was a reliance upon the traditional method to aid injured groups—tariffs, and upon the “sanctioning and promotion of cooperative marketing associations.” In 1921 Congress attempted to control the grain exchanges and compel merchants and stockyards to charge “reasonable rates,” with the Packers and Stockyards Act and the Grain Futures Act. In 1922 Congress passed the Capper-Volstead Act to promote agricultural cooperatives and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff to impose high duties on most agricultural imports.—The Cooperative Marketing Act of 1924 did not bolster failing cooperatives as it was supposed to do. (Hoffman and Liebcap, 1991)

Twice between 1924 and 1928 Congress passed “McNary-Haugan” bills, but President Calvin Coolidge vetoed both. The McNary-Haugan bills proposed to establish “fair” exchange values (based on the 1910-14 period) for each product and to maintain them through tariffs and a private corporation that would be chartered by the government and could buy enough of each commodity to keep its price up to the computed fair level. The revenues were to come from taxes imposed on farmers. The Hoover administration passed the Hawley-Smoot tariff in 1930 and an Agricultural Marketing Act in 1929. This act committed the federal government to a policy of stabilizing farm prices through several nongovernment institutions but these failed during the depression. Federal intervention in the agricultural sector really came of age during the New Deal era of the 1930s.

Manufacturing

Agriculture was not the only sector experiencing difficulties in the twenties. Other industries, such as textiles, boots and shoes, and coal mining, also experienced trying times. However, at the same time that these industries were declining, other industries, such as electrical appliances, automobiles, and construction, were growing rapidly. The simultaneous existence of growing and declining industries has been common to all eras because economic growth and technological progress never affect all sectors in the same way. In general, in manufacturing there was a rapid rate of growth of productivity during the twenties. The rise of real wages due to immigration restrictions and the slower growth of the resident population spurred this. Transportation improvements and communications advances were also responsible. These developments brought about differential growth in the various manufacturing sectors in the United States in the 1920s.

Because of the historic pattern of economic development in the United States, the northeast was the first area to really develop a manufacturing base. By the mid-nineteenth century the East North Central region was creating a manufacturing base and the other regions began to create manufacturing bases in the last half of the nineteenth century resulting in a relative westward and southern shift of manufacturing activity. This trend continued in the 1920s as the New England and Middle Atlantic regions’ shares of manufacturing employment fell while all of the other regions—excluding the West North Central region—gained. There was considerable variation in the growth of the industries and shifts in their ranking during the decade. The largest broadly defined industries were, not surprisingly, food and kindred products; textile mill products; those producing and fabricating primary metals; machinery production; and chemicals. When industries are more narrowly defined, the automobile industry, which ranked third in manufacturing value added in 1919, ranked first by the mid-1920s.

Productivity Developments

Gavin Wright (1990) has argued that one of the underappreciated characteristics of American industrial history has been its reliance on mineral resources. Wright argues that the growing American strength in industrial exports and industrialization in general relied on an increasing intensity in nonreproducible natural resources. The large American market was knit together as one large market without internal barriers through the development of widespread low-cost transportation. Many distinctively American developments, such as continuous-process, mass-production methods were associated with the “high throughput” of fuel and raw materials relative to labor and capital inputs. As a result the United States became the dominant industrial force in the world 1920s and 1930s. According to Wright, after World War II “the process by which the United States became a unified ‘economy’ in the nineteenth century has been extended to the world as a whole. To a degree, natural resources have become commodities rather than part of the ‘factor endowment’ of individual countries.” (Wright, 1990)

In addition to this growing intensity in the use of nonreproducible natural resources as a source of productivity gains in American manufacturing, other technological changes during the twenties and thirties tended to raise the productivity of the existing capital through the replacement of critical types of capital equipment with superior equipment and through changes in management methods. (Soule, 1947; Lorant, 1967; Devine, 1983; Oshima, 1984) Some changes, such as the standardization of parts and processes and the reduction of the number of styles and designs, raised the productivity of both capital and labor. Modern management techniques, first introduced by Frederick W. Taylor, were introduced on a wider scale.

One of the important forces contributing to mass production and increased productivity was the transfer to electric power. (Devine, 1983) By 1929 about 70 percent of manufacturing activity relied on electricity, compared to roughly 30 percent in 1914. Steam provided 80 percent of the mechanical drive capacity in manufacturing in 1900, but electricity provided over 50 percent by 1920 and 78 percent by 1929. An increasing number of factories were buying their power from electric utilities. In 1909, 64 percent of the electric motor capacity in manufacturing establishments used electricity generated on the factory site; by 1919, 57 percent of the electricity used in manufacturing was purchased from independent electric utilities.

The shift from coal to oil and natural gas and from raw unprocessed energy in the forms of coal and waterpower to processed energy in the form of internal combustion fuel and electricity increased thermal efficiency. After the First World War energy consumption relative to GNP fell, there was a sharp increase in the growth rate of output per labor-hour, and the output per unit of capital input once again began rising. These trends can be seen in the data in Table 3. Labor productivity grew much more rapidly during the 1920s than in the previous or following decade. Capital productivity had declined in the decade previous to the 1920s while it also increased sharply during the twenties and continued to rise in the following decade. Alexander Field (2003) has argued that the 1930s were the most technologically progressive decade of the twentieth century basing his argument on the growth of multi-factor productivity as well as the impressive array of technological developments during the thirties. However, the twenties also saw impressive increases in labor and capital productivity as, particularly, developments in energy and transportation accelerated.

 Average Annual Rates of Labor Productivity and Capital Productivity Growth.

Warren Devine, Jr. (1983) reports that in the twenties the most important result of the adoption of electricity was that it would be an indirect “lever to increase production.” There were a number of ways in which this occurred. Electricity brought about an increased flow of production by allowing new flexibility in the design of buildings and the arrangement of machines. In this way it maximized throughput. Electric cranes were an “inestimable boon” to production because with adequate headroom they could operate anywhere in a plant, something that mechanical power transmission to overhead cranes did not allow. Electricity made possible the use of portable power tools that could be taken anywhere in the factory. Electricity brought about improved illumination, ventilation, and cleanliness in the plants, dramatically improving working conditions. It improved the control of machines since there was no longer belt slippage with overhead line shafts and belt transmission, and there were less limitations on the operating speeds of machines. Finally, it made plant expansion much easier than when overhead shafts and belts had been relied upon for operating power.

The mechanization of American manufacturing accelerated in the 1920s, and this led to a much more rapid growth of productivity in manufacturing compared to earlier decades and to other sectors at that time. There were several forces that promoted mechanization. One was the rapidly expanding aggregate demand during the prosperous twenties. Another was the technological developments in new machines and processes, of which electrification played an important part. Finally, Harry Jerome (1934) and, later, Harry Oshima (1984) both suggest that the price of unskilled labor began to rise as immigration sharply declined with new immigration laws and falling population growth. This accelerated the mechanization of the nation’s factories.

Technological changes during this period can be documented for a number of individual industries. In bituminous coal mining, labor productivity rose when mechanical loading devices reduced the labor required from 24 to 50 percent. The burst of paved road construction in the twenties led to the development of a finishing machine to smooth the surface of cement highways, and this reduced the labor requirement from 40 to 60 percent. Mechanical pavers that spread centrally mixed materials further increased productivity in road construction. These replaced the roadside dump and wheelbarrow methods of spreading the cement. Jerome (1934) reports that the glass in electric light bulbs was made by new machines that cut the number of labor-hours required for their manufacture by nearly half. New machines to produce cigarettes and cigars, for warp-tying in textile production, and for pressing clothes in clothing shops also cut labor-hours. The Banbury mixer reduced the labor input in the production of automobile tires by half, and output per worker of inner tubes increased about four times with a new production method. However, as Daniel Nelson (1987) points out, the continuing advances were the “cumulative process resulting from a vast number of successive small changes.” Because of these continuing advances in the quality of the tires and in the manufacturing of tires, between 1910 and 1930 “tire costs per thousand miles of driving fell from $9.39 to $0.65.”

John Lorant (1967) has documented other technological advances that occurred in American manufacturing during the twenties. For example, the organic chemical industry developed rapidly due to the introduction of the Weizman fermentation process. In a similar fashion, nearly half of the productivity advances in the paper industry were due to the “increasingly sophisticated applications of electric power and paper manufacturing processes,” especially the fourdrinier paper-making machines. As Avi Cohen (1984) has shown, the continuing advances in these machines were the result of evolutionary changes to the basic machine. Mechanization in many types of mass-production industries raised the productivity of labor and capital. In the glass industry, automatic feeding and other types of fully automatic production raised the efficiency of the production of glass containers, window glass, and pressed glass. Giedion (1948) reported that the production of bread was “automatized” in all stages during the 1920s.

Though not directly bringing about productivity increases in manufacturing processes, developments in the management of manufacturing firms, particularly the largest ones, also significantly affected their structure and operation. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (1962) has argued that the structure of a firm must follow its strategy. Until the First World War most industrial firms were centralized, single-division firms even when becoming vertically integrated. When this began to change the management of the large industrial firms had to change accordingly.

Because of these changes in the size and structure of the firm during the First World War, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company was led to adopt a strategy of diversifying into the production of largely unrelated product lines. The firm found that the centralized, divisional structure that had served it so well was not suited to this strategy, and its poor business performance led its executives to develop between 1919 and 1921 a decentralized, multidivisional structure that boosted it to the first rank among American industrial firms.

General Motors had a somewhat different problem. By 1920 it was already decentralized into separate divisions. In fact, there was so much decentralization that those divisions essentially remained separate companies and there was little coordination between the operating divisions. A financial crisis at the end of 1920 ousted W. C. Durant and brought in the du Ponts and Alfred Sloan. Sloan, who had seen the problems at GM but had been unable to convince Durant to make changes, began reorganizing the management of the company. Over the next several years Sloan and other GM executives developed the general office for a decentralized, multidivisional firm.

Though facing related problems at nearly the same time, GM and du Pont developed their decentralized, multidivisional organizations separately. As other manufacturing firms began to diversify, GM and du Pont became the models for reorganizing the management of the firms. In many industrial firms these reorganizations were not completed until well after the Second World War.

Competition, Monopoly, and the Government

The rise of big businesses, which accelerated in the postbellum period and particularly during the first great turn-of-the-century merger wave, continued in the interwar period. Between 1925 and 1939 the share of manufacturing assets held by the 100 largest corporations rose from 34.5 to 41.9 percent. (Niemi, 1980) As a public policy, the concern with monopolies diminished in the 1920s even though firms were growing larger. But the growing size of businesses was one of the convenient scapegoats upon which to blame the Great Depression.

However, the rise of large manufacturing firms in the interwar period is not so easily interpreted as an attempt to monopolize their industries. Some of the growth came about through vertical integration by the more successful manufacturing firms. Backward integration was generally an attempt to ensure a smooth supply of raw materials where that supply was not plentiful and was dispersed and firms “feared that raw materials might become controlled by competitors or independent suppliers.” (Livesay and Porter, 1969) Forward integration was an offensive tactic employed when manufacturers found that the existing distribution network proved inadequate. Livesay and Porter suggested a number of reasons why firms chose to integrate forward. In some cases they had to provide the mass distribution facilities to handle their much larger outputs; especially when the product was a new one. The complexity of some new products required technical expertise that the existing distribution system could not provide. In other cases “the high unit costs of products required consumer credit which exceeded financial capabilities of independent distributors.” Forward integration into wholesaling was more common than forward integration into retailing. The producers of automobiles, petroleum, typewriters, sewing machines, and harvesters were typical of those manufacturers that integrated all the way into retailing.

In some cases, increases in industry concentration arose as a natural process of industrial maturation. In the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s invention in 1913 of the moving assembly line—a technological innovation that changed most manufacturing—lent itself to larger factories and firms. Of the several thousand companies that had produced cars prior to 1920, 120 were still doing so then, but Ford and General Motors were the clear leaders, together producing nearly 70 percent of the cars. During the twenties, several other companies, such as Durant, Willys, and Studebaker, missed their opportunity to become more important producers, and Chrysler, formed in early 1925, became the third most important producer by 1930. Many went out of business and by 1929 only 44 companies were still producing cars. The Great Depression decimated the industry. Dozens of minor firms went out of business. Ford struggled through by relying on its huge stockpile of cash accumulated prior to the mid-1920s, while Chrysler actually grew. By 1940, only eight companies still produced cars—GM, Ford, and Chrysler had about 85 percent of the market, while Willys, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Packard shared the remainder. The rising concentration in this industry was not due to attempts to monopolize. As the industry matured, growing economies of scale in factory production and vertical integration, as well as the advantages of a widespread dealer network, led to a dramatic decrease in the number of viable firms. (Chandler, 1962 and 1964; Rae, 1984; Bernstein, 1987)

It was a similar story in the tire industry. The increasing concentration and growth of firms was driven by scale economies in production and retailing and by the devastating effects of the depression in the thirties. Although there were 190 firms in 1919, 5 firms dominated the industry—Goodyear, B. F. Goodrich, Firestone, U.S. Rubber, and Fisk, followed by Miller Rubber, General Tire and Rubber, and Kelly-Springfield. During the twenties, 166 firms left the industry while 66 entered. The share of the 5 largest firms rose from 50 percent in 1921 to 75 percent in 1937. During the depressed thirties, there was fierce price competition, and many firms exited the industry. By 1937 there were 30 firms, but the average employment per factory was 4.41 times as large as in 1921, and the average factory produced 6.87 times as many tires as in 1921. (French, 1986 and 1991; Nelson, 1987; Fricke, 1982)

The steel industry was already highly concentrated by 1920 as U.S. Steel had around 50 percent of the market. But U. S. Steel’s market share declined through the twenties and thirties as several smaller firms competed and grew to become known as Little Steel, the next six largest integrated producers after U. S. Steel. Jonathan Baker (1989) has argued that the evidence is consistent with “the assumption that competition was a dominant strategy for steel manufacturers” until the depression. However, the initiation of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) codes in 1933 required the firms to cooperate rather than compete, and Baker argues that this constituted a training period leading firms to cooperate in price and output policies after 1935. (McCraw and Reinhardt, 1989; Weiss, 1980; Adams, 1977)

Mergers

A number of the larger firms grew by merger during this period, and the second great merger wave in American industry occurred during the last half of the 1920s. Figure 10 shows two series on mergers during the interwar period. The FTC series included many of the smaller mergers. The series constructed by Carl Eis (1969) only includes the larger mergers and ends in 1930.

This second great merger wave coincided with the stock market boom of the twenties and has been called “merger for oligopoly” rather than merger for monopoly. (Stigler, 1950) This merger wave created many larger firms that ranked below the industry leaders. Much of the activity in occurred in the banking and public utilities industries. (Markham, 1955) In manufacturing and mining, the effects on industrial structure were less striking. Eis (1969) found that while mergers took place in almost all industries, they were concentrated in a smaller number of them, particularly petroleum, primary metals, and food products.

The federal government’s antitrust policies toward business varied sharply during the interwar period. In the 1920s there was relatively little activity by the Justice Department, but after the Great Depression the New Dealers tried to take advantage of big business to make business exempt from the antitrust laws and cartelize industries under government supervision.

With the passage of the FTC and Clayton Acts in 1914 to supplement the 1890 Sherman Act, the cornerstones of American antitrust law were complete. Though minor amendments were later enacted, the primary changes after that came in the enforcement of the laws and in swings in judicial decisions. Their two primary areas of application were in the areas of overt behavior, such as horizontal and vertical price-fixing, and in market structure, such as mergers and dominant firms. Horizontal price-fixing involves firms that would normally be competitors getting together to agree on stable and higher prices for their products. As long as most of the important competitors agree on the new, higher prices, substitution between products is eliminated and the demand becomes much less elastic. Thus, increasing the price increases the revenues and the profits of the firms who are fixing prices. Vertical price-fixing involves firms setting the prices of intermediate products purchased at different stages of production. It also tends to eliminate substitutes and makes the demand less elastic.

Price-fixing continued to be considered illegal throughout the period, but there was no major judicial activity regarding it in the 1920s other than the Trenton Potteries decision in 1927. In that decision 20 individuals and 23 corporations were found guilty of conspiring to fix the prices of bathroom bowls. The evidence in the case suggested that the firms were not very successful at doing so, but the court found that they were guilty nevertheless; their success, or lack thereof, was not held to be a factor in the decision. (Scherer and Ross, 1990) Though criticized by some, the decision was precedent setting in that it prohibited explicit pricing conspiracies per se.

The Justice Department had achieved success in dismantling Standard Oil and American Tobacco in 1911 through decisions that the firms had unreasonably restrained trade. These were essentially the same points used in court decisions against the Powder Trust in 1911, the thread trust in 1913, Eastman Kodak in 1915, the glucose and cornstarch trust in 1916, and the anthracite railroads in 1920. The criterion of an unreasonable restraint of trade was used in the 1916 and 1918 decisions that found the American Can Company and the United Shoe Machinery Company innocent of violating the Sherman Act; it was also clearly enunciated in the 1920 U. S. Steel decision. This became known as the rule of reason standard in antitrust policy.

Merger policy had been defined in the 1914 Clayton Act to prohibit only the acquisition of one corporation’s stock by another corporation. Firms then shifted to the outright purchase of a competitor’s assets. A series of court decisions in the twenties and thirties further reduced the possibilities of Justice Department actions against mergers. “Only fifteen mergers were ordered dissolved through antitrust actions between 1914 and 1950, and ten of the orders were accomplished under the Sherman Act rather than Clayton Act proceedings.”

Energy

The search for energy and new ways to translate it into heat, light, and motion has been one of the unending themes in history. From whale oil to coal oil to kerosene to electricity, the search for better and less costly ways to light our lives, heat our homes, and move our machines has consumed much time and effort. The energy industries responded to those demands and the consumption of energy materials (coal, oil, gas, and fuel wood) as a percent of GNP rose from about 2 percent in the latter part of the nineteenth century to about 3 percent in the twentieth.

Changes in the energy markets that had begun in the nineteenth century continued. Processed energy in the forms of petroleum derivatives and electricity continued to become more important than “raw” energy, such as that available from coal and water. The evolution of energy sources for lighting continued; at the end of the nineteenth century, natural gas and electricity, rather than liquid fuels began to provide more lighting for streets, businesses, and homes.

In the twentieth century the continuing shift to electricity and internal combustion fuels increased the efficiency with which the American economy used energy. These processed forms of energy resulted in a more rapid increase in the productivity of labor and capital in American manufacturing. From 1899 to 1919, output per labor-hour increased at an average annual rate of 1.2 percent, whereas from 1919 to 1937 the increase was 3.5 percent per year. The productivity of capital had fallen at an average annual rate of 1.8 percent per year in the 20 years prior to 1919, but it rose 3.1 percent a year in the 18 years after 1919. As discussed above, the adoption of electricity in American manufacturing initiated a rapid evolution in the organization of plants and rapid increases in productivity in all types of manufacturing.

The change in transportation was even more remarkable. Internal combustion engines running on gasoline or diesel fuel revolutionized transportation. Cars quickly grabbed the lion’s share of local and regional travel and began to eat into long distance passenger travel, just as the railroads had done to passenger traffic by water in the 1830s. Even before the First World War cities had begun passing laws to regulate and limit “jitney” services and to protect the investments in urban rail mass transit. Trucking began eating into the freight carried by the railroads.

These developments brought about changes in the energy industries. Coal mining became a declining industry. As Figure 11 shows, in 1925 the share of petroleum in the value of coal, gas, and petroleum output exceeded bituminous coal, and it continued to rise. Anthracite coal’s share was much smaller and it declined while natural gas and LP (or liquefied petroleum) gas were relatively unimportant. These changes, especially the declining coal industry, were the source of considerable worry in the twenties.

Coal

One of the industries considered to be “sick” in the twenties was coal, particularly bituminous, or soft, coal. Income in the industry declined, and bankruptcies were frequent. Strikes frequently interrupted production. The majority of the miners “lived in squalid and unsanitary houses, and the incidence of accidents and diseases was high.” (Soule, 1947) The number of operating bituminous coal mines declined sharply from 1923 through 1932. Anthracite (or hard) coal output was much smaller during the twenties. Real coal prices rose from 1919 to 1922, and bituminous coal prices fell sharply from then to 1925. (Figure 12) Coal mining employment plummeted during the twenties. Annual earnings, especially in bituminous coal mining, also fell because of dwindling hourly earnings and, from 1929 on, a shrinking workweek. (Figure 13)

The sources of these changes are to be found in the increasing supply due to productivity advances in coal production and in the decreasing demand for coal. The demand fell as industries began turning from coal to electricity and because of productivity advances in the use of coal to create energy in steel, railroads, and electric utilities. (Keller, 1973) In the generation of electricity, larger steam plants employing higher temperatures and steam pressures continued to reduce coal consumption per kilowatt hour. Similar reductions were found in the production of coke from coal for iron and steel production and in the use of coal by the steam railroad engines. (Rezneck, 1951) All of these factors reduced the demand for coal.

Productivity advances in coal mining tended to be labor saving. Mechanical cutting accounted for 60.7 percent of the coal mined in 1920 and 78.4 percent in 1929. By the middle of the twenties, the mechanical loading of coal began to be introduced. Between 1929 and 1939, output per labor-hour rose nearly one third in bituminous coal mining and nearly four fifths in anthracite as more mines adopted machine mining and mechanical loading and strip mining expanded.

The increasing supply and falling demand for coal led to the closure of mines that were too costly to operate. A mine could simply cease operations, let the equipment stand idle, and lay off employees. When bankruptcies occurred, the mines generally just turned up under new ownership with lower capital charges. When demand increased or strikes reduced the supply of coal, idle mines simply resumed production. As a result, the easily expanded supply largely eliminated economic profits.

The average daily employment in coal mining dropped by over 208,000 from its peak in 1923, but the sharply falling real wages suggests that the supply of labor did not fall as rapidly as the demand for labor. Soule (1947) notes that when employment fell in coal mining, it meant fewer days of work for the same number of men. Social and cultural characteristics tended to tie many to their home region. The local alternatives were few, and ignorance of alternatives outside the Appalachian rural areas, where most bituminous coal was mined, made it very costly to transfer out.

Petroleum

In contrast to the coal industry, the petroleum industry was growing throughout the interwar period. By the thirties, crude petroleum dominated the real value of the production of energy materials. As Figure 14 shows, the production of crude petroleum increased sharply between 1920 and 1930, while real petroleum prices, though highly variable, tended to decline.

The growing demand for petroleum was driven by the growth in demand for gasoline as America became a motorized society. The production of gasoline surpassed kerosene production in 1915. Kerosene’s market continued to contract as electric lighting replaced kerosene lighting. The development of oil burners in the twenties began a switch from coal toward fuel oil for home heating, and this further increased the growing demand for petroleum. The growth in the demand for fuel oil and diesel fuel for ship engines also increased petroleum demand. But it was the growth in the demand for gasoline that drove the petroleum market.

The decline in real prices in the latter part of the twenties shows that supply was growing even faster than demand. The discovery of new fields in the early twenties increased the supply of petroleum and led to falling prices as production capacity grew. The Santa Fe Springs, California strike in 1919 initiated a supply shock as did the discovery of the Long Beach, California field in 1921. New discoveries in Powell, Texas and Smackover Arkansas further increased the supply of petroleum in 1921. New supply increases occurred in 1926 to 1928 with petroleum strikes in Seminole, Oklahoma and Hendricks, Texas. The supply of oil increased sharply in 1930 to 1931 with new discoveries in Oklahoma City and East Texas. Each new discovery pushed down real oil prices, and the prices of petroleum derivatives, and the growing production capacity led to a general declining trend in petroleum prices. McMillin and Parker (1994) argue that supply shocks generated by these new discoveries were a factor in the business cycles during the 1920s.

The supply of gasoline increased more than the supply of crude petroleum. In 1913 a chemist at Standard Oil of Indiana introduced the cracking process to refine crude petroleum; until that time it had been refined by distillation or unpressurized heating. In the heating process, various refined products such as kerosene, gasoline, naphtha, and lubricating oils were produced at different temperatures. It was difficult to vary the amount of the different refined products produced from a barrel of crude. The cracking process used pressurized heating to break heavier components down into lighter crude derivatives; with cracking, it was possible to increase the amount of gasoline obtained from a barrel of crude from 15 to 45 percent. In the early twenties, chemists at Standard Oil of New Jersey improved the cracking process, and by 1927 it was possible to obtain twice as much gasoline from a barrel of crude petroleum as in 1917.

The petroleum companies also developed new ways to distribute gasoline to motorists that made it more convenient to purchase gasoline. Prior to the First World War, gasoline was commonly purchased in one- or five-gallon cans and the purchaser used a funnel to pour the gasoline from the can into the car. Then “filling stations” appeared, which specialized in filling cars’ tanks with gasoline. These spread rapidly, and by 1919 gasoline companies werebeginning to introduce their own filling stations or contract with independent stations to exclusively distribute their gasoline. Increasing competition and falling profits led filling station operators to expand into other activities such as oil changes and other mechanical repairs. The general name attached to such stations gradually changed to “service stations” to reflect these new functions.

