The idea that ordinary people have a tendency to be caught up in investment manias is a powerful one, thanks in part to Charles Mackay, author in 1841 of the evergreen book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Mackay’s most memorable example was the notorious Dutch tulip bubble of 1637, in which–absurdity!–tulip bulbs changed hands for the price of a house.It is the quintessential case study of financial hysteria, but it’s not clear that there was ever an important tulip bubble. Rare tulip flowers–we now know that their intricate patterning is caused by a virus–were worth huge sums to wealthy Parisian gentlemen trying to impress the ladies. Bulbs were the assets that produced these floral gems, like geese that laid golden eggs. Their value was no fantasy.
Peter Garber, a historian of economic bubbles, points out that a single bulb could, over time, be used to produce many more bulbs. The price of the bulbs would, of course, fall as more were cultivated. A modern analogy would the first copy of a Hollywood film: the final copies may circulate for a few dollars, but the original is worth tens of millions.
Garber points out that rare flower breeds still change hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so sure that the tulipmania really was a mania.
The full article is here on Forbes.com.