History of banking  

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"A banker is a fellow who lends his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain." --attributed to Mark Twain but not verified.


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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The history of banking refers to the development of banks and banking throughout history, with banking defined by contemporary sources as an organization which provides facilities for acceptance of deposits and provision of loans.

The history begins with the first prototype banks of merchants of the ancient world, which made grain loans to farmers and traders who carried goods between cities. This began around 2000 BC in Assyria and Babylonia. Later, in ancient Greece and during the Roman Empire, lenders based in temples made loans and added two important innovations: they accepted deposits and changed money. Archaeology from this period in ancient China and India also shows evidence of money lending activity.

Many histories position the crucial historical development of a banking system to medieval and Renaissance Italy and particularly the affluent cities of Florence, Venice and Genoa. The Bardi and Peruzzi families dominated banking in 14th century Florence, establishing branches in many other parts of Europe. The most famous Italian bank was the Medici bank, established by Giovanni Medici in 1397. The oldest bank still in existence is Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, headquartered in Siena, Italy, which has been operating continuously since 1472.

The development of banking spread from northern Italy throughout the Holy Roman Empire, and in the 15th and 16th century to northern Europe. This was followed by a number of important innovations that took place in Amsterdam during the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, and in London in the 18th century. During the 20th century, developments in telecommunications and computing caused major changes to banks' operations and let banks dramatically increase in size and geographic spread. The financial crisis of 2007–2008 caused many bank failures, including some of the world's largest banks, and provoked much debate about bank regulation.


Earliest banks

The first banks were probably the religious temples of the ancient world, and were probably established sometime during the 3rd millennium B.C. Banks probably predated the invention of money. Deposits initially consisted of grain and later other goods including cattle, agricultural implements, and eventually precious metals such as gold, in the form of easy-to-carry compressed plates. Temples and palaces were the safest places to store gold as they were constantly attended and well built. As sacred places, temples presented an extra deterrent to would-be thieves. There are extant records of loans from the 18th century BC in Babylon that were made by temple priests to merchants. By the time of Hammurabi's Code, banking was well enough developed to justify the promulgation of laws governing banking operations.

Ancient Greece holds further evidence of banking. Greek temples, as well as private and civic entities, conducted financial transactions such as loans, deposits, currency exchange, and validation of coinage. There is evidence too of credit, whereby in return for a payment from a client, a moneylender in one Greek port would write a credit note for the client who could "cash" the note in another city, saving the client the danger of carting coinage with him on his journey. Pythius, who operated as a merchant banker throughout Asia Minor at the beginning of the 5th century B.C., is the first individual banker of whom we have records. Many of the early bankers in Greek city-states were “metics” or foreign residents. Around 371 B.C., Pasion, a slave, became the wealthiest and most famous Greek banker, gaining his freedom and Athenian citizenship in the process.

The fourth century B.C. saw increased use of credit-based banking in the Mediterranean world. In Egypt, from early times, grain had been used as a form of money in addition to precious metals, and state granaries functioned as banks. When Egypt fell under the rule of a Greek dynasty, the Ptolemies (330-323 B.C.), the numerous scattered government granaries were transformed into a network of grain banks, centralized in Alexandria where the main accounts from all the state granary banks were recorded. This banking network functioned as a trade credit system in which payments were effected by transfer from one account to another without money passing.

In the late third century B.C., the barren Aegean island of Delos, known for its magnificent harbor and famous temple of Apollo, became a prominent banking center. As in Egypt, cash transactions were replaced by real credit receipts and payments were made based on simple instructions with accounts kept for each client. With the defeat of its main rivals, Carthage and Corinth, by the Romans, the importance of Delos increased. Consequently it was natural that the bank of Delos should become the model most closely imitated by the banks of Rome.

Ancient Rome perfected the administrative aspect of banking and saw greater regulation of financial institutions and financial practices. Charging interest on loans and paying interest on deposits became more highly developed and competitive. The development of Roman banks was limited, however, by the Roman preference for cash transactions. During the reign of the Roman emperor Gallienus (260-268 CE), there was a temporary breakdown of the Roman banking system after the banks rejected the flakes of copper produced by his mints. With the ascent of Christianity, banking became subject to additional restrictions, as the charging of interest was seen as immoral. After the fall of Rome, banking was abandoned in western Europe and did not revive until the time of the crusades.

Religious restrictions on interest

Most early religious systems in the ancient Near East, and the secular codes arising from them, did not forbid usury. These societies regarded inanimate matter as alive, like plants, animals and people, and capable of reproducing itself. Hence if you lent 'food money', or monetary tokens of any kind, it was legitimate to charge interest. Food money in the shape of olives, dates, seeds or animals was lent out as early as c. 5000 BC, if not earlier. Among the Mesopotamians, Hittites, Phoenicians and Egyptians, interest was legal and often fixed by the state. But the Jews took a different view of the matter.

