Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Mississippi Bubble

Federal Reserve Bank of New York

May 17, 2013


Historical Echoes: The “Mississippi Bubble” – When One’s Back Could Be Rented Out as a Writing Desk

Amy Farber

In 1720, the very same year that England was experiencing the “South Sea Bubble”, France was experiencing a bubble as well—the “Mississippi Bubble.” France’s bubble was brought on by government debt and the advice of the head of the country’s finance ministry, John Law (Scottish mathematician, convicted murderer [a duel], gambler, and financial genius), to create paper money and a bank and to invest in his Mississippi Company. (Indeed, at the height of the trading frenzy for shares of stock in Law’s company, a hunchbacked man rented his back out as a desk in the “Street of Speculators” and earned a considerable sum.) Over a three-year period (1718-20), things went very wrong and too much money was printed (the regent’s decision, not Law’s). The text accompanying this portrait of Law describes him as an:

18th century Scotsman, credited by some historians as being “the father of inflation.” Law turned gambling IOUs into “gold counters,” then state debts into paper money, and finally sold all France down the river on the “Mississippi Bubble.”
     In a 2008 Financial Times article, “How the French invented subprime in 1719” (available with subscription), James MacDonald compares the Mississippi Bubble with the 2008 financial crisis. He cites six major similarities, including significant public debt, a charismatic financial wizard (Law), and the power of securitization.

     The full story of the bubble is complex, but an easy way to understand it is to watch this clever and humorous 1978 animation (9.75 min.). Or, if you want to see what the players in this drama really looked like, another clever and wryly humorous video (4.75 min.) tells essentially the same story with a backdrop of portraits and landscapes and a narrator who falls just short of conveying an authentic upper-class British accent. A third video (12.5 min.) has wavering audio but is otherwise excellent. The first video has Law escaping France disguised as a man with an enormous mustache and a beret, but with his Scottish bagpipes visible; the third has him escaping dressed as a woman.

     Two American authors have addressed the topic: Washington Irving, of Rip Van Winkle and Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame, wrote The Great Mississippi Bubble:  a Time of Unexampled Prosperity (or read the less authentic-looking online version) and included it in his 1825 book of essays, Crayon Papers. Could “unexampled prosperity” mean something similar to “irrational exuberance”? The essay is rich in detail regarding events and character traits of the players. Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard Fisher has even referred to the Irving essay in 2008 and 2010 speeches. (Follow the links and note the wonderful Irving quotations included.) From the 2008 speech:

Irving had never heard of a subprime mortgage or an Alt-A loan, an SIV, a CDS, a CLO or a CMO. But he understood booms propelled by greed and tomfoolery and busts born of fear, and that these underlying forces are deeply rooted in human DNA.

     The American writer Emerson Hough wrote a 1902 best-selling historical novel, The Mississippi Bubble (this chapter is part of the serialized newspaper version), with a curious subtitle: “how the star of good fortune rose and set and rose again, by a woman’s grace, for one John Law of Lauriston.” What woman? Is it Lady Catharine Knollys, whom Law married? And what does Hough mean by “grace”? Possibly, the woman forgave Law for being a failure.

     Chauncey Haines composed a “March Two Step” titled “The Mississippi Bubble.” (Listen to it here) The sheet music, also published in 1902, includes an advertisement for the Hough novel, which quotes a review from the Boston Journal describing it as “one of the truly great romances.”

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

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