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ideas || The Transition from Amsterdam to London as Financial Centers of the World

Last semester, I took one of my most interesting elective courses yet. It was an economics course called the Emergence of the Modern Industrial Economy and was similar to an economic history course. We covered the economic factors that led to the Industrial Revolution beginning and concentrating in Britain, with roots in the Black Death period.

For our final term paper, we could choose any related topic we liked, and since I was simultaneously taking a finance course, I chose to investigate the transition towards London as a financial center of the world leading up to the Industrial Revolution.

It was so much fun to write, and my first shot at a fully-fledged academic-type paper! We did a lot of academic research throughout the class and for this term paper as well.

NOTE: I am not an economist, nor am I an expert in this topic. The paper below is based on my personal readings and my knowledge of economics as a second year Commerce undergraduate student. I did my best in the paper to highlight areas I was not clear about, or areas that didn’t have much literary coverage.

The Transition from Amsterdam to London as Financial Centers of the World Leading up to the Industrial Revolution: An Analysis of the Factors and Literature


Prior to the Industrial Revolution, many cities vied for the prestige and economic growth that came with being the world’s financial center. Establishment depended on the prosperity of the country’s trade industries, the city’s commercial strength, and availability and security of financial products (Spufford 143). Longevity, on the other hand, depended on factors such as political stability, institutional regulations and financial innovation. Beginning with Venice and Bruges in the 1400s, then consolidating to Antwerp and finally to Amsterdam in the 1550s, the financial center of the world is evidently far from permanent. However, the fact that London dominated the world’s financial activity by the 1700s while also being credited with the entrepreneurs and policy changes that began the Industrial Revolution in that time period is no coincidence. The existing financial markets that made London’s hub attractive to both local and foreign investors gave it the ability to support immense capital requirements during the Industrial Revolution and was integral to the sustained productivity and welfare improvements that ensued.

Little empirical research exists in the space comparing Amsterdam and London’s financial centers in the lead up to the 1700s. What objective, primary data that does exist would need to be pieced together from extensive research on the individual cities and their policies, institutions, trading activities, and the movement of their financial elites throughout history – an endeavor that is beyond the scope of this paper. In their 2019 article, Gelderblom and Trivellato share this sentiment and “argue that the time is ripe to put the business history of the preindustrial world back on the agenda of global economic history” (226). On the other hand, a small body of synthetic literature exists that attempts to develop a chronology and identify theoretical economic factors that led to the eventual succession of London from Amsterdam. Though few, these papers are interesting because had such a shift not occurred, we might be living in an entirely different world today – perhaps with Amsterdam as one of the centers of the business world in place of London.

In this essay, I aim to lay the groundwork for understanding the brokerage scene at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, explore a few prominent literatures surveying the economic history of Amsterdam and London, and finally investigate some of the factors that explain why the financial center of the world eventually transitioned from Amsterdam to London. I’ve primarily used the works of Neal, Spufford and Gelderblom, with some references to supplementary articles where clarification was needed.


The Industrial Revolution was characterized by a period of sustained growth and is frequently cited to have begun in Britain. Technological innovations and investments in capital in urban centers encouraged movement away from rural agricultural production. It is evident however, that without an established source of financial capital to fund the innovations, Britain would have been hard-pressed to find entrepreneurs willing to undertake the immense risk associated with the large ventures necessary at that time.

As early as 1485, the Bourse (French for stock exchange, and thought to originate from the name of the famous trading family Van der Buerse) was built in Bruges to serve as a central location for exchanging financial products, and then gave way to a larger courtyard in 1531. The financial securities being sold at the Bourse were created out of a need for marine insurance on individual trading voyages for spices and textiles from the East Indies. Then, as this essay will explore, the focus shifted as companies began offering pieces of their profits to investors in an effort to secure long-term income and fund their operations beyond just a single voyage – the first of which originated in Amsterdam.

Later, the British creation of government bonds under William of Orange, who copied and improved upon the Dutch way of doing things, brought new potential to investors’ portfolios. This was one more step down the line towards the fiat money system we have today, where paper money has completely replaced the use of commodity coins minted in combinations of gold and silver. Neal and Carlos’ argument in their 2011 paper is that the British bond market was the primary differentiator of London’s financial system from that of Amsterdam. However, as we will discover, bonds weren’t always a low-risk investment, as governments could default on their loans as well.

