It's sometimes stated that Britain was the financial capital of the world prior to the First World War, and that it took extraordinary war spending like that in the Great War to shift the capital to America. Example:

While exact estimates of British overseas investment in the 19th century vary, there is general agreement that by 1914 Britain acquired a historically unprecedented position as a global creditor. Cornell

However, this statement is not backed up by hard data. What portion (as a percent) of the world's finance was British? More specifically:

  1. What portion of global governmental reserves was in the British pound?
  2. What portion of global governmental reserves was in British bonds?
  3. What portion of finance workers globally worked for British banks?
  4. What portion of global wealth was held in British banks?
  • 3
    It's commonly stated Stated where, by whom? Please cite references when asking about such assertions. Secondly, pre-WW1, most countries did not maintain significant foreign exchange reserves - that is a poor indicator of financial strength in that era.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 17, 2018 at 5:15
  • To me, this question is an anachronism. I don't think that there was a global financial capital before WWII. I suspect its hard to quantify global reserves before WWI, or really WWII. It probably makes more sense to focus on Europe. Semantically, an "unprecedented position as a global creditor" in no ways means domination of global finance.
    – John Dee
    Sep 18, 2018 at 15:47

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure if the data is available to answer the enumerated questions very adequately. I'm also unsure on whether those are most historically relevant indicators of Britain's global financial power. That said, here are a couple of quick data points from sources you may find helpful, to start with.

This online encyclopedia article points out that:

In 1912 the City of London financed over 60 percent of the world’s trade through its discount markets for bills of exchange... [and] two thirds of global maritime insurance contracts were handled in Britain.

A chapter published by the World Bank states that:

British capital exports averaged 5 percent of GDP [from 1880 to 1914] and reached nearly twice that level toward the end of the period. The capital exports of the other leading creditor countries, France and Germany, were about half British levels.

Keep in mind that estimates of GDP for this period show that Britain was one of the largest economies overall.


Regarding the importance of British exports of capital before World War I, "by 1913, about 50 percent of the capital investment throughout the world had been raised in London."

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