By Edward Chancellor
LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) -
Next year marks the 300th anniversary of England’s most notorious speculative mania. The South Sea Company owned the monopoly rights to trade with South America but never made much from those activities. It was the Company’s offer in 1720 to acquire 32 million pounds of Britain’s national debt, in exchange for its own shares, that juiced its returns. Between January and August of that year, the price of South Sea stock traded in London rose sevenfold. At its peak, the Company’s market worth was around twice the total value of land in all of England. The South Sea bubble contains lessons for contemporary investors - even if many of the tales told about the affair are the stuff of legend.
Sir Isaac Newton, when asked about South Sea stock in the spring of 1720, famously declared that he “could calculate the motions of the heavenly stars, but not the madness of people”. The trouble with the great mathematician’s comment is that it was first recorded, in slightly different form, three decades after his death in 1727. Newton did, however, lose a great deal of money in the bubble – possibly as much as $20 million in current terms - having sold his South Sea stock at an early stage, later re-entering the market and investing his entire fortune in the Company. Although Newton died a rich man, his niece said that he hated being reminded of these losses.
It’s possible to calculate precisely how irrational Newton and his contemporaries became during 1720. Since England was then at war with Spain, the Company’s South American trading monopoly was basically worthless. Its entire income derived from the fixed interest payments it was set to receive from holding government debt. A highly numerate parliamentarian, Archibald Hutcheson, published a pamphlet in June 1720 arguing that the stock could not possibly be worth more than 200 pounds – just one-fifth of its peak value and roughly the level to which the shares subsequently fell. Some shrewd investors didn’t lose their heads. Bookseller Thomas Guy sold his entire South Sea holding at an average price of 416, and later used his enormous profits to establish the London hospital that still bears his name. Guy also shorted South Sea stock.
During the early months of 1720, dozens of new companies were floated on London’s Exchange Alley. The most commonly cited of these ventures - a “company for carrying an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is” – never actually existed. This mythical venture was merely a satire on the crazy schemes that abounded at the time. Nearly 200 “bubble companies” were launched at the time. Not all of them were scams: of the four survivors, two insurers, the Royal Exchange and London Assurance, later enjoyed great success.
The companies, the startups of their day, were deeply unpopular with the directors of the South Sea Company, who wanted all the speculators’ capital for themselves. The directors persuaded Parliament to pass a law banning the trade in unauthorised shares. This backfired. After writs were issued in August against several illegal companies, a panic appeared in Exchange Alley; the collapse of market confidence doomed both the mini-bubbles and the South Sea Company itself. By early autumn, its stock was down 80%. Several banks failed, including the Sword Blade Bank which had provided loans against South Sea shares. Distressed speculators took their lives, leading to a large rise in the number of reported suicides. Writing in February 1721, the Earl of Oxford reported that “all credit in trade is stopped”.
The collapse of the bubble is widely believed to have produced a severe economic downturn. Yet records show only a small increase in bankruptcies and a slight decline in overseas trade. The collapse of the South Sea stock caused a public uproar, however. The directors of the Company, led by former lottery promoter Sir John Blunt, had used numerous tricks to boost the shares. Their main sleight of hand was not to specify the number of shares to be issued for the conversion of the government debt. What this meant was that the higher the South Sea stock climbed, the fewer shares needed to be issued in exchange for the debt and the greater the Company’s profit. To this end, the Company provided loans to speculators, issued partly paid shares with only 10% down payments, secretly repurchased its own shares and promised impossibly large dividends.
The connection between the Company and the ruling class was close - King George I served as its Governor-General and several directors held government offices. It was later discovered that the Company had spent vast sums bribing members of the establishment. King George, his mistresses, several ministers and dozens of lawmakers were allocated shares at low prices for which they paid nothing. During the bubble months, insiders including the king, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Aislabie and the nefarious Blunt cashed out large fortunes. A House of Commons investigation concluded that the Company’s directors had engaged in “the raising and supporting of the imaginary value of the stock at an extravagant and high price, for the benefit of themselves, and those who were in secret with them”. After the collapse, the directors were forced to disgorge their profits and several ministers lost their jobs.
In 1720, the word “bubble” didn’t refer to an overpriced asset but to a confidence trick. The South Sea swindle was the greatest of them all. Yet financial practices haven’t improved much over the past three centuries. Bubbles arguably proliferate among the unicorns of Silicon Valley and in the murky world of cryptocurrencies. A revolving door whirrs between Wall Street and Washington. Companies are floated which don’t reveal their ultimate purpose – today they’re called SPACs. Directors still use company funds to boost their stock price and enrich themselves. Thomas Guy’s intellectual heirs, now styled value investors, continue to avoid bubbles and lose money shorting them. But when markets crash, the cries of outrage from those who’ve been “bubbled” will be as loud as in Newton’s day.