Since the 1800s, London has dominated the world market as a center for business and financial activity. A huge amount of international trade and banking transactions take place through the city. However, New York in the 20th century stepped up to the stage as the United States of America became the central hub for modern tech start-ups and giant multinationals. In the context of events happening today in 2019, the world is facing a precipice of uncertainty. Brexit’s threat to topple Britain’s hold on its international empire and an increasing protectionist nationalist sentiment in the USA, combined with investor speculations of an impending recession and the rise of negative interest rates in Europe makes Spufford’s prediction at the end of his 2006 paper very topical. Somewhat prophetically, he suggested that “political considerations may mean that a United States prone to swinging towards extreme Republican values, and even protectionism, would not be a good environment for a multi-national network.” (Spufford 173)

If these events unfold for the worse, then who will step up to take London’s place in Europe? And can New York’s emerging financial power withstand unfavourable policies preventing it from taking a greater role in international finances?

It will take an understanding of historic and economic factors to piece together the picture that exists in our world today.


To preface our discussion of financial centers of the world, we must first understand what characterizes a financial center. According to Carlos and Neal, a center is “a complete financial system, comprising a variety of institutions ranging from a central bank to credit cooperatives combined with a variety of markets ranging from government debt to exotic derivatives” (22). Demand for these institutions and financial markets must precede supply, and this is true when we look at the history of how many of them came to be. First, a significant and successful industry emerges. Antwerp, positioned in a natural harbour, was an ideal location for marine trade with the East Indies in the late 1400s. Merchants naturally stopped to trade in the city, leading to the establishment of convenient European trade fairs that began to follow scheduled yearly cycles.

However, ships were a significant risk to fund. Of a fleet of 10, it was rare for all ships to return safe from natural storms, pillagers and pirates, or sea warfare with competing nations. Logically, businesses began to offer portions of the profits from a voyage to multiple investors. That way, the necessary capital was raised but risk was spread. Any individual investor owned a portion of many ships rather than all of one ship. At first, stock was sold on a voyage-basis, but the benefits of sustained and predictable investments created an incentive for the establishment of entire companies to trade consistently. Larry Neal is a forerunner in this discussion, suggesting in his 1990 book The Rise of Financial Capitalism that “the most important institutional innovation made by the two companies: the transformation of merchant trading or working capital committed initially to the duration of a particular voyage into fixed or permanent capital committed perpetually to the enterprise.” (Neal 118)

The Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, for short – or Dutch East India Company in English) established in 1602 was the first to sell permanent but tradeable stock in its trading ventures and establish itself as a well-known, reputable creditor. They paid dividends on a regular basis and became the world’s first multinational corporation with an appointed board of directors. Much like the companies that exist today, its sole responsibility was to generate profits for its shareholders.

This was the focal point of the Dutch public shares market. Gelderblom and Jonker, in their 2004 paper, describe the impact that liquidity had in the creation of financial instruments that appealed to both borrowers and savers. They describe the need of borrowers to have an assured and continuous supply of capital, while savers prioritize “the possibility of converting their assets back into cash at low cost and short notice” (641). Thus, the final stage to becoming a financial center is the creation of saving and borrowing mechanisms, and the innovation such that these products satisfy both parties’ need for lower risk.
Amsterdam’s VOC was unique in that it was so large and so well-known to pay its creditors that there was no shortage of trades in its stock. Prices were quoted daily for prospective investors to buy or sell and did not need to be negotiated based on commonly-established value. This also created lower transaction costs associated with its shares, contributing to the market’s efficiency in Amsterdam.

It is therefore evident that creditworthiness was an essential component of a stable financial market. If the uncertainty surrounding a deal could be reduced, especially given the highs and lows of the financial markets during the time of frequent wars and political conflict, more wealthy individuals would become investors. However, even the VOC eventually found that paying its dividends was more expensive than maintaining its merchant activities. Thus, when the British government introduced bonds, with local and colonial taxation revenues more or less securing a steady source of income, Dutch investors were inevitably attracted to a new possible center to conduct their trades. In his work, Neal focuses on this idea, but the political and historical scene at the time also contributed other factors to the transition.


Financial products themselves also have a story worth touching upon. Before the 1300s, usury – charging high (or sometimes any) interest on loans – was illegal. Many religions considered it against their holy books to charge interest people of the same religion. However, interest was a useful means of increasing the supply of marine insurance, company funding, and war loans available in a country.

After insurance, company stock constituted the largest market for financial instruments. Companies in Europe began offering partial ownership in exchange for regular dividends and the option to sell if value increased. However, the terms of ownership differed vastly, as there were no general shareholder regulations like we have in today’s capitalist markets. The VOC, for example, was made up of appointed city elites, with the number of seats distributed proportionally to the political power of each city. The British East India Company, on the other hand, had an elected board of shareholders who made decisions about the company. This distinction contributed to the advancement of London over Amsterdam, which we will examine later.

