The Rise of the Small Investor in the US and the UK, 1895 to 1970

Rutterford, Janette and Sotiropoulos, Dimitris P. (2017). The Rise of the Small Investor in the US and the UK, 1895 to 1970. Enterprise & Society, 18(3) pp. 485–535.



The role of the small shareholder has been largely ignored in the literature, which has tended to concentrate on controlling shareholders and family ownership. And yet, focus on the importance of small shareholders can capture significant aspects of financial development, since the more 'confident' the minority shareholders, the easier will capital flow to firms. Pre 1970, debates and policy conflicts linked to stock exchange development concentrated on shareholder democracy and diffusion as key indicators. The number of shareholders relative to the population was seen as a critical factor in explaining not only structures in corporate finance but also political and economic preferences, market developments and overall economic development. This paper explores the so-called democratisation of investment and the factors behind it through the lens of trends in estimates of the UK and US shareholding populations between 1895 and 1970. It covers three key periods: before World War I, before and after the stock market crash of 1929, and post-World War II. It identifies three periods in the US when shareholder numbers were paramount: in the boom years of the 1920s, as part of the inquest into the 1929 Crash, and post-World War II in an attempt to boost stock market activity. In the UK, although some concern was expressed during the 1920s and 1930s at the passive nature of small investors, who held diversified portfolios with small amounts in each holding, it was the fear of nationalisation after World War II which led to more in-depth shareholder estimates.

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