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

“Right now, it’s Bitcoin. But in the past, we’ve had dotcom stocks, the 1929 crash, 19th-century railways and the South Sea Bubble of 1720. All these were compared by contemporaries to “tulip mania”, the Dutch financial craze for tulip bulbs in the 1630s. Bitcoin, according to some skeptics, is “tulip mania 2.0”.

Why this lasting fixation on tulip mania? It certainly makes an exciting story, one that has become a byword for insanity in the markets. The same aspects of it are constantly repeated, whether by casual tweeters or in widely read economics textbooks by luminaries such as John Kenneth Galbraith.

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.”

“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.”

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