I want to follow on from what Michael was saying and give you a rough outline of the history of financial scandals, and start with trying to explain to you the cycle of scandal that appears to take place, then some of the practices as they have appeared over the ages, very unchanged, and to conclude, going slightly beyond my remit, to say how one might be able to identify some future scandals from the study of past scandals.
Now, Michael was talking to you about bubbles, and the relationship between bubbles and financial scandals. I would argue that the two are intricately linked. In fact, they are etymologically linked because the original meaning of the term “bubble” is actually a fraud or, as the OED’s definition is, the bubble is “anything fragile, unsubstantial, empty or worthless, a deceptive show”. But if you go back to the early eighteenth century definitions of bubbles, you can see here a reference by Defoe: “In the good old days of trade, there were no bubbles and no stock shopping.”
The very term “the South Sea Bubble” is actually a reference not to the inflation of the South Sea stock from a hundred to a thousand, but it is to the South Sea fraud. So, a bubble itself is actually a fraud, and in fact the cycles of speculation, or speculative bubbles, and the cycles of fraud and scandal are one and the same, and that has always been the case in the past and always will be the case in the future.
The verb “bubbling”, in fact, in the early eighteenth century was, as the OED says, a bubbler is “one who gets up bubble companies, a swindler, a cheat”, and the bubbled is someone who is “befooled, cheated and deceived”.
If you go to the 1690s, which was the first bubble in Britain, as far as I can understand, the first thing one notes about both the speculative bubble and the bubble of corruption and scandal is they invariably appear in ages of what you might call a zeitgeist of greed or an eagerness to get rich quick, so that in the 1690s, which was an era of the so-called “moneyed men”, it was said of the period that “it rained gold and silver”, and the historian Macaulay later described it as “an age that showed an impatience to be rich and a contempt for those slow but sure gains which are the proper reward of industry, patience, thrift, had spread through society”.
In fact, this holds true if you go to the mid-nineteenth century, there was a financial journalist called David Morier Evans, who wrote a book called “Facts, Failures and Frauds”, which covered the scandals of the railway mania of the 1840s and 1850s, in the Dickensian periods. Evans writes in this book that: “All incentives to commercial crime may be brought under one common rubric, the desire to make money easily and in a hurry. The speculator may be a perfectly honourable man, but if fortune is averse and he is on the high road to wrongdoing and, moreover, there are many crimes not enumerated in the Statute Book that are still heavy sins against the dictates of morality.” So there is this notion, and I think you see it time and again, in the Gilded Age in the US that Mark Twain satirised, in the 1920s, and obviously in our own era, in the sort of post-Thatcherite/Reaganite era, the era where greed is good. These are eras which are conducive to financial scandal and conducive to speculative bubbles.
However it is not merely that you should have people willing to cut corners; you should also have a certain amount of credulity – you need the bubbles, or, as Defoe also called them, “cullies”. Defoe himself was constantly falling for one scandal after another. During the South Sea Bubble, Jonathan Swift wrote a poem called “The Directors”, referring to companies being built as castles in the air. Swift wrote: “For fools will see as wise men please”.
In the 1820s, perhaps the most famous scandal in the City of London occurred when the Kingdom of Poyais, in South America, launched a loan for £600,000, and the Kingdom of Poyais, run by the so-called Cazique of Poyais, was a sort of fictional entity, and the Cazique a Scottish adventurer by the name of Gregor MacGregor, and the wretched people who fell for it went out to the mosquito-infested swamp in South America and died or committed suicide or sloped off home.
The new Times, at the time, carried a notice that said: “If the very respectable Mr Lemuel Gulliver were to appear on the stage again to issue proposals for a loan to the Republic of Laputa, he would run the hazard of being suffocated by the pressure of subscribers to set down their names.”
Now, referring back to Dickens, and Dickens is, again, writing in the period of the financial scandals of the 1840s and ‘50s, his comments on the banker, the corrupt banker, Merdle, who appears in “Little Dorrit” resonate through the times. Dickens writes, after Merdle’s death: “The next man who has as large a capacity for swindling will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle. In that fact lies the whole manual of governing them. When they can be got to believe that the kettle is made of precious metals, in that power lies the whole power of men like our late lamented.”
Dickens’ contemporary, Walter Bagehot, in Lombard Street, wrote another seminal comment on the credulity of investors, where he writes here: “The good times too of high price almost always engender much fraud. All people are most credulous when they are most happy, and when money has been made, when some people are really making it, and when most people think they are making it, there is a happy opportunity for ingenious mendacity. Almost anything will be believed for a while, and long before discovery, the worst and most adroit deceivers are geographically or legally beyond the reach of punishment, but the harm they have done diffuses harm for it weakens credit still further.”
Galbraith, who Michael mentioned wrote a very good short history of the 1920s boom and crash, in which he takes and plays with Bagehot’s thought, introducing a concept of what he calls “the bezzle”. Here, the bezzle is the illusionary increase of wealth that occurs during booms and, here, Galbraith writes: “In good times, people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. Under these circumstances, the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression, all this is reversed: money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye; the man who handles it is assumed to be dishonest, until he proves himself otherwise; audits are penetrating and meticulous; commercial morality is enormously improved – the bezzle shrinks.