Business History Conference

16 06 2009

Last week, I presented the joint session of the Business History Conference and the European Business History Association held in Milan. The BHC is one of the two conferences I attend every year, the other being the Canadian Historical Association. Joint sessions with the EBHA are relatively rare, as the BHC is normally held somewhere in North America. I really appreciated the opportunity to meet so many historians of business from Europe, not to mention Asia and Australia. I’m a better scholar for having made such international contact.
For this year’s conference, I organized a panel on “Culture, Institutions, and Overseas Investment: British Investment in the Dominions in the Age of High Imperialism”.
The papers and presenters were:

Andrew Smith, Laurentian University

The Dollars and Cents of British Imperialism: The Political Economy of British Investment in Canada, 1867-1914


“This paper examines four important British free-standing companies that were active in present-day Canada in the 1860s and 1870s. These companies were the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canada Company, the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada, and the Grand Trunk Railway. In the early 1860s, these companies lobbied the British government to unite the previously separate colonies in North America. The companies were controlled by well-connected gentlemanly capitalists who were in a position to influence British policy. In 1867, the British Parliament passed legislation uniting four of the colonies in mainland North America into a federal state know as the Dominion of Canada. This paper examines what happened to these companies after 1867. This paper will show that the union of the colonies did not benefit the four companies in the ways their directors had anticipated. The Grand Trunk remained on the edge of bankruptcy after 1867. The Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canada Company, and the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada also derived fewer benefits from Confederation than they had anticipated.”

Andrew Dilley, University of Aberdeen

Empire and Risk: Edwardian Financiers, Australia, and Canada, c.1899-1914

Abstract: “It has often been claimed that British investors showed no marked “imperial piety.” Yet there is a good case that investments in the Dominions (self-governing colonies within the British empire) occupied an exceptional place in the capital market—particularly enjoying low interest rates. This paper traces the ways in which London financiers and investors in the Edwardian period expected the imperial connection to affect the risk of investing in Canada and Australia. By reconstructing the assumptions linking investment and empire, the factors contributing to dominion “exceptionalism” become clearer. The paper suggests that empire reassured investors in two ways. First, certain institutional factors, especially legal integration through the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and British defensive guarantees reassured some investors. However, there institutional factors depended on colonial consent. Second, empire promoted information flows, social networking, and certain shared cultural assumptions which were also seen by many to make the dominions safer havens for British capital. Colonial borrowers played on these factors in their dealings with the capital market. The paper concludes that while empire membership did not replace more familiar economic and political factors in calculations of risk, it did inform the way in which those risks were judged.”

Gary Magee, La Trobe University, Bundoora

Investors, Information, and the British World, 1860-1913
Abstract: “This paper concerns itself with the export of British capital between 1860 and 1913. It seeks to lay bare key financial relationships and mechanisms that made such a massive movement of money possible. On what basis did British investors make their decisions? More particularly, in what ways did the ties of social interaction predispose them to provide greater support to investment projects within the “British world” than outside it? This paper examines these questions in two ways: by studying the coverage of investment opportunities as reported by the press and by exploring some of the rich social and financial networks that underpinned Britain’s capital markets. The exceptionalism of the “British world” in these regards stemmed from the way its institutions, press, and transnational networks gave rise to an informational asymmetry within the UK capital markets. As a consequence, British investors found themselves making choices on the basis of a stock of knowledge that was heavily biased in favor of opportunities that existed in the “British World.” This state of affairs was in many ways the natural by-product of the global expansion of British human and social capital in the nineteenth century.”

I think that our panel went very well. I was very pleased to be presenting alongside two very strong presenters, Dilley and Magee. Our very impressive discussant, Duncan Ross, who teaches at the University of Glasgow (see here and here), gave excellent feedback, as did the audience. I received questions from Leslie Hannah (LSE), Richard Sylla (NYU Stern School of Business), and Joe Martin (Director of Canadian Business History, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto).

The rest of the conference was also good. The organization was superb, as was the food and drink.  More importantly, I heard many excellent papers. I was very impressed by the research presented by Rowena Olegario, Kevin Tennent, Andrew Russell, and Leslie Hannah.