Though the petroleum firms tended to be large, they were highly competitive, trying to pump as much petroleum as possible to increase their share of the fields. This, combined with the development of new fields, led to an industry with highly volatile prices and output. Firms desperately wanted to stabilize and reduce the production of crude petroleum so as to stabilize and raise the prices of crude petroleum and refined products. Unable to obtain voluntary agreement on output limitations by the firms and producers, governments began stepping in. Led by Texas, which created the Texas Railroad Commission in 1891, oil-producing states began to intervene to regulate production. Such laws were usually termed prorationing laws and were quotas designed to limit each well’s output to some fraction of its potential. The purpose was as much to stabilize and reduce production and raise prices as anything else, although generally such laws were passed under the guise of conservation. Although the federal government supported such attempts, not until the New Deal were federal laws passed to assist this.

Electricity

By the mid 1890s the debate over the method by which electricity was to be transmitted had been won by those who advocated alternating current. The reduced power losses and greater distance over which electricity could be transmitted more than offset the necessity for transforming the current back to direct current for general use. Widespread adoption of machines and appliances by industry and consumers then rested on an increase in the array of products using electricity as the source of power, heat, or light and the development of an efficient, lower cost method of generating electricity.

General Electric, Westinghouse, and other firms began producing the electrical appliances for homes and an increasing number of machines based on electricity began to appear in industry. The problem of lower cost production was solved by the introduction of centralized generating facilities that distributed the electric power through lines to many consumers and business firms.

Though initially several firms competed in generating and selling electricity to consumers and firms in a city or area, by the First World War many states and communities were awarding exclusive franchises to one firm to generate and distribute electricity to the customers in the franchise area. (Bright, 1947; Passer, 1953) The electric utility industry became an important growth industry and, as Figure 15 shows, electricity production and use grew rapidly.

The electric utilities increasingly were regulated by state commissions that were charged with setting rates so that the utilities could receive a “fair return” on their investments. Disagreements over what constituted a “fair return” and the calculation of the rate base led to a steady stream of cases before the commissions and a continuing series of court appeals. Generally these court decisions favored the reproduction cost basis. Because of the difficulty and cost in making these calculations, rates tended to be in the hands of the electric utilities that, it has been suggested, did not lower rates adequately to reflect the rising productivity and lowered costs of production. The utilities argued that a more rapid lowering of rates would have jeopardized their profits. Whether or not this increased their monopoly power is still an open question, but it should be noted, that electric utilities were hardly price-taking industries prior to regulation. (Mercer, 1973) In fact, as Figure 16 shows, the electric utilities began to systematically practice market segmentation charging users with less elastic demands, higher prices per kilowatt-hour.

Energy in the American Economy of the 1920s

The changes in the energy industries had far-reaching consequences. The coal industry faced a continuing decline in demand. Even in the growing petroleum industry, the periodic surges in the supply of petroleum caused great instability. In manufacturing, as described above, electrification contributed to a remarkable rise in productivity. The transportation revolution brought about by the rise of gasoline-powered trucks and cars changed the way businesses received their supplies and distributed their production as well as where they were located. The suburbanization of America and the beginnings of urban sprawl were largely brought about by the introduction of low-priced gasoline for cars.

Transportation

The American economy was forever altered by the dramatic changes in transportation after 1900. Following Henry Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly production line in 1914, automobile prices plummeted, and by the end of the 1920s about 60 percent of American families owned an automobile. The advent of low-cost personal transportation led to an accelerating movement of population out of the crowded cities to more spacious homes in the suburbs and the automobile set off a decline in intracity public passenger transportation that has yet to end. Massive road-building programs facilitated the intercity movement of people and goods. Trucks increasingly took over the movement of freight in competition with the railroads. New industries, such as gasoline service stations, motor hotels, and the rubber tire industry, arose to service the automobile and truck traffic. These developments were complicated by the turmoil caused by changes in the federal government’s policies toward transportation in the United States.

With the end of the First World War, a debate began as to whether the railroads, which had been taken over by the government, should be returned to private ownership or nationalized. The voices calling for a return to private ownership were much stronger, but doing so fomented great controversy. Many in Congress believed that careful planning and consolidation could restore the railroads and make them more efficient. There was continued concern about the near monopoly that the railroads had on the nation’s intercity freight and passenger transportation. The result of these deliberations was the Transportation Act of 1920, which was premised on the continued domination of the nation’s transportation by the railroads—an erroneous presumption.

The Transportation Act of 1920 presented a marked change in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s ability to control railroads. The ICC was allowed to prescribe exact rates that were to be set so as to allow the railroads to earn a fair return, defined as 5.5 percent, on the fair value of their property. The ICC was authorized to make an accounting of the fair value of each regulated railroad’s property; however, this was not completed until well into the 1930s, by which time the accounting and rate rules were out of date. To maintain fair competition between railroads in a region, all roads were to have the same rates for the same goods over the same distance. With the same rates, low-cost roads should have been able to earn higher rates of return than high-cost roads. To handle this, a recapture clause was inserted: any railroad earning a return of more than 6 percent on the fair value of its property was to turn the excess over to the ICC, which would place half of the money in a contingency fund for the railroad when it encountered financial problems and the other half in a contingency fund to provide loans to other railroads in need of assistance.

In order to address the problem of weak and strong railroads and to bring better coordination to the movement of rail traffic in the United States, the act was directed to encourage railroad consolidation, but little came of this in the 1920s. In order to facilitate its control of the railroads, the ICC was given two additional powers. The first was the control over the issuance or purchase of securities by railroads, and the second was the power to control changes in railroad service through the control of car supply and the extension and abandonment of track. The control of the supply of rail cars was turned over to the Association of American Railroads. Few extensions of track were proposed, but as time passed, abandonment requests grew. The ICC, however, trying to mediate between the conflicting demands of shippers, communities and railroads, generally refused to grant abandonments, and this became an extremely sensitive issue in the 1930s.

As indicated above, the premises of the Transportation Act of 1920 were wrong. Railroads experienced increasing competition during the 1920s, and both freight and passenger traffic were drawn off to competing transport forms. Passenger traffic exited from the railroads much more quickly. As the network of all weather surfaced roads increased, people quickly turned from the train to the car. Harmed even more by the move to automobile traffic were the electric interurban railways that had grown rapidly just prior to the First World War. (Hilton-Due, 1960) Not surprisingly, during the 1920s few railroads earned profits in excess of the fair rate of return.

The use of trucks to deliver freight began shortly after the turn of the century. Before the outbreak of war in Europe, White and Mack were producing trucks with as much as 7.5 tons of carrying capacity. Most of the truck freight was carried on a local basis, and it largely supplemented the longer distance freight transportation provided by the railroads. However, truck size was growing. In 1915 Trailmobile introduced the first four-wheel trailer designed to be pulled by a truck tractor unit. During the First World War, thousands of trucks were constructed for military purposes, and truck convoys showed that long distance truck travel was feasible and economical. The use of trucks to haul freight had been growing by over 18 percent per year since 1925, so that by 1929 intercity trucking accounted for more than one percent of the ton-miles of freight hauled.

The railroads argued that the trucks and buses provided “unfair” competition and believed that if they were also regulated, then the regulation could equalize the conditions under which they competed. As early as 1925, the National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners issued a call for the regulation of motor carriers in general. In 1928 the ICC called for federal regulation of buses and in 1932 extended this call to federal regulation of trucks.

Most states had began regulating buses at the beginning of the 1920s in an attempt to reduce the diversion of urban passenger traffic from the electric trolley and railway systems. However, most of the regulation did not aim to control intercity passenger traffic by buses. As the network of surfaced roads expanded during the twenties, so did the routes of the intercity buses. In 1929 a number of smaller bus companies were incorporated in the Greyhound Buslines, the carrier that has since dominated intercity bus transportation. (Walsh, 2000)

A complaint of the railroads was that interstate trucking competition was unfair because it was subsidized while railroads were not. All railroad property was privately owned and subject to property taxes, whereas truckers used the existing road system and therefore neither had to bear the costs of creating the road system nor pay taxes upon it. Beginning with the Federal Road-Aid Act of 1916, small amounts of money were provided as an incentive for states to construct rural post roads. (Dearing-Owen, 1949) However, through the First World War most of the funds for highway construction came from a combination of levies on the adjacent property owners and county and state taxes. The monies raised by the counties were commonly 60 percent of the total funds allocated, and these primarily came from property taxes. In 1919 Oregon pioneered the state gasoline tax, which then began to be adopted by more and more states. A highway system financed by property taxes and other levies can be construed as a subsidization of motor vehicles, and one study for the period up to 1920 found evidence of substantial subsidization of trucking. (Herbst-Wu, 1973) However, the use of gasoline taxes moved closer to the goal of users paying the costs of the highways. Neither did the trucks have to pay for all of the highway construction because automobiles jointly used the highways. Highways had to be constructed in more costly ways in order to accommodate the larger and heavier trucks. Ideally the gasoline taxes collected from trucks should have covered the extra (or marginal) costs of highway construction incurred because of the truck traffic. Gasoline taxes tended to do this.

The American economy occupies a vast geographic region. Because economic activity occurs over most of the country, falling transportation costs have been crucial to knitting American firms and consumers into a unified market. Throughout the nineteenth century the railroads played this crucial role. Because of the size of the railroad companies and their importance in the economic life of Americans, the federal government began to regulate them. But, by 1917 it appeared that the railroad system had achieved some stability, and it was generally assumed that the post-First World War era would be an extension of the era from 1900 to 1917. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Spurred by public investments in highways, cars and trucks voraciously ate into the railroad’s market, and, though the regulators failed to understand this at the time, the railroad’s monopoly on transportation quickly disappeared.

Communications

Communications had joined with transportation developments in the nineteenth century to tie the American economy together more completely. The telegraph had benefited by using the railroads’ right-of-ways, and the railroads used the telegraph to coordinate and organize their far-flung activities. As the cost of communications fell and information transfers sped, the development of firms with multiple plants at distant locations was facilitated. The interwar era saw a continuation of these developments as the telephone continued to supplant the telegraph and the new medium of radio arose to transmit news and provide a new entertainment source.

Telegraph domination of business and personal communications had given way to the telephone as long distance telephone calls between the east and west coasts with the new electronic amplifiers became possible in 1915. The number of telegraph messages handled grew 60.4 percent in the twenties. The number of local telephone conversations grew 46.8 percent between 1920 and 1930, while the number of long distance conversations grew 71.8 percent over the same period. There were 5 times as many long distance telephone calls as telegraph messages handled in 1920, and 5.7 times as many in 1930.

The twenties were a prosperous period for AT&T and its 18 major operating companies. (Brooks, 1975; Temin, 1987; Garnet, 1985; Lipartito, 1989) Telephone usage rose and, as Figure 19 shows, the share of all households with a telephone rose from 35 percent to nearly 42 percent. In cities across the nation, AT&T consolidated its system, gained control of many operating companies, and virtually eliminated its competitors. It was able to do this because in 1921 Congress passed the Graham Act exempting AT&T from the Sherman Act in consolidating competing telephone companies. By 1940, the non-Bell operating companies were all small relative to the Bell operating companies.

Surprisingly there was a decline in telephone use on the farms during the twenties. (Hadwiger-Cochran, 1984; Fischer 1987) Rising telephone rates explain part of the decline in rural use. The imposition of connection fees during the First World War made it more costly for new farmers to hook up. As AT&T gained control of more and more operating systems, telephone rates were increased. AT&T also began requiring, as a condition of interconnection, that independent companies upgrade their systems to meet AT&T standards. Most of the small mutual companies that had provided service to farmers had operated on a shoestring—wires were often strung along fenceposts, and phones were inexpensive “whoop and holler” magneto units. Upgrading to AT&T’s standards raised costs, forcing these companies to raise rates.

However, it also seems likely that during the 1920s there was a general decline in the rural demand for telephone services. One important factor in this was the dramatic decline in farm incomes in the early twenties. The second reason was a change in the farmers’ environment. Prior to the First World War, the telephone eased farm isolation and provided news and weather information that was otherwise hard to obtain. After 1920 automobiles, surfaced roads, movies, and the radio loosened the isolation and the telephone was no longer as crucial.

Othmar Merganthaler’s development of the linotype machine in the late nineteenth century had irrevocably altered printing and publishing. This machine, which quickly created a line of soft, lead-based metal type that could be printed, melted down and then recast as a new line of type, dramatically lowered the costs of printing. Previously, all type had to be painstakingly set by hand, with individual cast letter matrices picked out from compartments in drawers to construct words, lines, and paragraphs. After printing, each line of type on the page had to be broken down and each individual letter matrix placed back into its compartment in its drawer for use in the next printing job. Newspapers often were not published every day and did not contain many pages, resulting in many newspapers in most cities. In contrast to this laborious process, the linotype used a keyboard upon which the operator typed the words in one of the lines in a news column. Matrices for each letter dropped down from a magazine of matrices as the operator typed each letter and were assembled into a line of type with automatic spacers to justify the line (fill out the column width). When the line was completed the machine mechanically cast the line of matrices into a line of lead type. The line of lead type was ejected into a tray and the letter matrices mechanically returned to the magazine while the operator continued typing the next line in the news story. The first Merganthaler linotype machine was installed in the New York Tribune in 1886. The linotype machine dramatically lowered the costs of printing newspapers (as well as books and magazines). Prior to the linotype a typical newspaper averaged no more than 11 pages and many were published only a few times a week. The linotype machine allowed newspapers to grow in size and they began to be published more regularly. A process of consolidation of daily and Sunday newspapers began that continues to this day. Many have termed the Merganthaler linotype machine the most significant printing invention since the introduction of movable type 400 years earlier.

For city families as well as farm families, radio became the new source of news and entertainment. (Barnouw, 1966; Rosen, 1980 and 1987; Chester-Garrison, 1950) It soon took over as the prime advertising medium and in the process revolutionized advertising. By 1930 more homes had radio sets than had telephones. The radio networks sent news and entertainment broadcasts all over the country. The isolation of rural life, particularly in many areas of the plains, was forever broken by the intrusion of the “black box,” as radio receivers were often called. The radio began a process of breaking down regionalism and creating a common culture in the United States.

The potential demand for radio became clear with the first regular broadcast of Westinghouse’s KDKA in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1920. Because the Department of Commerce could not deny a license application there was an explosion of stations all broadcasting at the same frequency and signal jamming and interference became a serious problem. By 1923 the Department of Commerce had gained control of radio from the Post Office and the Navy and began to arbitrarily disperse stations on the radio dial and deny licenses creating the first market in commercial broadcast licenses. In 1926 a U.S. District Court decided that under the Radio Law of 1912 Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce, did not have this power. New stations appeared and the logjam and interference of signals worsened. A Radio Act was passed in January of 1927 creating the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) as a temporary licensing authority. Licenses were to be issued in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. A number of broadcasting licenses were revoked; stations were assigned frequencies, dial locations, and power levels. The FRC created 24 clear-channel stations with as much as 50,000 watts of broadcasting power, of which 21 ended up being affiliated with the new national radio networks. The Communications Act of 1934 essentially repeated the 1927 act except that it created a permanent, seven-person Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Local stations initially created and broadcast the radio programs. The expenses were modest, and stores and companies operating radio stations wrote this off as indirect, goodwill advertising. Several forces changed all this. In 1922, AT&T opened up a radio station in New York City, WEAF (later to become WNBC). AT&T envisioned this station as the center of a radio toll system where individuals could purchase time to broadcast a message transmitted to other stations in the toll network using AT&T’s long distance lines and an August 1922 broadcast by a Long Island realty company became the first conscious use of direct advertising.

Though advertising continued to be condemned, the fiscal pressures on radio stations to accept advertising began rising. In 1923 the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP), began demanding a performance fee anytime ASCAP-copyrighted music was performed on the radio, either live or on record. By 1924 the issue was settled, and most stations began paying performance fees to ASCAP. AT&T decided that all stations broadcasting with non AT&T transmitters were violating their patent rights and began asking for annual fees from such stations based on the station’s power. By the end of 1924, most stations were paying the fees. All of this drained the coffers of the radio stations, and more and more of them began discreetly accepting advertising.

RCA became upset at AT&T’s creation of a chain of radio stations and set up its own toll network using the inferior lines of Western Union and Postal Telegraph, because AT&T, not surprisingly, did not allow any toll (or network) broadcasting on its lines except by its own stations. AT&T began to worry that its actions might threaten its federal monopoly in long distance telephone communications. In 1926 a new firm was created, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which took over all broadcasting activities from AT&T and RCA as AT&T left broadcasting. When NBC debuted in November of 1926, it had two networks: the Red, which was the old AT&T network, and the Blue, which was the old RCA network. Radio networks allowed advertisers to direct advertising at a national audience at a lower cost. Network programs allowed local stations to broadcast superior programs that captured a larger listening audience and in return received a share of the fees the national advertiser paid to the network. In 1927 a new network, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) financed by the Paley family began operation and other new networks entered or tried to enter the industry in the 1930s.

Communications developments in the interwar era present something of a mixed picture. By 1920 long distance telephone service was in place, but rising rates slowed the rate of adoption in the period, and telephone use in rural areas declined sharply. Though direct dialing was first tried in the twenties, its general implementation would not come until the postwar era, when other changes, such as microwave transmission of signals and touch-tone dialing, would also appear. Though the number of newspapers declined, newspaper circulation generally held up. The number of competing newspapers in larger cities began declining, a trend that also would accelerate in the postwar American economy.

Banking and Securities Markets

In the twenties commercial banks became “department stores of finance.”— Banks opened up installment (or personal) loan departments, expanded their mortgage lending, opened up trust departments, undertook securities underwriting activities, and offered safe deposit boxes. These changes were a response to growing competition from other financial intermediaries. Businesses, stung by bankers’ control and reduced lending during the 1920-21 depression, began relying more on retained earnings and stock and bond issues to raise investment and, sometimes, working capital. This reduced loan demand. The thrift institutions also experienced good growth in the twenties as they helped fuel the housing construction boom of the decade. The securities markets boomed in the twenties only to see a dramatic crash of the stock market in late 1929.

There were two broad classes of commercial banks; those that were nationally chartered and those that were chartered by the states. Only the national banks were required to be members of the Federal Reserve System. (Figure 21) Most banks were unit banks because national regulators and most state regulators prohibited branching. However, in the twenties a few states began to permit limited branching; California even allowed statewide branching.—The Federal Reserve member banks held the bulk of the assets of all commercial banks, even though most banks were not members. A high bank failure rate in the 1920s has usually been explained by “overbanking” or too many banks located in an area, but H. Thomas Johnson (1973-74) makes a strong argument against this. (Figure 22)— If there were overbanking, on average each bank would have been underutilized resulting in intense competition for deposits and higher costs and lower earnings. One common reason would have been the free entry of banks as long as they achieved the minimum requirements then in force. However, the twenties saw changes that led to the demise of many smaller rural banks that would likely have been profitable if these changes had not occurred. Improved transportation led to a movement of business activities, including banking, into the larger towns and cities. Rural banks that relied on loans to farmers suffered just as farmers did during the twenties, especially in the first half of the twenties. The number of bank suspensions and the suspension rate fell after 1926. The sharp rise in bank suspensions in 1930 occurred because of the first banking crisis during the Great Depression.

Prior to the twenties, the main assets of commercial banks were short-term business loans, made by creating a demand deposit or increasing an existing one for a borrowing firm. As business lending declined in the 1920s commercial banks vigorously moved into new types of financial activities. As banks purchased more securities for their earning asset portfolios and gained expertise in the securities markets, larger ones established investment departments and by the late twenties were an important force in the underwriting of new securities issued by nonfinancial corporations.

The securities market exhibited perhaps the most dramatic growth of the noncommercial bank financial intermediaries during the twenties, but others also grew rapidly. (Figure 23) The assets of life insurance companies increased by 10 percent a year from 1921 to 1929; by the late twenties they were a very important source of funds for construction investment. Mutual savings banks and savings and loan associations (thrifts) operated in essentially the same types of markets. The Mutual savings banks were concentrated in the northeastern United States. As incomes rose, personal savings increased, and housing construction expanded in the twenties, there was an increasing demand for the thrifts’ interest earning time deposits and mortgage lending.

But the dramatic expansion in the financial sector came in new corporate securities issues in the twenties—especially common and preferred stock—and in the trading of existing shares of those securities. (Figure 24) The late twenties boom in the American economy was rapid, highly visible, and dramatic. Skyscrapers were being erected in most major cities, the automobile manufacturers produced over four and a half million new cars in 1929; and the stock market, like a barometer of this prosperity, was on a dizzying ride to higher and higher prices. “Playing the market” seemed to become a national pastime.

The Dow-Jones index hit its peak of 381 on September 3 and then slid to 320 on October 21. In the following week the stock market “crashed,” with a record number of shares being traded on several days. At the end of Tuesday, October, 29th, the index stood at 230, 96 points less than one week before. On November 13, 1929, the Dow-Jones index reached its lowest point for the year at 198—183 points less than the September 3 peak.

The path of the stock market boom of the twenties can be seen in Figure 25. Sharp price breaks occurred several times during the boom, and each of these gave rise to dark predictions of the end of the bull market and speculation. Until late October of 1929, these predictions turned out to be wrong. Between those price breaks and prior to the October crash, stock prices continued to surge upward. In March of 1928, 3,875,910 shares were traded in one day, establishing a record. By late 1928, five million shares being traded in a day was a common occurrence.

New securities, from rising merger activity and the formation of holding companies, were issued to take advantage of the rising stock prices.—Stock pools, which were not illegal until the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act, took advantage of the boom to temporarily drive up the price of selected stocks and reap large gains for the members of the pool. In stock pools a group of speculators would pool large amounts of their funds and then begin purchasing large amounts of shares of a stock. This increased demand led to rising prices for that stock. Frequently pool insiders would “churn” the stock by repeatedly buying and selling the same shares among themselves, but at rising prices. Outsiders, seeing the price rising, would decide to purchase the stock whose price was rising. At a predetermined higher price the pool members would, within a short period, sell their shares and pull out of the market for that stock. Without the additional demand from the pool, the stock’s price usually fell quickly bringing large losses for the unsuspecting outside investors while reaping large gains for the pool insiders.

Another factor commonly used to explain both the speculative boom and the October crash was the purchase of stocks on small margins. However, contrary to popular perception, margin requirements through most of the twenties were essentially the same as in previous decades. Brokers, recognizing the problems with margin lending in the rapidly changing market, began raising margin requirements in late 1928, and by the fall of 1929, margin requirements were the highest in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. In the 1920s, as was the case for decades prior to that, the usual margin requirements were 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price, and, apparently, more often around 10 percent. There were increases in this percentage by 1928 and by the fall of 1928, well before the crash and at the urging of a special New York Clearinghouse committee, margin requirements had been raised to some of the highest levels in New York Stock Exchange history. One brokerage house required the following of its clients. Securities with a selling price below $10 could only be purchased for cash. Securities with a selling price of $10 to $20 had to have a 50 percent margin; for securities of $20 to $30 a margin requirement of 40 percent; and, for securities with a price above $30 the margin was 30 percent of the purchase price. In the first half of 1929 margin requirements on customers’ accounts averaged a 40 percent margin, and some houses raised their margins to 50 percent a few months before the crash. These were, historically, very high margin requirements. (Smiley and Keehn, 1988)—Even so, during the crash when additional margin calls were issued, those investors who could not provide additional margin saw the brokers’ sell their stock at whatever the market price was at the time and these forced sales helped drive prices even lower.

The crash began on Monday, October 21, as the index of stock prices fell 3 points on the third-largest volume in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. After a slight rally on Tuesday, prices began declining on Wednesday and fell 21 points by the end of the day bringing on the third call for more margin in that week. On Black Thursday, October 24, prices initially fell sharply, but rallied somewhat in the afternoon so that the net loss was only 7 points, but the volume of thirteen million shares set a NYSE record. Friday brought a small gain that was wiped out on Saturday. On Monday, October 28, the Dow Jones index fell 38 points on a volume of nine million shares—three million in the final hour of trading. Black Tuesday, October 29, brought declines in virtually every stock price. Manufacturing firms, which had been lending large sums to brokers for margin loans, had been calling in these loans and this accelerated on Monday and Tuesday. The big Wall Street banks increased their lending on call loans to offset some of this loss of loanable funds. The Dow Jones Index fell 30 points on a record volume of nearly sixteen and a half million shares exchanged. Black Thursday and Black Tuesday wiped out entire fortunes.

Though the worst was over, prices continued to decline until November 13, 1929, as brokers cleaned up their accounts and sold off the stocks of clients who could not supply additional margin. After that, prices began to slowly rise and by April of 1930 had increased 96 points from the low of November 13,— “only” 87 points less than the peak of September 3, 1929. From that point, stock prices resumed their depressing decline until the low point was reached in the summer of 1932.

 

—There is a long tradition that insists that the Great Bull Market of the late twenties was an orgy of speculation that bid the prices of stocks far above any sustainable or economically justifiable level creating a bubble in the stock market. John Kenneth Galbraith (1954) observed, “The collapse in the stock market in the autumn of 1929 was implicit in the speculation that went before.”—But not everyone has agreed with this.

