18th Century Crises: South Sea Bubble

South Sea Bubble

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  • The Governor and Company of the merchants of Great Britain, trading to the South Seas and other parts of America, and for the encouragement of fishing, commonly called the South Sea Company,[1] was a British joint-stock company founded in 1711, created as a public-private partnership to consolidate and reduce the cost of national debt.
  • The company was also granted a monopoly to trade with South America, hence its name. At the time it was created, Britain was involved in the War of the Spanish Succession and Spain controlled South America. There was no realistic prospect that trade would take place and the company never realised any significant profit from its monopoly. Company stock rose greatly in value as it expanded its operations dealing in government debt, peaking in 1720 before collapsing to little above its original flotation price; this became known as the South Sea Bubble.
  • A considerable number of persons were ruined by the share collapse, and the national economy greatly reduced as a result. The founders of the scheme engaged in insider trading, using their advance knowledge of when national debt was to be consolidated to make large profits from purchasing debt in advance. Huge bribes were given to politicians to support the Acts of Parliamentnecessary for the scheme. Company money was used to deal in its own shares, and selected individuals purchasing shares were given loans backed by those same shares to spend on purchasing more shares. The expectation of vast wealth from trade with South America was used to encourage the public to purchase shares, despite the limited likelihood this would ever happen. The only significant trade which did take place was in slaves, but the company failed to manage this profitably.
  • A parliamentary enquiry was held after the crash to discover its causes. A number of politicians were disgraced and persons found to have profited unlawfully from the company had assets confiscated proportionately to their gains (most had already been rich men and remained comfortably rich). The company was restructured and continued to operate for more than a century after the Bubble. The headquarters were in Threadneedle Street at the centre of the financial district in London, in which street today can be found the Bank of England. At the time of these events this also was a private company dealing in national debt, and the crash of its rival consolidated its position as banker to the British government.

Inflating the share price

->Chart of company stock prices.

The share price had risen from the time the scheme was proposed: from £128 in January 1720, to £175 in February, £330 in March and, following the scheme’s acceptance, to £550 at the end of May.

What may have supported the company’s high multiples (its P/E ratio) was a fund of credit (known to the market) of £70 million available for commercial expansion which had been made available through substantial support, apparently, by Parliament and the King.

Shares in the company were “sold” to politicians at the current market price; however, rather than paying for the shares, these recipients simply held on to what shares they had been offered, with the option of selling them back to the company when and as they chose, receiving as “profit” the increase in market price. This method, while winning over the heads of government, the King’s mistress, etc., also had the advantage of binding their interests to the interests of the Company: in order to secure their own profits, they had to help drive up the stock. Meanwhile, by publicizing the names of their elite stockholders, the Company managed to clothe itself in an aura of legitimacy, which attracted and kept other buyers.

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