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The King, the Crook, and the Gambler: The…
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The King, the Crook, and the Gambler: The True Story of the South Sea… (original 2002; edition 2004)

by Malcolm Balen

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963125,712 (3.31)1
Member:CarterPJ
Title:The King, the Crook, and the Gambler: The True Story of the South Sea Bubble and the Greatest Financial Scandal in History
Authors:Malcolm Balen
Info:Harper Perennial (2004), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
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The Secret History of the South Sea Bubble by Malcolm Balen (2002)

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Malcolm Balen covers the introduction of paper money in France by Law, and the introduction and manipulation of stocks by Blunt in England and illustrates the similarities to the dot.com bubble through short introductory paragraphs of references in each chapter. The South Sea Company never did any trading and in fact had only one ship, but stocks were sold throughout England and parts of Europe - similar to the housing boom and bust of 2008. ( )
  CarterPJ | Dec 29, 2012 |
This is an eminently readable book telling the story of the first of the Stock Market frauds, manipulations and subsequent crash in the clear prose of a thoroughly professional communicator. The author has worked in all media and is a News Head with the BBC (British Broadcasting Service) of Great Britain.

Following a scenario now ruefully and regrettably so familiar to those of us who survived the dot.com scandals and bubbles and the ‘Second Great Recession’ swallowing of our diminishing assets, this history of the 1710-20 rip-off by Banks, Bonders and bounders is all too readily understood. The ‘Bubble’ was what we have been painfully taught to call a “trading margin’, the ’South Sea’ was a non-existing market “demand” and the trading was as free and unregulated as a Ponzi scheme. To bring each stage and ploy of the various schemes current, Balen heads each paragraph with a brief extract from news head-lines of the 21st century – and the comparisons are immediately clear and become directly relevant to our times and experiences.

Balen’s earlier historical book was on Waterloo ... and investors in this ‘opportunity’ certainly met theirs.

Charles Dickens had words of wisdom for us on short-sales, stocks, lottery, bond and fraud, if we had only seen them - "Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O mighty Shares!... 'Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us'!"

p.s. I was amused ,and a little smug, to see that someone (probably a 1-percenter or Tea-party Member) has Flagged this review! (TOS ... A Blue Flag should only be used to claim that this is not a review, not to indicate displeasure or disagreement with it's viewpoint!)
  John_Vaughan | Nov 30, 2011 |
Nearly 300 years ago, a group of financial speculators dreamed up a plan to make money from England’s national debt. In an age when someone making £100 a year was considered wealthy, the national debt was huge: about £9 million. The idea behind the South Sea Company was that British merchants would trade English goods in South America, then controlled by Spain and Portugal. The problem was that Spain and Portugal wouldn’t allow any such thing to happen: they had a strictly controlled monopoly. What actually happened was that John Blunt, the director of the South Sea Company, ended up convincing the British government to sell its debt to the public through the Company in the form of shares. From the profits of the share sales, the Company would then repay the debt. Moreover, “in the persuasive but intrinsically nonsensical analysis” put forward by the South Sea Company, “as surely as night follows day, the bigger the debt, the greater the profit.”

This is insane, of course. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and nothing from nothing still leaves nothing. But it looks good on paper, and greed is the great engine of capitalism. Like the Internet stock bubble of a few years ago, people are eager to throw their money into a black hole: few people are capable of the self-control required to see beyond the event horizon created by collective greed. Indeed, it’s from the early 18th century, when modern financial markets were first forming, that the term “bubble” was first used in a financial context.

There were “whimsical projects,” as one contemporary newspaper writer put it, involving, for instance, “melting down Carpenters Chips and Saw-Dust… and running them into Planks and Boards of all Lengths and Sizes.” Stock would be sold in this blatant scheme at “very advantageous Terms.” No doubt. “Shakespeare,” Malcolm Balen points out, “describes a ‘bubble reputation,’ and in Thomas Shadwell’s The Volunteers, written in 1692, men cheated or ‘bubbled’ each other for profit.” By 1720, the year of the great South Sea Bubble, the term was “understood literally: like their counterparts in soap and air…, financial bubbles were perfectly forms, and floated free of gravitational market forces.” The stock dealers “aim, in the saying of the day,” was “‘to sell the bear’s skin before they have caught the bear.’” But bubbles all eventually have to come to terms with gravity, as do we all: the bubbles always burst, leaving gullible investors broke while a very few, as in the recent Internet bubble, got rich.