In 1930 Irving Fisher argued that the stock prices of 1928 and 1929 were based on fundamental expectations that future corporate earnings would be high.— More recently, Murray Rothbard (1963), Gerald Gunderson (1976), and Jude Wanniski (1978) have argued that stock prices were not too high prior to the crash.—Gunderson suggested that prior to 1929, stock prices were where they should have been and that when corporate profits in the summer and fall of 1929 failed to meet expectations, stock prices were written down.— Wanniski argued that political events brought on the crash. The market broke each time news arrived of advances in congressional consideration of the Hawley-Smoot tariff. However, the virtually perfect foresight that Wanniski’s explanation requires is unrealistic.— Charles Kindleberger (1973) and Peter Temin (1976) examined common stock yields and price-earnings ratios and found that the relative constancy did not suggest that stock prices were bid up unrealistically high in the late twenties.—Gary Santoni and Gerald Dwyer (1990) also failed to find evidence of a bubble in stock prices in 1928 and 1929.—Gerald Sirkin (1975) found that the implied growth rates of dividends required to justify stock prices in 1928 and 1929 were quite conservative and lower than post-Second World War dividend growth rates.

However, examination of after-the-fact common stock yields and price-earning ratios can do no more than provide some ex post justification for suggesting that there was not excessive speculation during the Great Bull Market.— Each individual investor was motivated by that person’s subjective expectations of each firm’s future earnings and dividends and the future prices of shares of each firm’s stock. Because of this element of subjectivity, not only can we never accurately know those values, but also we can never know how they varied among individuals. The market price we observe will be the end result of all of the actions of the market participants, and the observed price may be different from the price almost all of the participants expected.

In fact, there are some indications that there were differences in 1928 and 1929. Yields on common stocks were somewhat lower in 1928 and 1929. In October of 1928, brokers generally began raising margin requirements, and by the beginning of the fall of 1929, margin requirements were, on average, the highest in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. Though the discount and commercial paper rates had moved closely with the call and time rates on brokers’ loans through 1927, the rates on brokers’ loans increased much more sharply in 1928 and 1929.— This pulled in funds from corporations, private investors, and foreign banks as New York City banks sharply reduced their lending. These facts suggest that brokers and New York City bankers may have come to believe that stock prices had been bid above a sustainable level by late 1928 and early 1929. White (1990) created a quarterly index of dividends for firms in the Dow-Jones index and related this to the DJI. Through 1927 the two track closely, but in 1928 and 1929 the index of stock prices grows much more rapidly than the index of dividends.

The qualitative evidence for a bubble in the stock market in 1928 and 1929 that White assembled was strengthened by the findings of J. Bradford De Long and Andre Shleifer (1991). They examined closed-end mutual funds, a type of fund where investors wishing to liquidate must sell their shares to other individual investors allowing its fundamental value to be exactly measurable.— Using evidence from these funds, De Long and Shleifer estimated that in the summer of 1929, the Standard and Poor’s composite stock price index was overvalued about 30 percent due to excessive investor optimism. Rappoport and White (1993 and 1994) found other evidence that supported a bubble in the stock market in 1928 and 1929. There was a sharp divergence between the growth of stock prices and dividends; there were increasing premiums on call and time brokers’ loans in 1928 and 1929; margin requirements rose; and stock market volatility rose in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash.

There are several reasons for the creation of such a bubble. First, the fundamental values of earnings and dividends become difficult to assess when there are major industrial changes, such as the rapid changes in the automobile industry, the new electric utilities, and the new radio industry.— Eugene White (1990) suggests that “While investors had every reason to expect earnings to grow, they lacked the means to evaluate easily the future path of dividends.” As a result investors bid up prices as they were swept up in the ongoing stock market boom. Second, participation in the stock market widened noticeably in the twenties. The new investors were relatively unsophisticated, and they were more likely to be caught up in the euphoria of the boom and bid prices upward.— New, inexperienced commission sales personnel were hired to sell stocks and they promised glowing returns on stocks they knew little about.

These observations were strengthened by the experimental work of economist Vernon Smith. (Bishop, 1987) In a number of experiments over a three-year period using students and Tucson businessmen and businesswomen, bubbles developed as inexperienced investors valued stocks differently and engaged in price speculation. As these investors in the experiments began to realize that speculative profits were unsustainable and uncertain, their dividend expectations changed, the market crashed, and ultimately stocks began trading at their fundamental dividend values. These bubbles and crashes occurred repeatedly, leading Smith to conjecture that there are few regulatory steps that can be taken to prevent a crash.

Though the bubble of 1928 and 1929 made some downward adjustment in stock prices inevitable, as Barsky and De Long have shown, changes in fundamentals govern the overall movements. And the end of the long bull market was almost certainly governed by this. In late 1928 and early 1929 there was a striking rise in economic activity, but a decline began somewhere between May and July of that year and was clearly evident by August of 1929. By the middle of August, the rise in stock prices had slowed down as better information on the contraction was received. There were repeated statements by leading figures that stocks were “overpriced” and the Federal Reserve System sharply increased the discount rate in August 1929 was well as continuing its call for banks to reduce their margin lending. As this information was assessed, the number of speculators selling stocks increased, and the number buying decreased. With the decreased demand, stock prices began to fall, and as more accurate information on the nature and extent of the decline was received, stock prices fell more. The late October crash made the decline occur much more rapidly, and the margin purchases and consequent forced selling of many of those stocks contributed to a more severe price fall. The recovery of stock prices from November 13 into April of 1930 suggests that stock prices may have been driven somewhat too low during the crash.

There is now widespread agreement that the 1929 stock market crash did not cause the Great Depression. Instead, the initial downturn in economic activity was a primary determinant of the ending of the 1928-29 stock market bubble. The stock market crash did make the downturn become more severe beginning in November 1929. It reduced discretionary consumption spending (Romer, 1990) and created greater income uncertainty helping to bring on the contraction (Flacco and Parker, 1992). Though stock market prices reached a bottom and began to recover following November 13, 1929, the continuing decline in economic activity took its toll and by May 1930 stock prices resumed their decline and continued to fall through the summer of 1932.

Domestic Trade

In the nineteenth century, a complex array of wholesalers, jobbers, and retailers had developed, but changes in the postbellum period reduced the role of the wholesalers and jobbers and strengthened the importance of the retailers in domestic trade. (Cochran, 1977; Chandler, 1977; Marburg, 1951; Clewett, 1951) The appearance of the department store in the major cities and the rise of mail order firms in the postbellum period changed the retailing market.

Department Stores

A department store is a combination of specialty stores organized as departments within one general store. A. T. Stewart’s huge 1846 dry goods store in New York City is often referred to as the first department store. (Resseguie, 1965; Sobel-Sicilia, 1986) R. H. Macy started his dry goods store in 1858 and Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia opened in 1876. By the end of the nineteenth century, every city of any size had at least one major department store. (Appel, 1930; Benson, 1986; Hendrickson, 1979; Hower, 1946; Sobel, 1974) Until the late twenties, the department store field was dominated by independent stores, though some department stores in the largest cities had opened a few suburban branches and stores in other cities. In the interwar period department stores accounted for about 8 percent of retail sales.

The department stores relied on a “one-price” policy, which Stewart is credited with beginning. In the antebellum period and into the postbellum period, it was common not to post a specific price on an item; rather, each purchaser haggled with a sales clerk over what the price would be. Stewart posted fixed prices on the various dry goods sold, and the customer could either decide to buy or not buy at the fixed price. The policy dramatically lowered transactions costs for both the retailer and the purchaser. Prices were reduced with a smaller markup over the wholesale price, and a large sales volume and a quicker turnover of the store’s inventory generated profits.

Mail Order Firms

What changed the department store field in the twenties was the entrance of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, the two dominant mail order firms in the United States. (Emmet-Jeuck, 1950; Chandler, 1962, 1977) Both firms had begun in the late nineteenth century and by 1914 the younger Sears Roebuck had surpassed Montgomery Ward. Both located in Chicago due to its central location in the nation’s rail network and both had benefited from the advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 and low cost Parcel Post Service in 1912.

In 1924 Sears hired Robert C. Wood, who was able to convince Sears Roebuck to open retail stores. Wood believed that the declining rural population and the growing urban population forecast the gradual demise of the mail order business; survival of the mail order firms required a move into retail sales. By 1925 Sears Roebuck had opened 8 retail stores, and by 1929 it had 324 stores. Montgomery Ward quickly followed suit. Rather than locating these in the central business district (CBD), Wood located many on major streets closer to the residential areas. These moves of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward expanded department store retailing and provided a new type of chain store.

Chain Stores

Though chain stores grew rapidly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, they date back to the 1860s when George F. Gilman and George Huntington Hartford opened a string of New York City A&P (Atlantic and Pacific) stores exclusively to sell tea. (Beckman-Nolen, 1938; Lebhar, 1963; Bullock, 1933) Stores were opened in other regions and in 1912 their first “cash-and-carry” full-range grocery was opened. Soon they were opening 50 of these stores each week and by the 1920s A&P had 14,000 stores. They then phased out the small stores to reduce the chain to 4,000 full-range, supermarket-type stores. A&P’s success led to new grocery store chains such as Kroger, Jewel Tea, and Safeway.

Prior to A&P’s cash-and-carry policy, it was common for grocery stores, produce (or green) grocers, and meat markets to provide home delivery and credit, both of which were costly. As a result, retail prices were generally marked up well above the wholesale prices. In cash-and-carry stores, items were sold only for cash; no credit was extended, and no expensive home deliveries were provided. Markups on prices could be much lower because other costs were much lower. Consumers liked the lower prices and were willing to pay cash and carry their groceries, and the policy became common by the twenties.

Chains also developed in other retail product lines. In 1879 Frank W. Woolworth developed a “5 and 10 Cent Store,” or dime store, and there were over 1,000 F. W. Woolworth stores by the mid-1920s. (Winkler, 1940) Other firms such as Kresge, Kress, and McCrory successfully imitated Woolworth’s dime store chain. J.C. Penney’s dry goods chain store began in 1901 (Beasley, 1948), Walgreen’s drug store chain began in 1909, and shoes, jewelry, cigars, and other lines of merchandise also began to be sold through chain stores.

Self-Service Policies

In 1916 Clarence Saunders, a grocer in Memphis, Tennessee, built upon the one-price policy and began offering self-service at his Piggly Wiggly store. Previously, customers handed a clerk a list or asked for the items desired, which the clerk then collected and the customer paid for. With self-service, items for sale were placed on open shelves among which the customers could walk, carrying a shopping bag or pushing a shopping cart. Each customer could then browse as he or she pleased, picking out whatever was desired. Saunders and other retailers who adopted the self-service method of retail selling found that customers often purchased more because of exposure to the array of products on the shelves; as well, self-service lowered the labor required for retail sales and therefore lowered costs.

Shopping Centers

Shopping Centers, another innovation in retailing that began in the twenties, was not destined to become a major force in retail development until after the Second World War. The ultimate cause of this innovation was the widening ownership and use of the automobile. By the 1920s, as the ownership and use of the car began expanding, population began to move out of the crowded central cities toward the more open suburbs. When General Robert Wood set Sears off on its development of urban stores, he located these not in the central business district, CBD, but as free-standing stores on major arteries away from the CBD with sufficient space for parking.

At about the same time, a few entrepreneurs began to develop shopping centers. Yehoshua Cohen (1972) says, “The owner of such a center was responsible for maintenance of the center, its parking lot, as well as other services to consumers and retailers in the center.” Perhaps the earliest such shopping center was the Country Club Plaza built in 1922 by the J. C. Nichols Company in Kansas City, Missouri. Other early shopping centers appeared in Baltimore and Dallas. By the mid-1930s the concept of a planned shopping center was well known and was expected to be the means to capture the trade of the growing number of suburban consumers.

International Trade and Finance

In the twenties a gold exchange standard was developed to replace the gold standard of the prewar world. Under a gold standard, each country’s currency carried a fixed exchange rate with gold, and the currency had to be backed up by gold. As a result, all countries on the gold standard had fixed exchange rates with all other countries. Adjustments to balance international trade flows were made by gold flows. If a country had a deficit in its trade balance, gold would leave the country, forcing the money stock to decline and prices to fall. Falling prices made the deficit countries’ exports more attractive and imports more costly, reducing the deficit. Countries with a surplus imported gold, which increased the money stock and caused prices to rise. This made the surplus countries’ exports less attractive and imports more attractive, decreasing the surplus. Most economists who have studied the prewar gold standard contend that it did not work as the conventional textbook model says, because capital flows frequently reduced or eliminated the need for gold flows for long periods of time. However, there is no consensus on whether fortuitous circumstances, rather than the gold standard, saved the international economy from periodic convulsions or whether the gold standard as it did work was sufficient to promote stability and growth in international transactions.

After the First World War it was argued that there was a “shortage” of fluid monetary gold to use for the gold standard, so some method of “economizing” on gold had to be found. To do this, two basic changes were made. First, most nations, other than the United States, stopped domestic circulation of gold. Second, the “gold exchange” system was created. Most countries held their international reserves in the form of U.S. dollars or British pounds and international transactions used dollars or pounds, as long as the United States and Great Britain stood ready to exchange their currencies for gold at fixed exchange rates. However, the overvaluation of the pound and the undervaluation of the franc threatened these arrangements. The British trade deficit led to a capital outflow, higher interest rates, and a weak economy. In the late twenties, the French trade surplus led to the importation of gold that they did not allow to expand the money supply.

Economizing on gold by no longer allowing its domestic circulation and by using key currencies as international monetary reserves was really an attempt to place the domestic economies under the control of the nations’ politicians and make them independent of international events. Unfortunately, in doing this politicians eliminated the equilibrating mechanism of the gold standard but had nothing with which to replace it. The new international monetary arrangements of the twenties were potentially destabilizing because they were not allowed to operate as a price mechanism promoting equilibrating adjustments.

There were other problems with international economic activity in the twenties. Because of the war, the United States was abruptly transformed from a debtor to a creditor on international accounts. Though the United States did not want reparations payments from Germany, it did insist that Allied governments repay American loans. The Allied governments then insisted on war reparations from Germany. These initial reparations assessments were quite large. The Allied Reparations Commission collected the charges by supervising Germany’s foreign trade and by internal controls on the German economy, and it was authorized to increase the reparations if it was felt that Germany could pay more. The treaty allowed France to occupy the Ruhr after Germany defaulted in 1923.

Ultimately, this tangled web of debts and reparations, which was a major factor in the course of international trade, depended upon two principal actions. First, the United States had to run an import surplus or, on net, export capital out of the United States to provide a pool of dollars overseas. Germany then had either to have an export surplus or else import American capital so as to build up dollar reserves—that is, the dollars the United States was exporting. In effect, these dollars were paid by Germany to Great Britain, France, and other countries that then shipped them back to the United States as payment on their U.S. debts. If these conditions did not occur, (and note that the “new” gold standard of the twenties had lost its flexibility because the price adjustment mechanism had been eliminated) disruption in international activity could easily occur and be transmitted to the domestic economies.

In the wake of the 1920-21 depression Congress passed the Emergency Tariff Act, which raised tariffs, particularly on manufactured goods. (Figures 26 and 27) The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 continued the Emergency Tariff of 1921, and its protection on many items was extremely high, ranging from 60 to 100 percent ad valorem (or as a percent of the price of the item). The increases in the Fordney-McCumber tariff were as large and sometimes larger than the more famous (or “infamous”) Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. As farm product prices fell at the end of the decade presidential candidate Herbert Hoover proposed, as part of his platform, tariff increases and other changes to aid the farmers. In January 1929, after Hoover’s election, but before he took office, a tariff bill was introduced into Congress. Special interests succeeded in gaining additional (or new) protection for most domestically produced commodities and the goal of greater protection for the farmers tended to get lost in the increased protection for multitudes of American manufactured products. In spite of widespread condemnation by economists, President Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in June 1930 and rates rose sharply.

Following the First World War, the U.S. government actively promoted American exports, and in each of the postwar years through 1929, the United States recorded a surplus in its balance of trade. (Figure 28) However, the surplus declined in the 1930s as both exports and imports fell sharply after 1929. From the mid-1920s on finished manufactures were the most important exports, while agricultural products dominated American imports.

The majority of the funds that allowed Germany to make its reparations payments to France and Great Britain and hence allowed those countries to pay their debts to the United States came from the net flow of capital out of the United States in the form of direct investment in real assets and investments in long- and short-term foreign financial assets. After the devastating German hyperinflation of 1922 and 1923, the Dawes Plan reformed the German economy and currency and accelerated the U.S. capital outflow. American investors began to actively and aggressively pursue foreign investments, particularly loans (Lewis, 1938) and in the late twenties there was a marked deterioration in the quality of foreign bonds sold in the United States. (Mintz, 1951)

The system, then, worked well as long as there was a net outflow of American capital, but this did not continue. In the middle of 1928, the flow of short-term capital began to decline. In 1928 the flow of “other long-term” capital out of the United States was 752 million dollars, but in 1929 it was only 34 million dollars. Though arguments now exist as to whether the booming stock market in the United States was to blame for this, it had far-reaching effects on the international economic system and the various domestic economies.

The Start of the Depression

The United States had the majority of the world’s monetary gold, about 40 percent, by 1920. In the latter part of the twenties, France also began accumulating gold as its share of the world’s monetary gold rose from 9 percent in 1927 to 17 percent in 1929 and 22 percent by 1931. In 1927 the Federal Reserve System had reduced discount rates (the interest rate at which they lent reserves to member commercial banks) and engaged in open market purchases (purchasing U.S. government securities on the open market to increase the reserves of the banking system) to push down interest rates and assist Great Britain in staying on the gold standard. By early 1928 the Federal Reserve System was worried about its loss of gold due to this policy as well as the ongoing boom in the stock market. It began to raise the discount rate to stop these outflows. Gold was also entering the United States so that foreigners could obtain dollars to invest in stocks and bonds. As the United States and France accumulated more and more of the world’s monetary gold, other countries’ central banks took contractionary steps to stem the loss of gold. In country after country these deflationary strategies began contracting economic activity and by 1928 some countries in Europe, Asia, and South America had entered into a depression. More countries’ economies began to decline in 1929, including the United States, and by 1930 a depression was in force for almost all of the world’s market economies. (Temin, 1989; Eichengreen, 1992)

Monetary and Fiscal Policies in the 1920s

Fiscal Policies

As a tool to promote stability in aggregate economic activity, fiscal policy is largely a post-Second World War phenomenon. Prior to 1930 the federal government’s spending and taxing decisions were largely, but not completely, based on the perceived “need” for government-provided public goods and services.

Though the fiscal policy concept had not been developed, this does not mean that during the twenties no concept of the government’s role in stimulating economic activity existed. Herbert Stein (1990) points out that in the twenties Herbert Hoover and some of his contemporaries shared two ideas about the proper role of the federal government. The first was that federal spending on public works could be an important force in reducin Smiley and Keehn, 1995.  investment. Both concepts fit the ideas held by Hoover and others of his persuasion that the U.S. economy of the twenties was not the result of laissez-faire workings but of “deliberate social engineering.”

The federal personal income tax was enacted in 1913. Though mildly progressive, its rates were low and topped out at 7 percent on taxable income in excess of $750,000. (Table 4) As the United States prepared for war in 1916, rates were increased and reached a maximum marginal rate of 12 percent. With the onset of the First World War, the rates were dramatically increased. To obtain additional revenue in 1918, marginal rates were again increased. The share of federal revenue generated by income taxes rose from 11 percent in 1914 to 69 percent in 1920. The tax rates had been extended downward so that more than 30 percent of the nation’s income recipients were subject to income taxes by 1918. However, through the purchase of tax exempt state and local securities and through steps taken by corporations to avoid the cash distribution of profits, the number of high income taxpayers and their share of total taxes paid declined as Congress kept increasing the tax rates. The normal (or base) tax rate was reduced slightly for 1919 but the surtax rates, which made the income tax highly progressive, were retained. (Smiley-Keehn, 1995)

President Harding’s new Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, proposed cutting the tax rates, arguing that the rates in the higher brackets had “passed the point of productivity” and rates in excess of 70 percent simply could not be collected. Though most agreed that the rates were too high, there was sharp disagreement on how the rates should be cut. Democrats and  Smiley and Keehn, 1995.  Progressive Republicans argued for rate cuts targeted for the lower income taxpayers while maintaining most of the steep progressivity of the tax rates. They believed that remedies could be found to change the tax laws to stop the legal avoidance of federal income taxes. Republicans argued for sharper cuts that reduced the progressivity of the rates. Mellon proposed a maximum rate of 25 percent.

Though the federal income tax rates were reduced and made less progressive, it took three tax rate cuts in 1921, 1924, and 1925 before Mellon’s goal was finally achieved. The highest marginal tax rate was reduced from 73 percent to 58 percent to 46 percent and finally to 25 percent for the 1925 tax year. All of the other rates were also reduced and exemptions increased. By 1926, only about the top 10 percent of income recipients were subject to federal income taxes. As tax rates were reduced, the number of high income tax returns increased and the share of total federal personal income taxes paid rose. (Tables 5 and 6) Even with the dramatic income tax rate cuts and reductions in the number of low income taxpayers, federal personal income tax revenue continued to rise during the 1920s. Though early estimates of the distribution of personal income showed sharp increases in income inequality during the 1920s (Kuznets, 1953; Holt, 1977), more recent estimates have found that the increases in inequality were considerably less and these appear largely to be related to the sharp rise in capital gains due to the booming stock market in the late twenties. (Smiley, 1998 and 2000)

Each year in the twenties the federal government generated a surplus, in some years as much as 1 percent of GNP. The surpluses were used to reduce the federal deficit and it declined by 25 percent between 1920 and 1930. Contrary to simple macroeconomic models that argue a federal government budget surplus must be contractionary and tend to stop an economy from reaching full employment, the American economy operated at full-employment or close to it throughout the twenties and saw significant economic growth. In this case, the surpluses were not contractionary because the dollars were circulated back into the economy through the purchase of outstanding federal debt rather than pulled out as currency and held in a vault somewhere.

Monetary Policies

In 1913 fear of the “money trust” and their monopoly power led Congress to create 12 central banks when they created the Federal Reserve System. The new central banks were to control money and credit and act as lenders of last resort to end banking panics. The role of the Federal Reserve Board, located in Washington, D.C., was to coordinate the policies of the 12 district banks; it was composed of five presidential appointees and the current secretary of the treasury and comptroller of the currency. All national banks had to become members of the Federal Reserve System, the Fed, and any state bank meeting the qualifications could elect to do so.

The act specified fixed reserve requirements on demand and time deposits, all of which had to be on deposit in the district bank. Commercial banks were allowed to rediscount commercial paper and given Federal Reserve currency. Initially, each district bank set its own rediscount rate. To provide additional income when there was little rediscounting, the district banks were allowed to engage in open market operations that involved the purchasing and selling of federal government securities, short-term securities of state and local governments issued in anticipation of taxes, foreign exchange, and domestic bills of exchange. The district banks were also designated to act as fiscal agents for the federal government. Finally, the Federal Reserve System provided a central check clearinghouse for the entire banking system.

When the Federal Reserve System was originally set up, it was believed that its primary role was to be a lender of last resort to prevent banking panics and become a check-clearing mechanism for the nation’s banks. Both the Federal Reserve Board and the Governors of the District Banks were bodies established to jointly exercise these activities. The division of functions was not clear, and a struggle for power ensued, mainly between the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which was led by J. P. Morgan’s protege, Benjamin Strong, through 1928, and the Federal Reserve Board. By the thirties the Federal Reserve Board had achieved dominance.

There were really two conflicting criteria upon which monetary actions were ostensibly based: the Gold Standard and the Real Bills Doctrine. The Gold Standard was supposed to be quasi-automatic, with an effective limit to the quantity of money. However, the Real Bills Doctrine (which required that all loans be made on short-term, self-liquidating commercial paper) had no effective limit on the quantity of money. The rediscounting of eligible commercial paper was supposed to lead to the required “elasticity” of the stock of money to “accommodate” the needs of industry and business. Actually the rediscounting of commercial paper, open market purchases, and gold inflows all had the same effects on the money stock.

The 1920-21 Depression

During the First World War, the Fed kept discount rates low and granted discounts on banks’ customer loans used to purchase V-bonds in order to help finance the war. The final Victory Loan had not been floated when the Armistice was signed in November of 1918: in fact, it took until October of 1919 for the government to fully sell this last loan issue. The Treasury, with the secretary of the treasury sitting on the Federal Reserve Board, persuaded the Federal Reserve System to maintain low interest rates and discount the Victory bonds necessary to keep bond prices high until this last issue had been floated. As a result, during this period the money supply grew rapidly and prices rose sharply.