Government bonds that first came into play in Britain were originally declared for the purpose of funding war with France. Although bonds issued by governments and monarchies were seen as relatively low-risk because funds could be raised through taxation, there were several instances of government defaults. In the latter half of the 16th century, for example, Philip II of Spain defaulted on his debt four times, throwing many financial regimes in Europe into crisis and sometimes insolvency.

It is relevant to note that high levels of government debt can also lead to crowding-out, which we will discuss later in this essay, and can also indirectly induce high inflation rates as was the case during the Eisenhower Recession of 1958. However, some scholars disagree with the notion that British government debt had this effect especially during war against Napoleon by arguing that it was in fact a necessary redirection of funds and not an elimination of private investment.

Finally, derivatives began making an appearance in the form of call and put options which allowed investors to bet on the market, as did other financial securities similar to the range of choices we have today.



The underlying theme of most papers on the topic of Amsterdam and London’s relationship is that financial centers of the world have always been in flux, with creditors moving around to be close to trade, commercial activity, and banks. The movement of prominent wealthy bank families like those behind Hope & Co., which originated in Amsterdam, and Rothschild in Frankfurt, often coincided with movements in the financial centers; however, other important groups in society also contributed to these natural transitions.

Sometimes these movements were caused by political uncertainty. As early as the 1480s, many Italian communities moved from Bruges to Antwerp because they favoured the rule of the Austrian Archduke Maximilien rather than the nobility who controlled Bruges. Although many returned afterwards, some remained and marked the beginning of Bruges’ decline to Antwerp.

In the late 1550s, the French, Portuguese and Spanish monarchies defaulted on their loans and instead converted them to perpetuities. This bankrupted many prominent businesses at the time, and scared others enough to leave Antwerp in high numbers (Spufford 156). High unemployment and high grain prices followed by the Spanish armies creating uncertainty and terror in Antwerp eventually gave way to London and Amsterdam’s efforts to attract wealthy investors. Then, the relocation of teachers also had a huge impact. A large number of teachers moved away from Antwerp and Brussels and into the Netherlands in the 1580s, creating a vacuum in their wake and securing Amsterdam’s rise to world influence.


The Dutch had many factors in their favour prior to the 1600s that would lead to their establishment as a financial center. Due to its geography, a significant portion of the Netherlands used to be submerged, meaning that the Dutch were used to loaning money to fund land reclamation projects. Then, in 1525, an incredible 44% of the population of Holland lived in urban towns – more than anywhere in the world. Not surprisingly, financial markets depend on a large number of urban public available and willing to invest their money.
Thus, when the United East India Company (the VOC) was started in 1602 to exploit the silks and spices of their Asian colonies, they needed funding that was sustainable and long-term. Paying their creditors’ dividends was critical because it maintained their reputation and effectively their credit score.

The regulated Bank of Amsterdam, the Amsterdamse Wisselbank, that was established in 1609 was yet another big step towards creating a secure financial system with fewer inefficiencies. However, the city elites who oversaw its trades and loans found it in their interest to keep most of its dealings secret, thus contributing to imperfect information conditions. Nevertheless, despite its closure in 1819, the Wisselbank ensured the removal of independent and unreliable kassiers that had previously conducted its role.


Britain in the 1600s duplicated and improved upon the Dutch financial system. Dutch Stadholder William of Orange’s ascent to the Royal Throne in 1689 following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 opened Dutch investors to secure and accessible English markets (Spufford 164). He introduced many existing Dutch financial instruments, and then oversaw the establishment of the Bank of England and Fund for Perpetual Interest in 1694 upon the suggestion of Scottish entrepreneur William Paterson. This bank became the source of funding for William of Orange’s expensive war efforts in future years and the first issuer of government bonds.

Due to the familiarity of the British markets, over half of all Dutch foreign investments in 1763 were in English financial markets. It is little surprise, thus, that Henry Hope of the renown Dutch Hope & Co. moved to London from Amsterdam in 1794.



Neal seems to be the most prominent name in the literature on this topic, given his book The Rise of Financial Capitalism was focused almost entirely on Amsterdam and London’s relationship. In his joint paper with Ann Carlos, they posit that what set the UK apart was their secondary bond market. The Dutch were focused almost entirely on public securities for their trading companies and failed to innovate like the British did.
Another key feature of Neal’s work is that he describes a “symbiotic relationship” between the Dutch and the British. He argues that London was characterized by stockjobbers (though it is somewhat unclear how these differ from stock brokers) and Amsterdam by merchant bankers. Thus, the relationship developed into one with “London, focused on developing the financial products most attractive for public investors, and Amsterdam, managing private portfolios in search of high, secure returns” (Carlos and Neal 31).


