Crisis Chronicles: The Mississippi Bubble of 1720 and the European Debt Crisis
Convicted murderer and millionaire gambler John Law spotted an opportunity to leverage paper money and credit to finance trade. He first proposed the concept in Scotland in 1705, where it was rejected. But by 1716, Law had found a new audience for his ideas in France, where he proposed to the Duke of Orleans his plan to establish a state bank, at his own expense, that would issue paper money redeemable at face value in gold and silver. At the time, Law’s Banque Generale was one of only six such banks to have issued paper money, joining Sweden, England, Holland, Venice, and Genoa. Things didn’t turn out exactly as Law had hoped, and in this edition of Crisis Chronicles we meet the South Sea’s lesser-known cousin, the Mississippi Bubble.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
John Law was an interesting figure with a colorful past. He was convicted of murder in London but, with the help of friends, escaped to the continent, where he became a millionaire through his skill at gambling. Like South Sea Company Director John Blunt in England, Law believed that a trading company could be leveraged to exchange the monopoly rights of trade for the ability to make low-interest-rate loans to the government. And like Blunt, in 1719 Law formed a trading company—the Mississippi Company—to exploit trade in the Louisiana territory. But unlike Blunt or the South Sea Company, the Mississippi Company made an earnest effort to grow trade with the Louisiana territory.
In 1719, the French government allowed Law to issue 50,000 new shares in the Mississippi Company at 500 livres with just 75 livres down and the rest due in nineteen additional monthly payments of 25 livres each. The share price rose to 1,000 livres before the second installment was even due, and ordinary citizens flocked to Paris to participate. Based on this success, Law offered to pay off the national debt of 1.5 billion livres by issuing an additional 300,000 shares at 500 livres paid in ten monthly installments.
Law also purchased the right to collect taxes for 52 million livres and sought to replace various taxes with a single tax. The tax scheme was a boon to efficiency, and the price of some products fell by a third. The stock price increases and the tax efficiency gains spurred foreigners to Paris to buy stock in the Mississippi Company.
By mid-1719, the Mississippi Company had issued more than 600,000 shares and the par value of the company stood at 300 million livres. That summer, the share price skyrocketed from 1,000 to 5,000 livres and it continued to rise through year-end, ultimately reaching dizzying heights of 15,000 livres per share. The word millionaire was first used, and in January 1720 Law was appointed Controller General.
The Trickle Becomes a Flood
Reminiscent of a handful of florists failing to reinvest in tulip bulbs as we described in a previous post on Tulip Mania, in early 1720 some depositors at Banque Generale began to exchange Mississippi Company shares for gold coin. In response, Law passed edicts in early 1720 to limit the use of coin. Around the same time, to help support the Mississippi Company share price, Law agreed to buy back Mississippi Company stock with banknotes at a premium to market price and, to his surprise, more shareholders than anticipated queued up to do so—a surprise we’ll see repeated at the apex of the Panic of 1907. To support the stock redemptions, Law needed to print more money and broke the link to gold, which quickly led to hyperinflation, as we saw in our post on the Kipper und Wipperzeit.
The spillover to the economy was immediate and most notable in food prices. By May 21, Law was forced to deflate the value of banknotes and cut the stock price. As the public rushed to convert banknotes to coin, Law was forced to close Banque Generale for ten days, then limit the transaction size once the bank reopened. But the queues grew longer, the Mississippi Company stock price continued to fall, and food prices soared by as much as 60 percent.
To make matters worse, there was an outbreak of the plague in September 1720, which further restricted economic activity—in particular, trade with the rest of Europe. By the end of 1720, Law was dismissed as Controller General and he ultimately fled France.
Balancing Dispersed Debt Issuance against Central Monetary Policy
One might argue that Law suffered a self-inflicted loss of control over monetary policy once the link between paper money issuance and the underlying value of gold holdings was broken—a lesson that monetary authorities have learned over time. But what if you don’t have direct sovereign authority over banknote issuance or, in more modern times, monetary policy? A challenge that’s perhaps most visible in the Eurozone is how best to balance dispersed, country-specific debt issuance against more centralized authority over monetary policy. In an upcoming post on the Continental Currency Crisis, we’ll see why a united fiscal policy was needed along with the united currency and monetary policies. Could the same be true of Europe? And if so, would a united fiscal policy include Eurozone debt as well as centralized fiscal transfers, or perhaps even collection of taxes? Tell us what you think.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors 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 authors.
James Narron is a senior vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Executive Office.
David Skeie is a senior economist in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.