I recently finished reading a book on the South Sea Bubble. I was surprised at how fascinating it was. I have heard of the South Sea Bubble before, but I couldn’t really tell you much about it. I knew that it happened in the early 1700s and there was also something called a Mississippi Bubble. However, I couldn’t make a distinction between the two, until now.
The book is The South Sea Bubble: An economic history of its origins and consequences by Helen J. Paul (2011). She is an economic historian interested in Cliometric analysis (the application of statistical techniques to history). Using statistical analysis to analyze history is, from the Austrian point of view, entirely appropriate. In fact, it is really the only legitimate use of statistics.
Anyway, to the story…
Imagine a country that has been in and out of wars year after year. As a consequence, an enormous debt has accumulated and is difficult to pay off. (Stretches the imagination doesn’t it?) This was the situation that both England and France found themselves in the early 1700s. In England, some of the debt could be paid-off early, but not all of it and not without the permission of the creditor. Furthermore, this debt was between the King and the individual and could not be traded. In other words, if the King borrowed £1000 from you, he owed you. You could not sell that debt to another, and if the King died then the debt was cancelled. With all this debt hanging overhead, how does a King borrow more money to fight more wars? The solution came in three forms: the conversion of the King’s debt into the nation’s debt, the creation of paper money and with it the establishment of the Bank of England (as a central bank), and the chartering of a monopoly company.
The monopoly company was the South Sea Company. Read More→