Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises

Larry Holzwarth - July 29, 2019

Before economists coined the terms recession and the more foreboding depression to describe economic downturns such events were called panics. In the days preceding instantaneous global communication they were often slow to develop, even slower to be recognized, and affected banks, stock traders, speculators in land and commodities, and national governments. The discovery of the New World and the exploitation of its vast mineral resources, especially gold and silver, inevitably led to inflation in Europe fueled by greed and speculation in species. In the seventeenth century, a new product developed and became a large part of the global economy – tobacco – and the condition of its annual crops affected markets from the North American colonies to the Indian subcontinent. Investors gambled on its futures market.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The Treasury of the United States, built to convey a sense of confidence in the financial soundness of the government. Wikimedia

As the world became more and more interconnected, local economies became global, and bank failures in the Old World led to similar events in the New. American fortunes were wiped out as European markets failed. Likewise, ancient banking houses in Europe felt the vagaries of America’s growing economy. Throughout history, money and the pursuit of it proved that the world truly is a small place after all. It may be difficult for modern sensibilities to grasp the concept that the lowly tulip – that easily recognized flower closely associated with Holland and spring – could be the cause of a financial crisis, but such was once the case. Here are twenty financial crises which roiled markets throughout history.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
Speculation in the future value of tulip bulbs led to the Dutch economy nearly collapsing in the seventeenth century. Wikimedia

1. The Great Tulip Crisis of 1637 was the world’s first speculative bubble to burst into a global financial crisis

To most people of modern times tulips conjure the sights and smells of spring, along with images of the Dutch and their flower lined canals and Amsterdam streets. Tulips were long a significant part of the Dutch economy, beginning in what is known as the Golden Age of the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. During the 1620s and 1630s, Dutch horticulturists bred new varieties of the flower, which figured prominently in Dutch trade with its European neighbors, particularly France and Spain. By the 1630s speculative markets over tulip prices were in existence, and investors welcomed the newest varieties of the flower which were in demand among the wealthier society of Europe. The time became one which was dominated by what became known as tulip mania.

In 1637, the speculative bubble burst as the price of tulips collapsed, a circumstance not expected by wealthy speculators. The collapse of the tulip market led to banking failures among the great houses of Europe. Part of the collapse was due to competition, flowers such as hyacinths and others became available more cheaply, and the Dutch near monopoly on the flower trade was shattered. Dutch commerce suffered a severe and lasting shock, which weakened the overall economy. Ships rotted at anchor. Tradesmen found their products rotting in their gardens. Tulips had been the fourth largest export from Holland before the collapse (after gin, cheese, and pickled herring) and the tulip crisis led to a downturn in Dutch trade which lasted nearly a decade.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
Investors in the speculative venture known as the South Sea Bubble found their fortunes wiped out when the bubble burst. Wikimedia

2. The South Sea Bubble of the early 18th century

In 1711 a joint stock trading company was founded in London as a joint public-private entity. Its purpose was to promote fishing in North American waters, trade in the so-called South Seas, and the reduction of England’s substantial national debt. The South Seas referred to in its name covered the Caribbean islands and the coast of South America, not the Pacific islands to which the term referred in a later day. At the time it was created to promote trade among the islands – which were then Spanish possessions – though England was at war with the Spanish Empire (the War of the Spanish Succession) and trade was not even a remote possibility. Spanish warships and English privateers roamed the seas of the region, and trading vessels of both entities were subject to both capture by the enemy and the depredations of pirates, it then being the so-called Golden Age of Piracy.

Nonetheless, stock in the venture sold well for the first eight years of its existence, driven by speculators enamored with the profits to be had by the reduction of the national debt. In 1720, the bubble created by speculation collapsed, with the stock quickly dropping to its original price (what would today be called an IPO) and fortunes in speculative profits were erased. The South Sea Company presented many of the features of later investing, including bribing legislature to pass favorable regulations, insider trading, loans against shares which exceeded their face value, and other less than savory investment practices. The collapse wiped out large and small investors, led to the disgrace of several ranking politicians and bankers, and severely weakened the British economy. Essentially what later became known as a Ponzi scheme, the collapse led to a financial crisis which in part led to an increase in the slave trade to recover losses to participants.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The defeat of Napoleon left the economies of Europe and the United States in turmoil for decades. Wikimedia

