Friday, August 28, 2015

Finance in 1890 B.C.

In general, we know few details about economic life before roughly 1000 A.D. But during one 30-year period — between 1890 and 1860 B.C. — for one community in the town of Kanesh, we know a great deal. Through a series of incredibly unlikely events, archaeologists have uncovered the comprehensive written archive of a few hundred traders who left their hometown Assur, in what is now Iraq, to set up importing businesses in Kanesh, which sat roughly at the center of present-day Turkey and functioned as the hub of a massive global trading system that stretched from Central Asia to Europe. Kanesh’s traders sent letters back and forth with their business partners, carefully written on clay tablets and stored at home in special vaults. Tens of thousands of these records remain. ...

The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.

It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods — silver, tin, textiles — transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable (though there never seems to be agreement on who the wrongdoers are, exactly). The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.