Financial Lessons of History

January 1, 2000

"We learn from history that we do not learn from history."

Dr. Milton Friedman, Nobel laureate in Economics

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

At the birth of a New Millennium, it might prove beneficial to review the most notable market manias during the last four centuries to the present. Perhaps, we may glean something therefrom, despite Dr. Friedman's somewhat skeptical opinion.

If history teaches anything about finance, it is the difficulty of holding on to wealth… especially quick-gotten riches, accumulated via financial bubbles. Bubbles which demonstrate a financial feeding frenzy based on greed and the ignorant thought than a "New Era" has emerged, eliminating forever economic cycles. UNFORTUNATEDLY, these manias suck in investors' money, and then explode once the fad or craze runs out.

Following is a very brief review of the Bubbles which enraptured hundreds of thousands to millions of naïve investors, who foolishly and recklessly believed, "this time it's different."

HOLLAND - 1634

In one of the strangest financial fads in history, a speculative mania in tulips sweeps the land. Single tulip bulbs go for the equivalent of thousands of today's dollars. Prices shoot up 5,900%. In 1637 supplies increase in response to growing demand and higher prices. It literally feeds on itself. "Tulipmania" ends in under a year as prices wilt by 93%.

FRANCE - 1719

John Laws trading company issues stock to profitably exploit the New World. During what is now known as the "Mississippi Bubble," prices rise 6,200%. Outstanding shares are worth 80 times more than the entire stock of France's gold and silver. But people are too busy counting their paper profits to ask questions -- like, "Can this company make real profits?" When profits fail to appear, share values start to disappear. And in just a few months, shares are down 99%…and are virtually worthless.

ENGLAND - 1719

The English apparently learn nothing from France's painful experience that same year -- except that there is money to be made. Over the course of 18 months, stock in the South Sea Company rises 1,000%. When the great "South Sea Bubble" finally bursts, the stock plunges 84%.

USA - 1922 to 1929

Back in the colonies, the DOW climbs 486% during the "Roaring '20s." In October 1929 it all comes crashing down -- as stocks plunged 90% during the next 33 months. Worst yet, it took until 1954 to recover! Imagine! It took the next 25 years to recuperate!

JAPAN - 1965 to 1989

Japan has a big yen for stocks, bidding the market up 3,720% over 14 years. It then commits hari-kiri by plunging 69%. Further, today it is STILL DOWN 55% from the absurd peak level of 1989…10 years later!

USA - Late 1960s to Early 1970s

America has a love affaire with the top 50 US stocks -- the "Nifty-Fifty." They can do no wrong and are said to have a place in every portfolio. Institutional portfolio managers are known as "gun-slingers," who never miss their target. It all comes to a disastrous end with the bear market of 1973. Blue-chip stocks like Avon, Disney, Polaroid are down 80% to 90%.

HONG KONG - 1974

A 20-month bear market destroys 90% of the value of over-priced Hong Kong stocks.

MEXICO - 1978 to 1981

South of the border it takes 30 months for stocks to rise 785%. Prices then collapse over the next 18 months, along with 73% of market value.

TAIWAN - 1986 to 1990

Taiwan takes barely four years to bid stocks up 1,168% -- before prices dive 80% over 12 months.

USA - 1982 to ????

The steepest and longest bull market in history. The public invests in record amounts. Indeed with total abandon. Billions of dollars pour into mutual funds, so numerous they outnumber the stocks on the New York Stock Exchange. Stocks become drastically overpriced by all valuation methods and measurement ratios. Fed Chairman Greenspan makes a pathetically feeble attempt to curb the excess in December 1996 (when the DOW was a mere 6000). He utters his infamous expression in describing the financial feeding frenzy of the public: "IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE." But the public laughs all the way to the bank!

And then… enters the "cocaine" of all investments: Internet Dot.com stocks. Some Internet stocks rise thousands of percent in a couple of years. Some Dot.com stocks double and triple in value on their IPO market debut!

Moreover, the speculative fever is caught in the general stock market. The market goes on a drug addicted tear, bidding the DOW to an all-time record of 11497 on the very last trading day of the year, the century and the millennium. From the DOW's humble beginning of 800 in 1982, the industrial index soared 1,337% during the last 18 years.

Even more absurdly irrational is the NASDAQ index, which has gone ballistic in just the last 12 months, soaring 86% --- the greatest One-Year increase of any US financial index in Wall Street's entire 207 year history.

Indeed, we are witnessing the Mother of ALL BULL MARKETS.

As sure as 1 plus 1 equals 2, water is wet, the sun will rise tomorrow and gravity pulls…stocks will inevitably and eventually fall, wiping out the excesses of the 1982-2000 American Bubble.

Indeed, Dr. Milton Friedman's sage comment rings with logic and clarity.

 

The Red Baron

1 January 2000

 
Goldschläger and Goldwasser are liqueurs containing pure gold flakes.

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