James Narron and David Skeie
As Mike Dash notes in his well-researched and gripping Tulipomania, tulips are native to central Asia and arrived in the 1570s in what’s now Holland, primarily through the efforts of botanist Charles de L’Escluse, who classified and spread tulip bulbs among horticulturalists in the late 1500s and early 1600s. By the early 1630s, the tulip was a fixture in Dutch gardens. But Tulip Mania didn’t begin until the summer of 1633, when a house in Hoorn was exchanged for three rare tulips and a Frisian farmhouse was traded for a number of tulip bulbs. The lure of profit enticed novice florists to enter the tulip trade with minimal investment and small parcels of land, harkening back to the days of farmers taking up coin clipping during the Kipper und Wipperzeit. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we exchange the trading floors of today for the alcohol-fueled exchanges of the past as we dig up Tulip Mania.
The Plague and Tulip Mania
A number of factors contributed to the conditions that caused Tulip Mania. To start, the coin debasement crisis of the 1620s was followed by a period of prosperity in the 1630s. This prosperity coincided with an outbreak of the plague, which caused a labor shortage and increased real wages and surplus income. At the same time, there was a strong belief that social mobility was a Dutch birthright and that there was money to be made in every profession.
Prior to the 1630s, tulip bulbs were only physically traded among growers in the summer, when they could be safely pulled from the ground, in what evolved to be an informal spot market for individual commodities where cash and real assets traded hands. By the 1630s, the market for tulips began to grow as florists started buying and selling tulip bulbs still in the ground using promissory notes. The notes provided welcome credit and liquidity to help finance planting and limited credit risk to a known borrower with the borrower’s bulbs as collateral. However, the notes created a limited opportunity to inspect bulbs or to see them flower, provided no guarantee of quality, nor proof that the bulbs actually belonged to the seller, or even existed. Because delivery of the bulb was often months away, this financial innovation ultimately encouraged speculation as florists bought and sold promissory notes, which were in turn resold, creating a futures market. A legitimate need for financing real assets led to a financial market in which people with no stake in the actual underlying bulbs could participate. As Dash points out, it was “normal for florists to sell tulips they could not deliver, to buyers who did not have the cash to pay for them and who had no desire to plant them.” Such a financial market served the liquidity and credit needs of growers and florists, but it also led to highly leveraged speculation by those who could borrow to finance their investments with little of their own capital at stake. Promissory notes quickly transformed from a credit and liquidity mechanism to an instrument of speculation.
Beers Instead of Beurs Fuel the Market
Bulbs were traded not at the exchange buildings in Amsterdam, the beurs, but rather in local pubs where each trade was celebrated with a toast. The in het ootje method of trade required the seller to pay a commission independent of the seller’s acceptance or refusal of the bid (typically the equivalent of a round or two of drinks), which placed a premium on accepting a decent bid, further fueling the market.
The mania climaxed in January 1637, which marked the greatest influx of new florists. Many of these novices leveraged savings and mortgaged their goods or tools to take part in the bulb trade, just as we saw farmers turn to coin clipping during the Kipper und Wipperzeit. The absolute speculative peak is believed to be an auction on February 5, 1637, which raised 90,000 guilders. To put this in perspective, the wealthiest merchants of the day might’ve accumulated wealth of half a million guilders.
Some Florists Pull Back
With no predictability or stability in the bulb market, the market was unsustainable. By late January 1637, isolated florists sold their holdings and failed to reinvest. Other florists took notice. By the first week of February 1637, the boom ended with a crash that began at an auction in Haarlem. The first offer of bulbs at auction didn’t receive bids. The price was lowered, still with no bids, then lowered again. The once-plentiful liquidity provided by outside speculators dried up nearly instantaneously. With the auctioneer unable to find a price at which bulbs would sell, the panicked withdrawal of purchasing speculators spread to panicked “fire sales” by leveraged speculators who had bought bulbs on margin and needed to sell. “The market for tulip bulbs simply ceased to exist,” as Tulipomania reports. When bulbs could be sold, it was for 1 to 5 percent of the previous value.
Collapse Leads to Grudging Compromise
The spontaneous development of an extremely leveraged futures market certainly wasn’t new—futures markets date back to Mesopotamia, but it was the fertilizer that grew the tulip bulb trade from market, to bubble, to bust. When the bubble burst, some highly leveraged florists who had paid only small deposits still owed bulb owners huge sums of money. With the collapsed market, florists hoped to pay nothing. On February 23, growers proposed to the courts of the United Provinces that florists buy the bulbs at 10 percent of the agreed-upon selling price. After a lengthy deliberation, the courts banned tulip cases and asked that all disputes be handled at the local level. With no collective bankruptcy protections or procedures to guide resolution, growers and florists were forced to settle their disagreements individually.
This futures market for tulip bulbs was volatile and poorly regulated—more weed than flower. Rights of ownership were unclear, as growers and florists sought resolution from the tangle of transactions. And if just one florist in the chain was insolvent, the entire chain collapsed. Since the enormous interconnected claims were handled outside the courts, there was little legal protection for creditors or debtors and no clear legal status to settle the claims. That’s why even fire-sale prices of 1 to 5 percent of initial prices, driven down by desperate sellers (debtors) fearing bankruptcy, didn’t stick. Nor did the buyers get stuck with paying 10 percent of the agreed-upon prices, as had been proposed to the courts. Without enforceable debt claims or sales prices, the tulip bulb crisis ended in grudging compromise between individual growers and florists with massive write-downs of debt. However, the disruption and losses to growers, florists, and speculators were largely contained among market participants. The tulip market and the players in it weren’t interlocked with the banking sector or other credit providers. There was no lasting spillover to the real economy and no real market or legal reforms emanating from the crisis.
Lessons for Regulators
It’s interesting to compare Tulip Mania with more modern debt crises, where asset classes have strong legal protections for creditors with interconnected claims. Take securitized mortgage-backed assets, for example. In a typical crisis, market seizure initially leads to potential fire-sale prices that may wipe out debtor financial institutions. Official sector support steps in to curtail full financial contagion and systemic collapse, thus limiting spillover to the real economy. Individual debtholders (households), however, typically aren’t considered contagious or systemic to the financial system. But with no efficient private sector debt write-down mechanism at households’ disposal, there’s a greater chance for household debt to trigger a large negative spillover to the real economy.
Post-crisis, regulators and lawmakers have indeed focused much needed attention on enhancing consumer protections, including introducing a private sector debt write-down mechanism via the recently extended Home Affordable Refinance Program and providing opportunities for improved access to refinancing opportunities for underwater mortgages, as described in a recent Liberty Street Economics post. One of the most talked-about methods of tempering speculation in the housing market, where by nature purchases are highly leveraged, is to promote strong lending practices by seeking risk retention on the books of the mortgage originator. Regulators have recently sought to “crowd in” private capital according to the “originate-to-distribute” securitization model by raising government-sponsored-enterprise (GSE) guarantee fees. As Congress prepares to enact further GSE reforms, tell us which mortgage market improvements you think would be most impactful.
In a future post on the British credit crisis of 1772, we’ll touch on another example of how a credit crisis can lead to a debt crisis—this time with a spillover to the real economy.
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.
David Skeie is a senior economist in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.