Wall Street History: Railroads And Rockefeller

By Andrew Beattie | May 12, 2010 AAA
Wall Street History: Railroads And Rockefeller

This week in Wall Street's history shows us two sides of one of the most famous men in finance, John D. Rockefeller. It marks his time as a cutthroat tycoon as well as the launch of his massive philanthropic foundation. This week has also seen structural changes in the world of finance, including the beginnings of the anti-trust movement and an important moment in the history of unionization. Read on to find out more. (Missed last week's article? Read Wall Street History: Al Capone Vs. The IRS.)

In Pictures: World's Greatest Investors

The World Gets Smaller
May 10, 1869, a golden spike was hammered in at Promontory, Utah, to mark the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. The history of the railroad and financial history are inseparable up to the 20th century – and with Buffett's high profile buy of Burlington Northern this year, the connection is still persevering.

The railroads were among the first companies to issue bonds and stocks in the United States. They also sped up the flow of information and, by extension, the mechanics of investing. As railroads were laid, telegraph companies worked out a deal where their lines would follow the tracks. The transcontinental line and its accompanying high-speed (compared to mail horses) communication was one more link between the financial hubs and the industrial and agricultural centers spread across the nation.

Venture Capital and Jamestown
On May 13, 1607, English colonists arrived by ship at the site of what was to become the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. The Virginia Company of London, a collection of venture capitalists, funded the whole expedition. The thought was that unimaginable wealth was waiting in the new world. It turned out that there weren't nuggets of gold lying out for the taking, nor was the land unoccupied. Between harsh winters and the occasional hostile raid, it took many more ships of settlers to establish a beachhead in the new world. The wealth that did eventually flow back to England was in the form of tobacco. The crown nationalized the private venture following the Jamestown massacre, declaring it a royal colony of Britain.

A Different Kind of Board Member
On May 13, 1980, Douglas Fraser was appointed to the board of Chrysler. This marked the first time that a large American corporation picked a union member to join the board. Fraser helped Chrysler secure a government bailout the previous year by winning concessions from the union - though Chrysler only made it 30 years before having to go completely into bankruptcy in 2009. As a board member, Fraser acted as the vote for the entire union, often opposing management stock options and cuts to worker benefits. (Learn more about getting involved in the auto industry, read Analyzing Auto Stocks.)

A Clearly Named Party
Ambiguity in politics is the tiresome norm now, but on May 14, 1884, the Anti-Monopoly Party's goals were made crystal clear at its first convention. As the name suggests, the party was against large trusts with monopoly power – the ability to set prices and force out new competition. General Benjamin Butler was their pick for the presidency, but Butler didn't quite make it into the oval office on what was essentially a one issue platform. However, the party didn't fade completely after the loss. The monopoly issue was taken up on its populist merits and many of the reforms the Anti-Monopoly Party sought were brought about in the Sherman Antitrust Act six years later.

Rich Like Rockefeller
On May 14, 1913, New York Governor William Sulzer approved the charter for John D. Rockefeller's Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller created the foundation to carry out his charitable works, following in the footsteps of fellow tycoon, Andrew Carnegie. Started with $35 million, the Rockefeller Foundation is now a billion dollar organization carrying out the original mandate to, "to promote the well-being of humanity around the world." (To learn more about Rockefeller, check out J.D. Rockefeller: From Oil Baron To Billionaire.)

Stocks Take Over Tokyo
In film, Tokyo is constantly being leveled by Godzilla, but the city saw a different type of beast arrive on May 15, 1878, when the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) was formed. Following WWII, the TSE surged ahead with the development of Japan as an industrial and technological power. The TSE has fluctuated between being the second largest exchange in the world and merely rounding out the top five, but it also brought Japan a Godzilla-like beating. In the massive Japanese bubble, many of the stocks on the TSE were used for collateral for loans of all types. The crash has left Japan with zombie banks and massive debts that are still an issue more than 20 years later.

Sherman Vs. Standard Oil, NFL and More
On May 15, 1911, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil. The government previously used the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up the oil trust in 1892, but the trust was quickly cleverly converted into a holding company. After the court ruling in 1911, however, Standard Oil was carved up into smaller, yet still sizable, chunks. They've altered their names over the years, but Chevron, Exxon and Conoco, among others, all share a Standard Oil pedigree. These companies had the advantage of Standard Oil's R&D and infrastructure, so they easily made the transition to gasoline producers as kerosene sales dropped due to Edison's electric light.

May 16, 1991, saw an antitrust suit filed against the NFL. William Sullivan founded the Boston Patriots - now the New England Patriots - but was forced to sell the team due to financial problems. Sullivan launched the suit against the NFL because the league blocked him from raising financing from public investors via a stock sale of half the team. Sullivan settled with the league for $11.5 million. Along with MLB other pro sports organizations, the NFL has found itself facing antitrust legislation more than once. Many of the cases have centered around barriers to entry, but there are similar cases over licensing, television and even free agency. Currently the NFL is back in Supreme court with an apparel-makers claim that the league is made up of 32 businesses colluding, rather than a single business offering one product as the league maintains. This distinction has been the crux of the NFL avoiding a clear antitrust loss in the past.

That's all for this week. Next week we'll cover the birth of the NYSE, the beginnings of the movie industry, and much more.

Feeling uninformed? Check out the financial news highlights in Water Cooler Finance: Greece Is Burning And Buffett's Under Fire.

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