3. The Post-Napoleonic recessions of the early 19th century

Following the military defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the economies of Europe and the United States suffered a downturn in trade which lasted in some cases more than a decade. The United States was already producing grain at levels which exceeded the demand of its own population, and in the South cotton was supplanting tobacco as the main cash crop. Both excess corn and cotton were marked for export to Europe, especially to England, where mill owners welcomed the cotton. But British farmers opposed the importation of American grain, and to protect British farmers Parliament passed the Corn Laws, increasing tariffs on American agricultural goods. Both British citizens and American farmers suffered. The British were forced to pay higher prices for their locally grown food. The Americans were left with excess grain.

In the United States an economic downturn known as the Panic of 1819 was the result. In response, Americans resourcefully converted excess corn and wheat into whiskey and pork, and the internal cities of Louisville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati experienced booms as butchers and distillers thrived along the rivers. In Great Britain, Parliament passed a series of measures to manipulate prices and the economy, with less than desirable results. Grain from a recovering France exacerbated the problem. By the 1830s, the global economy had recovered, and the United States was the leading producer of both whiskey and pork in the world. Pork remained the most popular meat on American dinner plates until after the Civil War, when western beef supplanted it.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The Bank of England emerged from the Panic of 1890 with its reputation as England’s pre-eminent financial institution greatly enhanced. Wikimedia

4. The Panic of 1890 was a lesson which markets failed to learn yet again

In the late 1880s England’s Barings Bank – one of its largest – invested heavily in high risk ventures in Argentina. By November of 1890 Barings, faced with heavy debt because of the low return on its Argentinian investments, was at the point of insolvency. In those days there were no government insured accounts held by the bank, and those who had their money in accounts with Barings faced being wiped out. This included not only individual accounts, but corporate and government savings accounts. Insolvency by Barings would inevitably cause a chain reaction across the British banking system, followed by those on the European continent, and a complete meltdown of the world’s investment system was imminent.

William Lidderdale was the governor of the Bank of England, and recognized the potential international collapse which loomed. He organized a consortium of banks which included, among many others, the Rothschilds. Like Lidderdale, Nathan Rothschild recognized the potential for the entire western world’s financial system to collapse as a result of Barings’ shortsighted and ill-advised investment strategy in Argentina. The consortium of banks organized by Lidderdale and Rothschild guaranteed the debts held by Barings, preventing a collapse of the bank and the inevitable backlash, though Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil suffered from severe economic downturns as a result of the credit machinations in London. The Panic of 1890 demonstrated the potential damage which could be caused by unregulated speculation by banks using their depositor’s money, though the lesson was soon forgotten by the banking industry once again.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
Australian banks chose to keep their gold in British vaults rather than sell it to accommodate their depositors in the 1890s. Wikimedia

5. The banking crisis of 1893 in Australia sent tremors through the European economy

Speculation in land led to a boom in the 1880s in Australia, and Australian banks, driven by the belief that land prices and value would increase indefinitely, lent money in amounts far beyond what was backed by their depositors. In 1888 the land boom which was never going to end came to an end, and as many speculators went bankrupt the Australian lenders were unable to recover their loans, acquiring instead land which was less valuable than for what it was mortgaged. In January 1893, the Federal Bank of Australia failed. By the spring of that year, eleven Australian banks had either failed or temporarily closed, to prevent their depositors from withdrawing their deposits. Some of the “failed” banks held gold deposits, safely held in London banks, though the bankers chose not to sell them to accommodate their depositors. Instead they foreclosed on the bankrupt land speculators.

Nature added to the miseries of the Australian settlers by providing severe droughts, which late in the decade included the Federation Drought. Beginning in 1896 and lasting for six growing seasons, the Federation Drought created poor crops and led to heavy losses of sheep and cattle, as well as other livestock. Unable to produce harvests or to borrow money from the banks, Australian farmers were pushed to the limit. Eventually reforms to banking laws and a more regulated banking system were proposed, but the watered-down regulations did little to ease the financial crisis down under for decades. Bankers profiting at the expense of both borrowers and depositors became a feature of Australian culture, reflected in poetry, literature, and song for decades, and contributed to the birth of the bank robber as a folk hero in Australian society.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
John Pierpont Morgan – shown here striking at a photographer with his stick – dominated the American financial world during the Gilded Age. Wikimedia

