High Finance: Parisian Style
In 1754, the French author Voltaire was acquiring real estate, and to fund his purchases he drew upon his investment portfolio. "I beg you to let me know how much I can borrow against my account in order to arrange all this," he wrote to Guillaume Claude de Laleu. "I would also like you to send me Monsieur de Mont Martel's 160,000 livre short-term note, which can be cashed at par value even though it is far from being payable." Although more than two centuries have passed, Voltaire's business letters have a surprisingly modern ring. At times he sounds like a wealthy modern investor, dashing off e-mail messages to his stockbroker or his personal banker. Yet, his man of business, de Laleu, was neither broker nor banker. He was a notary in Paris. In eighteenth-century France, it was often to notaries that ordinary people and sometimes the government would turn to borrow and invest. As a group, Parisian notaries were unrivaled financial intermediaries. In the 1700s, they raised more money for long-term financing than banks and stock exchanges would until the mid-nineteenth century.