A shift from a federal deficit to a surplus and supply disruptions due to steel and coal strikes in 1919 and a railroad strike in early 1920 contributed to the end of the boom. But the most—common view is that the Fed’s monetary policy was the main determinant of the end of the expansion and inflation and the beginning of the subsequent contraction and severe deflation. When the Fed was released from its informal agreement with the Treasury in November of 1919, it raised the discount rate from 4 to 4.75 percent. Benjamin Strong (the governor of the New York bank) was beginning to believe that the time for strong action was past and that the Federal Reserve System’s actions should be moderate. However, with Strong out of the country, the Federal Reserve Board increased the discount rate from 4.75 to 6 percent in late January of 1920 and to 7 percent on June 1, 1920. By the middle of 1920, economic activity and employment were rapidly falling, and prices had begun their downward spiral in one of the sharpest price declines in American history. The Federal Reserve System kept the discount rate at 7 percent until May 5, 1921, when it was lowered to 6.5 percent. By June of 1922, the rate had been lowered yet again to 4 percent. (Friedman and Schwartz, 1963)

The Federal Reserve System authorities received considerable criticism then and later for their actions. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz (1963) contend that the discount rate was raised too much too late and then kept too high for too long, causing the decline to be more severe and the price deflation to be greater. In their opinion the Fed acted in this manner due to the necessity of meeting the legal reserve requirement with a safe margin of gold reserves. Elmus Wicker (1966), however, argues that the gold reserve ratio was not the main factor determining the Federal Reserve policy in the episode. Rather, the Fed knowingly pursued a deflationary policy because it felt that the money supply was simply too large and prices too high. To return to the prewar parity for gold required lowering the price level, and there was an excessive stock of money because the additional money had been used to finance the war, not to produce consumer goods. Finally, the outstanding indebtedness was too large due to the creation of Fed credit.

Whether statutory gold reserve requirements to maintain the gold standard or domestic credit conditions were the most important determinant of Fed policy is still an open question, though both certainly had some influence. Regardless of the answer to that question, the Federal Reserve System’s first major undertaking in the years immediately following the First World War demonstrated poor policy formulation.

Federal Reserve Policies from 1922 to 1930

By 1921 the district banks began to recognize that their open market purchases had effects on interest rates, the money stock, and economic activity. For the next several years, economists in the Federal Reserve System discussed how this worked and how it could be related to discounting by member banks. A committee was created to coordinate the open market purchases of the district banks.

The recovery from the 1920-1921 depression had proceeded smoothly with moderate price increases. In early 1923 the Fed sold some securities and increased the discount rate from 4 percent as they believed the recovery was too rapid. However, by the fall of 1923 there were some signs of a business slump. McMillin and Parker (1994) argue that this contraction, as well as the 1927 contraction, were related to oil price shocks. By October of 1923 Benjamin Strong was advocating securities purchases to counter this. Between then and September 1924 the Federal Reserve System increased its securities holdings by over $500 million. Between April and August of 1924 the Fed reduced the discount rate to 3 percent in a series of three separate steps. In addition to moderating the mild business slump, the expansionary policy was also intended to reduce American interest rates relative to British interest rates. This reversed the gold flow back toward Great Britain allowing Britain to return to the gold standard in 1925. At the time it appeared that the Fed’s monetary policy had successfully accomplished its goals.

By the summer of 1924 the business slump was over and the economy again began to grow rapidly. By the mid-1920s real estate speculation had arisen in many urban areas in the United States and especially in Southeastern Florida. Land prices were rising sharply. Stock market prices had also begun rising more rapidly. The Fed expressed some worry about these developments and in 1926 sold some securities to gently slow the real estate and stock market boom. Amid hurricanes and supply bottlenecks the Florida real estate boom collapsed but the stock market boom continued.

The American economy entered into another mild business recession in the fall of 1926 that lasted until the fall of 1927. One of the factors in this was Henry’s Ford’s shut down of all of his factories to changeover from the Model T to the Model A. His employees were left without a job and without income for over six months. International concerns also reappeared. France, which was preparing to return to the gold standard, had begun accumulating gold and gold continued to flow into the United States. Some of this gold came from Great Britain making it difficult for the British to remain on the gold standard. This occasioned a new experiment in central bank cooperation. In July 1927 Benjamin Strong arranged a conference with Governor Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Governor Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank, and Deputy Governor Charles Ritt of the Bank of France in an attempt to promote cooperation among the world’s central bankers. By the time the conference began the Fed had already taken steps to counteract the business slump and reduce the gold inflow. In early 1927 the Fed reduced discount rates and made large securities purchases. One result of this was that the gold stock fell from $4.3 billion in mid-1927 to $3.8 billion in mid-1928. Some of the gold exports went to France and France returned to the gold standard with its undervalued currency. The loss of gold from Britain eased allowing it to maintain the gold standard.

By early 1928 the Fed was again becoming worried. Stock market prices were rising even faster and the apparent speculative bubble in the stock market was of some concern to Fed authorities. The Fed was also concerned about the loss of gold and wanted to bring that to an end. To do this they sold securities and, in three steps, raised the discount rate to 5 percent by July 1928. To this point the Federal Reserve Board had largely agreed with district Bank policy changes. However, problems began to develop.

During the stock market boom of the late 1920s the Federal Reserve Board preferred to use “moral suasion” rather than increases in discount rates to lessen member bank borrowing. The New York City bank insisted that moral suasion would not work unless backed up by literal credit rationing on a bank by bank basis which they, and the other district banks, were unwilling to do. They insisted that discount rates had to be increased. The Federal Reserve Board countered that this general policy change would slow down economic activity in general rather than be specifically targeted to stock market speculation. The result was that little was done for a year. Rates were not raised but no open market purchases were undertaken. Rates were finally raised to 6 percent in August of 1929. By that time the contraction had already begun. In late October the stock market crashed, and America slid into the Great Depression.

In November, following the stock market crash the Fed reduced discount rates to 4.5 percent. In January they again decreased discount rates and began a series of discount rate decreases until the rate reached 2.5 percent at the end of 1930. No further open market operations were undertaken for the next six months. As banks reduced their discounting in 1930, the stock of money declined. There was a banking crisis in the southeast in November and December of 1930, and in its wake the public’s holding of currency relative to deposits and banks’ reserve ratios began to rise and continued to do so through the end of the Great Depression.

Conclusion

Though some disagree, there is growing evidence that the behavior of the American economy in the 1920s did not cause the Great Depression. The depressed 1930s were not “retribution” for the exuberant growth of the 1920s. The weakness of a few economic sectors in the 1920s did not forecast the contraction from 1929 to 1933. Rather it was the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War that interrupted the economic growth begun in the 1920s and resumed after the Second World War. Just as the construction of skyscrapers that began in the 1920s resumed in the 1950s, so did real economic growth and progress resume. In retrospect we can see that the introduction and expansion of new technologies and industries in the 1920s, such as autos, household electric appliances, radio, and electric utilities, are echoed in the 1990s in the effects of the expanding use and development of the personal computer and the rise of the internet. The 1920s have much to teach us about the growth and development of the American economy.

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The Dutch Economy in the Golden Age (16th – 17th Centuries)

Donald J. Harreld, Brigham Young University

In just over one hundred years, the provinces of the Northern Netherlands went from relative obscurity as the poor cousins of the industrious and heavily urbanized Southern Netherlands provinces of Flanders and Brabant to the pinnacle of European commercial success. Taking advantage of a favorable agricultural base, the Dutch achieved success in the fishing industry and the Baltic and North Sea carrying trade during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries before establishing a far-flung maritime empire in the seventeenth century.

The Economy of the Netherlands up to the Sixteenth Century

In many respects the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic inherited the economic successes of the Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands. For centuries, Flanders and to a lesser extent Brabant had been at the forefront of the medieval European economy. An indigenous cloth industry was present throughout all areas of Europe in the early medieval period, but Flanders was the first to develop the industry with great intensity. A tradition of cloth manufacture in the Low Countries existed from antiquity when the Celts and then the Franks continued an active textile industry learned from the Romans.

As demand grew early textile production moved from its rural origins to the cities and had become, by the twelfth century, an essentially urban industry. Native wool could not keep up with demand, and the Flemings imported English wool in great quantities. The resulting high quality product was much in demand all over Europe, from Novgorod to the Mediterranean. Brabant also rose to an important position in textile industry, but only about a century after Flanders. By the thirteenth century the number of people engaged in some aspect of the textile industry in the Southern Netherlands had become more than the total engaged in all other crafts. It is possible that this emphasis on cloth manufacture was the reason that the Flemish towns ignored the emerging maritime shipping industry which was eventually dominated by others, first the German Hanseatic League, and later Holland and Zeeland.

By the end of the fifteenth century Antwerp in Brabant had become the commercial capital of the Low Countries as foreign merchants went to the city in great numbers in search of the high-value products offered at the city’s fairs. But the traditional cloths manufactured in Flanders had lost their allure for most European markets, particularly as the English began exporting high quality cloths rather than the raw materials the Flemish textile industry depended on. Many textile producers turned to the lighter weight and cheaper “new draperies.” Despite protectionist measures instituted in the mid-fifteenth century, English cloth found an outlet in Antwerp ‘s burgeoning markets. By the early years of the sixteenth century the Portuguese began using Antwerp as an outlet for their Asian pepper and spice imports, and the Germans continued to bring their metal products (copper and silver) there. For almost a hundred years Antwerp remained the commercial capital of northern Europe, until the religious and political events of the 1560s and 1570s intervened and the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule toppled the commercial dominance of Antwerp and the southern provinces. Within just a few years of the Fall of Antwerp (1585), scores of merchants and mostly Calvinist craftsmen fled the south for the relative security of the Northern Netherlands.

The exodus from the south certainly added to the already growing population of the north. However, much like Flanders and Brabant, the northern provinces of Holland and Zeeland were already populous and heavily urbanized. The population of these maritime provinces had been steadily growing throughout the sixteenth century, perhaps tripling between the first years of the sixteenth century to about 1650. The inland provinces grew much more slowly during the same period. Not until the eighteenth century, when the Netherlands as a whole faced declining fortunes would the inland provinces begin to match the growth of the coastal core of the country.

Dutch Agriculture

During the fifteenth century, and most of the sixteenth century, the Northern Netherlands provinces were predominantly rural compared to the urbanized southern provinces. Agriculture and fishing formed the basis for the Dutch economy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One of the characteristics of Dutch agriculture during this period was its emphasis on intensive animal husbandry. Dutch cattle were exceptionally well cared for and dairy produce formed a significant segment of the agricultural sector. During the seventeenth century, as the Dutch urban population saw dramatic growth many farmers also turned to market gardening to supply the cities with vegetables.

Some of the impetus for animal production came from the trade in slaughter cattle from Denmark and Northern Germany. Holland was an ideal area for cattle feeding and fattening before eventual slaughter and export to the cities of the Southern provinces. The trade in slaughter cattle expanded from about 1500 to 1660, but protectionist measures on the part of Dutch authorities who wanted to encourage the fattening of home-bred cattle ensured a contraction of the international cattle trade between 1660 and 1750.

Although agriculture made up the largest segment of the Dutch economy, cereal production in the Netherlands could not keep up with demand particularly by the seventeenth century as migration from the southern provinces contributed to population increases. The provinces of the Low Countries traditionally had depended on imported grain from the south (France and the Walloon provinces) and when crop failures interrupted the flow of grain from the south, the Dutch began to import grain from the Baltic. Baltic grain imports experienced sustained growth from about the middle of the sixteenth century to roughly 1650 when depression and stagnation characterized the grain trade into the eighteenth century.

Indeed, the Baltic grain trade (see below), a major source of employment for the Dutch, not only in maritime transport but in handling and storage as well, was characterized as the “mother trade.” In her recent book on the Baltic grain trade, Mijla van Tielhof defined “mother trade” as the oldest and most substantial trade with respect to ships, sailors and commodities for the Northern provinces. Over the long term, the Baltic grain trade gave rise to shipping and trade on other routes as well as to manufacturing industries.

Dutch Fishing

Along with agriculture, the Dutch fishing industry formed part of the economic base of the northern Netherlands. Like the Baltic grain trade, it also contributed to the rise of Dutch the shipping industry.

The backbone of the fishing industry was the North Sea herring fishery, which was quite advanced and included a form of “factory” ship called the herring bus. The herring bus was developed in the fifteenth century in order to allow the herring catch to be processed with salt at sea. This permitted the herring ship to remain at sea longer and increased the range of the herring fishery. Herring was an important export product for the Netherlands particularly to inland areas, but also to the Baltic offsetting Baltic grain imports.

The herring fishery reached its zenith in the first half of the seventeenth century. Estimates put the size of the herring fleet at roughly 500 busses and the catch at about 20,000 to 25,000 lasts (roughly 33,000 metric tons) on average each year in the first decades of the seventeenth century. The herring catch as well as the number of busses began to decline in the second half of the seventeenth century, collapsing by about the mid-eighteenth century when the catch amounted to only about 6000 lasts. This decline was likely due to competition resulting from a reinvigoration of the Baltic fishing industry that succeeded in driving prices down, as well as competition within the North Sea by the Scottish fishing industry.

The Dutch Textile Industry

The heartland for textile manufacturing had been Flanders and Brabant until the onset of the Dutch Revolt around 1568. Years of warfare continued to devastate the already beaten down Flemish cloth industry. Even the cloth producing towns of the Northern Netherlands that had been focusing on producing the “new draperies” saw their output decline as a result of wartime interruptions. But textiles remained the most important industry for the Dutch Economy.

Despite the blow it suffered during the Dutch revolt, Leiden’s textile industry, for instance, rebounded in the early seventeenth century – thanks to the influx of textile workers from the Southern Netherlands who emigrated there in the face of religious persecution. But by the 1630s Leiden had abandoned the heavy traditional wool cloths in favor of a lighter traditional woolen (laken) as well as a variety of other textiles such as says, fustians, and camlets. Total textile production increased from 50,000 or 60,000 pieces per year in the first few years of the seventeenth century to as much as 130,000 pieces per year during the 1660s. Leiden’s wool cloth industry probably reached peak production by 1670. The city’s textile industry was successful because it found export markets for its inexpensive cloths in the Mediterranean, much to the detriment of Italian cloth producers.

Next to Lyons, Leiden may have been Europe’s largest industrial city at end of seventeenth century. Production was carried out through the “putting out” system, whereby weavers with their own looms and often with other dependent weavers working for them, obtained imported raw materials from merchants who paid the weavers by the piece for their work (the merchant retained ownership of the raw materials throughout the process). By the end of the seventeenth century foreign competition threatened the Dutch textile industry. Production in many of the new draperies (says, for example) decreased considerably throughout the eighteenth century; profits suffered as prices declined in all but the most expensive textiles. This left the production of traditional woolens to drive what was left of Leiden’s textile industry in the eighteenth century.

Although Leiden certainly led the Netherlands in the production of wool cloth, it was not the only textile producing city in the United Provinces. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Delft and Haarlem, among others, had vibrant textile industries. Haarlem, for example, was home to an important linen industry during the first half of the seventeenth century. Like Leiden’s cloth industry, Haarlem’s linen industry benefited from experienced linen weavers who migrated from the Southern Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt. Haarlem’s hold on linen production, however, was due more to its success in linen bleaching and finishing. Not only was locally produced linen finished in Haarlem, but linen merchants from other areas of Europe sent their products to Haarlem for bleaching and finishing. As linen production moved to more rural areas as producers sought to decrease costs in the second half of the seventeenth century, Haarlem’s industry went into decline.

Other Dutch Industries

Industries also developed as a result of overseas colonial trade, in particular Amsterdam’s sugar refining industry. During the sixteenth century, Antwerp had been Europe’s most important sugar refining city, a title it inherited from Venice once the Atlantic sugar islands began to surpass Mediterranean sugar production. Once Antwerp fell to Spanish troops during the Revolt, however, Amsterdam replaced it as Europe’s dominant sugar refiner. The number of sugar refineries in Amsterdam increased from about 3 around 1605 to about 50 by 1662, thanks in no small part to Portuguese investment. Dutch merchants purchased huge amounts of sugar from both the French and the English islands in the West Indies, along with a great deal of tobacco. Tobacco processing became an important Amsterdam industry in the seventeenth century employing large numbers of workers and leading to attempts to develop domestic tobacco cultivation.

With the exception of some of the “colonial” industries (sugar, for instance), Dutch industry experienced a period of stagnation after the 1660s and eventual decline beginning around the turn of the eighteenth century. It would seem that as far as industrial production is concerned, the Dutch Golden Age lasted from the 1580s until about 1670. This period was followed by roughly one hundred years of declining industrial production. De Vries and van der Woude concluded that Dutch industry experienced explosive growth after 1580s because of the migration of skilled labor and merchant capital from the southern Netherlands at roughly the time Antwerp fell to the Spanish and because of the relative advantage continued warfare in the south gave to the Northern Provinces. After the 1660s most Dutch industries experienced either steady or steep decline as many Dutch industries moved from the cities into the countryside, while some (particularly the colonial industries) remained successful well into the eighteenth century.

Dutch Shipping and Overseas Commerce

Dutch shipping began to emerge as a significant sector during the fifteenth century. Probably stemming from the inaction on the part of merchants from the Southern Netherlands to participate in seaborne transport, the towns of Zeeland and Holland began to serve the shipping needs of the commercial towns of Flanders and Brabant (particularly Antwerp ). The Dutch, who were already active in the North Sea as a result of the herring fishery, began to compete with the German Hanseatic League for Baltic markets by exporting their herring catches, salt, wine, and cloth in exchange for Baltic grain.

The Grain Trade

Baltic grain played an essential role for the rapidly expanding markets in western and southern Europe. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the urban populations had increased in the Low Countries fueling the market for imported grain. Grain and other Baltic products such as tar, hemp, flax, and wood were not only destined for the Low Countries, but also England and for Spain and Portugal via Amsterdam, the port that had succeeded in surpassing Lübeck and other Hanseatic towns as the primary transshipment point for Baltic goods. The grain trade sparked the development of a variety of industries. In addition to the shipbuilding industry, which was an obvious outgrowth of overseas trade relationships, the Dutch manufactured floor tiles, roof tiles, and bricks for export to the Baltic; the grain ships carried them as ballast on return voyages to the Baltic.

The importance of the Baltic markets to Amsterdam, and to Dutch commerce in general can be illustrated by recalling that when the Danish closed the Sound to Dutch ships in 1542, the Dutch faced financial ruin. But by the mid-sixteenth century, the Dutch had developed such a strong presence in the Baltic that they were able to exact transit rights from Denmark (Peace of Speyer, 1544) allowing them freer access to the Baltic via Danish waters. Despite the upheaval caused by the Dutch and the commercial crisis that hit Antwerp in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, the Baltic grain trade remained robust until the last years of the seventeenth century. That the Dutch referred to the Baltic trade as their “mother trade” is not surprising given the importance Baltic markets continued to hold for Dutch commerce throughout the Golden Age. Unfortunately for Dutch commerce, Europe ‘s population began to decline somewhat at the close of the seventeenth century and remained depressed for several decades. Increased grain production in Western Europe and the availability of non-Baltic substitutes (American and Italian rice, for example) further decreased demand for Baltic grain resulting in a downturn in Amsterdam ‘s grain market.

Expansion into African, American and Asian Markets – “World Primacy”

Building on the early successes of their Baltic trade, Dutch shippers expanded their sphere of influence east into Russia and south into the Mediterranean and the Levantine markets. By the turn of the seventeenth century, Dutch merchants had their eyes on the American and Asian markets that were dominated by Iberian merchants. The ability of Dutch shippers to effectively compete with entrenched merchants, like the Hanseatic League in the Baltic, or the Portuguese in Asia stemmed from their cost cutting strategies (what de Vries and van der Woude call “cost advantages and institutional efficiencies,” p. 374). Not encumbered by the costs and protective restrictions of most merchant groups of the sixteenth century, the Dutch trimmed their costs enough to undercut the competition, and eventually establish what Jonathan Israel has called “world primacy.”

Before Dutch shippers could even attempt to break in to the Asian markets they needed to first expand their presence in the Atlantic. This was left mostly to the émigré merchants from Antwerp, who had relocated to Zeeland following the Revolt. These merchants set up the so-called Guinea trade with West Africa, and initiated Dutch involvement in the Western Hemisphere. Dutch merchants involved in the Guinea trade ignored the slave trade that was firmly in the hands of the Portuguese in favor of the rich trade in gold, ivory, and sugar from São Tomé. Trade with West Africa grew slowly, but competition was stiff. By 1599, the various Guinea companies had agreed to the formation of a cartel to regulate trade. Continued competition from a slew of new companies, however, insured that the cartel would be only partially effective until the organization of the Dutch West India Company in 1621 that also held monopoly rights in the West Africa trade.

The Dutch at first focused their trade with the Americas on the Caribbean. By the mid-1590s only a few Dutch ships each year were making the voyage across the Atlantic. When the Spanish instituted an embargo against the Dutch in 1598, shortages in products traditionally obtained in Iberia (like salt) became common. Dutch shippers seized the chance to find new sources for products that had been supplied by the Spanish and soon fleets of Dutch ships sailed to the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese had a much larger presence in the Americas than the Dutch could mount, despite the large number vessels they sent to the area. Dutch strategy was to avoid Iberian strongholds while penetrating markets where the products they desired could be found. For the most part, this strategy meant focusing on Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil. Indeed, by the turn of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had established forts on the coasts of Guyana and Brazil.

While competition between rival companies from the towns of Zeeland marked Dutch trade with the Americas in the first years of the seventeenth century, by the time the West India Company finally received its charter in 1621 troubles with Spain once again threatened to disrupt trade. Funding for the new joint-stock company came slowly, and oddly enough came mostly from inland towns like Leiden rather than coastal towns. The West India Company was hit with setbacks in the Americas from the very start. The Portuguese began to drive the Dutch out of Brazil in 1624 and by 1625 the Dutch were loosing their position in the Caribbean as well. Dutch shippers in the Americas soon found raiding (directed at the Spanish and Portuguese) to be their most profitable activity until the Company was able to establish forts in Brazil again in the 1630s and begin sugar cultivation. Sugar remained the most lucrative activity for the Dutch in Brazil, and once the revolt of Portuguese Catholic planters against the Dutch plantation owners broke out the late 1640s, the fortunes of the Dutch declined steadily.

The Dutch faced the prospect of stiff Portuguese competition in Asia as well. But, breaking into the lucrative Asian markets was not just a simple matter of undercutting less efficient Portuguese shippers. The Portuguese closely guarded the route around Africa. Not until roughly one hundred years after the first Portuguese voyage to Asia were the Dutch in a position to mount their own expedition. Thanks to the travelogue of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, which was published in 1596, the Dutch gained the information they needed to make the voyage. Linschoten had been in the service of the Bishop of Goa, and kept excellent records of the voyage and his observations in Asia.

The United East India Company (VOC)

The first few Dutch voyages to Asia were not particularly successful. These early enterprises managed to make only enough to cover the costs of the voyage, but by 1600 dozens of Dutch merchant ships made the trip. This intense competition among various Dutch merchants had a destabilizing effect on prices driving the government to insist on consolidation in order to avoid commercial ruin. The United East India Company (usually referred to by its Dutch initials, VOC) received a charter from the States General in 1602 conferring upon it monopoly trading rights in Asia. This joint stock company attracted roughly 6.5 million florins in initial capitalization from over 1,800 investors, most of whom were merchants. Management of the company was vested in 17 directors (Heren XVII) chosen from among the largest shareholders.

In practice, the VOC became virtually a “country” unto itself outside of Europe, particularly after about 1620 when the company’s governor-general in Asia, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, founded Batavia (the company factory) on Java. While Coen and later governors-general set about expanding the territorial and political reach of the VOC in Asia, the Heren XVII were most concerned about profits, which they repeatedly reinvested in the company much to the chagrin of investors. In Asia, the strategy of the VOC was to insert itself into the intra-Asian trade (much like the Portuguese had done in the sixteenth century) in order to amass enough capital to pay for the spices shipped back to the Netherlands. This often meant displacing the Portuguese by waging war in Asia, while trying to maintain peaceful relations within Europe.

Over the long term, the VOC was very profitable during the seventeenth century despite the company’s reluctance to pay cash dividends in first few decades (the company paid dividends in kind until about 1644). As the English and French began to institute mercantilist strategies (for instance, the Navigation Acts of 1551 and 1660 in England, and import restrictions and high tariffs in the case of France ) Dutch dominance in foreign trade came under attack. Rather than experience a decline like domestic industry did at the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch Asia trade continued to ship goods at steady volumes well into the eighteenth century. Dutch dominance, however, was met with stiff competition by rival India companies as the Asia trade grew. As the eighteenth century wore on, the VOC’s share of the Asia trade declined significantly compared to its rivals, the most important of which was the English East India Company.

Dutch Finance

The last sector that we need to highlight is finance, perhaps the most important sector for the development of the early modern Dutch economy. The most visible manifestation of Dutch capitalism was the exchange bank founded in Amsterdam in 1609; only two years after the city council approved the construction of a bourse (additional exchange banks were founded in other Dutch commercial cities). The activities of the bank were limited to exchange and deposit banking. A lending bank, founded in Amsterdam in 1614, rounded out the financial services in the commercial capital of the Netherlands.

