Abstract: The Rise and Fall of International Family Banking: Private Banks, Capital Markets, and the Democratization of Finance

Christopher Kobrak


As Mira Wilkins has argued, there is a curious disconnect between business and financial history. Whereas business history literature has rediscovered the importance of family business in many countries and in many sectors of contemporary commercial life, for example, little has been written about family banking as an alternative to joint-stock, management-run financial institutions. This lacuna is odd for many reasons. First, family banking is one of the best known examples of family business in history. Second, family banks once dominated international banking. Third, some family financial institutions are still active (dominant) in certain market segments and countries. This paper will focus on how, when, and why family banking lost its predominant position in international (multinational) banking during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Although political upheaval undermined their businesses, family banks suffered, too, from America's maturing as a financial center. I will argue that this shift is connected to the increase of importance of American markets and financial regulations, which, in the 1930s, deliberately steered financial transactions away from private dealings and toward transparent impersonal exchanges and large markets, for which private banks were ill-suited or at the least for which they had no competitive edge. Using concepts drawn from an earlier paper on family business in Germany, this paper will further argue that in markets or market segments, such as leveraged buyouts, where uncertainty forms a greater part of the transactional environment, family banking still plays a significant role.