Saturday, 28 June 2014
How Britain’s greatest physicist lost a fortune
How does George Soros dealt with asset bubbles?
“When I see a bubble forming I rush in to buy,” he said. In January 2010 he declared gold to be the “ultimate asset bubble” shortly after he built up a £400m stake in the metal.
He had sold most of it by March 2011, at a handsome profit – and comfortably before the bubble popped in September of that year.
Not everyone can pull off the same trick; some clever people have lost a lot of money by failing to get out before everyone else. Some very clever people indeed, actually: one investor who lost a fortune this way was Britain’s greatest physicist, Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton was a victim of the South Sea Bubble, one of the most famous boom-and-busts in history – in fact, it was the one that gave rise to the very term “bubble”.
As the graph above shows, he initially did just what Mr Soros would do centuries later – invest early and then sell after making excellent returns very quickly. But Newton made the mistake of re-entering the market much closer to the peak, and then hanging on even after the bubble had burst, selling only once the price had collapsed to well below his buying price.
Newton reportedly lost £20,000, equivalent to about £3m in today’s terms.
The South Sea Company was an unusual business. Founded in 1711, it was promised a monopoly on trade with Spanish South American colonies by the British government in exchange for taking over the national debt raised by the War of Spanish Succession. However, the trade concessions turned out to be less valuable than hoped.
In January 1720, when the company’s shares stood at £128, the directors circulated false claims of success and fanciful tales of South Sea riches and in February the shares rose to £175.
The following month the company convinced the government to allow it to assume more of the national debt in exchange for its shares, beating a rival proposal from the Bank of England. With investor confidence mounting, the share price had climbed to about £330 by the end of March.
The South Sea Company was part of a wider flurry of speculation on the stock market, however.
Newly floated firms were seen as appearing like bubbles; 1720 was sometimes known as the “bubble year”. In June, Parliament, at the behest of the South Sea Company, passed the Bubble Act, which required all shareholder-owned companies to receive a royal charter.
The South Sea Company received its charter, perceived as a vote of confidence in the company, and at the end of June its share price reached £1,050.
But investors started to lose confidence in early July and by September the shares had plummeted to £175, devastating investors.
How to avoid losing a fortune in bubbles
The simplest way to avoid losing money in a bubble is not to invest in any asset in which you suspect a bubble is forming. But as the example of Newton illustrates, this can be easier said than done. The temptation to join in, especially if you tell yourself that you will “sell before the bubble bursts”, can be irresistible.
If you do buy into the latest hot investment, one homespun piece of advice is to sell when even the taxi drivers are talking about it.