6. The New York Stock Exchange had its first collapse during the Panic of 1901

It was a battle between money barons and investors over control of the Northern Pacific Railway which led the nation into a financial downturn in 1901. As small investors found their stock holdings lose most of their value as a result of the machinations of the few, the battling barons worked out a compromise through which the majority of them walked away happy, as well as significantly wealthier. Among the stock manipulators who created the crisis are some of America’s more famous names, at least where it comes to conspicuous wealth, including Morgan, Rockefeller (both John D. – through Standard Oil – and his son William, though his First National City Bank) and E. H. Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad. Harriman sought a monopoly of the Chicago railroad market.

To help accomplish that goal he purchased large amounts of Northern Pacific stock in an attempt to seize control of the railroad, opposed by Morgan and others, who likewise bought shares to stymie their rival. As prices for Northern Railway stock began to slide, it dragged down other railroad stocks with it, including those of the Burlington, the St. Paul, the Missouri Pacific, the Union Pacific, and several others. Shares of companies partially owned by the railroads declined as well. As the national economy slid into a recession as a result of the stock market crash – the NYSE’s first ever crash – the manipulators reached a compromise through which all of them realized profitable arrangements. Many thousands of smaller investors, including banks, were not so fortunate, and the economic downturn lasted for many months.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The normally anti-trust President Roosevelt was forced to accede to J. P. Morgan during the Knockerbocker Crisis, much to his chagrin. Library of Congress

7. The Knickerbocker Crisis of 1907 was a recession within a recession

In October 1907 the American economy was already in a deep downturn when the New York Stock exchange entered a slide which saw its value decline by over 50% in a period of just three weeks. Major New York banks began tightening the availability of money – there was no Federal Reserve then to control cash flow – and as smaller banks in New York began to experience runs by frightened investors, the panic began to spread nationwide. The Knickerbocker Trust Company, then the third largest trust in New York, collapsed in October, and a nationwide panic ensued. Banks which had lent money to investors in the stock market were subjected to runs which forced them to close their doors. By November the entire banking system was in turmoil.

It took the direct intervention of J. P. Morgan, who promised to use his personal wealth to shore up crippled banks and convinced fellow New York banking moguls to do the same, to stem the crisis. Morgan also gained the approval of President Theodore Roosevelt to have US Steel take over the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, which another major banking house had used as collateral when making speculative loans, leading to a collapse of its stock. Roosevelt, though an avowed anti-monopolist, found Morgan’s acquisition to be in the nation’s best interest. By early 1908 the worst of the crisis was over, though the national economy continued to be in a recession. The Knickerbocker crisis led to the creation of a government commission to examine the causes of the near collapse of the banking system, which in turn led to recommendations to establish the Federal Reserve System.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
American heroes returning from World War I faced an economic downturn as sharp as any in American history. Wikimedia

8. The first Great Depression followed the end of the First World War

It is widely believed that the American doughboys returned triumphantly from the fields of France to find the United States enmeshed in the pleasures of Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties, a happy time of jazz, jitterbugging, and bathtub gin. In truth, from early 1920 until mid-summer of 1921, the economy of the United States, as well as most of the globe, was locked in a deep recession. The surge of returning troops found a less than welcoming jobs market, exacerbated by the need to retool from war production to peace time. Wholesale prices in America’s markets fell by more than 35%, the largest drop in American history to that time, and larger than in any year of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The stock market slumped dramatically, reaching a loss of 47% at its nadir in August, 1921.

