13 March 2012

The Financial Ascent of the Dutch VOC

From: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1780-1831:
The campaign for a reform of what would now be called the VOC’s corporate governance duly bore fruit. In December 1622, when the Company’s charter was renewed, it was substantially modified. Directors would no longer be appointed for life but could serve for only three years at a time. The ‘chief participants’ (shareholders with as much equity as directors) were henceforth entitled to nominate ‘Nine Men’ from among themselves, whom the Seventeen Lords were obliged to consult on ‘great and important matters’, and who would be entitled to oversee the annual accounting of the six chambers and to nominate, jointly with the Seventeen Lords, future candidates for directorships. In addition, in March 1623, it was agreed that the Nine Men would be entitled to attend (but not to vote at) the meetings of the Seventeen Lords and to scrutinize the annual purchasing accounts. The chief participants were also empowered to appoint auditors (rekening-opnemers) to check the accounts submitted to the States-General. Shareholders were further mollified by the decision, in 1632, to set a standard 12.5 per cent dividend, twice the rate at which the Company was able to borrow money. The result of this policy was that virtually all of the Company’s net profits thereafter were distributed to the shareholders. Shareholders were also effectively guaranteed against dilution of their equity. Amazingly, the capital base remained essentially unchanged throughout the VOC’s existence. When capital expenditures were called for, the VOC raised money not by issuing new shares but by issuing debt in the form of bonds. Indeed, so good was the Company’s credit by the 1670s that it was able to act as an intermediary for a two-million-guilder loan by the States of Holland and Zeeland.

None of these arrangements would have been sustainable, of course, if the VOC had not become profitable in the mid seventeenth century. This was in substantial measure the achievement of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a bellicose young man who had no illusions about the relationship between commerce and coercion. As Coen himself put it: ‘We cannot make war without trade, nor trade without war.’ He was ruthless in his treatment of competitors, executing British East India Company officials at Amboyna and effectively wiping out the indigenous Bandanese. A natural-born empire builder, Coen seized control of the small Javanese port of Jakarta in May 1619, renamed it Batavia and, aged just 30, duly became the first governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. He and his successor, Antonie van Diemen, systematically expanded Dutch power in the region, driving the British from the Banda Islands, the Spaniards from Ternate and Tidore, and the Portuguese from Malacca. By 1657 the Dutch controlled most of Ceylon (Sri Lanka); the following decade saw further expansion along the Malabar coast on the subcontinent and into the island of Celebes (Sulawesi). There were also thriving Dutch bases on the Coromandel coast. Fire-power and foreign trade sailed side by side on ships like the Batavia - a splendid replica of which can be seen today at Lelystad on the coast of Holland.

The commercial payoffs of this aggressive strategy were substantial. By the 1650s, the VOC had established an effective and highly lucrative monopoly on the export of cloves, mace and nutmeg (the production of pepper was too widely dispersed for it to be monopolized) and was becoming a major conduit for Indian textile exports from Coromandel. It was also acting as a hub for intra-Asian trade, exchanging Japanese silver and copper for Indian textiles and Chinese gold and silk. In turn, Indian textiles could be traded for pepper and spices from the Pacific islands, which could be used to purchase precious metals from the Middle East. Later, the Company provided financial services to other Europeans in Asia, not least Robert Clive, who transferred a large part of the fortune he had made from conquering Bengal back to London via Batavia and Amsterdam. As the world’s first big corporation, the VOC was able to combine economies of scale with reduced transaction costs and what economists call network externalities, the benefit of pooling information between multiple employees and agents. As was true of the English East India Company, the VOC’s biggest challenge was the principal-agent problem: the tendency of its men on the spot to trade on their own account, bungle transactions or simply defraud the company. This, however, was partially countered by an unusual compensation system, which linked remuneration to investments and sales, putting a priority on turnover rather than net profits. Business boomed. In the 1620s, fifty VOC ships had returned from Asia laden with goods; by the 1690s the number was 156. Between 1700 and 1750 the tonnage of Dutch shipping sailing back around the Cape doubled. As late as 1760 it was still roughly three times the amount of British shipping.

The economic and political ascent of the VOC can be traced in its share price. The Amsterdam stock market was certainly volatile, as investors reacted to rumours of war, peace and shipwrecks in a way vividly described by the Sephardic Jew Joseph Penso de la Vega in his aptly named book ConfusiĆ³n de Confusiones (1688). Yet the long-term trend was clearly upward for more than a century after the Company’s foundation. Between 1602 and 1733, VOC stock rose from par (100) to an all-time peak of 786, this despite the fact that from 1652 until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the Company was being challenged by bellicose British competition. Such sustained capital appreciation, combined with the regular dividends and stable consumer prices, ensured that major shareholders like Dirck Bas became very wealthy indeed. As early as 1650, total dividend payments were already eight times the original investment, implying an annual rate of return of 27 per cent. The striking point, however, is that there was never such a thing as a Dutch East India Company bubble. Unlike the Dutch tulip futures bubble of 1636-7, the ascent of the VOC stock price was gradual, spread over more than a century, and, though its descent was more rapid, it still took more than sixty years to fall back down to 120 in December 1794. This rise and fall closely tracked the rise and fall of the Dutch Empire. The prices of shares in other monopoly trading companies, outwardly similar to the VOC, would behave very differently, soaring and slumping in the space of just a few months.

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