Tulip mania: the classic story of a Dutch financial bubble is mostly wrong – Mostly Economics
Mostly Economics

Tulip mania: the classic story of a Dutch financial bubble is mostly wrong

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Oh boy there is so much to figure.

This piece by Prof Anne Goldar of Kings College just shook me a bit. For long one has read and wrote about the Dutch tulip mania and compared all the ongoing manias and frenzies to the tulip episode. However, this work by Prof Goldar says most things attributed to tulip mania are plain wrong:

Tulip mania was irrational, the story goes. Tulip mania was a frenzy. Everyone in the Netherlands was involved, from chimney-sweeps to aristocrats. The same tulip bulb, or rather tulip future, was traded sometimes 10 times a day. No one wanted the bulbs, only the profits – it was a phenomenon of pure greed. Tulips were sold for crazy prices – the price of houses – and fortunes were won and lost. It was the foolishness of newcomers to the market that set off the crash in February 1637. Desperate bankrupts threw themselves in canals. The government finally stepped in and ceased the trade, but not before the economy of Holland was ruined.

Yes, it makes an exciting story. The trouble is, most of it is untrue.

My years of research in Dutch archives while working on a book, Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, told me a different story. It was just as illuminating, but it was different.

Tulip mania wasn’t irrational. Tulips were a newish luxury product in a country rapidly expanding its wealth and trade networks. Many more people could afford luxuries – and tulips were seen as beautiful, exotic, and redolent of the good taste and learning displayed by well-educated members of the merchant class. Many of those who bought tulips also bought paintings or collected rarities like shells.

Prices rose, because tulips were hard to cultivate in a way that brought out the popular striped or speckled petals, and they were still rare. But it wasn’t irrational to pay a high price for something that was generally considered valuable, and for which the next person might pay even more.

 

Tulip mania wasn’t a frenzy, either. In fact, for much of the period trading was relatively calm, located in taverns and neighbourhoods rather than on the stock exchange. It also became increasingly organised, with companies set up in various towns to grow, buy, and sell, and committees of experts emerged to oversee the trade. Far from bulbs being traded hundreds of times, I never found a chain of buyers longer than five, and most were far shorter.

Further:

Prices could be high, but mostly they weren’t. Although it’s true that the most expensive tulips of all cost around 5,000 guilders (the price of a well-appointed house), I was able to identify only 37 people who spent more than 300 guilders on bulbs, around the yearly wage of a master craftsman. Many tulips were far cheaper. With one or two exceptions, these top buyers came from the wealthy merchant class and were well able to afford the bulbs. Far from every chimneysweep or weaver being involved in the trade, the numbers were relatively small, mainly from the merchant and skilled artisan class – and many of the buyers and sellers were connected to each other by family, religion, or neighbourhood. Sellers mainly sold to people they knew.

When the crash came, it was not because of naive and uninformed people entering the market, but probably through fears of oversupply and the unsustainability of the great price rise in the first five weeks of 1637. None of the bulbs were actually available – they were all planted in the ground – and no money would be exchanged until the bulbs could be handed over in May or June. So those who lost money in the February crash did so only notionally: they might not get paid later. Anyone who had both bought and sold a tulip on paper since the summer of 1636 had lost nothing. Only those waiting for payment were in trouble, and they were people able to bear the loss.

No one drowned themselves in canals. I found not a single bankrupt in these years who could be identified as someone dealt the fatal financial blow by tulip mania. If tulip buyers and sellers appear in the bankruptcy records, it’s because they were buying houses and goods of other people who had gone bankrupt for some reason – they still had plenty of money to spend. The Dutch economy was left completely unaffected. 

She says despite all this, the myth of the mania continues thanks to some writers and popular media.

So don’t attribute the crypto mania to tulip mania:

It was not actually the case that newcomers to the market caused the crash, or that foolishness and greed overtook those who traded in tulips. But this, and the possible social and cultural changes stemming from massive shifts in the distribution of wealth, were fears then and are fears now. Tulip mania gets brought up again and again, as a warning to investors not to be stupid, or to stay away from what some might call a good thing. But tulip mania was a historical event in a historical context, and whatever it is, Bitcoin is not tulip mania 2.0.

Actually, same logic could be applied to crypto-currencies as well. Very few are holding these currencies and there is a problem of oversupply of these currencies.

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