Spufford’s 2006 paper is an overall survey of the transition between financial centers beginning with two separate centers for Northern and Southern Europe before consolidating to Antwerp, Amsterdam and then London. A very interesting element of his paper is his concluding prediction – published in 2006 – that American nationalist movements may create ripples in the world’s economy. His prediction has all but come true.

He also closes with a discussion of the current world centers of New York, London and Tokyo, suggesting that “it may be that, with the use of electronic communication, there is already no need for three dominant financial centers in the world.” (173)


The loudest arguments at the moment in the literature about the differences between London and Amsterdam at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution come from Carlos and Neal’s paper. In it, they suggest that not only was London unique in its government bond market, but its company structures were made up of elected rather than appointed officials. The ultimate transition from Amsterdam to London was brought into force by several factors discussed in that paper and a couple others, which I discuss below.


The VOC was run by private investors who were wealthy city elites and desired to maintain political control over the company (Carlos and Neal 26). On the other hand, the British East India Company in 1601 was made up of elected officials and thus had the freedom to make decisions in the direct interest of the company rather than appeal to an agenda.
Similarly, when the Bank of England was created in 1694, it was established with an elected court of directors which ensured that decisions prioritized customers and shareholders. More accessible information and decreased transaction costs as a result made the English market more efficient, reliable and accessible to the general public.


Despite Amsterdam’s strength as a financial center, the city was only awarded a portion of tradeable shares in the VOC. This never led to the emergence of another stock market as was the case in Britain, where the largest centers were actually encouraged to expand even further. The British system was essential for a “mutually reinforcing payments network” (Carlos and Neal 28). It is somewhat unclear what this means, but I assume that Carlos and Neal are referring to the fact that the British system encouraged businesses to ensure market liquidity by creating a constant demand for buying and selling, as well as hold each others’ debt with enough diversification that the bankruptcy of one business would not prevent another from honouring its customers’ payments.


Neal suggests that a critical flaw in the VOC joint-stock system was the short-term nature of its debt for investors. Government debt was long-term and associated with lower risk because governments could always raise funds through taxation. However, one concern investigated in Termin and Voth’s 2005 paper was that high levels of government debt could crowd-out the country’s financial instruments. They discovered that “our results suggest substantial crowding-out, but perhaps on a scale of somewhat less than 1:1 (where a 1% rise in government debt led to a 1% decline in Hoare’s lending relative to their long-term trends).” (345) The concept of crowding-out explains the frequent highs and lows, and sometimes bubbles, that occurred around periods of war and conflict that necessitated high government debt.

However, in his book The Rise of Financial Capitalism, Neal suggests that “rather than British government spending crowding out private investment, it was redirecting it” (216).


In Neal and Carlos’ paper, there is some mention of the minting formula and the issues that were caused by both Netherlands and the UK having multiple individual coinage for each of their nations. While this subject likely has little to do with the financial center of the world given that a gradual and international transition towards fiat money occurred soon after, it does beg the question of what exactly the impact of paper money was.

In fact, Amsterdam’s deposits were irredeemable, meaning that they could only be sold to another depositor. According to Neal and Carlos, this limited any increases in bank capital to expansions occurring in the trade and investments that passed through the city. This is yet another point that isn’t further elaborated upon, but it is relevant to note that London did not have a requirement for banks to hold an equivalent amount of commodity money as bills of exchange. Instead, they had interconnected financial bodies that held each others’ notes in enough quantity to prevent the destruction of any one if illiquidity issues threatened.

Today, we’ve entirely transferred to irredeemable paper money, with even the prohibition of private ownership of gold in the USA in 1933. Milton Friedman was the first to suggest that there were issues with this system, and in his 1985 paper he suggests an inquiry into this topic. He also suggests that this makes long-term bonds riskier because the inflation rates and therefore the value of money in relation to its commodity anchor, gold, are dependent on government fiat (Friedman 645). In their 2015 paper, Watts and Snyder took up this challenge and conclude by agreeing with the “claim of Lawrence H. White (1999) that fiat money regimes ultimately only save on resource costs associated with monetary gold accumulation if they are able to credibly commit to a low inflation regime.” (425)


A critical feature that ensures stability in a financial market is the security against defaults. Britain under Cromwell after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had the authority to collect excise taxes. This was instrumental to creating a stable revenue source and securitizing the government bonds, thus making them and the British financial market increasingly attractive for both local and foreign investors.


