“The significant problems that we have created cannot be solved at the level of thinking we were at when we created them.”– Albert Einstein
“Generals are notorious for their tendency to ‘fight the last war’ – by using the strategies and tactics of the past to achieve victory in the present. Indeed, we all do this to some extent. Life's lessons are hard won, and we like to apply them – even when they don't apply. Sadly enough, fighting the last war is often a losing proposition. Conditions change. Objectives change. Strategies change. And you must change. If you don't, you lose.”– Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young
“Markets are perpetuating a serious error by acting on the belief that central bankers actually know what they are doing. They do not. Not because they are ill-intentioned but because they are human and subject to the limitations that apply to all human endeavors. If you want proof of their fallibility, simply look at their economic forecasts. Despite their efforts to do so, central banks can’t repeal the business cycle (though they can distort it). While the 2008 financial crisis should have taught them that lesson, it appears to have led them to precisely the opposite conclusion.
“There are limits to knowledge in every field, including the hard sciences, and economics is not a hard science; it is a social science whose knowledge is imprecise, and practitioners’ ability to predict the future is extremely limited. Fed officials are attempting to guide an extremely complex economy with tools of questionable utility, and markets are ignoring their warnings that their ability to manage a positive outcome is highly uncertain. Markets are confusing what they want to happen with what is likely to happen, a common psychological phenomenon. Investors who prosper in the long run will be those who acknowledge the severe limits of economic knowledge and the compelling evidence that trillions of dollars of QE and years of zero interest rates may have saved the system from immediate collapse five years ago but failed to produce sustained economic growth or long-term price stability.”– Michael Lewitt, The Credit Strategist, Nov. 1, 2014
It is something of a cliché to quote Mark Twain’s “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” But it is an appropriate way to kick things off, since we are going to look at the “ancient” history of Mark Twain’s era, and specifically the Panic of 1873. That October saw the beginning of 65 months of recession (certainly longer than our generation’s own Great Recession), which inflicted massive pain on the country. The initial cause was government monetary intervention, but the crisis was deepened by soaring debt and deflation.
As we seek to understand what happened 141 years ago, we’ll revisit the phenomenon of October as a month of negative market surprises. It actually has its roots in the interplay between farming and banking.
The Panic of 1873
Shortly after the Civil War, which saw the enactment of federal fiat money (the “greenback” of that era, issued to finance the war), there was a federal law passed that required rural and agricultural banks to keep 25% of their deposits with certain certified national banks, which were based mainly in New York. The national banks were required to pay interest on those deposits, so they had to put the money out for loans. But because those deposits were “callable” at any time, there was a limit to the types of loans they could do, as long-term loans mismatched assets and liabilities.
The brokers of the New York Stock Exchange were considered an excellent target for such loans. They could use the proceeds of the loans as margin to buy stocks, either for their own trading or on behalf of their clients. As long as the stocks went up – or at the very least as long as the ultimate clients were liquid – there wasn’t a problem for the national banks. Money could be repatriated; or, if necessary, margins could be called in a day. But this was before the era of a central bank, so actual physical dollars (and other physical instruments) were involved as reserves, as was gold. Greenbacks could be used to buy gold, but at a rate that floated. The price of gold could fluctuate significantly from year to year, depending upon the availability of gold and the supply of greenbacks (and of course, market sentiment – which certainly rhymes with our own time).
The driver for October volatility was an annual cycle, an ebb and flow of dollars to and from these rural banks. In the fall when the harvest was ready, the country banks would recall their margin loans in order to pay farmers or loan to merchants to buy crops from farmers and ship them via the railroads. Money would then become tight on Wall Street as the national banks called their loans back in.
This cycle often caused extra volatility, depending on the shortness of loan capital. Margin rates could rise to as much as 1% per day! Of course, this would force speculators to sell their stocks or cover their shorts, but in general it could drive down prices and make margin calls more likely. This monetary tightening often sent stocks into a downward spiral – not unlike the downward pressure that present-day Fed tightening actions have exerted, but in a compressed period of time.
If there was enough leverage in the system, a cascade could result, with stocks dropping 20% very quickly. Since much of Wall Street was involved in railroads, and railroads were nothing if not leveraged loans and capital, falling asset prices would reduce the ability of investors in railroads to find the necessary capital for expansion and maintenance of operations.
This historical pattern no longer explains the present-day vulnerability of markets in October. Perhaps the phenomenon persists simply due to market lore and investor psychology. Like an amputee feeling a twinge in his lost limb, do we still sense the ghosts of crashes past?
(And once more with Mark Twain: “October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.”)
It was in this fall environment that a young Jay Gould decided to manipulate the gold market in the autumn of 1873, creating a further squeeze on the dollar. Not only would he profit off a play in gold, but he thought the move would help him in his quest to take control of the Erie Railroad. Historian Charles R. Morris explains, in a fascinating book called The Tycoons
Gould’s mind ran in labyrinthine channels, and he turned to the gold markets as part of a strategy to improve Erie’s freights. Grain was America’s largest export in 1869. Merchants purchased grain from farmers on credit, shipped it overseas, and paid off the farmers when they received their remittances from abroad. Their debt to the farmers was in greenbacks, but their receipts from abroad came in gold, for the greenback was not legal tender overseas. It could take weeks, or even months, to complete a transaction, so the merchant was exposed to changes in the gold/greenback exchange rate during that time. If gold fell (or the greenback rose), the merchant’s gold proceeds might not cover his greenback debts.
