Friday, November 14, 2008

Panic of 1873

"The New York Weekly Witness newspaper for September 27, 1873 contains extensive reporting on the calamitous 1873 financial panic precipitated primarily by the bankruptcy of robber baron financier Jay Cooke due to his over extension and inability to raise capital during the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

This newspaper was published the week following Cooke’s declaration of bankruptcy, an event which sent the world financial system into tumult resulting in large scale bank failures and heralded the onset of a prolonged period of economic distress. This newspaper contains a long list of national, state and private banks affected as well as other detailed reports on the panic as it unfolded."

The following is some information on the 1873 panic from Wikipedia:

The Panic of 1873 was the start of the Long Depression, a severe nationwide economic depression in the United States that lasted until 1879. It was precipitated by the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia banking firm Jay Cooke on September 18, 1873, following the crash on May 9, 1873 of the Vienna Stock Exchange in Austria (the so-called Gründerkrach or “founders' crash”). It was one of a series of economic crises in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In September 1873, the American economy entered a crisis. This followed a period of post Civil War economic overexpansion that arose from the Northern railroad boom. It came at the end of a series of economic setbacks: the Black Friday panic of 1869, the Chicago fire of 1871, the outbreak of equine influenza in 1872, and the demonetization of silver in 1873.

The Black Friday panic was caused by the attempt of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk to corner the gold market in 1869. They were prevented from doing so by the decision of the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant to release government gold for sale. The drive culminated in a day of panic when thousands were ruined - Friday, September 24, 1869, popularly called Black Friday. There was great indignation against the perpetrators.

Coming at the height of an extemely dry period, the Chicago fire of October 8-9, 1871, caused a loss of nearly $200 million in property in a blaze that overran four square miles. Its effect was compounded by simultaneous fires at Holland, Michigan, Manistee, Michigan, and Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The lumbering industry boomed as Chicago rebuilt, but other sectors of the economy were disordered by the financial losses incurred in the series of fires.

The outbreak of equine influenza in 1872 had a pervasive effect on the economy. Called the “ Great Epizoötic”, it had an effect on every aspect of American transportation. The whole street railway industry ground to a halt. Locomotives came to a halt as coal or wood could not be delivered to power them. Even the United States Army Cavalry was reduced to fighting the Western tribes on foot; their adversaries likewise found their mounts too sick to do battle. The outbreak forced men to pull wagons by hand, while trains and ships full of cargo sat unloaded, tram cars stood idle and deliveries of basic community essentials were no longer being made. The effect this disease had on the US economy should not be understated.

The Coinage Act of 1873 changed the United States policy with respect to silver. Before the Act, the United States had backed its currency with both gold and silver, and it minted both types of coins. The Act moved the United States to the gold standard, which meant it would no longer buy silver at a statutory price or convert silver from the public into silver coins (and stopped minting silver dollars altogether.)

The Act had the immediate effect of depressing silver prices. This hurt Western mining interests, who labeled the Act "The Crime of '73." Its effect was offset somewhat by the introduction of a silver trade dollar for use in the Orient, and by the discovery of new silver deposits at Virginia City, Nevada, resulting in new investment in mining activity.[3] But the coinage law also reduced the domestic money supply, which hurt farmers and anyone else who carried heavy debt loads. The resulting outcry raised serious questions about how long the new policy would last.[4] This perception of instability in United States monetary policy caused investors to shy away from long-term obligations, particularly long-term bonds. The problem was compounded by the railroad boom, which was in its later stages at the time.

At the end of the Civil War, there was a boom in railroad construction, with 35,000 miles (56,000 km) of new track laid across the country between 1866 and 1873. The railroad industry, at the time the nation's largest employer outside of agriculture, involved large amounts of money and risk. A large infusion of cash from speculators caused abnormal growth in the industry and overbuilding of docks, factories and ancillary facilities. At the same time, too much capital was involved in projects offering no immediate or early returns.

In September 1873, Jay Cooke & Company, a major component of the United States' banking establishment, found itself unable to market several million dollars in Northern Pacific Railway bonds. Cooke's firm, like many others, was invested heavily in the railroads. At a time when investment banks were anxious for more capital for their enterprises, President Ulysses S. Grant's monetary policy of contracting the money supply made matters worse. While businesses were expanding, the money they needed to finance that growth was becoming more scarce.

Cooke and other entrepreneurs had planned to build the nation's second transcontinental railroad, called the Northern Pacific Railway. Cooke's firm provided the financing, and ground was broken near Duluth, Minnesota, for the line on February 15, 1870. But just as Cooke was about to swing a $300 million government loan in September 1873, reports circulated that his firm's credit had become nearly worthless. On September 18, the firm declared bankruptcy. The Northern Pacific would not be completed until 1883, and then by another financier: Henry Villard.

A similar process of overexpansion was going on in Germany and Austria, where the period from German unification in 1870-71 to the crash in 1873 came to be called the Gründerjahre or "founders' years." A liberalized incorporation law in Germany led to the founding of new enterprises, such as the Deutsche Bank, as well as the incorporation of established ones. Euphoria over the military victory against France in 1871, combined with the influx of capital from the payment by France of war reparations, encouraged stock market speculation in railways, factories, docks, steamships - in short, the same areas of overexpansion as in the United States.

On May 9, 1873, the Vienna Stock Exchange crashed, no longer able to sustain false expansion, insolvency, and dishonest manipulations. A series of Viennese bank failures resulted, causing a contraction of the money available for business lending. In Berlin, the railway empire of Bethel Henry Strousberg crashed, bursting the speculation bubble there. The contraction of the German economy was exacerbated by the conclusion of war reparations payments to Germany by France in September 1873. Coming two years after the founding of the German Empire, the panic became known as the Gründerkrach or "founders' crash"