The Torah and later sections of the Hebrew Bible criticize interest-taking, but interpretations of the Biblical prohibition vary. One common understanding is that Jews are forbidden to charge interest upon loans made to other Jews, but allowed to charge interest on transactions with non-Jews, or Gentiles. However, the Hebrew Bible itself gives numerous examples where this provision was evaded. Johnson holds that the Hebrew Bible treats the lending as philanthropy in a poor community whose aim was collective survival, but which is not obliged to be charitable towards outsiders.

During Late Antiquity and Middle ages

Jews were ostracized from most professions by local rulers, the Church and the guilds and so were pushed into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending, while the provision of financial services was increasingly demanded by the expansion of European trade and commerce.

Medieval trade fairs, such as the one in Hamburg, contributed to the growth of banking in a curious way: moneychangers issued documents redeemable at other fairs, in exchange for hard currency. These documents could be cashed at another fair in a different country or at a future fair in the same location. If redeemable at a future date, they would often be discounted by an amount comparable to a rate of interest. Eventually, these documents evolved into bills of exchange, which could be redeemed at any office of the issuing banker. These bills made it possible to transfer large sums of money without the complications of hauling large chests of gold and hiring armed guards to protect the gold from thieves.

Beginning around 1100, the need to transfer large sums of money to finance the Crusades stimulated the reemergence of banking in western Europe. In 1156, in Genoa, occurred the earliest known foreign exchange contract. Two brothers borrowed 115 Genoese pounds and agreed to reimburse the bank's agents in Constantinople the sum of 460 bezants one month after their arrival in that city. In the following century the use of such contracts grew rapidly, particularly since profits from time differences were seen as not infringing canon laws against usury. In 1162, Henry II levied a tax to support the crusades -- the first of a series of taxes levied by Henry over the years with the same objective. The templars and hospitallers acted as Henry's bankers in the Holy Land. The Templars' wide flung, large land holdings across Europe also emerged in the 1100-1300 time frame as the beginning of Europe-wide banking, as their practice was to take in local currency, for which a demand note would be given that would be good at any of their castles across Europe, allowing movement of money without the usual risk of robbery while traveling.

By 1200 there was a large and growing volume of long-distance and international trade in a number of agricultural commodities and manufactured goods in western Europe, including corn, wool, finished cloth, wine, salt, wax and tallow, leather and leather goods, and weapons and armour. Individual trading concerns and combines often specialized in one or more of these, as did individual producers; because a large amount of capital was required to establish, e.g., a cloth manufacturing business, only the largest firms could diversify. As a result, businesses and clusters of businesses tended to market fairly narrow product lines. Big firms like the Medici bank could and did specialize; the Medici’s manufacturing division had a number of manufacturing facilities producing many different types of cloth. Perhaps the best example of product policy comes from the Cistercian monastic order, where individual monasteries and granges tended to specialize in particular agricultural products or types of industrial production, usually with an eye to meeting particular local or regional market needs.

Ironically, the Papal bankers were the most successful of the Western world. When Pope John XXII (born Jacques d'Euse (1249 - 1334) was crowned in Lyon in 1316, he set up residency in Avignon. Civil war in Florence between the rival Guelph and Ghibelline factions resulted in victory for a group of Guelph merchant families in the city. They took over papal banking monopolies from rivals in nearby Siena and became tax collectors for the Pope throughout Europe. In 1306, Philip IV expelled Jews from France. In 1311 he expelled Italian bankers and collected their outstanding credit. In 1327, Avignon had 43 branches of Italian banking houses. In 1347, Edward III of England defaulted on loans. Later there was the bankruptcy of the Peruzzi (1374) and Bardi (1353). The accompanying growth of Italian banking in France was the start of the Lombard moneychangers in Europe, who moved from city to city along the busy pilgrim routes important for trade. Key cities in this period were Cahors, the birthplace of Pope John XXII, and Figeac. Perhaps it was because of these origins that the term Lombard is synonymous with Cahorsin in medieval Europe, and means 'pawnbroker'. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SPA (MPS) Italy, is the oldest surviving bank in the world.

After 1400, political forces turned against the methods of the Italian free enterprise bankers. In 1401, King Martin I of Aragon expelled them. In 1403, Henry IV of England prohibited them from taking profits in any way in his kingdom. In 1409, Flanders imprisoned and then expelled Genoese bankers. In 1410, all Italian merchants were expelled from Paris. In 1401, the Bank of Barcelona was founded. In 1407, the Bank of St George was founded in Genoa. This bank dominated business in the Mediterranean. In 1403 charging interest on loans was ruled legal in Florence despite the traditional Christian prohibition of usury. Italian banks such as the Lombards, who had agents in the main economic centres of Europe, had been making charges for loans. The lawyer and theologian Lorenzo di Antonio Ridolfi won a case which legalised interest payments by the Florentine government. In 1413, Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici appointed banker to the pope. In 1440, Gutenberg invents the modern printing press although Europe already knew of the use of paper money in China. The printing press design was subsequently modified, by Leonardo da Vinci among others, for use in minting coins nearly two centuries before printed banknotes were produced in the West.

