Dubbed the “Enron of England”, the South Sea Bubble was one of history’s worst financial bubbles.
The mania started in 1711, after a war which left Britain in debt by 10 million pounds. Britain proposed a deal to a financial institution, the South Sea Company, where Britain’s debt would be financed in return for 6% interest. Britain added another benefit to sweeten the deal: exclusive trading rights in the South Seas. The South Sea Company quickly agreed, because of the proximity to wealthy South American colonies. The company planned on developing a monopoly in the slave trade. Additionally it was thought that the Mexicans and South Americans would eagerly trade their gold and jewels for the wool and fleece clothing of the British.
The South Sea Company issued stock to finance operations and gain investors. Investors quickly saw what they perceived as value in the monopoly of the South Seas. Shares were quickly snatched up from the start. The South Sea Company, seeing the success of the first issue of shares, quickly issued even more. This stock was rapidly consumed by the voracious appetite of the investors. Investors had no quibble, despite having a highly inexperienced management team. All they saw was that the stock was going to the stratosphere. Many investors were enamored by the lavish corporate offices that had been set up. This painted an image of success and wealth in the eyes of shareholders. At this point in England’s inudstrial revolution, investment capital was plentiful. It became extremely fashionable to own South Sea Company shares.
The management team of this company started hyping the stock, spouting illusions of grandeur to the investors. Speculation became rampant as the share price kept skyrocketing. It was thought that this company “could never fail”. The management developed rumors that the South Sea Company had been granted full use of Latin American ports, by Spain. The truth was, however, that Spain only allowed 3 ships per...