There are a number of memorable events this week in finance, but the headline belongs to the Oracle of Omaha, now an octogenarian. We'll look at that and much more this week. (Missed last week's article? Check out Wall Street History: The Boesky And Siegel Deal.)
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80 Years Young
On August 30, 1930, Warren Buffett was born in Omaha, Nebraska. The landmarks of Buffett's stories are well known today - tutelage under Benjamin Graham, a meeting with Charlie Munger, the purchase of a textile mill - and they all add up to the world's largest fortune built by stock picking. Buffett is worth nearly $50 billion dollars - a big number. He's also 80 years old - not a small number. Buffett likely has very few items on his birthday wish list, but a competent successor is no doubt among them.
Reparations And Hyperinflations
On August 31, 1921, Germany paid its first million marks in reparations, causing the value of the mark to plummet 30%. This was the start of the German hyperinflation. Germany's solution to make the payments was to print more and more marks, setting off massive inflation. This viscous cycle ruined many Germans, pushing them to call for radical political changes and helping Hitler's sweep to power.
In one of the great "I told you so" moments in history, John Maynard Keynes predicted the reparations system leading to another all-out war of even larger proportions. But no one really listens to economists unless it's something they want to hear.
Great Fire Brings Insurance Inland
On September 2, 1666, the Great Fire of London broke out and burnt for three days, destroying 10,000 buildings including St. Paul's Cathedral. The event was so catastrophic that many businesses began seeking insurance. Insurance had been around for a long time, but it was largely aimed at covering risky ventures from storms, pirates and the occasional bad navigators. With a large demand for fire insurance, the marine insurers began selling dry land policies. (To learn more, see The History Behind Insurance.)
The Treasury Department is Formed
On September 2, 1789, the U.S. Treasury came into being. The first secretary of the Treasury was Alexander Hamilton. Broadly speaking, Hamilton laid the foundation for the nation's financial system from the minting of money to the setting of duties on imports to fund government. Hamilton was far from flawless, but his strong guidance stabilized America as a nation and gave foreign investors confidence in the value of American bonds. This inflow of foreign capital helped the U.S. rebuild after the Revolutionary War.
Let There Be Light
On September 4, 1882, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company started up its first electrical plant to distribute electricity in New York's shopping and financial district. The Pearl Street generator started as a novelty act, lighting up shop fronts with electric lights. Soon, however, appliances running off electric motors began to appear. The electrical revolution added to the breakneck pace of innovation that carried the U.S. to the forefront of the world. After being bought up at the turn of the 20th century, Edison Electric Illuminating Company is now known as Consolidated Edison.
Remember when JPMorgan bought out Bear Stearns with the government's blessings? On September 5, 1988 a very similar situation unfolded in the savings and loan crisis as it did in the mortgage meltdown. On this day, the Robert M. Bass group bought up (read, bailed out) the American Savings and Loan Association with $2 billion worth of government aid. The company cost Bass less than half a billion of its own capital. American S&L Association was split in two - echoes of good GM and bad GM - with the good assets going to Bass and the rest into a resolution entity.
The overall S&L bailout was considered a huge burden on the taxpayer at over $120 billion. If only we could pull out of the mortgage crises and the Great Recession with that small of a bill. Fannie and Freddie alone are expected to cost $160 billion plus possible ongoing expenses (the extreme estimate out now is $500 billion). (To learn more, see Top 6 U.S. Government Financial Bailouts.)
That's all for this week. Next week we will look at Jack Welch, Chrysler's first bailout and much more.
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