London Bills and World Trade

           Trade is capital intensive, even more so when transit times are slower or the distances vaster. Products sitting in warehouses, ships, and ports are deadweight, tying up capital until they are finally sold and used. Merchant banks, as their name implies, serve merchants and for centuries that meant devising a solution to the financial problems

Gold, Inflation, and Spanish Decline

           Any influx of new money, if poorly managed, can prove as ruinous as it seemed alluring. Misdirected riches can be frittered away and, by enabling years or decades of dissipation, growing indebtedness, or both, can leave its former holders in far worse position than where they began. Spain was able to capture large amounts of

Ivar Kreuger

           What do matches and money have in common? Not much perhaps, except that one man seemed an especially powerful supplier of each. Ivar Kreuger is possibly the person whose fame has diminished the most in the last century of financial history. During the 1920s, he was one of the largest creditors, and borrowers, in the

From Debtors’ Prison to Bankruptcy

           Bankruptcy gives debtors a reprieve from their creditors by allowing an orderly liquidation of assets or a restructuring, often alongside a reduction or complete discharge of remaining debts. Usually a sign of financial defeat, it can be easy to forget that bankruptcy is a protection largely provided to the borrower and not the creditor. Before

American Express

           The world became more interconnected in the 19th century as railways and telegraph expanded the reach of business. By facilitating long-distance transactions, express shipping became vital to many industries, including finance. This softens any surprise accompanying the fact that two of the largest financial firms in the United States today, Wells Fargo and American Express,

Rum and Calabashes

           Far away from sources of foreign monies and lacking their own, early Australia was forced to improvise. Barter was especially impractical and attempts to create a local coinage were unsuccessful until the early 20th century. Banknotes provided the solution for some parts of the country but in remote areas far from any banks, makeshift systems

Ulpian and Roman Annuities

           Life insurance contracts, life annuities, and an array of transactions relating to estates and inheritances are contingent on lifespan. It would make sense that some method of valuing these life-contingent transactions would have been formulated long ago, even in the absence of good demographic data. As it happens, life annuities were common in ancient Rome

Dutch ‘Middenstand’ Banks

           Credit is important for nearly all businesses. Even for companies without a need to finance large projects, like small businesses in capital-light sectors like retail, capital is still tied up in inventories and receivables. Banks can be one source of credit but banks are often disinterested in serving small businesses, as was the case in

George Peabody

           One of the most famous American bankers in history, John Pierpont Morgan, got his start not in New York but in London. There, his father was a partner in a firm founded by another American abroad, George Peabody. Peabody was born poor and received very little education; after finding success in business in America, he

Bank of Credit and Commerce International

           Globalization in finance has allowed the emergence of global banks, able to participate with ease in different markets around the world as barriers to the international flow of capital have been dismantled. However, global banks are not as easily regulated as those constrained to a single country, especially when closer international cooperation amongst regulatory and

The Shanghai Rubber Boom

           When commodity booms materialize, the effects are felt not only where the sought-after materials are mined or harvested but also in the financial centers of the world, the places where the commodities are marketed and traded and where production and trade is financed and insured. Rubber was a new gold in the late 19th and

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