As previously mentioned, the British bank was centralized. Rather than having competing interests across so many different groups of authorities like in Netherlands in 1700s, the English bank had an incentive to get bigger because it was not restricted by political considerations.


Although little discussion on this topic occurs in the literature, and is sometimes contradicted, there is suggestion that English stocks and bonds could be traded daily. In the VOC, investors had to trade on a forward basis which added decision factors and risk when purchasing securities. However, Carlos and Neal’s paper states that the VOC had daily quotes of its prices – which can be interpreted as being contradictory unless we assume that the prices quoted daily were not implied as being allowed to be acted upon daily as well. And, in fact, in their paper they explain that the VOC shares “were usually opened for transfers when dividends were to be paid out” (33).


Consistent across all the literature is Netherland’s struggle with European conflict. After a long period of occupation and war with the Spanish empire, the British also attacked Amsterdam in 1784, starting the fourth Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch had indirectly supported Britain’s colony in the America’s during its Revolutionary War by trading with Britain’s enemies France and Spain, and thereby breaking its agreement to embargo those nations. This came after Dutch and English relations had already been soured, as evidenced by Lord North’s inquiry into the portion of Dutch holdings in British bonds in 1777.

Then, with the rise of the French Empire under Napoleon, the Netherlands underwent yet another period of occupation while simultaneously seeing a decrease in the prices of British bonds. This would suggest a de-investment in British securities, but the decreased prices also resulted in higher yields, making them still attractive for investors.


Despite limited empirical literature, summary papers on the topic of London’s ascension to its long-lived position as the world’s financial center after Amsterdam point to several key factors. However, across the research it appears that London’s innovation of secure and accessible government bonds and fewer regulations, combined with elected rather than appointed officials made it a more attractive place to do business than Amsterdam. In Spufford’s 2006 paper, he explains that “there needs to be enough regulation to inspire confidence, but not so much as to deter initiative and investment.” (173) Finally, I would infer that the transition was ultimately secured as a consequence of the financial strain that wartime conflict had on Amsterdam in the years leading up to the 19th century.

At the moment, London’s position on the world stage is threatened. Brexit is causing devastating uncertainty in Britain, like wars and political and religious conflict did in Antwerp, Brussels, Vienna, and Amsterdam before the Industrial Revolution. An article published in February 2019 describes how banks are beginning to relocate their staff and headquarters away from London – bearing an unfortunate resemblance to the initial events leading to the collapses of many other financial centers throughout history. “French firms BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole and Société Générale are together moving around 500 employees back to Paris from London.” (Akram, Which City is Winning)

Concentrated centers where financing and business takes place to support international innovative ventures are the basis for the modern “empire”. However, many threats in the form of Brexit, American protectionism, and a potential impending recession are currently facing the world’s existing financial centers.

What remains is the question: are these the final straws for our current capital centers, or just another set of obstacles for them to inevitably encounter and overcome during their time as financial empires?


Akram, Sophia. Which City is Winning the Race to be Europe’s Next Finance Hub? None. 12 February 2019. News & Media Article. November 2019.

Carlos, Ann M and Larry Neal. “Amsterdam and London as Financial Centers in the Eighteenth Century.” Financial History Review March 2011: 21-46. Journal Article. November 2019.

Friedman, Milton. “The Resource Cost of Irredeemable Paper Money.” Journal of Political Economy June 1986: 642-647. Journal Article. November 2019.

Gelderblom, Oscar and Francesca Trivellato. “The business history of the preindustrial world:.” Business History 2019: 225-259. Journal Article.

Gelderblom, Oscar and Joost Jonker. “Completing a Financial Revolution: The Finance of the Dutch East India Trade and the Riseof the Amsterdam Capital Market, 1595-1612.” The Journal of Economic History September 2004: 641-672. Journal Article. November 2019.

Neal, Larry. The Rise of Financial Capitalism: International Capital Markets in the Age of Reason. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1990. Book.

Spufford, Peter. “From Antwerp and Amsterdam to London: The Decline of Financial Centres in Europe.” De Economist 25 May 2006: 143-175. Journal Article. November 2019.

Temin, Peter and Hans-Joachim Voth. “Credit rationing and crowding out during.” Explorations in Economic History January 2005: 325-348. Journal Article.

Watts, Tyler and Lukas Snyder. “Current Evidence on the Resource Costs of Irredeemable Paper Money.” Cato Journal 35.2 (2015): 411-427. Journal Article.

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