This week in financial history is full of characters. One is an unassuming trader who methodically cornered a market, another is a man known for his hair as much as building and rebuilding a fortune, and one, at least, is an actual superhero. (Missed last week's article? Check out Wall Street History: Social Security, Martha Stewart And Men In Dresses.)
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It's a Bird, It's A Plane
On June 14, 1938, Action Comics issued the first comic featuring Superman. The man of steel wasn't saving the world, but going around preventing smaller crimes like a wrongful execution and even domestic violence. With fewer than 100 issues surviving, the comic has become a valuable collectible, fetching over $1 million – a considerable ROI for the initial investment of a dime. (Find out more about the ROI on collectibles, read 6 Major Collectibles Payoffs.)
The Donald Debuts
On June 14, 1946, Donald Trump was born. Trump is one of the most recognizable tycoons, but not always the most successful. Bouncing back from bankruptcy multiple times, Trump has a track record of multi-million real estate speculations and a highly public life. Best known for pasting his name on everything he can – Trump Plaza, Trump Towers, Trump Park Avenue to name a few – Trump's other claims to fame are a unique hair style and a reality television show.
Like Clark Kent, Yasuo Hamanaka was, by all accounts, quiet and mild-mannered. Like Kent, Hamanaka had an alter-ego, but his was perhaps more supervillain than superhero. On June 14, 1996, Hamanaka's employer, Sumitomo Corp, announced that it lost $1.8 billion over 10 years of unauthorized trading by head copper trader, Yasuo Hamanaka. The actual losses were later reported to be over $2 billion and Hamanaka was renounced as a rogue trader. Hamanaka used a combination of large physical holdings, significant cash reserves and futures contract to keep copper prices artificially high for years. Many critics questioned whether Sumitomo wasn't part of the scheme the entire time, but rounds of litigation failed to bring much evidence to light.
Herman Hollerith probably deserves a much larger place in history than he has. His punch card machines were the cutting edge of data processing when they were used for the 1890 census. He formed the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation, incorporated on June 15, 1911, to help spread his punch card computers and develop new machines for data processing. This modest company combined with similar companies to form the base of the computer giant IBM (NYSE:IBM).
In contrast to Hollerith, the father of the other June baby is still well-known. On June 16, 1903, the The Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) was incorporated. The company quickly became one of the largest in America when it started selling the Model T - the world's first affordable automobile. Henry Ford went on to introduce many firsts, including standardization and the $5 workday. Perhaps more than anyone of that era, Henry Ford took the concepts of mass-production and used them to make a great company. He is remembered as the father of modern industry as much as the father of modern automobiles. (For more on Ford, check out Henry Ford: Industry Mogul And Industrial Innovator.)
If Your Bank Goes Broke
On June 16, 1933, the second Glass Steagall Act was passed. Among many other things, this act created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to guarantee funds deposited in licensed banks. The FDIC is basically a large insurance fund meant to prevent the bank runs that plagued America for over a century. It was most recently seen in action during the mortgage meltdown and the bank failures following the credit crisis.
A Bad Idea
June 17, 1930, President Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. The act attempted to protect domestic industry through tariffs on 20,000 imports. The idea was that the tax revenue and the ability for domestic producers to charge more would spur the economy back to prosperity. In reality it caused retaliatory tariffs in other nations – choking off international trade and guaranteeing the continuance of the depression. This reasoning, that internal subsidies financed through tariffs somehow make us richer, is almost always pushed by interested parties to the detriment of the general population – it was true in 1930, and it is true today. If tariffs and less international trade were truly boons to society, then North Korea would be thanking the world for its economic isolation and enjoying the world's highest standard of living. (Learn more in The Basics Of Tariffs And Trade Barriers.)
And our last event this week is by far the longest lasting in its impacts. On June 20, 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives, becoming law in July. Under this act, corporations could be shattered for impeding competition or attempting to monopolize a good. The antitrust act was further bulked up by the Clayton Act and remains a legislative risk to all dominant companies today. Unfortunately, the act has often been abused as a legislative arrow for weaker companies to shoot down - or at least slow and distract - their more efficient competitors in the market. Standard Oil, Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT), Google (Nasdaq:GOOG), and almost any other company that has enjoyed time at the top of their market has felt the sting of an antitrust investigation.
That's all for this week. Next week we have the world's biggest Ponzi scheme to deal with, but also some positive developments in banking and charity to balance it out. Until then.
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