The ability to manage the wealth generated by trade and industry (accumulated capital) in new ways was one of the hallmarks of the economy during the Golden Age. As early as the fourteenth century, Italian merchants had been experimenting with ways to decrease the use of cash in long-distance trade. The resulting instrument was the bill of exchange developed as a way to for a seller to extend credit to a buyer. The bill of exchange required the debtor to pay the debt at a specified place and time. But the creditor rarely held on to the bill of exchange until maturity preferring to sell it or otherwise use it to pay off debts. These bills of exchange were not routinely used in commerce in the Low Countries until the sixteenth century when Antwerp was still the dominant commercial city in the region. In Antwerp the bill of exchange could be assigned to another, and eventually became a negotiable instrument with the practice of discounting the bill.

The idea of the flexibility of bills of exchange moved to the Northern Netherlands with the large numbers of Antwerp merchants who brought with them their commercial practices. In an effort to standardize the practices surrounding bills of exchange, the Amsterdam government restricted payment of bills of exchange to the new exchange bank. The bank was wildly popular with merchants; deposits increasing from just less than one million guilders in 1611 to over sixteen million by 1700. Amsterdam ‘s exchange bank flourished because of its ability to handle deposits and transfers, and to settle international debts.

By the second half of the seventeenth century many wealthy merchant families had turned away from foreign trade and began engaging in speculative activities on a much larger scale. They traded in commodity values (futures), shares in joint-stock companies, and dabbled in insurance and currency exchanges to name only a few of the most important ventures.

Conclusion

Building on its fifteenth- and sixteenth-century successes in agricultural productivity, and in North Sea and Baltic shipping, the Northern Netherlands inherited the economic legacy of the southern provinces as the Revolt tore the Low Countries apart. The Dutch Golden Age lasted from roughly 1580, when the Dutch proved themselves successful in their fight with the Spanish, to about 1670, when the Republic’s economy experienced a down-turn. Economic growth was very fast during until about 1620 when it slowed, but continued to grow steadily until the end of the Golden Age. The last decades of the seventeenth century were marked by declining production and loss of market dominance overseas.

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Citation: Harreld, Donald. “Dutch Economy in the “Golden Age” (16th-17th Centuries)”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 12, 2004. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-dutch-economy-in-the-golden-age-16th-17th-centuries/

An Economic History of Denmark

Ingrid Henriksen, University of Copenhagen

Denmark is located in Northern Europe between the North Sea and the Baltic. Today Denmark consists of the Jutland Peninsula bordering Germany and the Danish Isles and covers 43,069 square kilometers (16,629 square miles). 1 The present nation is the result of several cessions of territory throughout history. The last of the former Danish territories in southern Sweden were lost to Sweden in 1658, following one of the numerous wars between the two nations, which especially marred the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Following defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was separated from Denmark in 1814. After the last major war, the Second Schleswig War in 1864, Danish territory was further reduced by a third when Schleswig and Holstein were ceded to Germany. After a regional referendum in 1920 only North-Schleswig returned to Denmark. Finally, Iceland, withdrew from the union with Denmark in 1944. The following will deal with the geographical unit of today’s Denmark.

Prerequisites of Growth

Throughout history a number of advantageous factors have shaped the Danish economy. From this perspective it may not be surprising to find today’s Denmark among the richest societies in the world. According to the OECD, it ranked seventh in 2004, with income of $29.231 per capita (PPP). Although we can identify a number of turning points and breaks, for the time period over which we have quantitative evidence this long-run position has changed little. Thus Maddison (2001) in his estimate of GDP per capita around 1600 places Denmark as number six. One interpretation could be that favorable circumstances, rather than ingenious institutions or policies, have determined Danish economic development. Nevertheless, this article also deals with time periods in which the Danish economy was either diverging from or converging towards the leading economies.

Table 1:
Average Annual GDP Growth (at factor costs)
Total Per capita
1870-1880 1.9% 0.9%
1880-1890 2.5% 1.5%
1890-1900 2.9% 1.8%
1900-1913 3.2% 2.0%
1913-1929 3.0% 1.6%
1929-1938 2.2% 1.4%
1938-1950 2.4% 1.4%
1950-1960 3.4% 2.6%
1960-1973 4.6% 3.8%
1973-1982 1.5% 1.3%
1982-1993 1.6% 1.5%
1993-2004 2.2% 2.0%

Sources: Johansen (1985) and Statistics Denmark ‘Statistikbanken’ online.

Denmark’s geographical location in close proximity of the most dynamic nations of sixteenth-century Europe, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, no doubt exerted a positive influence on the Danish economy and Danish institutions. The North German area influenced Denmark both through long-term economic links and through the Lutheran Protestant Reformation which the Danes embraced in 1536.

The Danish economy traditionally specialized in agriculture like most other small and medium-sized European countries. It is, however, rather unique to find a rich European country in the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century which retained such a strong agrarian bias. Only in the late 1950s did the workforce of manufacturing industry overtake that of agriculture. Thus an economic history of Denmark must take its point of departure in agricultural development for quite a long stretch of time.

Looking at resource endowments, Denmark enjoyed a relatively high agricultural land-to-labor ratio compared to other European countries, with the exception of the UK. This was significant for several reasons since it, in this case, was accompanied by a comparatively wealthy peasantry.

Denmark had no mineral resources to speak of until the exploitation of oil and gas in the North Sea began in 1972 and 1984, respectively. From 1991 on Denmark has been a net exporter of energy although on a very modest scale compared to neighboring Norway and Britain. The small deposits are currently projected to be depleted by the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Figure 1. Percent of GDP in selected=

Source: Johansen (1985) and Statistics Denmark ’Nationalregnskaber’

Good logistic can be regarded as a resource in pre-industrial economies. The Danish coast line of 7,314 km and the fact that no point is more than 50 km from the sea were advantages in an age in which transport by sea was more economical than land transport.

Decline and Transformation, 1500-1750

The year of the Lutheran Reformation (1536) conventionally marks the end of the Middle Ages in Danish historiography. Only around 1500 did population growth begin to pick up after the devastating effect of the Black Death. Growth thereafter was modest and at times probably stagnant with large fluctuations in mortality following major wars, particularly during the seventeenth century, and years of bad harvests. About 80-85 percent of the population lived from subsistence agriculture in small rural communities and this did not change. Exports are estimated to have been about 5 percent of GDP between 1550 and 1650. The main export products were oxen and grain. The period after 1650 was characterized by a long lasting slump with a marked decline in exports to the neighboring countries, the Netherlands in particular.

The institutional development after the Black Death showed a return to more archaic forms. Unlike other parts of northwestern Europe, the peasantry on the Danish Isles afterwards became a victim of a process of re-feudalization during the last decades of the fifteenth century. A likely explanation is the low population density that encouraged large landowners to hold on to their labor by all means. Freehold tenure among peasants effectively disappeared during the seventeenth century. Institutions like bonded labor that forced peasants to stay on the estate where they were born, and labor services on the demesne as part of the land rent bring to mind similar arrangements in Europe east of the Elbe River. One exception to the East European model was crucial, however. The demesne land, that is the land worked directly under the estate, never made up more than nine percent of total land by the mid eighteenth century. Although some estate owners saw an interest in encroaching on peasant land, the state protected the latter as production units and, more importantly, as a tax base. Bonded labor was codified in the all-encompassing Danish Law of Christian V in 1683. It was further intensified by being extended, though under another label, to all Denmark during 1733-88, as a means for the state to tide the large landlords over an agrarian crisis. One explanation for the long life of such an authoritarian institution could be that the tenants were relatively well off, with 25-50 acres of land on average. Another reason could be that reality differed from the formal rigor of the institutions.

Following the Protestant Reformation in 1536, the Crown took over all church land, thereby making it the owner of 50 percent of all land. The costs of warfare during most of the sixteenth century could still be covered by the revenue of these substantial possessions. Around 1600 the income from taxation and customs, mostly Sound Toll collected from ships that passed the narrow strait between Denmark and today’s Sweden, on the one hand and Crown land revenues on the other were equally large. About 50 years later, after a major fiscal crisis had led to the sale of about half of all Crown lands, the revenue from royal demesnes declined relatively to about one third, and after 1660 the full transition from domain state to tax state was completed.

The bulk of the former Crown land had been sold to nobles and a few common owners of estates. Consequently, although the Danish constitution of 1665 was the most stringent version of absolutism found anywhere in Europe at the time, the Crown depended heavily on estate owners to perform a number of important local tasks. Thus, conscription of troops for warfare, collection of land taxes and maintenance of law and order enhanced the landlords’ power over their tenants.

Reform and International Market Integration, 1750-1870

The driving force of Danish economic growth, which took off during the late eighteenth century was population growth at home and abroad – which triggered technological and institutional innovation. Whereas the Danish population during the previous hundred years grew by about 0.4 percent per annum, growth climbed to about 0.6 percent, accelerating after 1775 and especially from the second decade of the nineteenth century (Johansen 2002). Like elsewhere in Northern Europe, accelerating growth can be ascribed to a decline in mortality, mainly child mortality. Probably this development was initiated by fewer spells of epidemic diseases due to fewer wars and to greater inherited immunity against contagious diseases. Vaccination against smallpox and formal education of midwives from the early nineteenth century might have played a role (Banggård 2004). Land reforms that entailed some scattering of the farm population may also have had a positive influence. Prices rose from the late eighteenth century in response to the increase in populations in Northern Europe, but also following a number of international conflicts. This again caused a boom in Danish transit shipping and in grain exports.

Population growth rendered the old institutional set up obsolete. Landlords no longer needed to bind labor to their estate, as a new class of landless laborers or cottagers with little land emerged. The work of these day-laborers was to replace the labor services of tenant farmers on the demesnes. The old system of labor services obviously presented an incentive problem all the more since it was often carried by the live-in servants of the tenant farmers. Thus, the labor days on the demesnes represented a loss to both landlords and tenants (Henriksen 2003). Part of the land rent was originally paid in grain. Some of it had been converted to money which meant that real rents declined during the inflation. The solution to these problems was massive land sales both from the remaining crown lands and from private landlords to their tenants. As a result two-thirds of all Danish farmers became owner-occupiers compared to only ten percent in the mid-eighteenth century. This development was halted during the next two and a half decades but resumed as the business cycle picked up during the 1840s and 1850s. It was to become of vital importance to the modernization of Danish agriculture towards the end of the nineteenth century that 75 percent of all agricultural land was farmed by owners of middle-sized farms of about 50 acres. Population growth may also have put a pressure on common lands in the villages. At any rate enclosure begun in the 1760s, accelerated in the 1790s supported by legislation and was almost complete in the third decade of the nineteenth century.

The initiative for the sweeping land reforms from the 1780s is thought to have come from below – that is from the landlords and in some instances also from the peasantry. The absolute monarch and his counselors were, however, strongly supportive of these measures. The desire for peasant land as a tax base weighed heavily and the reforms were believed to enhance the efficiency of peasant farming. Besides, the central government was by now more powerful than in the preceding centuries and less dependent on landlords for local administrative tasks.

Production per capita rose modestly before the 1830s and more pronouncedly thereafter when a better allocation of labor and land followed the reforms and when some new crops like clover and potatoes were introduced at a larger scale. Most importantly, the Danes no longer lived at the margin of hunger. No longer do we find a correlation between demographic variables, deaths and births, and bad harvest years (Johansen 2002).

A liberalization of import tariffs in 1797 marked the end of a short spell of late mercantilism. Further liberalizations during the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century established the Danish liberal tradition in international trade that was only to be broken by the protectionism of the 1930s.

Following the loss of the secured Norwegian market for grain in 1814, Danish exports began to target the British market. The great rush forward came as the British Corn Law was repealed in 1846. The export share of the production value in agriculture rose from roughly 10 to around 30 percent between 1800 and 1870.

In 1849 absolute monarchy was peacefully replaced by a free constitution. The long-term benefits of fundamental principles such as the inviolability of private property rights, the freedom of contracting and the freedom of association were probably essential to future growth though hard to quantify.

Modernization and Convergence, 1870-1914

During this period Danish economic growth outperformed that of most other European countries. A convergence in real wages towards the richest countries, Britain and the U.S., as shown by O’Rourke and Williamsson (1999), can only in part be explained by open economy forces. Denmark became a net importer of foreign capital from the 1890s and foreign debt was well above 40 percent of GDP on the eve of WWI. Overseas emigration reduced the potential workforce but as mortality declined population growth stayed around one percent per annum. The increase in foreign trade was substantial, as in many other economies during the heyday of the gold standard. Thus the export share of Danish agriculture surged to a 60 percent.

The background for the latter development has featured prominently in many international comparative analyses. Part of the explanation for the success, as in other Protestant parts of Northern Europe, was a high rate of literacy that allowed a fast spread of new ideas and new technology.

The driving force of growth was that of a small open economy, which responded effectively to a change in international product prices, in this instance caused by the invasion of cheap grain to Western Europe from North America and Eastern Europe. Like Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, Denmark did not impose a tariff on grain, in spite of the strong agrarian dominance in society and politics.

Proposals to impose tariffs on grain, and later on cattle and butter, were turned down by Danish farmers. The majority seems to have realized the advantages accruing from the free imports of cheap animal feed during the ongoing process of transition from vegetable to animal production, at a time when the prices of animal products did not decline as much as grain prices. The dominant middle-sized farm was inefficient for wheat but had its comparative advantage in intensive animal farming with the given technology. O’Rourke (1997) found that the grain invasion only lowered Danish rents by 4-5 percent, while real wages rose (according to expectation) but more than in any other agrarian economy and more than in industrialized Britain.

The move from grain exports to exports of animal products, mainly butter and bacon, was to a great extent facilitated by the spread of agricultural cooperatives. This organization allowed the middle-sized and small farms that dominated Danish agriculture to benefit from the economy of scale in processing and marketing. The newly invented steam-driven continuous cream separator skimmed more cream from a kilo of milk than conventional methods and had the further advantage of allowing transported milk brought together from a number of suppliers to be skimmed. From the 1880s the majority of these creameries in Denmark were established as cooperatives and about 20 years later, in 1903, the owners of 81 percent of all milk cows supplied to a cooperative (Henriksen 1999). The Danish dairy industry captured over a third of the rapidly expanding British butter-import market, establishing a reputation for consistent quality that was reflected in high prices. Furthermore, the cooperatives played an active role in persuading the dairy farmers to expand production from summer to year-round dairying. The costs of intensive feeding during the wintertime were more than made up for by a winter price premium (Henriksen and O’Rourke 2005). Year-round dairying resulted in a higher rate of utilization of agrarian capital – that is of farm animals and of the modern cooperative creameries. Not least did this intensive production mean a higher utilization of hitherto underemployed labor. From the late 1890’s, in particular, labor productivity in agriculture rose at an unanticipated speed at par with productivity increase in the urban trades.

Industrialization in Denmark took its modest beginning in the 1870s with a temporary acceleration in the late 1890s. It may be a prime example of an industrialization process governed by domestic demand for industrial goods. Industry’s export never exceeded 10 percent of value added before 1914, compared to agriculture’s export share of 60 percent. The export drive of agriculture towards the end of the nineteenth century was a major force in developing other sectors of the economy not least transport, trade and finance.

Weathering War and Depression, 1914-1950

Denmark, as a neutral nation, escaped the devastating effects of World War I and was even allowed to carry on exports to both sides in the conflict. The ensuing trade surplus resulted in a trebling of the money supply. As the monetary authorities failed to contain the inflationary effects of this development, the value of the Danish currency slumped to about 60 percent of its pre-war value in 1920. The effects of monetary policy failure were aggravated by a decision to return to the gold standard at the 1913 level. When monetary policy was finally tightened in 1924, it resulted in fierce speculation in an appreciation of the Krone. During 1925-26 the currency returned quickly to its pre-war parity. As this was not counterbalanced by an equal decline in prices, the result was a sharp real appreciation and a subsequent deterioration in Denmark’s competitive position (Klovland 1997).

Figure 2. Indices of the Krone Real Exchange Rate and Terms Of Trade (1980=100; Real rates based on Wholesale Price Index

Source: Abildgren (2005)

Note: Trade with Germany is included in the calculation of the real effective exchange rate for the whole period, including 1921-23.

When, in September 1931, Britain decided to leave the gold standard again, Denmark, together with Sweden and Norway, followed only a week later. This move was beneficial as the large real depreciation lead to a long-lasting improvement in Denmark’s competitiveness in the 1930s. It was, no doubt, the single most important policy decision during the depression years. Keynesian demand management, even if it had been fully understood, was barred by a small public sector, only about 13 percent of GDP. As it was, fiscal orthodoxy ruled and policy was slightly procyclical as taxes were raised to cover the deficit created by crisis and unemployment (Topp 1995).

Structural development during the 1920s, surprisingly for a rich nation at this stage, was in favor of agriculture. The total labor force in Danish agriculture grew by 5 percent from 1920 to 1930. The number of employees in agriculture was stagnating whereas the number of self-employed farmers increased by a larger number. The development in relative incomes cannot account for this trend but part of the explanation must be found in a flawed Danish land policy, which actively supported a further parceling out of land into small holdings and restricted the consolidation into larger more viable farms. It took until the early 1960s before this policy began to be unwound.

When the world depression hit Denmark with a minor time lag, agriculture still employed one-third of the total workforce while its contribution to total GDP was a bit less than one-fifth. Perhaps more importantly, agricultural goods still made up 80 percent of total exports.

Denmark’s terms of trade, as a consequence, declined by 24 percent from 1930 to 1932. In 1933 and 1934 bilateral trade agreements were forced upon Denmark by Britain and Germany. In 1932 Denmark had adopted exchange control, a harsh measure even for its time, to stem the net flow of foreign exchange out of the country. By rationing imports exchange control also offered some protection of domestic industry. At the end of the decade manufacture’s GDP had surpassed that of agriculture. In spite of the protectionist policy, unemployment soared to 13-15 percent of the workforce.

The policy mistakes during World War I and its immediate aftermath served as a lesson for policymakers during World War II. The German occupation force (April 9, 1940 until May 5, 1945) drew the funds for its sustenance and for exports to Germany on the Danish central bank whereby the money supply more than doubled. In response the Danish authorities in 1943 launched a policy of absorbing money through open market operations and, for the first time in history, through a surplus on the state budget.

Economic reconstruction after World War II was swift, as again Denmark had been spared the worst consequences of a major war. In 1946 GDP recovered its highest pre-war level. In spite of this, Denmark received relatively generous support through the Marshall Plan of 1948-52, when measured in dollars per capita.

From Riches to Crisis, 1950-1973: Liberalizations and International Integration Once Again

The growth performance during 1950-1957 was markedly lower than the Western European average. The main reason was the high share of agricultural goods in Danish exports, 63 percent in 1950. International trade in agricultural products to a large extent remained regulated. Large deteriorations in the terms of trade caused by the British devaluation 1949, when Denmark followed suit, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and the Suez-crisis of 1956 made matters worse. The ensuing deficits on the balance of payment led the government to contractionary policy measures which restrained growth.

The liberalization of the flow of goods and capital in Western Europe within the framework of the OEEC (the Organization for European Economic Cooperation) during the 1950s probably dealt a blow to some of the Danish manufacturing firms, especially in the textile industry, that had been sheltered through exchange control and wartime. Nevertheless, the export share of industrial production doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent before 1957, at the same time as employment in industry surpassed agricultural employment.

On the question of European economic integration Denmark linked up with its largest trading partner, Britain. After the establishment of the European Common Market in 1958 and when the attempts to create a large European free trade area failed, Denmark entered the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) created under British leadership in 1960. When Britain was finally able to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, Denmark followed, after a referendum on the issue. Long before admission to the EEC, the advantages to Danish agriculture from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had been emphasized. The higher prices within the EEC were capitalized into higher land prices at the same time that investments were increased based on the expected gains from membership. As a result the most indebted farmers who had borrowed at fixed interests rates were hit hard by two developments from the early 1980s. The EEC started to reduce the producers’ benefits of the CAP because of overproduction and, after 1982, the Danish economy adjusted to a lower level of inflation, and therefore, nominal interest rates. According to Andersen (2001) Danish farmers were left with the highest interest burden of all European Union (EU) farmers in the 1990’s.

Denmark’s relations with the EU, while enthusiastic at the beginning, have since been characterized by a certain amount of reserve. A national referendum in 1992 turned down the treaty on the European Union, the Maastricht Treaty. The Danes, then, opted out of four areas, common citizenship, a common currency, common foreign and defense politics and a common policy on police and legal matters. Once more, in 2000, adoption of the common currency, the Euro, was turned down by the Danish electorate. In the debate leading up to the referendum the possible economic advantages of the Euro in the form of lower transaction costs were considered to be modest, compared to the existent regime of fixed exchange rates vis-à-vis the Euro. All the major political parties, nevertheless, are pro-European, with only the extreme Right and the extreme Left being against. It seems that there is a discrepancy between the general public and the politicians on this particular issue.

As far as domestic economic policy is concerned, the heritage from the 1940s was a new commitment to high employment modified by a balance of payment constraint. The Danish policy differed from that of some other parts of Europe in that the remains of the planned economy from the war and reconstruction period in the form of rationing and price control were dismantled around 1950 and that no nationalizations took place.

Instead of direct regulation, economic policy relied on demand management with fiscal policy as its main instrument. Monetary policy remained a bone of contention between politicians and economists. Coordination of policies was the buzzword but within that framework monetary policy was allotted a passive role. The major political parties for a long time were wary of letting the market rate of interest clear the loan market. Instead, some quantitative measures were carried out with the purpose of dampening the demand for loans.

From Agricultural Society to Service Society: The Growth of the Welfare State

Structural problems in foreign trade extended into the high growth period of 1958-73, as Danish agricultural exports were met with constraints both from the then EEC-member countries and most EFTA countries, as well. During the same decade, the 1960s, as the importance of agriculture was declining the share of employment in the public sector grew rapidly until 1983. Building and construction also took a growing share of the workforce until 1970. These developments left manufacturing industry with a secondary position. Consequently, as pointed out by Pedersen (1995) the sheltered sectors in the economy crowded out the sectors that were exposed to international competition, that is mostly industry and agriculture, by putting a pressure on labor and other costs during the years of strong expansion.

Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the Danish economy during the Golden Age was the steep increase in welfare-related costs from the mid 1960s and not least the corresponding increases in the number of public employees. Although the seeds of the modern Scandinavian welfare state were sown at a much earlier date, the 1960s was the time when public expenditure as a share of GDP exceeded that of most other countries.

As in other modern welfare states, important elements in the growth of the public sector during the 1960s were the expansion in public health care and education, both free for all citizens. The background for much of the increase in the number of public employees from the late 1960s was the rise in labor participation by married women from the late 1960s until about 1990, partly at least as a consequence. In response, the public day care facilities for young children and old people were expanded. Whereas in 1965 7 percent of 0-6 year olds were in a day nursery or kindergarten, this share rose to 77 per cent in 2000. This again spawned more employment opportunities for women in the public sector. Today the labor participation for women, around 75 percent of 16-66 year olds, is among the highest in the world.

Originally social welfare programs targeted low income earners who were encouraged to take out insurance against sickness (1892), unemployment (1907) and disability (1922). The public subsidized these schemes and initiated a program for the poor among old people (1891). The high unemployment period in the 1930s inspired some temporary relief and some administrative reform, but little fundamental change.

Welfare policy in the first four decades following World War II is commonly believed to have been strongly influenced by the Social Democrat party which held around 30 percent of the votes in general elections and was the party in power for long periods of time. One of the distinctive features of the Danish welfare state has been its focus on the needs of the individual person rather than on the family context. Another important characteristic is the universal nature of a number of benefits starting with a basic old age pension for all in 1956. The compensation rates in a number of schedules are high in international comparison, particularly for low income earners. Public transfers gained a larger share in total public outlays both because standards were raised – that is benefits became higher – and because the number of recipients increased dramatically following the high unemployment regime from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s. To pay for the high transfers and the large public sector – around 30 percent of the work force – the tax load is also high in international perspective. The share public sector and social expenditure has risen to above 50 percent of GDP, only second to the share in Sweden.

Figure 3. Unemployment, Denmark (percent of total labor force)

Source: Statistics Denmark ‘50 års-oversigten’ and ADAM’s databank

The Danish labor market model has recently attracted favorable international attention (OECD 2005). It has been declared successful in fighting unemployment – especially compared to the policies of countries like Germany and France. The so-called Flexicurity model rests on three pillars. The first is low employment protection, the second is relatively high compensation rates for the unemployed and the third is the requirement for active participation by the unemployed. Low employment protection has a long tradition in Denmark and there is no change in this factor when comparing the twenty years of high unemployment – 8-12 per cent of the labor force – from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, to the past ten years when unemployment has declined to a mere 4.5 percent in 2006. The rules governing compensation to the unemployed were tightened from 1994, limiting the number of years the unemployed could receive benefits from 7 to 4. Most noticeably labor market policy in 1994 turned from ‘passive’ measures – besides unemployment benefits, an early retirement scheme and a temporary paid leave scheme – toward ‘active’ measures that were devoted to getting people back to work by providing training and jobs. It is commonly supposed that the strengthening of economic incentives helped to lower unemployment. However, as Andersen and Svarer (2006) point out, while unemployment has declined substantially a large and growing share of Danes of employable age receives transfers other than unemployment benefit – that is benefits related to sickness or social problems of various kinds, early retirement benefits, etc. This makes it hazardous to compare the Danish labor market model with that of many other countries.

