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A Global Census of Corporations in 1910

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Exploiting a new global database on the numbers and paid-in capital of business corporations in eighty-one countries in 1910, the paper considers the determinants of both corporatization (the incorporation of assets, whether in closed, private companies or in publicly-quoted ones) and securitization (the proportion of corporate share capital quoted on organized stock exchanges). The capitalist institution that now dominates global business initially prospered less under the French or German civil law systems – adopted by most world economies – than under English common law and its derivatives, though this correlation may not imply causation.

It is clear there were wide variations in corporatization in the Asia-Pacific region. There was some variation in Europe and America, but it was difficult on those continents to find countries with less than 20 corporations per million people (or similarly low ratios of corporate capital to GDP ), though this was the norm in Asia-Pacific (heavily weighed down by the low level in China and the modest level in India). Asian exceptions, with levels of corporatization per capita near continental European levels, were Japan, the Federated Malay States, the Straits Settlements, Samoa and New Caledonia (the latter achieve it only with miniscule population denominators). The only Asia-Pacific countries with levels of corporatization near the much higher US, UK or Scandinavian levels were Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. In fact Hong Kong had the highest ratio of corporate capital to GDP in the world, a reflection of its distinctive early role as transmitter of western corporate law to Asia more generally (a role it still fulfils today after re-integration with the mainland). The capitalist institution that now dominates global business initially prospered less under the French or German civil law systems – adopted by most world economies – than under English common law and its derivatives, though this correlation may not imply causation.

A century later, despite the suppression of the corporation for many decades in some countries, there were many times more corporations in all countries and patterns of adoption were converging. The more interesting differences in 1910 were between (often poor) enclave economies with capital-importing corporate sectors and economies (at various income levels) with a vibrant local small private company sector. This new quantitative perspective challenges some orthodoxies and raises new questions about the relationship between early corporate development and economic outcomes.

This talk is part of the Financial History Seminar series.

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