By the 1390s silver was short all over Europe, except in Venice. The silver mines at Kutná Hora had begun to decline in the 1370s, and finally closed down after being sacked by King Sigismund in 1422. By 1450 almost all of the mints of northwest Europe had closed down for lack of silver. The last money-changer in the major French port of Dieppe went out of business in 1446. In 1455 the Turks overran the Serbian silver mines, and in 1460 captured the last Bosnian mine. The last Venetian silver grosso was minted in 1462. Several Venetian banks failed, and so did the Strozzi bank of Florence, the second largest in the city. Even the smallest of small change became scarce.

Western banking history


Modern Western economic and financial history is usually traced back to the coffee houses of London. The London Royal Exchange was established in 1565. At that time moneychangers were already called bankers, though the term "bank" usually referred to their offices, and did not carry the meaning it does today. There was also a hierarchical order among professionals; at the top were the bankers who did business with heads of state, next were the city exchanges, and at the bottom were the pawn shops or "Lombard"'s. Some European cities today have a Lombard street where the pawn shop was located.

After the siege of Antwerp trade moved to Amsterdam. In 1609 the Amsterdamsche Wisselbank (Amsterdam Exchange Bank) was founded which made Amsterdam the financial centre of the world until the Industrial Revolution.

Banking offices were usually located near centers of trade, and in the late 17th century, the largest centers for commerce were the ports of Amsterdam, London, and Hamburg. Individuals could participate in the lucrative East India trade by purchasing bills of credit from these banks, but the price they received for commodities was dependent on the ships returning (which often didn't happen on time) and on the cargo they carried (which often wasn't according to plan). The commodities market was very volatile for this reason, and also because of the many wars that led to cargo seizures and loss of ships.


Around the time of Adam Smith (1776) there was a massive growth in the banking industry. Within the new system of ownership and investment, the State's intervention in economic affairs was reduced and barriers to competition were removed.

Global banking

In the 1970s, a number of smaller crashes tied to the policies put in place following the depression, resulted in deregulation and privatization of government-owned enterprises in the 1980s, indicating that governments of industrial countries around the world found private-sector solutions to problems of economic growth and development preferable to state-operated, semi-socialist programs. This spurred a trend that was already prevalent in the business sector, large companies becoming global and dealing with customers, suppliers, manufacturing, and information centres all over the world.

Global banking and capital market services proliferated during the 1980s and 1990s as a result of a great increase in demand from companies, governments, and financial institutions, but also because financial market conditions were buoyant and, on the whole, bullish. Interest rates in the United States declined from about 15% for two-year U.S. Treasury notes to about 5% during the 20-year period, and financial assets grew then at a rate approximately twice the rate of the world economy. Such growth rate would have been lower, in the last twenty years, were it not for the profound effects of the internationalization of financial markets especially U.S. Foreign investments, particularly from Japan, who not only provided the funds to corporations in the U.S., but also helped finance the federal government; thus, transforming the U.S. stock market by far into the largest in the world.

Nevertheless, in recent years, the dominance of U.S. financial markets has been disappearing and there has been an increasing interest in foreign stocks. The extraordinary growth of foreign financial markets results from both large increases in the pool of savings in foreign countries, such as Japan, and, especially, the deregulation of foreign financial markets, which has enabled them to expand their activities. Thus, American corporations and banks have started seeking investment opportunities abroad, prompting the development in the U.S. of mutual funds specializing in trading in foreign stock markets.

Such growing internationalization and opportunity in financial services has entirely changed the competitive landscape, as now many banks have demonstrated a preference for the “universal banking” model so prevalent in Europe. Universal banks are free to engage in all forms of financial services, make investments in client companies, and function as much as possible as a “one-stop” supplier of both retail and wholesale financial services.

Many such possible alignments could be accomplished only by large acquisitions, and there were many of them. By the end of 2000, a year in which a record level of financial services transactions with a market value of $10.5 trillion occurred, the top ten banks commanded a market share of more than 80% and the top five, 55%. Of the top ten banks ranked by market share, seven were large universal-type banks (three American and four European), and the remaining three were large U.S. investment banks who between them accounted for a 33% market share.

This growth and opportunity also led to an unexpected outcome: entrance into the market of other financial intermediaries: nonbanks. Large corporate players were beginning to find their way into the financial service community, offering competition to established banks. The main services offered included insurances, pension, mutual, money market and hedge funds, loans and credits and securities. Indeed, by the end of 2001 the market capitalisation of the world’s 15 largest financial services providers included four nonbanks.

In recent years, the process of financial innovation has advanced enormously increasing the importance and profitability of nonbank finance. Such profitability priorly restricted to the nonbanking industry, has prompted the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC)to encourage banks to explore other financial instruments, diversifying banks' business as well as improving banking economic health. Hence, as the distinct financial instruments are being explored and adopted by both the banking and nonbanking industries, the distinction between different financial institutions is gradually vanishing.

Major events in banking history

Oldest private banks

Oldest national banks

See also

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