This Week in Financial History: Speculative Bubbles, Bill Gates, Coca Cola and Capitalism
The second week of March is shamelessly stacked with financial events. From the millionaire boom and the IPO of one of the world's largest companies to the most important publication in the history of finance. Read on to find out what significant financial events of the past occurred during this week.

In Pictures: The World's Greatest Investors

The Invisible Hand Enfolds the World
On March 9, 1776, Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" was published. This book was the seminal work in economics and marks the birth of modern capitalism. Smith overturned the miserly view of mercantilism and gave us a vision of plenty and freedom for all. The free market he envisioned, though not yet fully realized, has done more to raise the global standard of living than any single idea in history. (For more reading, see Adam Smith And "The Wealth Of Nations")

Reaganomics Pays Off
On March 8th, 1985, the impact of President Reagan's high-level tax cuts were made clear when the IRS announced that over 400,000 Americans had reached the millionaire rank. The increased amounts of wealth in private hands meant more private capital available for investment. This helped fuel the bull market of the '80s. Although Reagan kept his tax promises for the most part, his inability to rein in the size of government led to many of the tax cuts being reversed to cover government shortfalls when he left office. (For more, see Parties For Taxes: Republicans Vs. Democrats.)

Always Coca Cola
March 12 is a very important date for the company that invented Santa Claus and the Olympics. In 1894, Coca Cola (Nasdaq:COKE) was sold in its bottled form for the first time. The company started making a syrup that was distributed to soda fountains across the nation. The move to bottles propelled sales and changed the concept of a soft drink from a treat to be enjoyed in a store to a portable luxury. On March 12th, 1987, Coca Cola made its way onto the DJIA. It has remained there ever since.

Microsoft Debuts
On March 13th, 1986, Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) had its IPO. The company sold for $21 a share and climbed to $28 during trading on its first day. Microsoft would continue to rise over the years and became a factory for spitting out millionaires and billionaires as employees' stock options vested. Microsoft continues to sit atop the OS market and has since expanded into television, video games and search. Bill Gates, the face of Microsoft for many, left the company to carry out philanthropic work through his foundation.

The Internet Boom Peaks
On March 10th, 2000, the Nasdaq reached 5,048.62. This was the high-water mark during the internet bubble. A long plunge of 78% followed, pushing the index down to 1,114.11. This sudden reversal of fortunes ruined many paper millionaires and sunk some of the more outlandish internet companies. On the plus side, the internet companies that survived this baptism of fire have emerged to become some of the most powerful companies in the market. Creative destruction has its upside while new paradigms are rarely new, or paradigms for that matter - the issues floated during the internet bubble were no more revolutionary (or impractical) than those floated during the South Sea bubble. (To learn more, see The Greatest Market Crashes.)

March 14th
March 14th is one of those rare days that have seen a lot of important events over the years. In 1794, it was the day Eli Whitney was granted a patent for the cotton gin - the most important invention during America's agricultural phase. In 1812, it was the day Congress approved America's first war bond to help finance the war of 1812. In 1900, it was the day the Gold Standard Act was passed, putting the U.S. dollar on a gold standard (however short-lived). In 1913, John Rockefeller chose March 14 as the day to launch the Rockefeller Foundation with a $100 million endowment.

Finally, March 14, 2008, was the beginning of the end for 85-year-old Bear Stearns. A casualty of the credit crises, the bank lost nearly half its value and was purchased by JPMorgan (NYSE:JPM) in a fire sale deal backed by the Fed. Morgan's initial $2 per share bid was upped after Bear Stearns management complained loudly. The year saw Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual follow Bear Stearns into insolvency, along with many lesser players in the financial industry. (For more, see Dissecting The Bear Stearns Hedge Fund Collapse.)

The Cost of Capitalism?
So we have the birth of capitalism occurring in the same week as the peak of the internet boom and the start of the credit crises. It would be easy to blame Adam Smith and free market economics for the latter two. Many, including President Obama, have done this. Truth be told, the government's monetary policies played huge roles in each bubble, fueling more speculation by financial institutions. These institutions' greed has proved a weakness in capitalism only when cheap credit is introduced.

It is worth noting that Smith wanted "enlightened self-interest." Between the government's missteps and the banks' focus on profits, this has been twisted to mean greed and many argue that we're still paying the price for wandering away from the principles of free market capitalism. Next week, we'll see the fall of an economic system (no, not capitalism) and the largest IPO in history.

Until then. (If you missed what happened last week, check out This Week In Financial History: Birthdays, Theory and Scandal.)

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