Were banks special? Contrasting viewpoints in mid-nineteenth century Britain

Staff working papers set out research in progress by our staff, with the aim of encouraging comments and debate.
Published on 14 September 2018

Staff Working Paper No. 755

By Matthew Willison

In 1853 a Royal Commission was set up to investigate whether laws related to limited liability in Britain needed to be modified. As part of its evidence gathering the commission issued a questionnaire that included a number of questions on whether banks should be subject to the same liability laws as other types of commercial enterprises. This paper analyses the responses to the questions about banks to understand whether banks were seen as a special case. Support for modifying the law to make limited liability more easily available to banks was lower than for enterprises in general. Banks were seen as a special case because of the risk of bank runs and because their creditors were not able to assess accurately the riskiness of banks. But the special nature of banks caused others to favour limited liability because it made banks’ capital levels more transparent. These arguments echo wider debates during the nineteenth century and are similar to contemporary theories for why banks are regulated.

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