Geographic scales of Belgian financial growth (1870-1914).

In this paper, I aim to analyse geographic transitions of Belgian finance during the so-called ‘first globalisation’ of the world-economy. From the 1870s onwards, after an impressive period of industrial expansion in Belgium, an immense growth of the financial system occurred, as observed by some financial historians.[1] As banks grew, I aim to show how they navigated through various geographic scales, i.e. the regional, national, and international.

Belgian banks were until the 1870’s highly entangled with ‘national production’ (domestic, large industrial plants). After 1870, most new long-term commitments to industry were made on the international level. Based on portfolio data of two major banks (Société Générale and Banque de Bruxelles), I elucidate how all banks internationalised their investments along different strategies. The Société Générale, founded in 1822 and deeply entangled with Belgian production, built its international portfolio ‘on top of’ its Belgian commitments. In contrast, the Banque de Bruxelles adapted immediately to the internationalised context after its establishment in 1871. I then focus on the Société belge des chemins de fer, a constructor of foreign railways of the Société Générale. Using its reports and correspondence, I argue that foreign investments were not tied to domestic production. Banks had no interest to stimulate national production and trade by exporting capital.

Next to internationalisation, the Société Générale also shifted investments to the regional level. Starting in the 1870’s, the bank built a network of regional, patronised banks. These banks proved to be more profitable then the large, industrial plants. Focusing on one of these banks, the Banque Centrale de la Sambre (°1872), I will reconstruct its engagements with local elites and factories. This banks held extensive records of shareholders’ information, debt contracts, and bank accounts. With these sources, I will reconstruct the growing entanglement of Brussels’ financial capital with this local community. The Société Générale, through its network of regional banks, included new social groups in its financial services, and used them for their international investments.

Considering the nineteenth century Belgian economy as a robust example of crisis in an internationalised and highly industrialised capitalist system, I argue that the Long Depression caused a break in the national finance-industry nexus. Looking for new sources of profits, the Société Générale shifted strategies from the national to both the international and regional level, and successfully connected both levels.


[1] Buelens, Frans. ‘De Levenscyclus van de Beurs van Brussel 1801-2000’. Maandschrift Economie, Tijdschrift Voor Algemeen- En Sociaal-Economische Vraagstukken 65 (1 January 2001): 149–73; de Clercq, Geert. Ter beurze: geschiedenis van de aandelenhandel in België, 1300-1990 (Bruges: Van de Wiele, 1992); Brion, René and Jean-Louis Moreau. La Société Générale de Belgique 1822-1997 (Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 1998).

Brecht Rogissart is a doctoral researcher in history at the European University Institute (Firenze, Italy). He investigates the growth of finance capital in Belgium in the long nineteenth century through the framework of financialisation. His expected thesis submission is August 2024.