The Economic History of Steelmaking, 1867-1939: A Study in Competition

By Duncan Burn | Go to book overview

Chapter III
COMPETITION AND THE CRISIS OF THE 'SEVENTIES

Interest in comparing the iron-producing capacities of different countries revived with the return of declining prosperity. For the aspect of the international iron trade was as disturbing to English observers in the later 'seventies as it had been flattering at the beginning of the decade. When the English position in American and German markets weakened while the only tariff changes were favourable, more still when Continental producers --Germany most of all--increased their export trade considerably when world exports were shrinking, questions bruited in 1867-8 regained publicity. Had the hand lost its cunning? Were the "hands" expecting too much?

Most of the leaders of influential opinion, including some in the industry itself, were inclined to treat these problems (raised not alone with regard to iron) as of at least only secondary importance in the economic situation.1 They were broadly agreed as to the main cause of the long period of depression. The iron and steel industry in the first place had responded too fully to the stimulus of unwise investment in capital goods, particularly in foreign railways. The "leaps and bounds" of 1870-3--described by Disraeli in 1879 as a "convulsion of prosperity "--led naturally to world-wide collapse. Occurrences of this type were normal and recurrent. On this occasion distress was accentuated by the abnormal internal competition in the industry, between steel and malleable iron, and as a result of this among the makers of malleable iron themselves. This internal competition went some way to account for the long

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1
E. g. Giffen, op. cit. pp. 113-50, esp. 149-50; The Times, e.g. leader of April 14, 1879; Disraeli, in a debate on Protection, reported in The Times, April 30, 1879; John Morley, in Fortnightly Review, in 1878, I, p.548; Jeremiah Head, in Proc. Cleveland Institute, 1878-9, p.68.

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