When one thinks of gold crashes, one typically visualizes a trading floor from the 1980s onward, predicated by Nixon’s nixing of Bretton Woods 40 years ago, which removed gold from the list of accepted currencies and converted it into a government-manipulated pariah, whose core function was to be suppressed in an ongoing (failed) attempt to make the dollar the undisputed reserve currency (something even China comprehends).
Well, readers may be surprised to discover that one of the first, and probably biggest on a relative basis, documented gold crashes was not 3 weeks ago, nor back in October 2008, nor any time since the advent of Nixon, or even the Federal Reserve, but over 140 years ago, on September 24, 1869 when a massive gold price manipulation scandal created a financial panic. That day, also known as “Black Friday”, was the culmination of an attempt to corner the gold market following the latest, however brief, termination of the gold standard, when during the reconstruction period following the US Civil War, the US dollar was backed not by gold, but simply by credit (sound familiar). The result was a surge, and then collapse in gold.
What is the take home, if any? Perhaps that any time the government attempts to interfere with gold’s status as a natural safety currency, it is not only gold price discovery that suffers, but virtually every other asset class, as central planning once again tries to order capital flows, however inefficiently, always, and without fail, leading to financial catastrophe.
The chart below demonstrates the intraday swing from that long ago Friday 142 years ago:
For those curious to learn about one of the first record gold price manipulations… and crashes, can do so below, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Black Friday, September 24, 1869 also known as the Fisk/Gould scandal, was a financial panic in the United States caused by two speculators’ efforts to corner the gold market on the New York Gold Exchange. It was one of several scandals that rocked the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. During the reconstruction era after the American Civil War, the United States government issued a large amount of money that was backed by nothing but credit. After the war ended, people commonly believed that the U.S. Government would buy back the “greenbacks” with gold. In 1869, a group of speculators, headed by James Fisk and Jay Gould, sought to profit off this by cornering the gold market. Gould and Fisk first recruited Grant’s brother-in-law, a financier named Abel Corbin. They used Corbin to get close to Grant in social situations, where they would argue against government sale of gold, and Corbin would support their arguments. Corbin convinced Grant to appoint General Daniel Butterfield as assistant Treasurer of the United States. Butterfield agreed to tip the men off when the government intended to sell gold.
In the late summer of 1869, Gould began buying large amounts of gold. This caused prices to rise and stocks to plummet. After Grant realized what had happened, the federal government sold $ 4 million in gold. On September 20, 1869, Gould and Fisk started hoarding gold, driving the price higher. On September 24 the premium on a gold Double Eagle (representing 0.9675 troy ounces (30.09 g) of gold bullion at $ 20) was 30 percent higher than when Grant took office. But when the government gold hit the market, the premium plummeted within minutes. Investors scrambled to sell their holdings, and many of them, including Corbin, were ruined. Fisk and Gould escaped significant financial harm.
Subsequent Congressional investigation was chaired by James A. Garfield. The investigation was alleged on the one hand to have been limited because Virginia Corbin and First Lady Julia Grant were not permitted to testify. Garfield’s biographer, Alan Peskin, however, maintains the investigation was quite thorough. Butterfield resigned from the U.S. Treasury. Henry Adams, who believed that President Ulysses S. Grant had tolerated, encouraged, and perhaps even participated in corruption and swindles, attacked Grant in an 1870 article entitled The New York Gold Conspiracy.
Although Grant was not directly involved in the scandal, his personal association with Gould and Fisk gave clout to their attempt to manipulate the gold market. Also, Grant’s order to release gold in response to gold’s rising price was itself a manipulation of the market. Grant had personally declined to listen to Gould’s ambitious plan to corner the gold market, since the scheme was not announced publicly, but he could not be trusted. Gould had promoted the plan to Grant as a means to help farmers sell a bountiful 1869 wheat crop to Europe.
A highly fictionalized account of Fisk’s life, culminating in a dramatic presentation of the gold corner, was shown in the 1937 film The Toast of New York.