The South Sea Company

The South Sea Company

: " For the Noel Coward play, see: South Sea Bubble (play)."The South Sea Bubble of 1720, was an economic bubble that occurred through speculation in the stock of "The South Sea Company." The company had been granted a monopoly to trade with South America under a treaty with Spain whilst the company assumed the national debt of England.

Initial stages

The company, established in 1711 by the Lord Treasurer, Robert Harley, was granted exclusive trading rights in Spanish South America. At that time, when continental America itself was being explored and settled, the term "South Seas" applied to South America and surrounding waters and to no other ocean. The trading rights were pre-supposed on the successful conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession, which did not end until 1713, and the actual treaty granted rights were not as comprehensive as Harley had originally hoped.

Harley needed to provide a mechanism for funding government debt incurred in the course of that war. However, he could not establish a bank, because the charter of the Bank of England made it the only joint stock bank. He therefore established what, on its face, was a trading company, though its main activity was in fact the funding of government debt.

In return for its exclusive trading rights the government saw an opportunity for a profitable trade-off. The government and the company convinced the holders of around £10 million of short-term government debt to exchange it with a new issue of stock in the company. In exchange, the government granted the company a perpetual annuity from the government paying £576,534 annually on the company's books, or a perpetual loan of £10 million paying 6%. This guaranteed the new equity owners a steady stream of earnings to this new venture. The government thought it was in a win-win situation because it would fund the interest payment by placing a tariff on the goods brought from South America

The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 granted the company the right to send one trading ship per year, the 'Navío de Permiso', (though this was in practice accompanied by two 'tenders') and the 'Asiento', the contract to supply the Spanish colonies with slaves.

The company did not undertake a trading voyage to South America until 1717 and made little actual profit. Furthermore, when ties between Spain and Britain deteriorated in 1718 the short-term prospects of the company were very poor. Nonetheless, the company continued to argue that its longer-term future would be extremely profitable.

Debt for equity

In 1717 the company took on a further £2 million of public debt. The rationale in all these transactions was to the
* Government: lower interest rate on its debt
* South Sea Company (owners): a steady stream of earnings
* Government Debt Holder: upside potential in a promising enterprise

Slave trading

Most commentary on the South Sea Company focuses on the money lost by English investors. The primary trading business of the company was the forced transportation of people purchased in West Africa and then selling them into slavery in the Americas. In fact, the most important aspect of the company's monopoly trading rights to the Spanish empire was the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht's slave trading 'Asiento' which granted the exclusive right to sell slaves in all of American colonies.

The Asiento set a quota of selling 4800 people into slavery a year. Despite its problems with speculation, the South Sea Company was relatively successful at selling people into slavery and meeting its quota (it was unusual for other, similarly chartered companies to fulfill their quotas). According to records compiled by [ David Eltis] et al, during the course of 96 voyages in twenty-five years, the South Sea Company purchased 34,000 slaves of whom 30,000 survived the voyages across the Atlantic.

The mortality rate of about 11% was relatively low for ships participating in the middle passage and indicates that the organization was a relatively efficient slave trader. Employees, directors and investors overcame major obstacles in order to pursue the slave trade, including two wars with Spain and the 1720 bubble. The company sold its largest number of slaves during the 1725 trading year, five years after the bubble burst.

Trading more debt for equity

In 1719 the company proposed a scheme by which it would buy more than half the national debt of Britain (£30,981,712), again with new shares, and a promise to the government that the debt would be converted to a lower interest rate, 5% until 1727 and 4% per year thereafter.

The purpose of this conversion was similar to the old one: it would allow a conversion of high interest, but difficult to trade debt, into low interest, readily marketable debt/shares of the South Sea Company. All parties could gain.

For a clarification of the situation the total government debt in 1719 was £50 million:

* £18.3m was held by three large corporations:
** £3.4m by the Bank of England.
** £3.2m by the British East India Company.
** £11.7m by the South Sea Company.
* Privately held redeemable debt amounted to £16.5m.
* £15m consisted of irredeemable annuities, long fixed-term annuities of 72-87 years and short annuities of 22 years remaining maturity.

The Bank of England proposed a similar competing offer, which did not prevail when the South Sea raised its bid to £7.5m (plus approximately £1.3m in bribes). The proposal was accepted in a slightly altered form in April 1720. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Aislabie, was a strong supporter of the scheme.

Crucial in this conversion was the proportion of holders of irredeemable annuities that could be tempted to convert their securities at a high price for the new shares. (Holders of redeemable debt had effectively no other choice but to subscribe.) The South Sea Company could set the conversion price but could obviously not diverge a lot from the market price of its shares.

The company ultimately acquired 85% of the redeemables and 80% of the irredeemables.

