Thoughts on BHC 2014

16 03 2014

BHC 2014 has finished. I first went to BHC on 2005, when it was held in Toronto. BHC has become my favourite annual conference. I find the formal sessions and informal discussions to be incredibly stimulating. This year’s BHC was superbly well-executed and planned. The venue, food, etc., were all great.

There are several aspects of BHC 2014 that are worthy of comment. First, there is the evident growing interest in the environmental history of business. At the BHC in St. Louis in 2011, there was just one panel on business/environmental history. At this year’s BHC, there were three. The trend line is encouraging, especially for those of us who are either doing research on environmental history or who are doing research on countries which economic activity has a relatively heavy impact on the economy (e.g., nations such as Canada in which each unit of GDP has a high carbon footprint).

Canadian business historians made a strong and positive impression at this year’s BHC. Canada’s business history community is, of course, very small relative to the country’s population or GDP (for instance, the UK has a population twice the size of Canada but a vastly larger community of business historians). Strong papers on Canadian business-historical topics were presented by Matt Bellamy, Laurence Mussio, and Stephen Salmon.   Dimitry Anastakis, who wasn’t present to collect his award, was given a prize for his new book Autonomous State: The Epic Struggle for the Canadian Car Industry from OPEC to Free Trade.

Canadian business historians will likely continue to maintain and build the brand by nurturing a reputation for quality research.

There were a number of papers related to financialization and I learnt a lot about the regulatory changes of the 1980s that encouraged stock buybacks. This research clearly connects to the broader them of the conference, which was corporate morality.

Per Hansen’s keynote address on the subject of financialization was very stimulating.  However, I think that Professor Hansen may be making the common error of failing to differentiate between good and bad financialization. Clearly, many of the forms of financialization we saw in the run-up to the GFC had negative financial consequences. However, other forms of financialization can be highly beneficial. For instance, there is a general consensus that it is a good thing if all adults in a society have a bank account and other ways of accessing the formal financial sector. We can call the growth of this financial infrastructure “financialization” but we can also call it “financial inclusion,” which sounds a bit nicer.

The distinction between good and bad forms of financialization has been made by Raghuran Rajan in a number of publications back when he was an academic. Perhaps his Saving Capitalism From the Capitalists is the best place for a reader interested in Rajan’s ideas to start. Since  Rajan has become the head of India’s central bank, he has attempted to promote good financialization in rural India. I feel that business historians need to think more carefully about the broad range of activities that are covered by the broad term financialization.

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