President Woodrow Wilson’s administration was slow to identify the causes of the recession as well as in implementing steps to combat it, in part because of his concern over the long-term peace he envisioned for the world through his League of Nations. The recently established Federal Reserve (1914) attempted to combat rampant deflation by raising interest rates, making money even more difficult to obtain, and adding to the problems stagnating the economy. Similar downturns in the economies of Europe, many of them shattered by the recently ended war, contributed to the lack of trade and the subsequent decrease in funds through tariffs. During the recession the rate of business failures in the United States tripled, and those businesses which managed to survive the brutal, albeit brief downturn, saw their profits decline by more than 75%.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The 1929 Wall Street crash ended a period of financial speculation funded with largely borrowed and unsecured money. Wikimedia

9. The 1929 Wall Street Collapse

From what became known as Black Thursday, October 24, 1929 through Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange – the barometer for the American economy – crashed dramatically and catastrophically, ending the period of history known as the Roaring Twenties and ushering in the Great Depression. It also ushered in the era of direct government intervention in the financial lives of citizens (Social Security and other programs) and infrastructure, (the NRA, CCC, TVA, and other agencies). Federal regulation and oversight of banks and financial markets became part of the American culture. Only one month earlier, the London Stock Market had suffered a similar meltdown, with repercussions throughout the British Empire – in other words, across the globe. The entire world, with but few exceptions, entered into a depression, which lasted more than a decade in some cases.

Signs of impending trouble for the economy were visible the preceding spring, but were ignored by investors, including the nation’s banks, who believed that the stock market would continue to rise. In March it was evident that automobile sales and production were in decline. So were farm production, steel production, and construction. Cheaply available credit had eroded personal savings and increased personal debt. Even the collapse of the London Stock Market in September did little to dissuade Americans from investing in stocks and bonds, it merely convinced them to invest in the New York market, rather than overseas. When the NYSE crashed, billions of dollars in speculative profits were lost, as was investment capital, and the wholly avoidable debacle shattered public confidence in the nation’s banking and financial systems.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The United States was wholly unprepared for the global financial catastrophe of the Great Depression when it struck in the 1930s. FDR Presidential Library

10. The Great Depression Part 1

The Great Depression which followed the Roaring Twenties and served as a predecessor era for the Second World War was a time of great change in the United States. The federal government became a factor in the daily lives of Americans in a way never before felt. Federal programs were installed to support education for all, income for all, employment for all. Hoover Dam and Mount Rushmore were built. The US Highway System was born, and the rudimentary studies for what eventually became the Interstate Highway System were begun. Many federal (and state and local) programs were established to ease the effects of the depression, but few which were intended to end the downturn were able to contribute to that goal. Events made it virtually impossible.

The destruction dealt to America’s farmland in the Dust Bowl years of the thirties were natural disasters to which man contributed through inadequate irrigation methods. When the high winds came to strip away the top soil they added to the misery of the depression, as well as to the difficulties in surmounting it. Federal efforts to battle the depression were for the most part directed towards easing its immediate effects and preventing a recurrence of such a debilitating disaster. Such efforts included federal insurance of deposits in banks and savings and loans. Along with them came increased federal regulations of banks and lenders, as well as the stock market itself. Conservatives virulently opposed what they saw as federal intrusion upon private business, and attempts to stimulate the American economy were routinely blocked in Congress.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The single most debilitating factor of the Great Depression was unemployment on a massive scale. FDR Presidential Library

11. The Great Depression Part 2

The Great Depression of the 1930s revealed to the world as never before the interdependency of the world’s economies upon each other. In the United Kingdom, the epicenter of the largest empire in the history of the world, the depression was initially hard felt, largely due to the loss of trade between the UK and the Americas. As in the United States, the British government initiated programs for the assistance of the particularly hard hit. Unemployment compensation – which came to be called the dole – in the United Kingdom was established and continually tweaked by His Majesty’s government. One of the tweaks was a requirement known as the Means Test, established in 1931 in order to control the amount of money paid as unemployment within the British Isles.

Means tests for unemployment led to protests within the UK, which in turn led to riots. The rise of two major political parties in Europe, Fascism in Italy and Spain and Nazism in Germany, became a concern to the British government, and to a lesser extent the United States. Fear of communism also emerged, exacerbated by the debilitating effects of the global depression. Both the United States and Great Britain embarked on major shipbuilding programs, hoping not only to modernize their aging naval fleets, but also to stimulate shipbuilding, coal, rail, steel, and other industries. By the late 1930s the United States had over fifteen capital ships under construction, the United Kingdom more than two dozen. Still, the depression dragged on.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
In Germany the Great Depression helped the Nazi Party to consolidate its power through the promises of jobs and prosperity. Wikimedia

12. The Great Depression in Germany

Germany, its economy all but destroyed by the inflation which followed the First World War and the Weimar Republic, was hit badly by the Great Depression, in particular because of its impact on American banks which had lent money to help the German government pay war reparations. By 1931 the German economy was all but abandoned by international investors, and the government of the United States proposed a suspension of reparations, an act which the French opposed virulently. The harsh reprisals and the actions of the European allies which strove to enforce the punitive Treaty of Versailles provided a propaganda windfall for the rising Nazi party, which also took the opportunity to blame international Jewish bankers for the nation’s economic woes. Unemployment in Germany reached the level of 30% in 1932. The Nazis, supporters of government sponsored labor programs, gained significant support among workers.

