Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation

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9780452281806: Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation

Is your investment in that new Internet stock a sign of stock market savvy or an act of peculiarly American speculative folly? How has the psychology of investing changed--and not changed--over the last five hundred years? Edward Chancellor examines the nature of speculation--from medieval Europe to the Tulip mania of the 1630s to today's Internet stock craze. A contributing writer to The Financial Times and The Economist, looks at both the psychological and economic forces that drive people to "bet" their money in markets; how markets are made, unmade, and manipulated; and who wins when speculation runs rampant. Drawing colorfully on the words of such speculators as Sir Isaac Newton, Daniel Defoe, Ivan Boesky, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Devil Take the Hindmost is part history, part social science, and purely illuminating: an erudite and hugely entertaining book that is more timely today than ever before.

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Review:

"The longest bull market in history" is a term that gets used a lot these days. Since 1990, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen some 8,000 points, from around 2,700 in January 1990 to nearly 11,000 today--a boom by anyone's standards, including Edward Chancellor's. In Devil Take the Hindmost, Chancellor takes an entertaining, albeit sobering, look at the history of speculative manias and the mass delusion that surrounds them.

Beginning with the "tulipomania" that gripped Holland in the 1630s, Chancellor chronicles the formations and irrational euphoria that can inflate markets, from shares of South Sea stock in England in the 1720s to real estate in Japan in the late 1980s. He characterizes the speculative spirit as one that

loves freedom, detests cant, and abhors restrictions. From the tulip Colleges of the seventeenth century to the Internet investment clubs of the late twentieth century, speculation has established itself as the most demotic of economic activities. Although profoundly secular, speculation is not simply about greed. The essence of speculation remains a Utopian yearning for freedom and equality which counterbalances the drab rationalistic materialism of the modern economic system with its inevitable inequalities of wealth.
But it's precisely such inevitability that always seems to win out, when "sharply rising prices followed by sudden panic without cause" bring speculative excess to an abrupt end.

Chancellor makes Devil Take the Hindmost especially relevant to today's U.S. investors by using his analysis of past speculative manias as a lens through which to view the current bull-market binge. No matter what his or her current investment outlook is--bull or bear--anyone with capital to invest would do well to spend a thoughtful weekend with this book. Highly recommended. --Harry C. Edwards

From the Inside Flap:

Many modern economists hold that speculation is a benign economic activity, that it is always rational in motivation and rarely adverse in its effects. The struggles of the United States after the Crash of 1929 and of Japan in the 1990s suggest otherwise. Some commentators, the billionaire financier George Soros among them, believe that growing speculative forces threaten a global financial crisis.

Devil Take the Hindmost is an original and challenging history of stock-market speculation from the seventeenth century to the present day. Through vivid accounts of the speculative activities (wise and unwise) of investors ranging from Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Disraeli to Ivan Boesky and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Edward Chancellor shows that speculation is not driven solely by the desire to make money--by fear and greed--but springs from a wider range of human compulsions and aspirations.

Chancellor traces the origins of the speculative spirit back to ancient Rome and chronicles its revival in the modern world: from the Tulip Mania in Holland in the 1630s and the stock-jobbers in London's Exchange Alley at the end of the seventeenth century to the on-line "day-traders" of the information age.

Devil Take the Hindmost charts the development of speculation in the United States from the middle of the nineteenth century in chapters on Jay Gould and the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, and the junkbond mania of the 1980s. According to Chancellor, the American passion for speculation derives from the notion's fierce competitiveness and appetite for risk. This is a source both of the nation's strength--as shown by the vibrant U.S. economy in the 1990s--and of its potential weakness, as the lessons of the Great Depression of the 1930s suggest.

A chapter on the 'bubble economy" of the 1980s shows how the anarchic force of speculation undermined the Japanese economic system; and in an epilogue, Chancellor examines contemporary arguments for and against speculation in light of the recent crisis at the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund.

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