Exchange Rates and Macroeconomic Policy

Denmark has traditionally adhered to a fixed exchange rate regime. The belief is that for a small and open economy, a floating exchange rate could lead to very volatile exchange rates which would harm foreign trade. After having abandoned the gold standard in 1931, the Danish currency (the Krone) was, for a while, pegged to the British pound, only to join the IMF system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates, the so-called Bretton Woods system after World War II. The close link with the British economy still manifested itself when the Danish currency was devaluated along with the pound in 1949 and, half way, in 1967. The devaluation also reflected that after 1960, Denmark’s international competitiveness had gradually been eroded by rising real wages, corresponding to a 30 percent real appreciation of the currency (Pedersen 1996).

When the Bretton Woods system broke down in the early 1970s, Denmark joined the European exchange rate cooperation, the “Snake” arrangement, set up in 1972, an arrangement that was to be continued in the form of the Exchange Rate Mechanism within the European Monetary System from 1979. The Deutschmark was effectively the nominal anchor in European currency cooperation until the launch of the Euro in 1999, a fact that put Danish competitiveness under severe pressure because of markedly higher inflation in Denmark compared to Germany. In the end the Danish government gave way before the pressure and undertook four discrete devaluations from 1979 to 1982. Since compensatory increases in wages were held back, the balance of trade improved perceptibly.

This improvement could, however, not make up for the soaring costs of old loans at a time when the international real rates of interests were high. The Danish devaluation strategy exacerbated this problem. The anticipation of further devaluations was mirrored in a steep increase in the long-term rate of interest. It peaked at 22 percent in nominal terms in 1982, with an interest spread to Germany of 10 percent. Combined with the effects of the second oil crisis on the Danish terms of trade, unemployment rose to 10 percent of the labor force. Given the relatively high compensation ratios for the unemployed, the public deficit increased rapidly and public debt grew to about 70 percent of GDP.

Figure 4. Current Account and Foreign Debt (Denmark)

Source: Statistics Denmark Statistical Yearbooks and ADAM’s Databank

In September 1982 the Social Democrat minority government resigned without a general election and was relieved by a Conservative-Liberal minority government. The new government launched a program to improve the competitiveness of the private sector and to rebalance public finances. An important element was a disinflationary economic policy based on fixed exchange rates pegging the Krone to the participants of the EMS and, from 1999, to the Euro. Furthermore, automatic wage indexation that had occurred, with short interruptions since 1920 (with a short lag and high coverage), was abolished. Fiscal policy was tightened, thus bringing an end to the real increases in public expenditure that had lasted since the 1960’s.

The stabilization policy was successful in bringing down inflation and long interest rates. Pedersen (1995) finds that this process, nevertheless, was slower than might have been expected. In view of former Danish exchange rate policy it took some time for the market to believe in the credible commitment to fixed exchange rates. From the late 1990s the interest spread to Germany/ Euroland has been negligible, however.

The initial success of the stabilization policy brought a boom to the Danish economy that, once again, caused overheating in the form of high wage increases (in 1987) and a deterioration of the current account. The solution to this was a number of reforms in 1986-87 aiming at encouraging private savings that had by then fallen to an historical low. Most notable was the reform that reduced tax deductibility of private interest on debts. These measures resulted in a hard landing to the economy caused by the collapse of the housing market.

The period of low growth was further prolonged by the international recession in 1992. In 1993 yet another shift of regime occurred in Danish economic policy. A new Social Democrat government decided to ‘kick start’ the economy by means of a moderate fiscal expansion whereas, in 1994, the same government tightened labor market policies substantially, as we have seen. Mainly as a consequence of these measures the Danish economy from 1994 entered a period of moderate growth with unemployment steadily falling to the level of the 1970s. A new feature that still puzzles Danish economists is that the decline in unemployment over these years has not yet resulted in any increase in wage inflation.

Denmark at the beginning of the twenty-first century in many ways fits the description of a Small Successful European Economy according to Mokyr (2006). Unlike in most of the other small economies, however, Danish exports are broad based and have no “niche” in the world market. Like some other small European countries, Ireland, Finland and Sweden, the short term economic fluctuations as described above have not followed the European business cycle very closely for the past thirty years (Andersen 2001). Domestic demand and domestic economic policy has, after all, played a crucial role even in a very small and very open economy.

References

Abildgren, Kim. “Real Effective Exchange Rates and Purchasing-Power-parity Convergence: Empirical Evidence for Denmark, 1875-2002.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 53, no. 3 (2005): 58-70.

Andersen, Torben M. et al. The Danish Economy: An international Perspective. Copenhagen: DJØF Publishing, 2001.

Andersen, Torben M. and Michael Svarer. “Flexicurity: den danska arbetsmarknadsmodellen.” Ekonomisk debatt 34, no. 1 (2006): 17-29.

Banggaard, Grethe. Befolkningsfremmende foranstaltninger og faldende børnedødelighed. Danmark, ca. 1750-1850. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2004

Hansen, Sv. Aage. Økonomisk vækst i Danmark: Volume I: 1720-1914 and Volume II: 1914-1983. København: Akademisk Forlag, 1984.

Henriksen, Ingrid. “Avoiding Lock-in: Cooperative Creameries in Denmark, 1882-1903.” European Review of Economic History 3, no. 1 (1999): 57-78

Henriksen, Ingrid. “Freehold Tenure in Late Eighteenth-Century Denmark.” Advances in Agricultural Economic History 2 (2003): 21-40.

Henriksen, Ingrid and Kevin H. O’Rourke. “Incentives, Technology and the Shift to Year-round Dairying in Late Nineteenth-century Denmark.” Economic History Review 58, no. 3 (2005):.520-54.

Johansen, Hans Chr. Danish Population History, 1600-1939. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2002.

Johansen, Hans Chr. Dansk historisk statistik, 1814-1980. København: Gyldendal, 1985.

Klovland, Jan T. “Monetary Policy and Business Cycles in the Interwar Years: The Scandinavian Experience.” European Review of Economic History 2, no. 3 (1998): 309-44.

Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Paris: OECD, 2001

Mokyr, Joel. “Successful Small Open Economies and the Importance of Good Institutions.” In The Road to Prosperity. An Economic History of Finland, edited by Jari Ojala, Jari Eloranta and Jukka Jalava, 8-14. Helsinki: SKS, 2006.

Pedersen, Peder J. “Postwar Growth of the Danish Economy.” In Economic Growth in Europe since 1945, edited by Nicholas Crafts and Gianni Toniolo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

OECD, Employment Outlook, 2005.

O’Rourke, Kevin H. “The European Grain Invasion, 1870-1913.” Journal of Economic History 57, no. 4 (1997): 775-99.

O’Rourke, Kevin H. and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999

Topp, Niels-Henrik. “Influence of the Public Sector on Activity in Denmark, 1929-39.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 43, no. 3 (1995): 339-56.


Footnotes

1 Denmark also includes the Faeroe Islands, with home rule since 1948, and Greenland, with home rule since 1979, both in the North Atlantic. These territories are left out of this account.

Citation: Henriksen, Ingrid. “An Economic History of Denmark”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 6, 2006. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/an-economic-history-of-denmark/

Credit in the Colonial American Economy

David T Flynn, University of North Dakota

Overview of Credit versus Barter and Cash

Credit was vital to the economy of colonial America and much of the individual prosperity and success in the colonies was due to credit. Networks of credit stretched across the Atlantic from Britain to the major port cities and into the interior of the country allowing exchange to occur (Bridenbaugh, 1990, 154). Colonists made purchases by credit, cash and barter. Barter and cash were spot exchanges, goods and services were given in exchange for immediate payment. Credit, however, delayed the payment until a later date. Understanding the role of credit in the eighteenth century requires a brief discussion of all payment options as well as the nature of the repayment of credit.

Barter

Barter is an exchange of goods and services for other goods and services and can be a very difficult method of exchange due to the double coincidence of wants. For exchange to occur in a barter situation each party must have the good desired by its trading partner. Suppose John Hancock has paper supplies and wants corn while Paul Revere has silver spoons and wants paper products. Even though Revere wants the goods available from Hancock no exchange occurs because Hancock does not want the good Revere has to offer. The double coincidence of wants can make barter very costly because of time spent searching for a trading partner. This time could otherwise be used for consumption, production, leisure, or any number of other activities. The principle advantage of any form of money over barter is obvious: money satisfies the double coincidence of wants, that is, money functions as a medium of exchange.

Money’s advantages

Money also has other functions that make it a superior method of exchange to barter including acting as the unit of account (the unit in which prices are quoted) in the economy (e.g. the dollar in the United States and the pound in England). A barter economy uses a large number of prices because every good must have a price in terms of each other good available in the economy. An economy with n different goods would have n(n-1)/2 prices in total, not an enormous burden for small values of n, but as n grows it quickly becomes unmanageable. A unit of account reduces the number of prices from the barter situation to n, or the number of goods. The colonists had a unit of account, the colonial pound (£), which removed this burden of barter.

Several forms of money circulated in the colonies over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as specie, commodity money and paper currency. Specie is gold or silver minted into coins and is a special form of commodity money, a good that has an exchange value separate from the market value of the good. Tobacco, and later tobacco warehouse receipts, acted as a form of money in many of the colonies. Despite multiple money options some colonists complained of an inability to keep money in circulation, or at least in the hands of those wanting to use it for exchange (Baxter, 1945, 11-17; Bridenbaugh, 153).1

Credit’s advantages

When you acquire goods with credit you delay payment to a later time, be it one day or one year. A basic credit transaction today is essentially the same as in the eighteenth century, only the form is different.2 Extending credit presents risks, most notably default, or the failure of the borrower to repay the amount borrowed. Sellers also needed to worry about the total volume of credit they extended because it threatened their solvency in the case of default. Consumers benefited from credit by the ability to consume beyond current financial resources, as well as security from theft and other advantages. Sellers gained by faster sales of goods and interest charges, often hidden in a higher price for the goods.3

Uncertainty about the scope of credit

The frequency of credit versus barter and cash is not well quantified because surviving account books and transaction records generally only report cash or goods payments made after the merchant allowed credit, not spot cash or barter transactions (Baxter, 19n). Martin (1939, 150) concurs, “The entries represent transactions with those customers who did not pay at once on purchasing goods for [the seller] either made no record of immediate cash purchases, or else there were almost no such transactions.” The results of Flynn’s (2001) study using merchant account books from Connecticut and Massachusetts found also that most purchases recorded in the account books were credit purchases (see Table 1 below).4 Scholars are forced to make general statements about credit as a standard tool in transactions in port cities and rural villages without reference to specific numbers (Perkins, 1980, 123-124).

Table 1

Percentage of Purchases by Type

Purchases by Credit Purchases by Cash Purchases by Barter
Connecticut 98.6 1.1 0.3
Massachusetts 98.5 1.0 0.4
Combined 98.6 1.0 0.4

Source: Adapted from Table 3.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Indications of the importance of credit

In some regions, the institution of credit was so accepted that many employers, including merchants, paid their employees by providing them credit at a store on the business’s account (Martin, 94). Probate inventories evidence the frequency of credit through the large amount of accounts receivable recorded for traders and merchant in Connecticut, sometimes over £1,000 (Main, 1985, 302-303). Accounts receivable are an asset of the business representing amounts owed to the business by other parties. Almost 30 percent of the estates of Connecticut “traders” contained £100 or more of receivables as part of their estate (Main, 316). More than this, accounts receivable averaged one-eighth of personal wealth throughout most of the colonial period, and more than one-fifth at the end (Main, 36). While there is no evidence that enables us to determine the relative frequencies of payments, the available information supports the idea that the different forms of payment co-existed.

The Different Types of Credit

There are three different types of credit to discuss: international credit, book credit, and promissory notes and each facilitated exchange and payments. Colonial importers and wholesalers relied on credit from British suppliers while rural merchants received credit from importers and wholesalers in the port cities and, finally, consumers received credit from the retailers. A discussion starts logically with international credit from British suppliers to colonial merchants because it allowed colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers (McCusker and Menard, 1985, 80n; Martin, 1939, 19; Perkins, 1980, 24).

Overseas credit

Research on colonial growth attaches importance to several items including foreign funds, capital improvements and productivity gains. The majority of foreign funds transferred were in the form of mercantile credit (Egnal, 1998, 12-20). British merchants shipped goods to colonial merchants on credit for between six months and one year before demanding payment or charging interest (Egnal, 55; Perkins, 1994, 65; Shepherd and Walton, 1972, 131-132; Thomson, 1955, 15). Other examples show a minimum of one year’s credit given before suppliers assessed five percent interest charges (Martin, 122-123). Factors such as interest and duration determined for how long colonial merchants could extend credit to their own customers and at what level of markup. Some merchants sold goods on commission, where the goods remained the property of the British merchant until sold. After the sale the colonial merchant remitted the funds, less his fee, to the British merchant.

Relationships between colonial and British merchants exhibited regional differences. Virginia merchants’ system of exchange, known as the consignment system, depended on the credit arrangements between planters and “factors” – middlemen who accepted colonial goods and acquired British or other products desired by colonists (Thomson, 28). A relationship with a British merchant was important for success in business because it provided the tobacco growers and factors access to supplies of credit sufficient to maintain business (Thomson, 211). Independent Virginia merchants, those without a British connection, ordered their supplies of goods on credit and paid with locally produced goods (Thomson, 15). Virginia and other Southern colonies could rely on credit because of their production of a staple crop desired by British merchants. New England merchants such as Thomas Hancock, uncle of the famous patriot John Hancock, could not rely on this to the same extent. New England merchants sometimes engaged in additional exchanges with other colonies and countries because they lacked goods desired by British merchants (Baxter, 46-47). Without the willingness of British merchant houses to wait for payment it would have been difficult for many colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers.

Domestic credit: book credit and promissory notes

Domestic credit was primarily of two forms, book credit and promissory notes. Merchants recorded book credit in the account books of the business. These entries were debits for an individual’s account and were set against payments, credits in the merchant’s ledger. Promissory notes detailed a debt, including typically the date of issue, the date of redemption, the amount owed, possibly the form of repayment and an interest rate. Book credit and promissory notes were substitutes and complements. Both represented a delay of payment and could be used to acquire goods but book accounts were also a large source of personal notes. Merchants who felt payment was either too slow in coming or the risks of default too high could insist the buyer provide a note. The note was a more secure form of credit as it could be exchanged and, despite the likely loss on the note’s face value if the debtor was in financial trouble, would not represent a continuing worry of the merchant (Martin, 158-159).5

Figure 1

Accounts of Samuell Maxey, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
5/28/1748 To Maxey earthenware by Brock 62.00 5/30/1748 By cash & Leather 45.00
10/21/1748 To ditto by Cap’n Long 13.75 8/20/1748 By 2 quintals of fish @6-0-0 [per quintal] 12.00
5/25/1749 To ditto 61.75 11/15/1748 By cash received of Mr. Suttin 5.00
6/26/1749 To ditto 27.35 5/26/1749 By sundrys 74.75
10/1749 By cash of Mr. Kettel 9.75
12/1749 By ditto 18.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.7.

The settlement of debt obligations incorporated many forms of payment. Figure 1 details the activity between Samuell Maxey and Jonathan Parker, a Massachusetts merchant. Included are several purchases of earthenware by Maxey and others and several payments, including some in cash and goods as well as from third parties. Baxter (1945, 21) describes similar experiences when he says,

…the accounts over and over again tell of the creditor’s weary efforts to get his dues by accepting a tardy and halting series of odds and ends; and (as prices were often soaring, especially in 1740-64) the longer a debtor could put off payment, the fewer goods might he need to hand over to square a liability for so much money.

Repayment means and examples

The “odds and ends” included goods and commodity money as well as other cash, bills of exchange, and third party settlements (Baxter, 17-32). Merchants accepted goods such as pork beef, fish and grains for their store goods (Martin, 94). Flynn (2001) shows several items offered as payment, including goods, cash, notes and others, shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Percentage of Payments by Category

Repayment in Cash Repayment in Goods Repayment by note Repayment by Reckoning Repayment by third- party note Repayment by Bond Repayment by Labor

Conn.

27.5 45.9 3.3 7.5 6.9 0.0 8.9
Mass. 24.2 47.6 2.8 7.5 13.7 0.2 2.3
Combined 25.6 46.9 3.0 7.5 10.9 0.1 5.0

Source: Adapted from Table 3.4 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Cash, goods and notes require no further explanation, but Table 2 shows other items used in payment as well. Colonists used labor to repay their tabs, working in their creditor’s field or lending the labor services of a child or yoke of oxen. Some accounts also list “reckoning,” which occurred typically between two merchants or traders that made purchases on credit from each other. Before the two merchants settled their accounts it was convenient to determine the net position of their accounts with each other. After making the determination the merchant in debt possibly made a payment that brought the balance to zero, but at other times the merchants proceeded without a payment but a better sense of the account position. Third parties also made payments that employed goods, money and credit. When the merchant did not want the particular goods offered in payment he could hope to pass them on, ideally to his own creditors. Such exchange satisfied both the merchant’s debts and the consumer’s (Baxter, 24-25). Figure 1 above and Figure 2 below illustrate this.

Figure 2

Accounts of Mr. Clark, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/27/1749 To Clark earthenware 10.85 11/30/1749 By cash 3.00
4/14/1750 By ditto 1.00
?/1762 By rum in full of Mr. Blanchard 6.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The accounts of Parker and his customer, Mr. Clark, show another purchase of earthenware and three payments. The purchase is clearly on credit as Parker recorded the first payment occurring over two months after the purchase. Clark provided two cash payments and then a third person Mr. Blanchard settled Clark’s account in full with rum. What do these third party payments represent? For answers to this we need to step back from the specifics of the account and generalize.

Figures 1 and 2 show credits from third parties in cash and goods. If we think in terms of three-way trade the answer becomes obvious. In Figure 1 where a Mr. Suttin pays £5.00 cash to Parker on the account of Samuell Maxey, Suttin is settling a debt with Maxey (in part or in full we do not know). To settle the debt he owes Parker, Maxey directs those who owe him money to pay Parker, and thus reduce his debt. Figure 2 displays the same type of activity, except Blanchard pays with rum. Though not depicted here, private debts between customers could be settled on the merchant’s books. Rather than offering payment in cash or goods, private parties could swap debt on the merchant’s account book, ordering a transfer from one account to another. The merchant’s final approval for the exchange implied something about the added risk from a third party exchange. The new person did not pose a greater default risk in the creditor’s opinion, otherwise (we would suspect) they refused the exchange.6

Complexity of the credit system

The payment system in the colonies was complex and dynamic with creditors allowing debtors to settle accounts in several fashions. Goods and money satisfied outstanding debts and other credit obligations deferred or transferred debts. Debtors and creditors employed the numerous forms of payment in regular and third party transactions, making merchants’ account books a clearinghouse for debts. Although the lack of technology leaves casual observers thinking payments at this time were primitive, such was clearly not the case. With only pen and paper eighteenth century merchants developed a sophisticated payment system, of which book credit and personal notes were an important part.

The Duration of Credit

The length of time outstanding for credit, its duration, is an important characteristic. Duration represents the amount of time a creditor awaited payment and anecdotal and statistical evidence provide some insights into the duration of book credit and promissory notes.

The calculation of the duration of book credit, or any similar type of instrument, is relatively straightforward when the merchant recorded dates in his account book conscientiously. Consider the following example.

Figure 3

Accounts of David Forthingham, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
10/1/1748 To Forthingham earthenware 7.75 10/1/1748 By cash 3.00
4/1749 By Indian corn 4.75

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The exchanges between Frothingham and Jonathan Parker show one purchase and two payments. Frothingham provides a partial payment for the earthenware at the time of purchase, in cash. However, £4.75 of debt remains outstanding, and is not repaid until April of 1749. It is possible to calculate a range of values for the final settlement of this account, using the first day of April to give a lower bound estimate and the last day to give an upper bound estimate. Counting the number of days shows that it took at least 182 days and at most 211 days to settle the debt. Alternatively the debt lasted between 6 and 7 months.

Figure 4

Accounts of Joseph Adams, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/7/1747 to Adams earthenware -30.65 11/9/1747 by cash 30.65
7/22/1748 to ditto -22.40 7/22/1748 by ditto 12.40
No Date7 by ditto 10.00

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.4.

Not all merchants were meticulous record keepers and sometimes they failed to record a particular date with the rest of an account book entry.8 Figure 4 illustrates this problem well and also provides an example of multiple purchases along with multiple payments. The first purchase of earthenware is repaid with one “cash” payment sixty-three days (2.1 months) later.9 Computation of the term of the second loan is more complicated. The last two payments satisfy the purchase amount, so Adams repaid the loan completely. Unfortunately, Parker left out the date for the second payment. The second payment occurred on or after July 22, 1748, so this date is the lower end of the interval. The minimum time between purchase and second payment is zero days, but computation of a maximum time, or upper bound, is not possible due to the lack of information.10

With a sufficient number of debts some generalization is possible. If we interpret the data as the length of a debt’s life we can use demographic methods, in particular the life table.11 For a sample of Connecticut and Massachusetts account books the average duration looks like the following.12

Table 3

Expected Duration for Connecticut Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Median lower bound (interval) eo upper bound (months) Median upper bound (interval)
All Values 14.79 6-12 15.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 15.22 6-12 15.99 6-12
0.25-0.50 14.28 6-12 15.51 6-12
0.50-0.75 15.24 6-12 18.01 6-12
0.75-1.00 14.25 6-12 15.94 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.95 6-12 15.07 6-12
10.00+ 7.95 0-6 10.73 6-12

Table 4

Expectation Duration for Massachusetts Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Lower bound median (interval) eo upper bound (months) Upper bound median (interval)
All Values 13.22 6-12 14.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 14.74 6-12 17.55 12-18
0.25-0.50 12.08 6-12 12.80 6-12
0.50-0.75 11.73 6-12 13.08 6-12
0.75-1.00 11.01 6-12 12.43 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.08 6-12 13.88 6-12
10.00+ 14.28 12-18 17.02 12-18

Source: Adapted from Tables 4.1 and 4.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 80.

For all debts in the sample from Connecticut, the expected length of time the debt is outstanding from its inception is estimated between 14.78 and 15.86 months. For Massachusetts the range is somewhat shorter, from 13.22 to 14.87 months. Tables 3 and 4 break the data into categories based on the value of the credit transaction as well. An important question to ask is whether this represents a long- term or a short-term debt? There is no standard yardstick for comparison in this case. The best comparison is likely the international credit granted to colonial merchants. The colonial merchants needed to repay these amounts and had to sell the goods to make remittances. The estimates of that credit duration, listed earlier, center around one year, which means that colonial merchants in New England needed to repay their British suppliers before they could expect to receive full payment from their customers. From the colonial merchants’ perspective book credit was certainly long-term.

Other estimates of duration of book credit

Other estimates of book credit’s duration vary. Consumers paying their credit purchases in kind took as little time as a few months or as long as several years (Martin, 153). Some accounting records show book credit remaining unsettled for nearly thirty years (Baxter, 161). Thomas Hancock often noted expected payment dates, such as “to pay in 6 months” along with a purchase, though frequently this was not enough time for the buyer. Thomas blamed the law, which allowed twelve months for people to make repayments, complaining to his suppliers that he often provided credit to country residents of “one two & more years” (Baxter, 192). Surely such a situation is the exception and not the rule, though it does serve to remind us that many of these arrangements were open, lacking definite endpoints. Some merchants allowed accounts to last as long as two years before examining the position of the account, allowing one year’s book credit without charge, and thereafter assessing interest (Martin, 157).

Duration of promissory notes

The duration of promissory notes is also important. Priest (1999) examines a form of duration for these credit instruments, estimating the time between a debtor’s signing of the note and the creditor’s filing of suit to collect payment. Of course this only measures the duration for notes that go into default and require legal recourse. Typically, a suit originated some 6 to 9 months after default (Priest, 2417-18). Results for the period 1724 to 1750 show 14.5% of cases occurred within 6 months after the initial contraction date, the execution of the debt. Merchants brought suit in more than 60% of the cases between 6 months and 3 years from execution, 21.4% from six to twelve months, 27.4% from one to two years and 14.1% from two to three years. Finally, more than 20% of the cases occurred more than three years from the execution of the debt. The median interval between execution and suit was 17.5 months (Priest, 2436, Table 3).

The duration of promissory notes provides an important complement to estimates of book credit’s term. Median estimates of 17.5 months make promissory notes, more than likely, a long-term credit instrument when balanced against the one year credit term given colonial importers. The estimates for book credit range between three months and several years in the literature to between 13 and 16 months in Flynn (2001) study. Duration results show that merchants waited significant amounts of time for payment, raising the issue of the time value of money and interest rates.