Buoying the share price

The company then set to talking up its stock with "the most extravagant rumours" of the value of its potential trade in the New World which was followed by a wave of "speculating frenzy". The share price had risen from the time the scheme was proposed: from £128 in January 1720, to £175 in February, £330 in March and, following the scheme's acceptance, to £550 at the end of May.

What may have supported the company's high multiples (its P/E ratio) was a fund of credit (known to the market) of £70 million available for commercial expansion which had been made available through substantial support, apparently, by Parliament and the King.

Shares in the company were "sold" to politicians at the current market price; however, rather than paying for the shares, these lucky recipients simply held on to what shares they had been offered, "sold" them back to the company when and as they chose, and received as ‘profit’ the increase in market price. This method, while winning over the heads of government, the King's mistress, etc., also had the advantage of binding their interests to the interests of the Company: in order to secure their own profits, they had to help drive up the stock. Meanwhile, by publicizing the names of their elite stockholders, the Company managed to clothe itself in an aura of legitimacy, which attracted and kept other buyers.

Bubble Act

A number of other joint-stock companies then joined the market, making usually fraudulent claims about other foreign ventures or bizarre schemes, and were nicknamed "bubbles".

In June, 1720, the Royal Exchange and London Assurance Corporation Act 1719 (repealed in 1825) required all joint-stock companies to have a Royal Charter. This became known as the "Bubble Act" later, after the speculative bubble had burst. The South Seas Company held a charter providing exclusive access to all of Middle and South America. However, the areas in question were Spanish colonies, and Great Britain was then at war with Spain. Even once a peace treaty had been signed, relations between the two countries were not good. The best terms that the South Sea Company was able to obtain allowed them to send only one ship per year to Spain’s American colonies (not one ship per colony; exactly one ship), carrying a cargo of not more than 500 tons. Additional wrangling won the company the right to transport slaves, although steep import duties made the slave trade entirely unprofitable.

The grant of a charter to the South Sea Company was an added boost, its shares leaping to £890 in early June. This peak encouraged people to start to sell; to counterbalance this the company's directors ordered their agents to buy, which succeeded in propping the price up at around £750.

Top reached

The price of the stock went up over the course of a single year from about one hundred pounds a share to almost one thousand pounds per share. Its success caused a country-wide frenzy as all types of people – from peasants to lords – developed a feverish interest in investing; in South Seas primarily, but in stocks generally. Among the many companies to go public in 1720 is – famously – one that advertised itself as "a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is". [Charles Mackay, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" (Harriman House Classics 2003), p. 65 & 71.]

The price finally reached £1,000 in early August and the level of selling was such that the price started to fall, dropping back to one hundred pounds per share before the year was out, triggering bankruptcies amongst those who had bought on credit, and increasing selling, even short selling - selling borrowed shares in the hope of buying them back at a profit if the price falls.

Also, in August 1720 the first of the installment payments of the first and second money subscriptions on new issues of South Sea stock were due. Earlier in the year Blunt had come up with an idea to prop up the share price — the company would lend people money to buy its shares. As a result, a lot of shareholders could not pay for their shares other than by selling them.

Furthermore, the scramble for liquidity appeared internationally as "bubbles" were also ending in Amsterdam and Paris. The collapse coincided with the fall of the Mississippi Scheme of John Law in France. As a result, the price of South Sea shares began to decline.

By the end of September the stock had fallen to £150. The company failures now extended to banks and goldsmiths as they could not collect loans made on the stock, and thousands of individuals were ruined (including many members of the aristocracy). With investors outraged, Parliament was recalled in December and an investigation began. Reporting in 1721, it revealed widespread fraud amongst the company directors and corruption in the Cabinet. Among those implicated were John Aislabie (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), James Craggs the Elder (the Postmaster General), James Craggs the Younger (the Southern Secretary), and even Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland (the heads of the Ministry). Craggs the Elder and Craggs the Younger both died in disgrace; the remainder were impeached for their corruption. Aislabie was imprisoned.

The newly appointed First Lord of the Treasury Robert Walpole was forced to introduce a series of measures to restore public confidence. Under the guidance of Walpole, Parliament attempted to deal with the financial crisis. The estates of the directors of the company were confiscated and used to relieve the suffering of the victims, and the stock of the South Sea Company was divided between the Bank of England and East India Company. The crisis had significantly damaged the credibility of the King and of the Whig Party.


The company continued its trade (when not interrupted by war) until the end of the Seven Years' War. However, its main function was always managing government debt, rather than trading with the Spanish colonies. The South Sea Company continued its management of the part of the National Debt until it was abolished in the 1850s.

Quotes on the bubble

Joseph Spence wrote that Lord Radnor reported to him "When Sir Isaac Newton was asked about the continuance of the rising of South Sea stock.....He answered 'that he could not calculate the madness of people'. (Spence, Anecdotes, 1820, p368); Newton's niece Catherine Conduitt reported that he had participated and "lost twenty thousand pounds. Of this, however, he never much liked to hear..." (Wm Seward, Anecdotes of distinguished Men, 1804); this was a fortune at the time but it is not clear whether it was a monetary loss or an 'opportunity-cost' loss.


