The psychology of speculation is a veritable theater of the absurd. Although the castle-in-the-air theory can well explain such speculative binges, outguessing the reactions of a fickle crowd is a most dangerous game. Unsustainable prices may persist for years, but eventually they reverse themselves.
I. the Tulip-Bulb Craze
1. In the early 17th century, tulip became a popular but expensive item in Dutch gardens. Many flowers succumbed to a nonfatal virus known as mosaic. It was this mosaic that helped to trigger the wild speculation in tulip bulbs. The virus caused the tulip petals to develop contrasting colored stripes or “flames”. The Dutch valued highly these infected bulbs, called bizarres. In a short time, popular taste dictated that the more bizarre a bulb, the greater the cost of owning it.
2. Slowly, tulipmania set in. At first, bulb merchants simply tried to predict the most popular variegated style for the coming year. Then they would buy an extra large stockpile to anticipate a rise in price. Tulip bulb prices began to rise wildly. The more expensive the bulbs became, the more people viewed them as smart investments.
3. People who said the prices could not possibly go higher watched with chagrin as their friends and relatives made enormous profits. The temptation to join them was hard to resist; few Dutchmen did. In the last years of the tulip spree, which lasted approximately from 1634 to early 1637, people started to barter their personal belongings, such as land, jewels, and furniture, to obtain the bulbs that would make them even wealthier. Bulb prices reached astronomical levels.
4. The tulip bulb prices during January of 1637 increased 20 fold. But they declined more than that in February. Apparently, as happens in all speculative crazes, prices eventually got so high that some people decided they would be prudent and sell their bulbs. Soon others followed suit. Like a snowball rolling downhill, bulb deflation grew at an increasingly rapid pace, and in no time at all panic reigned.
II. The South Sea Bubble
1. The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 to restore faith in the government’s ability to meet its obligations. The company took on a government IOU ( I owe you: debt) of almost 10 million pounds. As a reward, it was given a monopoly over all trade to the South Seas. The public believed immense riches were to be made in such trade, and regarded the stock with distinct favor.
2. In 1720, the directors decided to capitalize on their reputation by offering to fund the entire national debt, amounting to 31 million pounds. This was boldness indeed, and the public loved it. When a bill to that was introduced in Parliament, the stock promptly rose from ￡130 to ￡300. 3. On April 12, 1720, five days after the bill became law, the South Sea Company sold a new issue of stock at ￡300. The issue could be bought on the installment plan - ￡60 down and the rest in eight easy payments. Even the king could not resist; he subscribed for stock totaling ￡100,000. Fights broke out among other investors surging to buy. The price had to go up. It advanced to ￡340 within a few days. The ease the public appetite, the company announced another new issue – this one at ￡400. But the public was ravenous. Within a month the stock was ￡550, and it was still rising. Eventually, the price rose to ￡1,000.
4. Not even the South See was capable of handling the demands of all the fools who wanted to be parted from their money. Investors looked for the next South Sea. As the days passed, new financing proposals ranged from ingenious to absurd. Like bubbles, they popped quickly. The public, it seemed, would buy anything.
5. In the “greater fool” theory, most investors considered their actions the height of rationality as, at least for a while; they could sell their shares at a premium in the “after market”, that is, the trading market in the shares after their initial issue.
6. Realizing that the price of the shares in the market bore no relationship to the real prospects of the company, directors and officers of the South Sea sold out in the summer. The news leaked and the stock fell. Soon the price of the shares collapsed and panic reigned. Big losers in the South Sea Bubble included Isaac Newton, who exclaimed, “I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but no the madness of people.”
III. Wall street lays an egg
1. From early March 1928 through early September 1929, the market’s percentage increase equaled that of the entire period from 1923 through early 1928.
2. Price manipulation by “investment pools”: The pool manager accumulated a large block of stock through inconspicuous buying over a period of weeks. Next he tried to enlist the stock’s specialist on the exchange floor as an ally. Through “wash-sales” (buy-sell-buy-sell between manager’s allies), the manager created the impression that something big was afoot. Now, tip-sheet writers and market commentators under the control of the pool manager would tell of exciting developments in the offing. The pool manager also tried to ensure that the flow of news from the company’s management was increasingly favorable – assuming the company management was involved in the operation. The combination of tape activity and managed news would bring the public in. Once the public came in, the free-for-all started and it was time discreetly to “pull the plug”. Because the public was doing the buying, the pool did the selling. The pool manager began feeding stock into the market, first slowly and then in larger and larger blocks before the public could collect its senses. At the end of the roller-coaster ride the pool members had netted large profits and the public was left holding the suddenly deflated stock.
3. On September 3, 1929, the market averages reached a peak that was not to be surpassed for a quarter of a century. The “endless chain of prosperity” was soon to break. On Oct 24 (“Black Thursday”), the market volume reached almost 13 million shares. Prices sometimes fell $5 and $10 on each trade. Tuesday, Oct 29, 1929, was among the most catastrophic days in the history of the NYSE. More than 16.4 million shares were traded on that day. Prices fell almost perpendicularly.
4. History teaches us that very sharp increases in stock prices are seldom followed by a gradual return to relative price stability.
5. It is not hard to make money in the market. What is hard to avoid is the alluring temptation to throw your money away on short, get-rich-quick speculative binges.
A Random Walk Down Wall Street - The Get Rich Slowly but Surely Book Burton G. Malkiel