By PATRICK CAIRNS
This year marks the 300th anniversary of one of the world’s most famous financial catastrophes: the South Sea Bubble. It is a story with complex origins, but the pattern of events in 1720 has unfortunately been repeated in similar ways many times since.
It is not necessary to know all the details to appreciate what happened in London three centuries ago. However, it is worthwhile to look at how ordinary people were drawn into mistakes that left many of them ruined.
Money from nothing
At the start of 1720, stock in the South Sea Company was changing hands at £128 per share. The company was only moderately profitable, and the trade it ran between Britain and South America was small.
Its directors, however, were full of stories about how the riches of that continent were ready to be brought to Europe. Since the South Sea Company did have exclusive rights to provide the Spanish colonies with slaves, and to send one trading ship to the continent per year, these stories did have a kernel of credibility. They were, however, easily inflated.
The South Sea Company’s main business had always, in fact, been supporting the British national debt. Since 1711 it had provided millions of pounds in funding to the government by selling its own shares.
It had become so important to the state that King George I was appointed as the company’s governor in 1718. In 1719 it agreed to restructure more than half of the national debt in a way that would reduce the government’s interest payments.
This gave the company room to issue even more shares on the public market. To make them more attractive, the directors not only pushed the idea that its South American trade was set to take off, but also came up with a scheme that allowed investors to buy these shares in instalments rather than having to pay the full price upfront.
This made them available to many more people, a lot of whom had no real idea what they were buying. They were however seduced by the rising share price and the tales of South American wealth.
By February, shares had climbed to £175, and in March they reached £330. May took the stock to £550.
Not wanting to miss out on this opportunity, more people bought more shares, and the price went up further. In August, the stock was up almost ten times in just eight months, at over £1 000, and the euphoria was at its peak.
However, just as suddenly as it had began, the bottom fell out of the market. At the price being asked, there were simply no more buyers.
Within months, demand for the shares collapsed. By December, the company’s shares had slumped back to £124 and many people had lost huge amounts of money.
The lesson most often associated with the South Sea Bubble is that investors should be wary of anything that becomes a ‘sure thing’ in popular opinion. Almost everybody was certain that shares in the South Sea Company were only going to keep going up, and the rapidly rising price appeared to confirm their view.
The danger is that when this kind of thinking takes hold, it does become a self-fulfilling prophecy for a while. The price of South Sea Company shares kept going up because people kept buying them. However, at some point the limit of buyers will be reached, and from there the crash back down can be brutal.
The more subtle lesson, however, is that most of the ordinary investors who were buying the company’s stock did not know or understand what they were buying. Not only was trade in shares still novel to them, but they did they not appreciate that the South Sea Company’s shipping operations were not its main focus. They also had no idea of the complexities involved in its relationship with the British government.
A recent Bloomberg article noted how more and more ordinary investors today are buying complex financial products that have become available to them due to technology. These include forex, leveraged exchange-traded products and cryptocurrencies.
These products are not necessarily going to create bubbles, but they do seem ‘sexy’ because they can make rapid gains. This, however, is exactly what makes them dangerous. Anything that can go up quickly can come down just as quickly, and these sudden price movements can be devastating.
The South Sea Bubble should stand as a reminder that successful investing is not about chasing the most exciting opportunities. It is actually the opposite: be boring. Diversify, keep your costs down, and let the market do its work over time.
One of South Africa’s most respected financial journalists, PATRICK CAIRNS is a trusted commentator on the world of investments and the quirks of behavioural finance. Over more than a decade he has built a reputation for keeping the industry honest, and putting the interests of investors first.
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