The New York Gold Exchange was created to help merchants protect against that risk. Using the Exchange, a merchant could borrow gold when he made his contract, convert it to greenbacks, and pay off his suppliers right away. Then he would pay off the gold loan when his gold payment came in some weeks later; since it was gold for gold, exchange rates didn’t matter. To protect against default, the Exchange required full cash collateral to borrow gold. But that was an opening for speculations by clever traders like Gould. If a trader bought gold and then immediately lent it, he could finance his purchase with the cash collateral and thereby acquire large positions while using very little of his own cash.
[Note from JM: In the fall there was plenty of demand for gold and a shortage of greenbacks. It was the perfect time if you wanted to create a “corner” on gold.]
Gould reasoned that if he could force up the price of gold, he might improve the Erie’s freight revenues. If gold bought more greenbacks, greenback-priced wheat would look cheaper to overseas buyers, so exports, and freights, would rise. And because of the fledgling status of the new Gold Exchange, gold prices looked eminently manipulable, since only about $20 million in gold was usually available in New York. [Some of his partners in the conspiracy were skeptical because…] The Grant administration, which had just taken office in March, was sitting on $100 million in gold reserves. If gold started suddenly rising, it would hurt merchant importers, who could be expected to clamor for government gold sales.
But Gould plunged ahead with his gold buying, including rather sizable amounts for Corbin’s wife (Grant’s wife’s sister), such that each one-dollar rise in gold would generate $11,000 in profits. Corbin arranged further meetings with Grant and discouraged him from selling gold all throughout September.
Gould and his partners initiated a “corner” in the gold market. This was actually legal at the time, and the NY gold market was relatively small compared to the amount of capital it was possible for a large, well-organized cabal to command. True corners were devastating to bears, as they generally borrowed shares or gold to sell short, betting on the fall in price. Just as today, if the price falls too much, then the short seller can buy the stock back and take his losses. But if there is no stock to buy back, if someone has cornered the market, then losses can be severe. Which of course is what today we call a short squeeze.
The short position grew to some $200 million, most of it owed to Gould and his friends. But there was only $20 million worth of gold available to cover the short sales. That gold stock had been borrowed and borrowed and borrowed again. The price of gold rose as Gould’s cabal kept pressing their bet.
But Grant got wind of the move. His wife wrote her sister, demanding to know if the rumor of their involvement was true. Corbin panicked and told Gould he wanted out, with his $100,000+ of profits, of course. Gould promised him his profits if he would just keep quiet.
Then Gould began to unload all his gold positions, even as some of his partners kept right on buying. You have to keep up pretenses, of course. Gould was telling his partners to push the price up to 160, while he was selling through another set of partners.
It is a small irony that Gould also had a contact in the government in Washington (a Mr. Butterfield) who assured him that there was no move to sell gold from DC, even as that contact was personally selling all his gold as fast as he could. Whatever bad you could say about Gould (and there were lots of bad things you could say), his trading instincts were good. He sensed his contact was lying and doubled down on getting out of the trade. In the end, Gould didn’t make any money to speak of and in fact damaged his intention of getting control of the Erie Railroad that fall.
The attempted gold corner didn’t do much harm to the country in and of itself. But when President Grant decided to step in and sell gold, there was massive buying, which sucked a significant quantity of physical dollars out of the market and into the US Treasury at a time when dollars were short. This move was a clumsy precursor to the open-market operations of the Federal Reserve of today, except that those dollars were needed as margin collateral by brokerage companies. No less than 14 New York Stock Exchange brokerages went bankrupt within a few days, not including brokerages that dealt just in gold.
All this happened in the fall, when there were fewer physical dollars to be had.
The price of gold collapsed. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was often at odds with Jay Gould, had to step into the market (literally – that is, physically, which was rare for him) in order to quell the panic and provide capital, a precursor to J.P. Morgan’s doing the same during the Panic of 1907.
While many today believe the Fed should never have been created, we have not lived through those periods of panics and crashes. And while I think the Fed now acts in ways that are inappropriate (how can 12 FOMC board members purport to fine-tune an economic cycle, let alone solve employment problems?), the one true and proper role of the Fed is to provide liquidity in time of a crisis.
“People Who Live Too Much on Credit”
At the end of the day, it was too much debt that was the problem in 1873. Cornelius Vanderbilt was quoted in the epic book The First Tycoon as saying (emphasis mine)
I’ll tell you what’s the matter – people undertake to do about four times as much business as they can legitimately undertake.… There are a great many worthless railroads started in this country without any means to carry them through. Respectable banking houses in New York, so called, make themselves agents for sale of the bonds of the railroads in question and give a kind of moral guarantee of their genuineness. The bonds soon reach Europe, and the markets of their commercial centres, from the character of the endorsers, are soon flooded with them.… When I have some money I buy railroad stock or something else, but I don’t buy on credit. I pay for what I get. People who live too much on credit generally get brought up with a round turn in the long run. The Wall Street averages ruin many a man there, and is like faro.”
But the damage was done. The problem of liquidity was created by too much debt, as Vanderbilt noted. That debt inflated assets, and when those assets fell in price, so did the net worth of the borrowers. Far too much debt had to be worked off, and the asset price crash precipitated a rather deep depression, leaving in its wake far greater devastation than the recent Great Recession did. It took many years for the deleveraging process to work out. Sound familiar?
To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.
The article Thoughts from the Frontline: Rhyme and Reason was originally published at mauldin economics
Get our latest FREE eBook "Understanding Options"....Just Click Here!