Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Risk management four centuries ago

I tend to think that financial management, and especially risk management, are modern creations that came about after the introduction of analytic accounting, information technology, and the rise of new financial instruments. In other words, you look one century back at firms and individual, they would have laughable financial setups by todays standards. How about some data?

Ann Carlos, Erin Fletcher and Larry Neal look at the financial marketplace four centuries ago in London. They look at firms that were discussed in the financial press at that time and reverse-engineer their ownership structure. Quite remarkably, they find that investors in those old times were not very financially literate. While there is no doubt they were among a very small elite of the population and should have known better, they were very poorly diversified. About 80% of them were investing in a single company, while there were ample opportunities to diversify. The authors think this may also have to do with shareholder voting rules, which required a minimum number of shares to be allowed to vote. But I think such rules could only emerge if shareholders were not aware of the benefits of diversification, which must have been quite large.

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