Further reading

*cite book |title=The South Sea Bubble |last=Carswell |first=John |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1960 |publisher=Cresset Press |location=London |isbn= |pages=
*cite book |title=The Great Swindle: The Story of the South Sea Bubble |last=Cowles |first=Virginia |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1960 |publisher=Harper |location=New York |isbn= |pages=
*cite journal |last=Dale |first=Richard S. |authorlink= |coauthors="et al." |year=2005 |month= |title=Financial markets can go mad: evidence of irrational behaviour during the South Sea Bubble |journal=The Economic History Review |volume=58 |issue=2 |pages=233–271 |doi=10.1111/j.1468-0289.2005.00304.x |url= |accessdate= |quote=
*cite journal |last=Shea |first=Gary S. |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2007 |month= |title=Understanding financial derivatives during the South Sea Bubble: The case of the South Sea subscription shares |journal=Oxford Economic Papers |volume=59 |issue=Supplement 1 |pages=i73-i104 |doi=10.1093/oep/gpm031 |url= |accessdate= |quote=
*cite journal |last=Temin |first=Peter |authorlink= |coauthors=Voth, Hans-Joachim |year=2004 |month= |title=Riding the South Sea Bubble |journal=American Economic Review |volume=94 |issue=5 |pages=1654–1668 |doi=10.1257/0002828043052268 |url= |accessdate= |quote=


*cite book |title=A Conspiracy of Paper |last=Liss |first=David |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2000 |publisher=Random House |location=New York |isbn=0375502920 |pages= "Fictional novel set around the South Sea Company bubble."

*cite book |title=Sea Change |last=Goddard |first=Robert |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2000 |publisher=Bantam Press |location=London |isbn=0593046676 |pages=416 "Fictional novel set against the background of the South Sea bubble."

See also

* List of notable business failures
* List of stock market crashes
* Mississippi Company
* Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
* Atlantic Slave Trade

External links

* [ South Sea Bubble collection at Harvard University]
* [ Famous First Bubbles - South Sea Bubble]
* [ South Sea Bubble and Law's Mississippi Scheme] — The Daily Reckoning, Marc faber Marc Faber — October 14, 2003
* [ From Market to Exchange, 1693–1801]
* [ Charles McKay's Account of The South Sea Bubble in Modern English]
* [ Helen Paul's Account of The South Sea Company's slave trading activities]

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  • The South Sea Company — Компания Южных морей (англ. The South Sea Company) английская торговая компания, финансовая пирамида. Предприятие было основано в 1711 г. герцогом Робертом Харли. Акционерам были обещаны исключительные права торговли с испанской частью Южной… …   Википедия

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  • South Sea Company — South Sea Bubble von E. M. Ward. Die Südseeblase (engl. South Sea Bubble, auch Südsee (Börsen)schwindel) von 1720 gehört zu den wichtigen negativen wirtschaftlichen Ereignissen, die sich vor dem 20. Jahrhundert zugetragen haben. Mit dem… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • South Sea Bubble — South Sea Bub|ble, the a serious financial problem in the UK in 1720, which led to many people losing all their money. The South Sea company made large profits by trading with South America, and this encouraged many people to ↑invest their money… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • South Sea — or South Seas may refer to:* The South Sea Company * The former Zuiderzee, today s IJsselmeer, in the Netherlands * The South China Sea * The Pacific Ocean south of Panama * In South Korea, it is sometimes used for the East China Sea * In plural …   Wikipedia

  • South Sea Bubble — (1720) Speculation mania that caused financial ruin for many British investors. Parliament s acceptance of a proposal by the South Sea Co. to take over the British national debt resulted in an immediate rise in its stock. After soaring from 12812 …   Universalium

  • South Sea Bubble — One of the largest stock scams of all time. The U.K. based South Sea Company s shares saw a huge appreciation based on rumor, speculation and false claims before plummeting and eventually becoming worthless. Thousands of people lost their life… …   Investment dictionary

  • South Sea House —    On the north side of Threadneedle Street at No.37, near its junction with Bishopsgate. In Broad Street Ward (P.O. Directory).    First mention: Strype, ed. 1720.    The original building seems to have occupied the back part of the present site …   Dictionary of London

  • South Sea Bubble — noun a financial and political scandal in Great Britain, resulting from the collapse in 1720 of the South Sea Company, sponsored by the king and government after it had taken over the national debt …  

  • South Sea Bubble — von E. M. Ward. Die Südseeblase (engl. South Sea Bubble, auch Südsee (Börsen)schwindel) von 1720 gehört zu den wichtigen negativen wirtschaftlichen Ereignissen, die sich vor dem 20. Jahrhundert zugetragen haben. Mit dem gleichzeitigen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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