Balen, a British journalist, writes that “Not even if Bill Gates were to lose his entire fortune overnight could America match the scale of the stock-market melt-down of three hundred years ago.” Nature abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum created by the debt-shares scheme of the South Sea Company suck up a lot of bucks (pounds, actually, of course). Balen heads each chapter with quotes from various newspaper accounts of modern bubbles, chiefly the Internet vaporware scams of the late 1990s. (Did people really think that selling dog food through a Web site was a good idea? If yes, then we really must be, as Plato said, featherless bipeds, because we’re all a bunch of greedy bird brains.)

While the Internet bubble parallel is certainly apropos, what the 1720 bubble really sounds like is the Enron debacle, as the South Sea Company, particularly in the person of its director, John Blunt, engaged in outrageous accounting practices. The South Sea Company literally had no assets, yet at one point, in the hot swell of the bubble, it claimed to be worth £12 million, which was “financially absurd. In the previous two years, forty-five ships had carried a total of thirteen thousand slaves for the Company…, but it had still not made a profit.” Which is also absurd, considering the profitability of slaving. Such indeed was the case: “the Company itself carried out no business whatsoever, other than sucking up cash.” Over the summer of 1720, share prices in the Company soared; to drive the share price even higher, the Company floated loans to potential investors so they could buy even more.

A few people kept their senses about them. A humble bookseller, for instance, bought a few of the first shares, held on to them for a few months, and then sold for a huge profit. God bless the bookish. But eventually the bubble collapsed and lives were ruined. Blunt, and his co-conspirators, were eventually punished, and some compensation made to a few investors. But the punishment was politicized and ended up in the bubbling of the status of a new generation of power brokers. As one victim protested, “First you pick our pockets and then send us to jail for complaining.”

Balen tells the story well, with sketches of the key players and, for the non-economically inclined, understandable explanations of the early market system. The rise and fall of the South Sea Company is a fascinating story, and one we would do well to remember every time an IPO offers us the chance to invest in on-line dog food. But we don’t. “Perhaps,” Balen concludes, “there is a reason for this strange amnesia, this curious refusal to remember. Capitalism, and the cause of progress, can ill afford too stark a reminder of the depth of human folly in the pursuit of riches, lest our willingness to gamble on the future also disappear into thin air.” The philosopher Hegel said that history always repeats itself. That’s right, said his young follower, a fellow named Karl Marx: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

[Originally published in Curled Up with a Good Book] ( )
1 vote funkendub | Sep 30, 2010 |
Showing 3 of 3
Balen does not offer us any general theory of bubbles, of why they work and why they burst. He is content, like a good reporter, to tell the tale. But one thirsts for a deep diagnosis of the recurrence of this pattern in human affairs despite the fact that, at least after the first time, everyone knows it is madness. Hope springs eternal; and however rough the last disillusionment, sooner rather than later greed stirs again. Greed breeds credulity in those who want to believe; and credulity invites the cunning of those who would separate fools from their money. Wiser men, too, are separated from their money, subscribing in battalions to the fallacy that they, individually, will get out before the smash comes.
 
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The value of money, now and then

Money was a confusing buisness in eighteenth-century America and the British were, in part, to blame
CHAPTER I
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London, 1710.
The city is reaching for the heavens.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0007161778, Hardcover)

The early years of the eighteenth-century produced two great monuments: one, Christopher Wren’s new cathedral of St Paul’s, an enduring testament to principled craft and masterful construction. The other an empty fraud of such magnitude that its collapse threatened to overturn monarchies and governments. Its failure delayed the introduction of modern market economies by two generations. Yet the full scale of this monumental deceit was quietly covered up and hidden, its enduring legacy a poorly understood colloquialism: the South Sea Bubble. It was all planned by one ambitious promoter, who had decided to launch ‘a company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is’. This eighteenth-century mission statement has now acquired an almost uncanny resonance: these words could aptly have been applied to the bursting of the Internet bubble and the collapse of Enron. With the financial scandals that have beset global companies recently, such as Rank Xerox and Worldcom, this tale is all the more relevant today. Balen reveals the full story of corruption and scandal that attended the birth of the first shareholder economy, and with it uncovers a parable for our times.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:25 -0400)

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