The Economic History Review

Credit risk in colonial India

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Authors: Maanik Nath
Published online: August 28, 2021DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13108

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Credit was scarce and expensive in colonial India. Existing explanations assume a lack of market competition let moneylenders charge high interest rates. The article challenges this view and constructs a novel framework to explain the rationality and strategies of lenders. Using new evidence from the Madras Presidency, the study finds that the interconnected issues of climate volatility and enforcement costs shaped the supply and prices of credit. Climate volatility and uncertain seasonal incomes led to high default rates. Enforcement of contracts through courts was expensive and not appropriate where there was no wilful breach of contract. Moneylenders responded to risk in innovative ways. They rationed credit and imposed inflexible enforcement terms in the dry regions that faced higher climatic risk, but used contracts and flexible pricing strategies in the irrigated zones where risks were lower.