By 1935, the Nazis were in power, and the government sponsored programs which put people to work and helped them gain further credibility among political moderates. Contrary to popular belief, Hitler and the Nazi party did not create the public works project which led to the construction of the Autobahn, but they wholeheartedly endorsed it, as well as other internal infrastructure projects. It would be a stretch to claim that the Great Depression created Hitler’s Germany, but it went a long way towards legitimizing his regime in the eyes of the German people. After 1935 Hitler’s military rebuilding programs further bolstered the economy, and by the end of the decade German shipyards, railroads, electrical generation and distribution grids, and other industries were the envy of Europe, with political states such as Czechoslovakia, Austria, and the former Rhineland contributing significantly to Germany’s recovery.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
Paris, like the rest of France, managed to avoid the worst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Wikimedia

13. France during the Great Depression

Perhaps no other European nation other than Belgium suffered greater damage to its infrastructure than France during World War I. Yet the Great Depression was felt less there than in most of the rest of Western Europe. France, unlike the rest of the Western economies, was not struck with a severe banking crisis, nor even a mild one, in terms of reduced credit and runs on banks. The French economy was more self-sufficient than that of its allies, which relied on trade for economic survival. French farms fed the French people, French factories provided them with French built automobiles and consumer products, which were carried on French railroads. French investors for the most part did not speculate in stocks during the 1920s, instead putting their money into gold during the years of the Roaring Twenties, which established them in the market which became a refuge after stocks collapsed.

The French also did not see the rampant unemployment which struck during the depression of the 1930s, in part because the French workforce had suffered so badly during the First World War. The relative lack of manpower allowed the French economy to operate at nearly full employment throughout the economic downturn of the 1930s. It also drove the French to modernize business operations to achieve peak production with fewer workers well ahead of the Americans and the British. France led the world, or nearly did so, in the production of raw materials such as iron and coal, despite having reduced work forces in nearly all industries for much of the 1930s. Before the end of the 1930s, and the German invasion in the spring of 1940, France became the largest holder of gold bullion in the world, not so much surviving the Great Depression as avoiding its worst effects.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The British government took steps to alleviate the effects of the Depression despite protests from many that the government was becoming socialist. Wikimedia

14. Great Britain during the Great Depression

Great Britain had not recovered from the cost and the casualties of the First World War when the Great Depression struck it hard, forcing the Empire to abandon the gold standard by 1931 after investors began removing their deposits from British banks. The government attempted to balance the national budget as well as cut unemployment benefits to prevent economic collapse. The industrial north of the British Isles was the hardest hit; trade was severely curtailed as exports dwindled, and the trickle down of unemployment hit the shipping and transportation industries with a vengeance. In industrial Glasgow, more than 30% of the workforce was idled by 1933. Shipbuilding, long a major industry along Scotland’s Clydebank, and Liverpool’s Merseyside, declined by as much as 90% when the depression was at its height.

Southern England and the region of the country known as the Midlands was far less hard hit, with industries which built consumer goods such as refrigerators, radios, ranges (the English call them cookers), and automobiles actually achieving modest growth. Agriculture also flourished. As in the United States, a program was initiated by His Majesty’s government in which young men were enrolled and sent to work camps, from which they worked on infrastructure projects such as roads, small dams, and airfields, many of which became aerodromes supporting the RAF and later the USAAF in the following decade. Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard also allowed the government to borrow money more liberally in the decade following the depression, when it was forced to deal with the expenses of the Second World War.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
FDR’s efforts to battle the Great Depression remain controversial over eight decades later, despite the legacy of Social Security and other programs. FDR Presidential Library

15. The Great Depression was actually a series of recessions, interspersed with economic growth

The argument is frequently made, particularly by those who oppose the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that his efforts did nothing to end the depression, much to worsen it, and that it was World War II which brought it to a close. That argument is simplistic. The Great Depression was a series of economic downturns, the first of which was for the most part ended by 1936, when leading economic indicators had achieved the same levels as during the boom years of the preceding decade. Unemployment, still high at 11%, had nonetheless been reduced from its peak of 25% during 1933. Federal spending was at a deficit however, which critics of the president condemned as unsustainably high. In 1937 Roosevelt cut spending and raised taxes with the intent of bringing the federal budget into balance.

