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History Repeating

By James West      Printer Friendly Version
Sep 30 2008 3:57PM

Human beings will go down in history for their inability to incorporate lessons from past mistakes to prevent future repetitions of the same errors. One could argue, however,  that the cyclical essence of most natural systems promotes the same in financial markets.

The ongoing chaos we’re experiencing is just another cycle playing itself out against the backdrop of human fear and greed. These financial collapses constitute cathartic episodes typical of natural systems that need to correct themselves of any excesses as a matter of survival.

The passage below could easily have been written to describe today’s debacle (this was written in 1837!):

  • "Every now and then the world is visited by one of these delusive seasons when "the credit system", as it is called, expands to full luxuriance; everybody trusts everybody; a bad debt is a thing unheard of; the broad way to certain and sudden wealth lies plain and open; men are tempted to dash forward boldly from the facility of borrowing.

  • Promissory notes, interchanged between scheming individuals, are liberally discounted at the banks, which become so many mints to coin words into cash; as the supply of words is inexhaustible, it may readily be supposed what a vast amount of promissory capital is soon in circulation. Everyone now talks in thousands; nothing is heard but gigantic operation in trade, great purchases and sales of real property, and immense sums made at every transfer. All, to be sure, as yet exists in promise, but the believer in promises calculates the aggregate as solid capital and falls back in amazement at the amount of public wealth, the ‘unexampled state of  public prosperity!’

  • Now is the time for speculative and dreaming or designing men. They relate their dreams and projects to the ignorant and credulous, dazzle them with golden visions, and set them maddening after shadows. The example of one stimulates another; speculation rises on speculation; bubble rises on bubble; everyone helps with his breath to swell the windy superstructure and admires and wonders at the magnitude of the inflation he has contributed to produce.

  • Speculation is the romance of trade and casts contempt upon all its sober realities. It renders the stock jobber a magician and the exchange a region of enchantment. It elevates the merchant into a kind of knight-errant, or rather a commercial Quixote. The slow but sure gains of snug percentage becomes despicable in his eyes: no ‘operation’ is thought worthy of attention that does not double or treble the investment. No business is worth following that does not promise an immediate fortune. As he sits musing over his ledger with pen behind his ear, he is like La Mancha’s hero in his study dreaming over his books of chivalry. His dusty counting-house fades before his eyes, or changes into a Spanish mine: he gropes after diamonds or dives after pearls. The subterranean garden of Aladdin is nothing to the realms of wealth that break upon his imagination.

  • Could this delusion always last, the life of a merchant would indeed be a golden dream; but it is as short as it is brilliant. Let but a doubt enter, and the ‘season of unexampled prosperity’ is at an end. The coinage of words is suddenly curtailed; the promissory capital begins to vanish into smoke; a panic succeeds, and the whole superstructure, built upon credit and reared by speculation, crumbles to the ground, leaving a scarce wreck behind."

The author is Washington Irving, who is credited with the origin of the term, "the Almighty Dollar."

The Panic of 1837, to which Irving makes reference, is said to have started on May 10th, 1837 after the banks stopped the issuance of gold and silver bullion for American currency. This caused a panic which threw the U.S. economy into a depression that lasted for 5 years.

At that time, there was no federal reserve board and the government specifically avoided any interference in matters of the economy, which is arguably part of the reason why the depression lasted so long. There was no $700 billion bailout package on the horizon for speculators at that time, who were essentially forced to suffer the results of their excesses.

Then, as now, misdirected fiscal policy facilitated the atmosphere for excess and overly cheap credit. The difference is that now, we are prepared to capitalize our wins, and socialize our losses. Which leads one to wonder exactly what the U.S. Treasury balance sheet looks like now that the tax base from which this financial tourniquet must surely come has itself been grievously wounded?

James West
Tuesday, September 30, 2008



James West is the publisher of the Midas Letter, a financial advisory service that identifies promising resource industry equities at the earliest stages of their existences. Visit the Midas Letter online at