In Part 2 of this special four-part podcast series, Richard Lummis and myself consider business leadership from a different angle, that of great economic disaster. This podcast series was inspired by the Great Courses series of lectures entitled, Crashes and Crisis: Lessons form a History of Financial Disasters, hosted by Professor Connel Fullenkamp. In this podcast series, we will consider the Dutch Tulip Bubble from the 1630s, the South Sea Bubble of 1720, the Mississippi Bubble of 1720 and the 1907 Panic. Today we continue with the South Sea Company Bubble of 1720.

Fullenkamp said of the scandal, “The South Sea Company went from an obscure British trading organization in the early 18th century, with a share price of £128, to England’s most important company, with its shares trading at more than £1000—over the course of just 6 months. The company was at the center of one of history’s most interesting stock bubbles, one largely built on stock price manipulation and corruption. The South Sea bubble is a complex, fascinating story about the early days of the stock market in England and a cautionary tale about the dangers of mixing private enterprise and government finance.”

What does the South Sea bubble teach us about the nature of bubbles and crashes? Fullenkamp identified three general points. First, “When governments get too involved in any asset market, there’s bound to be danger. People interpret the government presence as a sign that the asset can’t lose, so they’re willing to overpay for it .” Second, the South Sea bubble, similar to the  tulip bubble that preceded it, “was made possible by easy credit. The ability to buy stocks on credit, with absurdly low down payments, made people all too willing to buy the company’s shares.” The third and final point is that “Market manipulation can, and does, play a role in bubbles. And manipulation can be difficult to detect until after a bubble bursts.”

Focusing on the fraud and market manipulations of the South Sea Bubble, James Narron and Richard Skeie, in their article “Crisis Chronicles: The South Sea Bubble of 1720—Repackaging Debt and the Current Reach for Yield”, found four factors. (1) Start with insider trading, here by picking up the British National Debt; (2) Pay bribes to those who have to approve the deal, here Members of Parliament; (3) Ban rivals, here the South Sea Company persuaded Parliament to pass the ‘Bubble Act’ which banned corporations in competition with the South Sea Company; and (4) Repackage worthless old debt for new investors, here think “Asset-backed securitization and collateralized debt obligations” in 1720 and you begin to see the problem.

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