The result was another downturn, which was severe, and which sent repercussions around the globe via America’s trading partners. For just over a year, well into 1938, American production slumped. Manufacturing fell back to levels not seen since the worst of the depression, and unemployment again climbed to frightening levels. By the late spring of 1938 the economy again began to rebound but the sharpness of the recession emboldened FDR’s critics in Congress and the press, and attempts to create further government agencies to stimulate the economy were attacked as socialism, including the recently passed legislation which created Social Security.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
There was never a shortage of gasoline during the war, but it was rationed in part to encourage the conservation of rubber. Wikimedia

16. World War II led to further global economic crises

It was the Second World War which brought the United States to virtually full employment, a goal which proved elusive throughout the 1930s, though the privations experienced by citizens were often worse than those felt during the Depression. During the war items such as butter, meat, eggs, cheese, milk, and other foodstuffs were rationed. Consumer products were scarce. Rubber was rationed, which led to the rationing of gasoline, not because gasoline was scarce (it wasn’t) but to prevent unnecessary travel from causing undue wear on tires. Even by rail and via the relatively new means of travelling by commercial aviation trips were prioritized via government action. Workers were exhorted to spend their paychecks through the purchase of war bonds, and with little else available to buy, many did.

An often overlooked impact of the Great Depression on American society is the manner in which it dictated government policy following the Second World War. The number of returning servicemen and women was recognized as potentially creating a strain on the economy, as workers returned to civilian life needing jobs, as well as housing. Worker’s jobs were protected, and programs were established to provide educational benefits, as well as housing. The idea was to create additional jobs which hadn’t existed prior to the war, in construction of houses, schools, and whole new communities as well as the roads and other infrastructure to connect them. Through action of the federal government, the generation whose parents had lived through the Great Depression were presented government programs which were designed to prevent another downturn of equal devastation.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
After a brief but sharp recession following the war, the American economy rebounded robustly in the late 1940s. Wikimedia

17. Post World War II recession and recovery

Unlike Europe, which found its cities and infrastructure devastated after the Second World War, the United States was possessed of an economy running at full employment, modernized factories, and a shipping and transportation network unlike any ever seen before. But it was entirely designed for war production, and converting it to commercial production was problematic. The rest of the world would continue to need American raw materials and finished products, particularly heavy machinery, to rebuild and to feed its people. The greatest issue facing the United States, economically speaking, was employing and housing its returning veterans. War production ceased almost immediately. Workers were laid off as manufacturers retooled.

Before the war was over, with the defeat of Japan a foregone conclusion among many, the American economy shifted into a recession as government spending dropped rapidly. Unemployment for the most part remained low, in part because many returning veterans either enrolled in school under the GI Bill or opted to join what was euphemistically called the 52-20 club, receiving $20 per week ($280 today) for a full year without the requirement of searching for work. Rationing of most commodities remained in place for a time (in the UK rationing of some items continued until the 1960s). A complete economic collapse in post-war Europe was avoided through the implementation of the Marshall Plan, which supported the reconstruction of the war-torn continent.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
A red flag meant no gas in Oregon filling stations as the OPEC nations learned just how much control they could exert over the global economy. Wikimedia

18. Later twentieth century economic downturns

Since the end of the Second World War and the rebuilding of the modern economies of Europe and Asia, periodic economic downturns have been referred to as recessions, reserving the term depression for the great financial crisis of the 1930s. Most have been caused by manipulation of either interest rates or oil prices. Oil prices themselves have been manipulated via geopolitical means (such as the Suez Crisis or the Iranian Revolution) or via simply the recognition by the suppliers that greater profits were there to he had. For example, in 1973 the cartel known as OPED took steps which eventually quadrupled the price of oil, a deliberate act of retaliation against the nations which had either overtly or covertly supported Israel during that year’s Yom Kippur War. It was the first instance of oil being used as an economic weapon against the west by Mideast nations, an arrangement formalized by Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal.

