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Editor’s note: This post was updated on June 15 to clarify details regarding suspension of the Bank Act.
Money was plentiful in the United Kingdom in 1842, and with low yields on government bonds and railway shares paying handsome dividends, the desire to speculate spread—as one observer put it, “the contagion passed to all, and from the clerk to the capitalist the fever reigned uncontrollable and uncontrolled” (Francis’s History of the Bank of England). And so began railway mania. Just as that bubble began to burst, a massive harvest failure in England and Ireland led to surging food imports, which drained gold reserves from the Bank of England. Constrained by the Bank Charter Act, the Bank responded by tightening policy. When food prices fell in the spring of 1847 on the prospects for a successful harvest, commodity speculators were caught short and a crisis, one of the worst in British history (Bordo), ensued. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we cover the Commercial Crisis of 1847.
Correction: This post was updated on May 8 to correct the book title and spelling of the author’s name in the fifth paragraph. We regret the error.
President Andrew Jackson was a "hard money" man. He saw specie—that is, gold and silver—as real money, and considered paper money a suspicious store of value fabricated by corrupt bankers. So Jackson issued a decree that purchases of government land could only be made with gold or silver. And just as much as Jackson loved hard money, he despised the elites running the banking system, so he embarked on a crusade to abolish the Second Bank of the United States (the Bank). Both of these efforts by Jackson boosted the demand for specie and revealed the soft spots in an economy based on hard money. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we show how the heightened demand for specie ultimately led to the Panic of 1837, resulting in a credit crunch that pushed the economy into a depression that lasted until 1843.
Centered in London, the banking panic of 1825 has been called the first modern financial crisis, the first Latin American crisis, and the first emerging market crisis. And while the panic displayed many of the key elements of past crises we have covered—fluctuations in money growth, an investment bubble, a stock market crash, and bank runs—this crisis had its own twists, including a Bank of England that hesitated before stepping in as lender of last resort. But it is perhaps best known for an infamous bond market swindle surrounding an entirely made-up Central American principality. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we explore the Panic of 1825 and visit the mythical nation of Poyais.
As we noted in our last post on the British crisis of 1816, while Britain emerged from nearly a quarter century of war with France ready to supply the world with manufactured goods, it needed cotton to supply the mills, and all of Europe needed wheat to supplement a series of poor harvests. The United States met that demand for cotton and wheat by expanding agricultural production, facilitated by the loose credit policies of a growing number of lightly regulated state banks. Meanwhile, the Treasury needed revenue to pay off debts from the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, so the government turned to selling land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. But the increased agricultural demand and easy credit policies led to a speculative real estate boom, particularly in Alabama. So when the Treasury started to pay off its debts, the specie drain caused a painful but necessary contraction and the boom went bust. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we describe America’s first great economic crisis.
In 1815, England emerged victorious after what had been nearly a quarter century of war with France. And during those years, encouraged by high prices and profits, England greatly expanded its agricultural and industrial capacity in terms of land and new machinery, with these activities often financed on credit. Improved harvests from 1812 to 1815 coincided with an export market boom in 1814, as the continent began to reopen for trade and speculation in South America increased. But the speculation turned to frenzy compared to the boom of 1810 as everything that could be shipped was shipped—until the speculation broke. The crisis started first with farmers and landlords, spread to business and industry, and was followed by mass starvation on the continent. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we recount the Crisis of 1816, the Year without a Summer, and the idea of Sunspot Equilibria.
In the early 1800s, Napoleon’s plan to defeat Britain was to destroy its ability to trade. The plan, however, was initially foiled. After Britain helped the Portuguese government flee Napoleon in 1807, the Portuguese returned the favor by opening Brazil to British exports—a move that caused trade to boom. In addition, Britain was able to circumvent Napoleon’s continental blockade by means of a North Sea route through the Baltics, which provided continental Europe with a conduit for commodities from the Americas. But when Britain’s trade via the North Sea was interrupted in 1810, the boom ended in crisis. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we explore the British Export Bubble of 1810 and ask whether pegged or floating exchange rates are better for an economy.
With intermittent war raging across much of Western Europe near the end of the eighteenth century, by about 1795, Hamburg had replaced Amsterdam as an important hub for commodities trade. And from 1795 to 1799, Hamburg boomed. Prices for goods increased, the harbor was full, and warehouses were bulging. But when a harsh winter iced over the harbor, excess demand and speculation drove up prices. By spring, demand proved lower than supply, and prices started falling, credit tightened, and the decline in prices accelerated. So when a ship bound for Hamburg laden with gold sunk off the coast, an act meant to avert a crisis failed to do so. In this issue of Crisis Chronicles, we use some diverse sources from the American Machinist and Mary Lindemann’s Patriots and Paupers to explore the Hamburg crisis of 1799 and describe how harsh winter weather still impacts the economy today.
In the late 1700s, France ran a persistent deficit and by the late 1780s struggled with how to balance the budget and pay down the debt. After heated debate, the National Assembly elected to issue a paper currency bearing an attractive 3 percent interest rate, secured by the finest French real estate to be confiscated from the clergy. Assignats were first issued in December 1789 and initially were a boon to the economy. Yet while the first issues brought prosperity, subsequent issues led to stagnation and misery. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we review how fiat money inflation in France caused the collapse of the French assignat (subscription required) and describe some interesting parallels between the politics of French government finance (subscription required) in the late 1700s and more recent fiscal crises.
Today, a leisurely trip down a canal on a quiet Sunday afternoon is a reminder of an unhurried time away from the hectic pace of modern commerce. But this was not always so. From the late 1790s into the early 1800s, canal transport was a crucial element of the industrial revolution—a time when barges were loaded with raw materials and goods rather than tourists and holidaymakers. By the mid-1700s, manufacturing was evolving from a cottage industry to a factory system in which goods could be produced en masse. But mass production required heavy raw materials like coal and a way to ship sometimes fragile goods such as pottery to market. And while more roads were being built or improved, they weren’t very efficient—one horse could pull a ton on land, but up to thirty or even fifty tons on a boat. So when the Third Duke of Bridgewater built a canal to transport coal directly to Manchester and Liverpool, the price of coal was halved, but the Duke’s profits soared. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we explore England’s Canal Mania, drawing on studies from The Economic History Review on Manchester, the Thames, and British Public Finance.
As we observed in our last post on the Continental Currency Crisis, the finances of the United States remained chaotic through the 1780s as the young government moved to establish its credit. U.S. Congress was finally given the power of taxation in 1787 and, in 1789, Alexander Hamilton was appointed as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton moved quickly to begin paying off war debts and to establish a national bank—the Bank of the United States. But in 1791, a burst of financial speculation in subscription rights to shares in the new bank caused a tangential rally and fall in public debt securities prices. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we describe how Hamilton invented central bank crisis management techniques eight decades before Walter Bagehot described them in Lombard Street.
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