The Interest Practices of Merchants

In some cases credit was outstanding for a long period of time, but the accounts make no mention of any interest charges, as in Figures 1 through 4. Such an omission is difficult to reconcile with the fairly sophisticated business practices for the merchants of the day. Accounting research and manuals from the time demonstrate clearly an understanding of the time value of money. The business community understood the concept of compound interest. Account books allowed merchants to charge higher and variable prices for goods sold on book credit (Martin, 94). While in some cases interest charges entered the account book as an explicit entry in many others interest was an added or implicit charge contained in the good’s price.

Advertisements from the time make it clear that merchants charged less for goods

purchased by cash, and accounts paid promptly received a discount on the price,

One general pricing policy seems to have been that goods for cash were sold at a lower price than when they were charged. Cabel[sic] Bull advertised beaver hats at 27/ cash and 30/ country produce in hand. Daniel Butler of Northampton offered dyes, and “a few Cwt. of Redwood and Logwood cheaper than ever for ready money.” Many other advertisements carried allusions to the practice but gave no definite data. A daybook of the Ely store contained this entry for October 21, 1757: “William Jones, Dr to 6 yds Towcloth at 1/6—if paid in a month at 1/4. (Martin, 1939, 144-145)

Other advertisements also evidence a price difference, offering cash prices for certain grains they desired. Connecticut merchants likely offered good prices for products they thought would sell well as they sought remittances for their British creditors. Hartford merchants charged interest rates ranging from four and one-half to six and one-half percent in the 1750s and 1760s, though Flynn (2001) arrives at different rates from a different sample of New England account books (Martin, 158). Many promissory notes in South Carolina specified interest, though not an exact rate, usually just the term “lawful interest” (Woods, 364).

Estimates of interest rates

Simple regression analysis can help determine if interest was implicit in the price of goods sold on credit though there are numerous technical issues, such as borrower characteristics, market conditions and the quality of the good that make a discussion here inappropriate.13 In general, there seems to be a positive correlation, with the annual interest rates falling between 3.75% and 7%, which seem consistent with the results from interest entries made in account books. There is some tendency for the price of a good to increase with the time waited for repayment, though many other technical matters need resolution.

Most annual interest rates in Flynn’s (2001) study, explicit and implicit, fall in the range of 4 to 6.5 percent making them similar to those Martin found in her examination of accounts and roughly consistent with the Massachusetts lawful rate of 6 percent at the time, though some entries assess interest as high as 10 percent (Martin, 158; Rothenberg, 1992, 124). Despite this, the explicit rates are insufficient on their own to form a conclusion about the interest rate charged on book credit; there are too few entries, and many involve promissory notes or third parties, factors expected to alter the interest rate. Other factors such as borrower characteristics likely changed the assessed rate of interest too, with more prominent and wealthy individuals charged lower rates, either due to their status and a perceived lower risk, or possibly due to longer merchant-buyer relationships. Most account books do not contain information sufficient to judge the effects of these characteristics.

Merchants gained from credit use by charging higher prices; credit required a premium over cash sales and so the merchant collected interest and at the same time minimized the necessary amount of payments media (Martin, 94). Interest was distinct from the normal markups for insurance, freight, wharfage, etc. that were often significant additions to the overall price and represented an attempt to account for risk and the time value of money (Baxter, 192; Thomson, 239).14

Conclusions

Credit was significant as a form of payment in colonial America. Direct comparisons of the number of credit purchases versus barter or cash are not possible, but an examination of accounting records demonstrates credit’s widespread use. Credit was present in all forms of trade including international trade between England and her colonies. The domestic forms of credit were relatively long-term instruments that allowed individuals to consume beyond current means. In addition, book credit allowed colonists to economize on cash and other means of payment through transfers of credit, “reckoning,” and other means such as paying workers with store credit. Merchants also understood the time value of money, entering interest charges explicitly in the account books and implicitly as part of the price. The use of credit, the duration of credit instruments, and the methods of incorporating interest show credit as an important method of exchange and the economy of colonial America to be very complex and sophisticated.

References

Baxter, W.T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-1775. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945.

Bridenbaugh, Carl. The Colonial Craftsman. Dover Publications: New York, 1990.

Egnal, Marc. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Flynn, David T. “Credit and the Economy of Colonial New England.” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 2001.

McCusker, John J., and Russel R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Main, Jackson Turner. Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Martin, Margaret. “Merchants and Trade of the Connecticut River Valley, 1750-1820.” Smith College Studies in History. Department of History, Smith College: Northampton, Mass. 1939.

Parker, Jonathan. Account Book, 1747-1764. Mss:605 1747-1815. Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School; Cambridge, Massachusetts

Perkins, Edwin J. The Economy of Colonial America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Perkins, Edwin J. American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700-1815. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Price, Jacob M. Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade: The View from the Chesapeake, 1700-1776. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Priest, Claire. “Colonial Courts and Secured Credit: Early American Commercial Litigation and Shays’ Rebellion.” Yale Law Journal 108, no. 8 (June, 1999): 2412-2450.

Rothenberg, Winifred. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Shepherd, James F. and Gary Walton. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge: University Press 1972.

Thomson, Robert Polk. The Merchant in Virginia, 1700-1775. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1955.

Further Reading:

For a good introduction to credit’s importance across different professions, merchant practices and the development of business practices over time I suggest:

Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth-Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Schlesinger, Arthur. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution: 1763-1776. New York: Facsimile Library Inc., 1939.

For an introduction to issues relating to money supply, the unit of account in the economy, and price and exchange rate data I recommend:

Brock, Leslie V. The Currency of the American Colonies, 1700-1764: A Study in Colonial Finance and Imperial Relations. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

McCusker, John J. Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775: A Handbook. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

McCusker, John J. How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Commodity Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States, Second Edition. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 2001.

1 Some authors note a small amount of cash purchases as well as small numbers of cash payments for debts as evidence of a lack of money (Bridenbaugh, 153; Baxter, 19n).

2 Presently, credit cards are a common form of payment. While such technology did not exist in the past, the merchant’s account book provided a means of recording credit purchases.

3 Price (1980, pp.16-17) provides an excellent summary of the advantages and risks of credit to different types of consumers and to merchants in both Britain and the colonies.

4 Please note that this table consists of transactions mostly between colonial retail merchants and colonial consumers in New England. Flynn (2001) uses account books that collectively span from approximately 1704 to 1770.

5 In some cases with the extension of book credit came a requirement to provide a note too. When the solvency of the debtor came into question the creditor, could sell the note and pass the risk of default on to another.

6 I offer a detailed example of such an exchange going sour for the merchant below.

7 “No date” is Flynn’s entry to show that a date is not recorded in the account book.

8 It seems that this frequently occurs at the end of a list of entries, particularly when the credit fully satisfies an outstanding purchase as in Figure 4.

9 To calculate months, divide days by 30. The term “cash” is placed in quotation marks as it is woefully nondescript. Some merchants and researchers using account books group several different items under the heading cash.

10 Students interested in historical research of this type should be prepared to encounter many situations of missing information. There are ways to deal with this censoring problem, but a technical discussion is not appropriate here.

11 Colin Newell’s Methods and Models in Demography (Guilford Press, 1988) is an excellent introduction for these techniques.

12 Note that either merchants recorded amounts in the lawful money standard or Flynn (2001) converted amounts into this standard for these purposes.

13 The premise behind the regression is quite simple: we look for a correlation between the amount of time an amount was outstanding and the per unit price of the good. If credit purchases contained implicit interest charges there would be a positive relationship. Note that this test implies forward looking merchants, that is, merchants factored the perceived or agreed upon time to repayment into the price of the good.

14 The advance varied by colony, good and time period,

In 1783, a Boston correspondent wrote Wadsworth that dry goods in Boston were selling at a twenty to twenty-five percent ‘advance’ from the ‘real Sterling Cost by Wholesale.’ The ‘advances’ occasionally mentioned in John Ely’s Day Book were far higher, seventy to seventy-five per cent on dry goods. Dry goods sold well at one hundred and fifty per cent ‘advance’ in New York in 1750… (Martin, 136).

In the 1720s a typical advance on piece goods in Boston was eighty per cent, seventy-five with cash (Martin, 136n). It should be noted that others find open account balances were commonly kept interest free (Rothenberg, 1992, 123).

13

Citation: Flynn, David. “Credit in the Colonial American Economy”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/credit-in-the-colonial-american-economy/

Economic Interests and the Adoption of the United States Constitution

Robert A. McGuire, University of Akron

The adoption of the Constitution greatly strengthened the national government at the expense of the states. This article examines how our Founding Fathers designed the Constitution, examining findings on the political and economic factors behind the provisions included in the Constitution and its ratification. The article discusses the views of Charles Beard and his critics and focuses on recent quantitative findings that explain the making of the Constitution. These findings suggest that personal interests of the Founding Fathers, as well as constituents’ interests, played an important role in drafting the Constitution. They also suggest that economic and other interests played important roles at the ratifying conventions.

The Adoption of the Constitution

During the summer of 1787, fifty-five men attended the constitutional convention in Philadelphia that drafted the Constitution of the United States. In less than a year after the convention finished, New Hampshire, on June 21, 1788, became the ninth state to have ratified the Constitution that was drafted. As a result, Congress declared the Constitution to be in force beginning March 4, 1789, because ratification by only nine of the thirteen states was required for the Constitution to be considered adopted by the ratifying states. The Constitution thus replaced the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union as the law of the land. Under the Articles, which had been in effect only since 1781, the American political system consisted of a loose confederation of largely independent states with a very weak central government. Under the Constitution, the Articles were replaced with a political system that consisted of a powerful central government with, ultimately, little state sovereignty.

Fiscal and Economic Problems under the Articles of Confederation

Under the Articles of Confederation, the central (federal) government had little or no power to raise revenues and had difficulty repaying its domestic and foreign debt. The fiscal problems under the Articles were twofold. First, the primary source of revenues to fund the federal government was requisitions to the state governments asking them to send to the federal government state-collected tax revenues. Yet the Articles did not include any enforcement mechanism to ensure that the state governments would send in the full amount of the funds requested of them, which they never did. Second, each state had a single vote in the federal Congress and the unanimous consent of the thirteen states was required for the Congress to enact any federal taxes. A single state could thus block federal tax legislation. This de facto veto power on the part of each state created substantial decision-making costs for Congress and prevented proposed federal imposts (import duties) from being enacted under the Articles. The central government also lacked the legal power to enforce uniform commercial or trade regulations – either at home or abroad – that might have been conducive to the development of a common economic trading area. Likewise, the Confederation government possessed uncertain authority to deal with foreign powers. Its problems raising revenues and repaying existing debts created uncertainty about the financial viability of the federal government. Although state and local interference in trade was not a major problem at the time, many commercial interests apparently feared that local and state barriers to trade could develop in the future under the Articles of Confederation. Western landowners also were often impatient with the federal government because of its inability to establish order on the frontiers.

How the Constitution Strengthened the Power of the Central Government

Under the Constitution, the power to tax, along with the authority to settle past federal debts, was firmly delegated to the central (national) government, improving the central government’s financial future as well as improving capital markets (the markets for funds). The Constitution, unlike the Articles, required only a simple majority vote of the representatives in both chambers of the national Congress to enact tax legislation. There were, and are, checks on simple majority voting though. The president can veto congressional legislation and a two-thirds vote in Congress can override the presidential veto. But neither of these constraints on majority voting creates the magnitude of decision-making costs that unanimous voting under the Articles created. The assignment of the sole right “To coin money, [and] regulate the value thereof,” to the national government and the prohibition on states from emitting “bills of credit” (paper money) also were expected to improve capital markets. A national judiciary was created under the Constitution and the power to make treaties with foreign nations was firmly delegated to the central government.

How a Strong Central Government Affected the Economy

With respect to interstate trade, Gary M. Walton and James F. Shepherd (1979) suggest “the possibility of such barriers [to interstate commerce] loomed as a threat until the Constitution specifically granted the regulation of interstate commerce to the federal government” (pp. 187-88). Walton and Shepherd conclude that the most important changes associated with the Constitution “were those changes that strengthened the framework for protection of private property and enforcement of contracts” (pp. 187-88). These changes were most important because they increased the benefits of exchange (the cornerstone of a market economy) and created incentives for individuals to specialize in economic activities in which they had a particular advantage and then engage in mutually advantageous exchange (trade) with individuals specializing in other economic activities. Specific provisions in the Constitution that helped to increase the benefits of exchange were those that prohibited the national and state governments from enacting ex-post-facto laws (retroactive laws) and a provision that prohibited the state governments from passing any “law impairing the obligation of contracts.” These prohibitions were important to the development of a market economy because they constrained governments from interfering in economic exchange, making the returns to economic activity more secure.

Because the economies of the thirteen states were not highly interconnected in the 1780s, the immediate consequences for the nation of adopting the Constitution were not at all large. But the change in our fundamental political institution was ultimately to have a profound influence on our nation’s history, because the Constitution over time became the foundation of the supremacy of the national government in the United States.

The “Important Question”: How Did Constitutional Change Come About?

How did this fundamental change come about? Why did our nation’s Founding Fathers replace the Articles of Confederation, our first “constitution,” with the United States Constitution? In defending the Constitution in late 1787, Alexander Hamilton observed “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country . . . to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force” (Hamilton, Jay and Madison, 1937, No. 1, p. 3). To paraphrase Hamilton: How did “this country” decide “the important question”?

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, hundreds of scholars have studied and debated the possible explanations for such an important change in the fundamental political institution of our nation. Many historians have concluded that the Constitution was drafted and adopted as a result of a consensus that the Articles of Confederation were fatally flawed. Other scholars have argued that the limitations of the Articles could have been eliminated without fundamentally altering the balance of power between the states and the central government. Others have suggested that the adoption of the Constitution was the product of conflict between various economic and financial interests within the nation, a conflict between those who, because of their interests, wanted a strengthened, more powerful national government and those who, because of their interests, did not.

Charles Beard’s “Economic” Interpretation

In 1913, Charles A. Beard (1913 [1935]) consolidated various scholarly views of the Constitution and, in the process, offered what became identified as “the” economic interpretation of the Constitution. Beard (pp. 16-18) argued that the formation of the Constitution was a conflict based upon competing economic interests – interests of both the proponents and opponents. In his view, the Federalists, the founders who supported a strong, centralized government and favored the Constitution during its drafting and ratification, were individuals whose primary economic interests were tied to personal property. They were mainly merchants, shippers, bankers, speculators, and private and public securities holders, according to Beard (pp. 31-51). The Anti-federalists, the opponents of the Constitution and supporters of a more decentralized government, were individuals whose primary economic interests were tied to real property. Beard (pp. 26-30) contended these opponents consisted primarily of more isolated, less-commercial farmers, who often were also debtors, and northern manorial planters along the Hudson River. However, Beard (pp. 29-30) maintained that many southern slaveowning planters, who held much of their wealth in personal property, had much in common with northern merchants and financiers, and should be included as supporters of the Constitution.

Beard (pp. 31-51) claimed that support for his argument could be found in the economic conditions prevailing during the 1780s. As a result, he suggested that the primary beneficiaries under the Constitution would have been individuals with commercial and financial interests – particularly, those with public securities holdings who, according to Beard, had a clause included in the Constitution requiring the assumption of existing federal debt by the new national government. Commercial and financial interests also would benefit because of more certainty in the rules of commerce, trade, and credit markets under the Constitution. More isolated less-commercial farmers, debtors, paper money advocates, and the northern planters along the Hudson would be the primary beneficiaries under the status quo. They would have had greater ability at the state level with decentralized government to avoid heavy land taxation – levied to pay off the public debt – and to promote paper money and debt moratorium issues that advanced their interests. Consequently, they opposed the Constitution.

Criticisms of Beard’s View: Brown and McDonald

Beard’s thesis soon emerged as the standard historical interpretation and remained so until the 1950s, when it began to face serious scholarly challenges. The most influential and lasting of the challenges were those by Robert E. Brown (1956) and Forrest McDonald (1958). Robert E. Brown’s (1956) critique dismisses an economic interpretation as utterly without merit, attacking Beard’s conclusions in their entirety. Brown counters Beard’s views that eighteenth-century America was not very democratic, that the wealthy were strong supporters of the Constitution, and that those without personal property generally opposed the Constitution. Brown examines the support for the Constitution among various economic and social classes, the democratic nature of the nation, and the franchise within the states in eighteenth-century America. He maintains that Beard was plain wrong, eighteenth-century America was democratic, the franchise was common, and there was widespread support for the Constitution.

In contrast, Forrest McDonald’s (1958) study empirically examines the wealth, economic interests, and the votes of the delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia that drafted the Constitution in 1787 and of the delegates to the thirteen ratifying conventions that considered its adoption afterward. McDonald’s primary interest is in testing Charles A. Beard’s thesis. Based on his evidence collected from the Philadelphia convention, McDonald (1958, p. 110) concludes, “anyone wishing to rewrite the history of those proceedings largely or exclusively in terms of the economic interests represented there would find the facts to be insurmountable obstacles.” With respect to the ratification of the Constitution, McDonald (1958. p. 357) likewise concludes, “On all counts, then, Beard’s thesis is entirely incompatible with the facts.”

Neither Brown nor McDonald, however, offered any modern rigor (no formal or statistical analysis of any type) in testing the behavior of the Founding Fathers during the drafting or ratification of the Constitution. Yet Brown and McDonald are still credited by many with delivering the fatal blows to Beard’s economic interpretation of the Constitution. (Examples of economists, historians, political scientists, and legal scholars who credit Brown and McDonald, or both, with proving Beard incorrect include Buchanan and Tullock (1962), Wood (1969), Riker (1987), and Ackerman (1991).

The New Quantitative Approach

Recently economic historians have begun to reexamine the behavior of our Founding Fathers concerning the Constitution. This reexamination, which employs formal economics and modern statistical techniques, involves the application of an economic model of voting behavior during the drafting and ratification processes and the collection and processing of large amounts of data on the economic and financial interests and other characteristics of the men who drafted and ratified the Constitution. The findings of this reexamination, which have become the accepted view among quantitative economic historians today (Robert Whaples, 1995), provide answers to many heretofore-unresolved issues involving the adoption of the Constitution.

What factors explain the behavior of George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers regarding the Constitution? Why did they include a prohibition on state paper-money issues in the Constitution? Why did they decide to allow for duties (taxes) on imports but not on exports? Why did they fail to adopt a clause giving the national government an absolute veto over state laws? Were the economic, financial, and other interests of the founders significant factors in their support for the Constitution, or their support for specific clauses in it, or their support for ratification? Were, for example, the slaveholdings of the founders a significant factor in their behavior? Were the founders’ commercial activities significant factors? Were the private or public securities holdings significant factors?

The Rational Choice Model

The critical reexamination of the adoption of the Constitution, which began in the mid-1980s (Robert A. McGuire and Robert L. Ohsfeldt, 1984), offers an economic model of the founders that is based on rational choice and methodological individualism, and employs formal statistical techniques. Methodologically, such an approach analyzes the choices of the individuals involved in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. The object of analysis is the behavior of the individual Founding Fathers not the behavior of some social class or group. The economic model presumes that a founder was motivated by self-interest to maximize the satisfaction he received from the choices he made at the constitutional convention attended. But neither self-interest nor economic rationality implies that a founder was concerned only with his financial or material well-being. The economic model indicates that a founder weighed the benefits (the satisfaction) and the costs (the sacrifice) to himself of his actions, making those choices that were in his self-interest, broadly defined to include any pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits and costs of his choices. This is the presumption of rational choice.

Personal and Constituent Interests

More precisely, the economic model is that a founder acted individually to maximize the net benefit he received from his votes. A founder would have voted in favor of a particular issue at Philadelphia, or in favor of ratification, if he expected the net benefit he would receive would have been greater if the issue, or the Constitution, was adopted. Because a founder was from a particular state or locality, the founder represented the citizens (the constituents) of the state or locality in which he resided as well as represented his own personal interests at Philadelphia or a ratifying convention. The benefit of a founder’s vote was affected directly by the anticipated impact of his vote on his personal interests and indirectly by the anticipated impact of his vote on his constituents’ interests. A founder’s personal interests depended on his own economic interests and ideology and his constituent interests depended on the economic interests and ideologies of his constituents. The interests may have been purely economic (pecuniary interests, such as the ownership or value of specific economic assets) or ideological (non-pecuniary interests, such as beliefs about the moral correctness of a particular form of government). The potential effect of personal interests on a founder’s vote is straightforward; the founder would have benefited or been harmed directly. The potential effect of constituents’ interests on a founder’s vote is through the impact of his vote on the potential for maintaining his decision-making authority, continuing to represent his constituents.

Statistical Tests

To quantitatively test the economic model, the founders’ observed votes on a particular issue at Philadelphia or on ratification are statistically related to measures of the economic interests and ideologies of the founders and their constituents. The statistical technique employed is called multivariate logistic regression. Estimation of a logistic regression model is designed to determine the marginal or incremental impact of each explanatory variable – the measures of the economic interests and ideologies – on the dependent variable – the “yes” or “no” votes on a particular issue at Philadelphia or ratification. The estimated logistic regression produces for each explanatory variable an estimated coefficient that captures the influence (its direction and magnitude) of the explanatory variable on the probability of a founder voting in favor of the issue being estimated, holding the influence of all other explanatory variables constant. The benefit of this approach is that each potential factor, each explanatory variable, affecting a vote is examined separately from the influence of the other factors, while at the same time, controlling for the influence of the other factors. This reduces to a minimum the incidence of spurious relationships between any particular factor and a vote. For example, if the relationship between the vote on an issue and the founders’ slaveholdings is examined in isolation, a positive correlation may be indicated. But if other interests are taken into account (for example, the founders’ public securities holdings), the correlation with slaveholdings could change and, in fact, be negative.

The modern economic history of the Constitution indicates that Charles Beard’s economic interpretation has not yet been refuted. The issues, in fact, have not been heretofore tested. Earlier historical studies did not have the benefit of modern economic methodology and systematic statistical analysis. As such, their conclusions cannot pass scientific scrutiny. Major advances in both economic thinking about political behavior and statistical techniques have taken place in the last thirty or so years. These modern methods allow for a systematic quantitative analysis of the voting behavior of the founders employing, among other data and evidence, the types of non-quantitative data about the founders that historians collected decades ago but never systematically analyzed. They failed to systematically analyze such data and evidence because the necessary techniques did not exist and because they generally were not trained in quantitative analysis.

Findings of the Quantitative Approach: A New Economic Interpretation of the Constitution

One unambiguous conclusion can be drawn from the recent quantitative studies: There is a valid economic interpretation of the Constitution. The idea of self-interest can explain the design and adoption of the Constitution. This does not mean that either the framers or the ratifiers of the Constitution were motivated by a greedy desire to “line their own pockets” or by some dialectic concept of “class interests.” Nor does it mean that some “conspiracy among the founders” or some fatalistic concept of “economic determinism” explains the Constitution. Nor does it mean that the founders were completely selfish in a purely financial or material sense. It does mean that the pursuit of one’s “interests” both in a narrow, pecuniary (financial) sense and a broader, non-pecuniary sense can explain the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. (See McGuire (2001).)

The recent quantitative studies contend that the Constitution was neither drafted nor ratified by a group of disinterested and nonpartisan demigods motivated only, or even primarily, by high-minded political principles to promote the nation’s interest. The fifty-five delegates to the Philadelphia convention that drafted the Constitution during the summer of 1787 were motivated by self-interest, in a broad sense, in choosing its design. Quantitative research suggests that these framers of the Constitution can be seen as rational individuals who were making choices in designing the fundamental rules of governance for the nation. In doing so, they rationally weighed the expected costs and benefits of each clause they considered. They included a particular clause in the Constitution only if they expected the benefits from its inclusion to exceed the costs they expected to result from inclusion. Likewise, the more than 1,600 delegates who participated in the thirteen state ratifying conventions, which took place between 1787 and 1790 to consider adopting the Constitution, can be viewed as rational individuals who were making the choice to adopt the set of rules embodied in the Constitution as drafted at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. In doing so, they rationally weighed the expected costs and benefits of their decision to ratify. They voted to ratify only if the benefits they expected from adoption of the set of rules embodied in the Constitution exceeded the costs they expected to result from that set of rules. If not, they voted against ratification.

Contrary to earlier views that the founders’ specific economic or financial interests cannot be principally identified with one side or the other of an issue, the modern evidence indicates that their economic and financial interests can be so identified. When specific issues arose at the Philadelphia convention that had a direct impact on important economic interests of the founders, their economic interests, even narrowly defined, significantly influenced the specific design of the Constitution, and the magnitudes of the influences were often quite large. The types of economic interests that mattered for the choice of specific issues were those that were likely to have accounted for a substantial portion of the overall wealth or represent the primary livelihood of the founders.

Even when the founders were deciding on the general issue of the basic design of the Constitution to strengthen the national government, economic and other interests significantly influenced them. In terms used in constitutional political economics, even when the founders were making fundamental “constitutional” choices rather than more specific-interest “operational” choices, the modern evidence indicates their choices were still consistent with self-interested and partisan behavior. In terms used among legal scholars, even when the founders were involved in the “higher lawmaking” of the “constitutional founding,” they were still self-interested and partisan. Partisan behavior explains even this “constitutional moment.” However, the modern evidence does indicate that fewer economic and financial interests mattered for the basic design of the Constitution than for specific-interest aspects of it.

