Media Briefings

THE FINANCIAL POWER OF THE POWERLESS: Evidence from Ottoman Istanbul

  • Published Date: February 2018

In Ottoman Istanbul, privileged groups such as men, Muslims and other elites paid more for credit than the under-privileged – the exact opposite of what happens in a modern economy.

New research by Professors Timur Kuran and Jared Rubin, published in the March 2018 issue of the Economic Journal, explains why: a key influence on the cost of borrowing is the rule of law and in particular the extent to which courts will enforce a credit contract.

In pre-modern Turkey, it was the wealthy who could benefit from judicial bias to evade their creditors – and who, because of this default risk, faced higher interest rates on loans. Nowadays, it is under-privileged people who face higher borrowing costs because there are various institutions through which they can escape loan repayment, including bankruptcy options and organisations that will defend poor defaulters as victims of exploitation.

In the modern world, we take it for granted that the under-privileged incur higher borrowing costs than the upper socio-economic classes. Indeed, Americans in the bottom quartile of the US income distribution usually borrow through pawnshops and payday lenders at rates of around 450% per annum, while those in the top quartile take out short-term loans through credit cards at 13-16%. Unlike the under-privileged, the wealthy also have access to long-term credit through home equity loans at rates of around 4%.

The logic connecting socio-economic status to borrowing costs will seem obvious to anyone familiar with basic economics: the higher costs of the poor reflect higher default risk, for which the lender must be compensated.

The new study sets out to test whether the classic negative correlation between socio-economic status and borrowing cost holds in a pre-modern setting outside the industrialised West. To this end, the authors built a data set of private loans issued in Ottoman Istanbul during the period from 1602 to 1799.

These data reveal the exact opposite of what happens in a modern economy: the privileged paid more for credit than the under-privileged. In a society where the average real interest rate was around 19%, men paid an interest surcharge of around 3.4 percentage points; Muslims paid a surcharge of 1.9 percentage points; and elites paid a surcharge of about 2.3 percentage points (see Figure 1 below).

What might explain this reversal of relative borrowing costs? Why did socially advantaged groups pay more for credit, not less?

The data led the authors to consider a second factor contributing to the price of credit, often taken for granted: the partiality of the law. Implicit in the logic that explains relative credit costs in modern lending markets is that financial contracts are enforceable impartially when the borrower is able to pay. Thus, the rich pay less for credit because they are relatively unlikely to default and because, if they do, lenders can force repayment through courts whose verdicts are more or less impartial.

But in settings where the courts are biased in favour of the wealthy, creditors will expect compensation for the risk of being unable to obtain restitution. The wealth and judicial partiality effects thus work against each other. The former lowers the credit cost for the rich; the latter raises it.

Islamic Ottoman courts served all Ottoman subjects through procedures that were manifestly biased in favour of clearly defined groups. These courts gave Muslims rights that they denied to Christians and Jews. They privileged men over women.

Moreover, because the courts lacked independence from the state, Ottoman subjects connected to the sultan enjoyed favourable treatment. Theory developed in the new study explains why their weak legal power may translate into strong financial power.

More generally, this research suggests that in a free financial market, any hindrance to the enforcement of a credit contract will raise the borrower’s credit cost. Just as judicial biases in favour of the wealthy raise their interest rates on loans, institutions that allow the poor to escape loan repayment – bankruptcy options, shielding of assets from creditors, organisations that defend poor defaulters as victims of exploitation – raise interest rates charged to the poor.

Today, wealth and credit cost are negatively correlated for multiple reasons. The rich benefit both from a higher capacity to post collateral and from better enforcement of their credit obligations relative to those of the poor.


Notes for editors: ‘The Financial Power of the Powerless: Socio-Economic Status and Interest Rates under Partial Rule of Law’ by Timur Kuran and Jared Rubin is published in the March 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.

Timur Kuran is at Duke University. Jared Rubin is at Chapman University.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Twitter: @econromesh); Timur Kuran via email:; or Jared Rubin via email: