During 1870–1914, business actors were concerned about the increasing uncertainty and occasional cheating in commercial relationships. In such situations, economic actors seek to improve the information they have, so as to benefit from strong comparative advantages over their competitors. This essay analyzes the acquisition and circulation of information and the actors and rules involved between 1870 and 1914, through a comparative approach (France and Italy). It considers individual trading firms, professional associations, information intermediating agencies, and state offices. We argue that these agencies (and therefore markets and institutions) acted much less as rivals than as complements in this era. Indeed, product information is different from information on the reputation of economic actors, the latter generating further distinctions between reputation for payment, respect of deadlines, and fidelity to the terms and objects of the contract. In turn, such kinds of situated micro-information differ from general statistics on market evolution and prices. We show that most economic actors were much more interested in the former (specifics) than in the latter kinds of information. To demonstrate this point, we compare the way traders, their associations, and private and state agencies intervened in the gathering, circulation, and interpretation of economic information in two countries, Italy and France, between 1870 and 1914. We argue that their opposite outcomes were not simply the result of different "mentalities" or attitudes to risk (as exogenously given), but rather can be traced to the different institutional settings and economic segmentation of the market for information in these two countries. In fact, unlike the Italian government, French ministries refused to provide their traders with micro-information on potential overseas correspondents and product characteristics. That is to say, "attitude to risk" and "animal spirits" are not exogenous and cannot be studied outside a given historical and institutional context.


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pp. 26-64
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