Business History Conference (BHC) 2024 - report by Jamieson Myles

biltmore hotel providence

On March 15th, 2024, I presented a paper at the 70th annual Business History Conference (BHC). The event, organised under the theme “Doing Business in the Public Interest”, was held over three days at the historic Biltmore Hotel (now the Graduate Providence) in Providence, Rhode Island.

The BHC describes itself as a “scholarly organisation devoted to encouraging all aspects of research, writing, and teaching about business history and about the environment in which businesses operate”, making it an ideal forum in which to present a paper related to the business of global banking and the payments and credit services that correspondent banking networks provide to businesses.

The paper I presented was entitled “Elastic Infrastructure: Payments and Credit in Twentieth Century Global Correspondent Banking”. Most recent contributions by financial and monetary specialists interested in correspondent banking and the International Payments System (IPS) favour the analytical clarity that a strict focus on correspondent banks’ cash clearing activities and the nostro-vostro account relationship offers. In contrast, by taking inspiration from the literature on the long-term development of cashless payment systems, this paper shifted the focus to correspondent banks’ credit activities—including interbank liquidity provision and trade finance—in order to ascertain their significance in the contemporary period. The paper drew on a rich collection of qualitative archives from European commercial, merchant and central banks, providing insights into the daily practice of correspondent banking in the twentieth century.

The paper showed that, despite important changes in credit services and resulting risks, global correspondent banks addressed cash clearing and credit as part of the same package of core services well into the post-war period. This congruence was reflected in their organisational structure and internal reporting, in correspondent relationship managers’ preoccupation with credit facilities, and in the language that bankers themselves used to describe the IPS. The paper’s main message was that narrow definitions of payment system infrastructure based on a strict analytical and conceptual separation between cash clearing and credit may be more of a hindrance than a help when trying to understand the historical dynamics of global correspondent banking and its role in the IPS.

My paper was part of a panel entitled “Financial Networks of Globalization and Deglobalization” chaired by Mary Bridges (Johns Hopkins University). The thread linking the presentations was firm networks and the determinants of their structure. Using both social network analysis and qualitative sources, Emily Buchnea and Nicholas Wong’s (Northumbria University) paper explored the effect of armed conflict and trade sanctions on merchant networks linking New York and Liverpool between the time of the French Revolutionary Wars and the War of 1812. Unfortunately, a third paper on the topic of 19th century international banking could not be given at the last minute. The panel consequently had ample time to hear the insightful comments of discussant Aldo Musacchio (Brandeis University), professor of international business at Brandeis University and editor of the Financial History Review, and to take questions from the 15 or so audience members present.

This was the fourth time I have participated in the BHC, although it has been several years since I last took part in the conference so this was a great opportunity to reconnect with scholars in my network. Most importantly, this was the first time GloCoBank has been represented at the BHC and the meeting provided a great opportunity to raise awareness of the project among both North American and European scholars. Over the course of two days of panel sessions I was able to hear close to three dozen papers directly related to banking, financial and monetary history and was able to meet many of the presenters involved.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will be revising my BHC conference paper and will present an updated version at the European Business History Association conference in Lisbon in July 2024. It will be available to the public when it is published as a GloCoBank working paper shortly thereafter.