Specific Empirical Findings from the Constitutional Convention and the Ratifying Conventions

Financial Securities

The financial securities holdings of the founders often had a significantly large influence on their behavior and founders with such financial assets were often aligned with each other on the same issue. These findings are in contrast to a strongly held view among many historical scholars that the founders’ financial securities holdings had little or no influence on their behavior or that these founders were not aligned on common issues. For a small number of the issues considered at the Philadelphia convention, the founders’ financial securities holdings mattered. Moreover, during the ratification process, the financial securities holdings had a major influence. Specifically, delegates with private securities holdings (private creditors) or public securities holdings (public creditors), and especially delegates with large amounts of public securities holdings (generally, Revolutionary War debt), were significantly more likely to vote in favor of ratification.

This does not mean that all securities-holding delegates voted together at the constitutional conventions. What it does mean is that the holdings of financial securities, controlling for other influences, significantly increased the probability of supporting some of the issues at the Philadelphia convention, particularly those issues that strengthened the central government (or weakened the state governments). For example, one issue that the securities holders were more likely to have supported was a proposal to absolutely prohibit state governments from issuing paper money. This means that the securities holders (creditors) at the convention desired to constrain the states’ ability to inflate away the value of their financial holdings through expansion of the supply of state paper money. Not surprisingly, the twelve founders at Philadelphia with private securities holdings voted unanimously in favor of the prohibition. Likewise, those with public securities holdings were significantly more likely to have favored it. The evidence indicates that a founder at Philadelphia with any public securities holdings, who at the same time possessed the average values of all other interests represented at the convention, was 26.5 percent more likely to vote yes than was an otherwise average delegate with no public securities holdings. With respect to the ratification process, a delegate’s financial securities holdings, controlling for other influences, significantly increased his probability of voting in favor of ratification at his state convention. An implication that can be drawn from this evidence is that to the extent some delegates with financial securities holdings did not support strengthening the central government, or did not vote for ratification, it was the effects of their other interests that influenced them to vote “no.”

Slaveowners

The view of many historical scholars is that delegates who were slaveowners and those who represented slave areas generally supported strengthening the central government and supported ratifying the Constitution. While this may be correct as far as it goes, the issue of the influence of slaveholdings on the behavior of the Founding Fathers, as is the influence of any factor, is actually more complex. The quantitative evidence indicates that, although a majority of the slaveowners and a majority of the delegates from slave areas, may have, in fact, voted for issues strengthening the central government or voted for ratification, the actual influence of slaveholdings or representing slave areas per se was to significantly decrease a delegate’s likelihood of voting for strengthening the central government or voting for ratification.

As with the findings for financial securities holdings, this does not mean that all slaveholding delegates or all delegates from slave areas voted together at the various constitutional conventions. What it does mean for the Philadelphia constitutional convention is that slaveholdings, controlling for other influences, decreased the probability of voting at the convention for issues that would have strengthened the central government. For example, one issue that slaveholders at Philadelphia were less likely to have supported was a proposal that would have given the national legislature an absolute veto over state laws, which would have greatly strengthened the central government. This means that if the national veto had been put into the Constitution at Philadelphia, which it was not, the national Congress, especially if it had a majority of non-slaveholding representatives, could have vetoed state laws concerning slavery, for example. This would have given the national Congress the power to limit the economic viability of slavery, if it so chose. Not surprisingly, the evidence suggests that a delegate at Philadelphia who owned the most slaves at the convention, for example, and had average values of all other interests, was one-twelfth as likely to have voted yes on the national veto than an otherwise average delegate with no slaveholdings. Likewise, during the ratification process, slaveholdings, controlling for other influences, significantly decreased the probability of voting in favor of ratification at the state ratifying conventions. An implication from this evidence is that in the case of the slaveholding delegates and the delegates from slave areas, who did vote to strengthen the central government or did vote for ratification, it was the effects of their other interests that influenced them to vote “yes.”

Commercial Interests

The modern evidence confirms that the framers and the ratifiers of the Constitution, who were from the more commercial areas of their states, were likely to have voted differently from individuals from the less commercial areas. Delegates who were from the more commercial areas were significantly more likely to have voted for clauses in the Constitution that strengthened the central government and were significantly more likely to have voted for ratification in the ratifying conventions. The Founding Fathers who were from the more isolated, less commercial areas of their states were significantly less likely to support strengthening the central government and significantly less likely to vote for ratification.

Local and State Office Holders

But surprisingly, the findings for the ratification of the Constitution strongly conflict with the nearly unanimous prevailing scholarly view that the localism and parochialism of local and state officeholders were major factors in the opposition to the Constitution’s ratification. The modern quantitative evidence, in fact, indicates that there were no significant relationships whatsoever between any measure of local or state office holding and the ratification vote in any ratifying convention for which the data on officeholders were collected.

The Founders Mattered: How the Constitution Would Have Been Different If Men with Different Interests Had Written It

One of the more important findings of the modern approach to the adoption of the Constitution is that it makes evident the importance to historical outcomes of the specific individuals involved in any historical process. The modern evidence attests to the paramount importance of the specific political actors involved in the American constitutional founding. The estimated magnitudes of the influences of many of the economic, financial, and other interests on the founders’ behavior are large enough that the findings suggest the product of the constitutional founding most likely would have been dramatically different had men with dramatically different interests been involved.

For example, had all the founders at Philadelphia represented a state with a population the size of the most populous state, and possessed the average values of all other interests represented at Philadelphia, the Constitution most certainly would have contained a clause giving the national government an absolute veto over all state laws. If the national veto had been put into the Constitution, which it was not, and representation in the national Congress was based on the population of a state, which it was and is in the House of Representatives, rather than each state possessing an equal vote as under the Articles, representatives from the most populous states could have controlled legislative outcomes. This would have given “large” states potential control over the “small” states. As might be expected, the modern findings indicate that the predicted probability of voting yes on the national veto for a founder at Philadelphia who represented the most populous state and possessed the average values of all other interests is 0.837. But the predicted probability for an “average” delegate, one with the average values of all measured interests including state population, is only 0.379.

Or, had all the founders at Philadelphia represented a state with the heaviest concentration of slaves of all states, and possessed the average values of all other interests, the Constitution likely would have contained a clause requiring a two-thirds majority of the national legislature to enact any commercial laws. If the two-thirds majority requirement had been put into the Constitution, which it was not, it would have been more difficult to enact commercial laws, laws that could have regulated the slave-based export economies of the southern states. The two-thirds requirement would have made it much more difficult for a future northern majority to impact negatively on the southern economy through commercial regulation. Again, as might be expected, the modern findings indicate that the predicted probability of a yes vote on the two-thirds issue for an otherwise “average” founder who represented a state with the heaviest concentration of slaves is 0.914; but it is only 0.206 for an “average” founder. The Constitution also might not have contained a clause prohibiting the national legislature from enacting export duties (taxes) had there been no delegates with merchant interests at the Philadelphia convention; there might have been only a fifty-fifty chance of passing the prohibition. The predicted probability of a yes vote to prohibit national-level export duties for an otherwise “average” delegate without merchant interests is 0.505. But it is 0.790 for an otherwise “average” delegate with merchant interests, and nine of the Founding Fathers at the Philadelphia convention had merchant interests.

Interests of the Ratifiers Mattered

With respect to ratification, the quantitative evidence indicates that the magnitudes of the influences of the economic and other interests on the ratification votes were even more considerable than for the Philadelphia convention. The outcome of ratification appears to have depended even more on the specific individuals involved. The estimated influences were considerable enough that they suggest the outcome of ratification almost certainly would have been different had men with different interests attended the ratifying conventions. Had there been, among the ratifiers, fewer merchants, more debtors, more slaveowners, more delegates from the less-commercial areas, or more delegates belonging to dissenting religions, there would have been no ratification of the Constitution, at least no ratification as the Constitution was written. For example, at the Massachusetts ratifying convention, the predicted probability of a yes vote on ratification for an otherwise “average” delegate who was a debtor is only 0.175 but if the same delegate was not a debtor it is 0.624. For an otherwise “average” Baptist, the predicted probability of a yes vote is only 0.162 but if the Massachusetts delegate was not a Baptist it is 0.657. At the North Carolina ratifying convention, the predicted probability of a yes vote for an otherwise “average” delegate who was not a merchant is 0.175 but if the same delegate was a merchant it is 0.924. For an otherwise “average” North Carolina delegate from the least commercial areas in the state, the predicted probability of a yes vote is a trivial 0.002 but if the delegate was from the most commercial areas in the state it is 0.753. At the Virginia ratifying convention, the predicted probability of a yes vote for an otherwise “average” slaveowner is 0.451 but if the otherwise “average” delegate was not a slaveowner it is 0.837. Differences of these magnitudes suggest that ratification of the Constitution strongly depended on the specific economic, financial, and other interests of the specific individuals who attended the state conventions.

Broader Implications for Constitution Making

Overall, the modern approach to explaining the design and adoption of the Constitution suggests that it is unlikely that any real world constitution would ever be drafted or ratified through a disinterested and nonpartisan process. Because actual constitutional settings will always involve political actors who possess partisan interests and who likely will be able to predict the consequences of their decisions; partisan interests will influence constitutional choice. The economic history of the drafting and ratification of our nation’s Constitution makes it hard to envision any actual constitutional setting, including any setting to reform existing constitutions, in which self-interested and partisan behavior would not dominate. The modern evidence suggests that constitutions are the products of the interests of those who design and adopt them.

The Statistical Approach versus the Traditional Approach

Much of the differences between the modern evidence and the evidence found in the traditional historical literature is a matter of the approach taken, as well as the questions asked, rather than a matter of arriving at fundamentally different answers to identical questions. Many studies in the traditional literature question an economic interpretation of the Constitution because they question whether the Constitution is strictly an economic document designed solely to promote specific economic interests. Of course, it was not designed merely to promote economic interests. Many others question an economic interpretation because they question whether the founders were really attempting to solely, or even to principally, enhance their personal wealth, or the wealth of those they represented, as a result of adopting the Constitution. Of course, the founders were not. Others question an economic interpretation because they question whether the founders were really involved in a conspiracy to promote specific economic interests. Of course, they were not. Others question an economic interpretation because they question whether political principles, philosophies, and beliefs can be ignored in an attempt to understand the design of the Constitution. Of course, they cannot. In contrast, the modern economic history of the Constitution does not take any of these positions.

Yet the conclusions drawn from the modern evidence on the role of the economic, financial, and other interests of the founders are fundamentally different from the conclusions found in the traditional literature. The primary reason is that the statistical technique employed in the modern reexamination yields estimates of the separate influence of a particular economic interest or other factor on the founders’ behavior (how they voted) taking into account, and controlling for, the influence of other interests and factors on the founders’ behavior. The traditional literature nearly always draws conclusions about how the majority of the delegates with a particular interest – for example, how the majority of public securities holding delegates – voted on a particular issue, without regard to the influence of other interests and factors on behavior and without any formal statistical analysis. Prior studies, consequently, do not control for the confounding influences of other factors when drawing conclusions about any particular factor. As a result, the modern reexamination and the prior studies will often reach different conclusions about the influence of the same economic interest or other factor on the founders’ behavior. The conclusions differ because in a sense the studies are asking different questions. The modern economic history of the Constitution asks: How did a particular economic interest (for example, slaveholdings) per se influence the founders’ voting behavior taking into account all the influences of other factors on those founders’ voting behavior (for example, the slaveholding founders)? Prior historical studies more simply ask: How many of the founders with a particular economic interest (for example, founders with slaveholdings) voted the same on a particular issue?

The modern approach to the adoption of the Constitution may be disquieting to individuals of all political persuasions. It may be personally difficult for many to embrace. The evidence suggests motivating factors and intent on the part of our Founding Fathers that may be distasteful to conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike, to those on the left, in the middle, and on the right. The methodology employed, rational choice and methodological individualism, will be acceptable to some. But methodological individualism and a presumption of rational choice are likely to be troublesome to others. Some may have difficulty because an economic approach to the adoption of the Constitution appears “too calculating.” To some, it may appear “too deterministic” or “too economic.” Yet it actually is a dispassionate, almost antiseptic, view of the founders. It does not offer a special approach to the behavior of the founders because of the unique position reserved for them in our nation’s history. It treats them as it would any political actor. The modern approach represents an impartial, disinterested explanation of the behavior of our Founding Fathers, employing what are today commonly accepted techniques of economic and statistical analysis. Yet many individuals tend to look at our Founding Fathers through rose-colored glasses. They often place the founders on a pedestal and treat them as demigods. Many contend that the founders were motivated primarily, if not solely, by high-minded political principles “To Form a More Perfect Union.” The modern approach takes a broader view.

Annotated References

Ackerman, Bruce. We the People, two volumes. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.

A view of the American constitutional founding by an eminent legal scholar. Ackerman offers a “dualist” theory of the founders’ politics in an attempt to recover the “true” revolutionary character of the founders, contending they were “dualist democrats.” Given this dualism, it is claimed that the founders behaved differently during “constitutional politics” than during “normal politics.” The founders thus were able to suspend their self-interests during the framing of the Constitution and promote instead the “rights of citizens and the permanent interests of the community.” Dismisses an economic interpretation as not serious. Indicates how a modern legal scholar thinks about the issues. Not a quantitative study.

Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1913 (1935).

A must read. The classic study of economics and the Constitution. Beard consolidated existing scholarly views and, in the process, his study became identified as “the” economic interpretation of the Constitution. Argues that the adoption of the Constitution was based on a conflict among competing economic interests. Contends that the founders who supported the strong, centralized government in the Constitution were merchants, shippers, bankers, land speculators, or private and/or public securities holders. Contends that the opponents, who supported a more decentralized government, represented agrarian interests and were less-commercial farmers, who often were also debtors, and/or northern planters along the Hudson. Contains little empirical evidence. Offers no formal or quantitative analysis.

Brown, Robert E. Charles Beard and the Constitution: A Critical Analysis of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.

The first significant blow to Beard after nearly a half-century of acceptance. Dismisses an economic interpretation as utterly without merit, attacking its conclusions in their entirety. Brown maintains that eighteenth-century America was democratic, the franchise was common, and there was widespread support for the Constitution, claiming that his evidence counters Beard’s contention about the lack of democracy and the narrow support for the Constitution. Brown accuses Beard of taking the Philadelphia debates out of context, falsely editing The Federalist, and misstating facts. Not an empirical study per se. Offers no formal or quantitative analysis of the economic or financial interests of the founders.

Buchanan, James M., and Gordon Tullock. The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1962.

An important read. The first modern attempt by economists to develop an economic theory of constitutions. The premise is that citizens rationally devise constitutions, which contain the fundamental rules of governance to be used for future collective decisions in a society. As constitutions specify the constraints placed on governments and individuals, they establish the incentive structure for the future. Buchanan and Tullock maintain that it is in the self-interest of rational citizens to adopt a constitution that contains economically “efficient” rules that promote the interests of the society as a whole rather than the interests of any particular group. Suggests that the theory is applicable to the American founding. No empirical evidence is presented, however.

Elliot, Jonathan, editor. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia, in 1787, 5 volumes. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1836 (1888).

Worth perusing. Contains a record of the speeches and debates during the ratification process at most of the state ratifying conventions, as well as numerous other documents and correspondence pertaining to the Constitution’s ratification and drafting. The original source of information on what was said at the constitutional conventions. Elliot’s “Debates” are a most illuminating source of information concerning the views of both the supporters and opponents of the Constitution. Contains a record of the debates over ratification in the ratifying conventions in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Contains only small fragments of the debates in the ratifying conventions in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maryland. No debates from the other four state ratifying conventions are included.

Farrand, Max, editor. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 3 volumes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1911.

Worth perusing. Reputably the best source of information concerning what took place at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787. Contains copies of the official journal of the convention; James Madison’s highly respected notes of the entire proceedings; the diaries, notes, and memoranda of seven others (Alexander Hamilton, Rufus King, George Mason, James McHenry, William Pierce, William Paterson, and Robert Yates); the Virginia and the New Jersey plans of government presented at the convention; several documents recording the work of the Committee of Detail that wrote the first draft of the Constitution; a list of the framers, their attendance records, whether they signed the Constitution, and for thirteen of the sixteen non-signing framers whether the debates indicated they favored or opposed the Constitution; and hundreds of letters and correspondence of many of the framers and their contemporaries.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, Being a Collection of Essays written in Support of the Constitution agreed upon September 17, 1787, by the Federal Convention. New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1937.

A must read to understand the arguments put forth by the contemporary supporters of the Constitution. Commonly referred to today as The Federalist Papers, a collection of eighty-five essays written, between October 1787 and May 1788, under the pseudonym “Publius,” in support of the Constitution during the ratification debate in New York, seventy-seven of which originally appeared in the New York press. They appeared in book form in the spring of 1788 and it was soon after revealed that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay collectively wrote them. Given the “Papers” were part of a political campaign to win ratification, they should not be considered unbiased interpretations of the Constitution. Yet because Hamilton and, especially, Madison, the “Father” of the Constitution, were both at the Philadelphia convention that drafted the Constitution and Jay was a renowned lawyer, The Federalist soon became the authoritative interpretation of the intention of the framers as well as the meaning of the Constitution. Still viewed as such today by many but some scholars readily acknowledge the biased political nature of their conception.

Jensen, Merrill. The Making of the Constitution. New York, NY: Van Nostrand, 1964.

A culmination of more than two decades of scholarship on constitutional history and the Confederation period. Presents an interesting view of the issues. Concludes that many of the framers “who agreed on ultimate goals differed as to the means of achieving them, and they tended to reflect the interests of their states and their sections when those seemed in conflict with such goals.” Suggests that throughout the Philadelphia convention the framers expressed their common belief that men conducting public business must be restrained from using their influence to further their private interests. Jensen’s conclusion about the controversy over Charles Beard is especially revealing, as he maintains that the founders would have been bewildered because they “took for granted the existence of a direct relationship between the economic life of a state or nation and its government.” Not a study of economic interests, however.

Jillson, Calvin C. Constitution Making: Conflict and Consensus in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York, NY: Agathon Press, 1988.

An argument for the importance of economic and other interests by a respected political scientist. Employs modern statistical techniques to describe the voting alignments among the states at the Philadelphia convention. The findings indicate that many of the long recognized voting alignments existed over many of the issues considered at Philadelphia. Concludes that issues of basic constitutional design were decided on the basis of principle, whereas specific economic and political interests decided votes involving more specific issues. Is limited though because it does not use explicit data to measure economic or other interests. Employs the historical literature to categorize the interests of the states represented at the convention and then tests whether the states voted together on particular issues, concluding that when they did, economic or political interests mattered. Employs fairly sophisticated statistical techniques. Concerns issues of interest mainly to political scientists, voting alignments and coalition formation.

McDonald, Forrest. We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

An important read to understand the scholarly opinion of an “economic interpretation of the Constitution” among many. The most important and lasting blow to Beard after nearly a half-century of acceptance. Empirically examines the wealth and economic interests of the framers of the Constitution and ratifiers at the thirteen state conventions. Several economic interests are reported for nearly 1,300 (about three-quarters) of the founders. The votes on several issues at the Philadelphia convention and the votes at the ratifying conventions also are reported. Concludes that for the Philadelphia convention and the ratifying conventions the facts do not support an interpretation of the Constitution based on the economic interests represented. Further concludes there is no measurable relationship between specific economic interests and specific voting at the Philadelphia convention nor generally between specific economic interests and the votes at most of the ratifying conventions. Argues that an economic interpretation is more complex than that offered by Beard. Contains much empirical evidence but offers no formal or quantitative analysis. Many of its conclusions are overturned in McGuire’s To Form A More Perfect Union.

McGuire, Robert A. To Form A More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, (2002, in press).

Should be read by anyone interested in the modern “economic interpretation of the Constitution” and what the evidence indicates formally. The culmination of more than a decade and a half of modern research critically reexamining the adoption of the Constitution that seriously challenges the prevailing interpretation of our constitutional founding. Based on large amounts of new data on the economic, financial, and other interests of the Founding Fathers, an economic model of their voting behavior, and formal statistical analysis. The votes of the founders on selected issues at the Philadelphia convention and the votes during ratification are statistically related to measures of the founders and their constituents’ interests. The findings indicate that the economic and other interests significantly influenced the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. The magnitudes of the influences are shown to be substantial in many cases. Indicates how the Constitution would have been different had different interests been present at Philadelphia and how ratification would have been different had different interests been represented at the ratifying conventions. Attests to the importance of the specific individuals involved in historical events to historical outcomes.

McGuire, Robert A., and Robert L. Ohsfeldt. “Economic Interests and the American Constitution: A Quantitative Rehabilitation of Charles A. Beard.” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 509-519.

Quite readable. A useful preliminary study, reexamining the adoption of the Constitution employing the methods of modern economic history. Discusses the issues in a straightforward fashion with a minimum of technical jargon. Develops an economic model of the behavior of the Founding Fathers, discusses the data and evidence collected on the economic and other interests, and reports preliminary statistical findings on the role of economic interests in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. The findings are dated though because of their preliminary nature. The findings have been superceded by those reported in McGuire’s To Form A More Perfect Union.

Riker, William H. “The Lessons of 1787.” Public Choice 55 (1987): 5-34.

Quite readable. Written with a minimum of technical jargon by an eminent political scientist and constitutional expert. While emphasizing a rational choice view of the founders, it places little weight on the importance of economic interests per se. Riker maintains that military threats to the status quo during the 1780s explain the adoption of a strengthened central government. Presumes the framers of the Constitution were different from modern day politicians. Their achievements could not be duplicated today because, according to Riker, they were not constrained, as so many contemporaries are, by the foolish views of their constituencies. Maintains that the framers were less partisan and more disinterested than politicians are today. The approach presumes there was near unanimity among the framers. Indicates how an important political scientist thinks about the issues. Not a quantitative study.

Rossiter, Clinton. 1787: The Grand Convention. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1966.

An influential study of the Philadelphia convention that maintains economic interests motivated the founders throughout their deliberations. Contends, however, that the founders were essentially “like-minded gentlemen” whose interests and political ideologies were similar. Openly rejects an economic interpretation during ratification, claiming that “Virginia ratified the Constitution . . . because of a whole series of accidents and incidents that mock the crudely economic interpretation of the Great Happening of 1787-1788.” Further concludes “the evidence we now have leads most historians to conclude that no sharp economic or social line can be drawn on a nationwide basis.” Offers no formal or quantitative analysis of the role of any economic, financial, or other interests, however.

Storing, Herbert J. The Complete Anti-Federalist, volumes 1 through 7. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

A must read for anyone seriously interested in our nation’s founding. Places the essays in The Federalist in perspective. It is not at all necessary to read the volumes in their entirety. The seven volumes are the magnum opus for the arguments of the contemporary opponents of the Constitution. Given the success of the supporters of the Constitution and the esteem given their arguments presented in The Federalist, the opponents have often been denigrated and ignored. Yet many prominent Americans in the 1780s did oppose the Constitution. Among some of the better know Anti-Federalists, and opponents of the Constitution, are Patrick Henry and George Mason of Virginia, and Melancton Smith of New York. The Complete Anti-Federalist is a superb attempt, in Storing’s words, “to make available for the first time all of the substantial Anti-Federal writings in their complete original form and in an accurate text, together with appropriate annotation.” See, especially, the introduction, contained in volume one, which gives valuable coherence to Anti-Federalist thought.

Whaples, Robert. “Where Is There Consensus among American Economic Historians? The Results of a Survey on Forty Propositions.” Journal of Economic History, 55 (1995): 139-154.

The title of this article says it all. Whaples surveyed economists and historians whose specialty is American economic history to determine whether, and where, there is consensus among economic historians on forty important historical issues concerning the American economy. Reports the findings of the survey so that they indicate whether there are differences in the consensus on various issues among scholars trained in economics versus scholars trained in history.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

An important read. A widely acclaimed, and monumentally influential, study of the American founding by an eminent historian. Contends it is nearly impossible to identify the supporters or opponents of the Constitution with specific economic interests. Argues that the founding can be better understood in terms of the fundamental social forces underlying the ideological positions of the founders. Wood maintains the Constitution was founded on these larger sociological and ideological forces, which are the primary interests of the book. Concludes, “The quarrel was fundamentally one between aristocracy and democracy.” Offers no formal or quantitative analysis of the role of any economic, financial, or other interests.

Walton, Gary M., and James F. Shepherd. The Economic Rise of Early America. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Quite readable. A concise presentation of the economic history of early America from the colonial period through the early national period by two eminent economic historians of early America. In addition to the material on the colonial period, contains a discussion of general economic conditions in the United States in the 1780s, a discussion of the Articles of Confederation, and the immediate and longer-term influences on the American economy brought about by the adoption of the Constitution. A nice starting point for a general understanding of the economic history of early America. It is somewhat dated though, as there has been new scholarship on the early American economy in the last twenty years.

Citation: McGuire, Robert. “Economic Interests and the Adoption of the United States Consitution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001.
URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/economic-interests-and-the-adoption-of-the-united-states-constitution/