Bulb Bubble Trouble
That Dutch tulip bubble wasn't so crazy after all.
By Daniel Gross
Posted Friday, July 16, 2004
During the dot.com bubble and its collapse, economists and historians
increased their study of market crazes of the past, particularly the
most ludicrous one of all: the 17^th-century Dutch flower bubble. The
classic description of Tulipmania appeared in Clarence Mackay's 1841
classic Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of
Crowds, "In 1634, the rage among the Dutch to possess them was so
great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the
population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade."
The normally sane Dutch bourgeoisie got carried away and bid up prices
of tulip bulbs spectacularly in winter 1637, only to see them crash in
spring. One bulb was reportedly sold in February 1637 for 6,700
guilders, "as much as a house on Amsterdam's smartest canal, including
coach and garden," and many times the 150-guilder average income. As
Earl A. Thompson, an economist at the University of California at Los
Angeles, and Jonathan Treussard, a graduate student at Boston
University, note in a working paper, "the contract price of tulips in
early February 1637 reached a level that was about 20 times higher
than in both early November 1636 and early May 1637."
Sounds like a bubble. But it wasn't, asserts Thompson, who is working
on a history of bubbles. Tulip-bulb investors were neither mad nor
delusional in 1636 and 1637. Rather, he says, they were rationally
responding, in finest efficient-market fashion, to overlooked changes
in the rules of tulip investing.
As European prices for the dramatic flowers rose in the 1630s, many
burgomasters--local mayors--started to invest in the bulbs. But in the
fall of 1636, the European tulip market suddenly wilted because of a
crisis in Germany. German nobles were big fans of tulips and had taken
to planting bulbs. But in October 1636, the Germans lost a battle to
the Swedes at Wittstock. Then German peasants began to revolt. The
German demand for tulips sagged, and princes began digging up their
own bulbs and selling them, say Thompson and Treussard.
The sudden glut caused prices to fall, and Dutch burgomasters began
losing money. They were in a bind. Trade in tulip bulbs was conducted
through futures contracts: Buyers agreed to pay a fixed price for
tulip bulbs at some point in the future. With prices having fallen in
the fall, leveraged burgomasters were tied into paying above-market
prices for bulbs to be delivered in the spring.
Rather than take their lumps, these politically connected investors
tried to change the market rules--and they succeeded. First, they
threatened to abandon their contracts and leave planters in the lurch
entirely. But ultimately, they ironed out a deal whereby the
obligation to purchase bulbs at a fixed price would be suddenly
converted into an opportunity to do so. In current parlance, they
aimed to transform tulip-bulb futures contracts into tulip-bulb
Under the new deal, the investors wouldn't have to pay the high
contract prices in the spring unless the future market--or
spot--prices of tulip bulbs were higher. (To compensate the planters
in case market prices were lower than the contract prices, the
investors agreed to pay a "small fraction of the contract price" to
get out of the contract, Thompson and Treussard note. Ultimately, that
amounted to about 3 cents on the dollar.) On Feb. 24, 1637, the Dutch
florists "announced that all futures contracts written since November
30, 1636 and up until the opening of the spring season, were to be
interpreted as option contracts," Thompson and Treussard write. The
action was later ratified by the Dutch legislature.
The news of these discussions began to filter out into the market in
November 1636. Now, when it becomes clear that a contract is to be
transformed into an option--the ability to buy something rather than
the responsibility to do so--you would expect prices to rise. Why? If
the investors in existing future contracts were only going to have to
pay a small percentage of the contract price in the end--as was
becoming apparent--then tulip planters would have to jack up contract
prices significantly in order to recover sums that reflected the spot
market prices. And people would be willing to pay the higher prices.
Why? In the worst-case scenario, investors would lose 3 percent of the
price of the contract. In the best case, prices would rise above the
strike price, and they could make an instant profit while assuming the
minimal 3 percent risk.
So, the market exploded. In November 1636, when the burgomasters'
plans to screw the tulip planters took effect, traders began to
process the impending changes into their thinking. By late November
1636, "buyers had already begun treating the contract prices as option
strike prices set at around 10 times the actual prices." As a result,
"contract prices soared to reflect the expectation that the contract
price was now a call-option exercise, or strike price rather than a
price committed to be paid for future bulbs." By February, the price
had risen 20 times. "That's what caused the tulipmania," says
So, the swift rise in prices for contracts on tulip bulbs in late 1636
and early 1637 was less a speculative frenzy than a market rationally
responding to rule changes.
If they're correct--and it'll take someone with far more economic and
data-crunching expertise than Moneybox to ratify or debunk their
argument--then business writers will have to delete Tulipmania from
their handy-pack of bubble analogies.
Daniel Gross (www.danielgross.net) writes Slate's "Moneybox" column.
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