The American stock market was already in free-fall when the oil crisis began, and the collapse continued throughout 1974. At the same time, rampant inflation ravaged the American economy, as well as those of western allies. The OPEC nations, as a result of the global financial crisis they instigated, discovered that they were the source of vast wealth. Much of that wealth went to the purchase of weapons in deals with the western nations held hostage by their dependence on oil, and the weapons went far in supporting the spread of radical Islamic theology, particularly in the case of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism. During the crisis – the first so-called oil crisis – the price of gasoline increased 43% in the United States, the possibility of gasoline rationing was openly and seriously discussed in Congress, and the American people were exhorted to conserve fuel for the first time since the end of the Second World War.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
Cooking on a woodburning stove which also supplied heat to a single attic room was an alternatve for some during the first of what became several oil crises during the late twentieth century. National Archives

19. The United Kingdom fuel crisis of 1974

Coincident with the oil crisis in the United States, the United Kingdom faced an energy crisis of its own. Gasoline (America’s British cousins call it petrol) had always cost more, and was consumed less, in the United Kingdom than in America. Coal remained the primary source of heating fuel for homes and businesses. Nevertheless, the oil crisis affected the British as well, and the sudden increase in oil prices coincided with a coal strike which was supported by mine workers who dug the coal and the railroad workers who shipped it to market. The crisis was so severe in the United Kingdom that the government fell, requiring special elections to form a new government during the winter of 1973-74. The British government asked British citizens to conserve by limiting the number of rooms within their homes which were heated over the course of the winter.

European customers for British coal were forced to cut back on consumption of all fuels as well, including the consumption of “petrol”. Recreational driving was discouraged in several European countries, including across Scandinavia and in West Germany. The use of boats for non-commercial purposes was banned outright, and eventually driving on Sunday was banned except for those requiring their automobile to commute to and from work. Electrical consumption was rationed in several countries, since most electricity in Europe was at the time generated by burning coal. In the Netherlands, the penalty for exceeding one’s allotted ration was incarceration. The year 1974 was the first in which a global financial crisis was deliberately created through manipulation of oil, but it was not the last.

Greed Created These Horrific Financial Crises
The attainment of wealth through stock speculation remains a lure for investors despite the list of cautionary tales history provides. Wikimedia

20. Post 1970s financial crises

Since the oil crises of the early 1970s the global economy has lurched between times of growth and tightening, with most of the periods of recession triggered by the same factors which have had a negative effect since the days of the tulip crisis. Unrestrained speculation and greed, the use of other people’s money to create speculative wealth, and geopolitical ambition have all led to smaller investors being wiped out, banks closing their doors rather than honoring their obligations, and governments to intervene, often with less than desirable results. According to a longstanding axiom, the lack of money is the root of all evil. When it comes to financial catastrophe, often the creation of money has been the foundation of evil, at least as applied to the accumulation of wealth.

The next financial crisis, whenever and wherever it emerges, will undoubtedly be born of the same pattern, and will be manipulated and taken advantage of by money-lenders, politicians, and pundits. As with all past financial crises, fortunes will be lost by many while made by a few. Some will demand government action to restrain the causes of the crisis, while others will excoriate government as the cause of the crisis, demanding that the free market be allowed to correct itself on its own. Unrestrained markets have always and will always be targets for those who believe that manipulation and speculation are the keys to the accumulation of wealth, and as such financial markets and the global economy will always be vulnerable to the vagaries of the human condition.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Tulipmania: Money, honor, and knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age”. Anne Goldgar. 2007

“The South Sea Bubble”. Ellen Castelow, Historic UK. Online

“The Panic of 1819: The First Great Depression”. Andrew H. Browning. 2019

“Banking Panics of the Gilded Age”. Gary Richardson and Tim Sablik, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Federal Reserve History. Online

“Free banking gone awry: the Australian banking crisis of 1893”. C. R Hickson and J. D. Turner, Financial History Review Volume 9. 2002

“Panic of 1901”. Online

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