Debunking the Tulip Bubble
What asset price bubbles are is fairly uncontroversial, even if a fast and hard definition is elusive. At their most basic, bubbles are said to exist when a sharp upward departure in the price of an asset, from its historic or otherwise reasonably expected value, occurs over a relatively brief period of time, however defined. These dramatic, often parabolic, rises can be driven by rushes into new sectors, like dotcoms, new tech, or cryptocurrencies—while some economists consider their occurrence completely random.
Whatever the case, it almost invariably happens that when talking of bubbles in this or that asset class someone brings up the Dutch tulip bubble. Despite its predictable regularity, a closer look at what occurred in Holland around the mid-1630s casts serious doubt on the comparison, for, as will be outlined, the sudden brief spike in the prices of certain tulips wasn’t due to any change in the underlying assets, emergence of new assets, or the preferences of buyers, but rather innovations in how tulips were briefly bought and sold.
By the seventeenth century Holland was the most advanced economy in Europe, with a recognizable and relatively sophisticated stock market. In 1602, for example, the Dutch East India Company was founded as a joint stock company, generally recognized as the first of its kind. As for tulips, they had begun to make their way to Europe via trade with the Ottoman Empire a century prior. As it happened, women’s fashion by the early seventeenth century had come to incorporate flowers, tulips specifically. Even more specifically, certain tulips, called “broken bulbs,” were highly sought after and came to command hundreds, even thousands of guilders each from European elites.1
The tulip market in 1630s Holland, then, was multitiered, with select broken bulbs being traded for many hundreds, even thousands, of times the value of ordinary tulip bulbs—until, that is, the two months spanning late 1636 and early 1637, which saw twenty- to thirtyfold increases in the price of standard tulips, which had traded weeks before at the equivalent of tenths of a cent per handful.
Let’s take a closer look at the mechanics that caused this to happen, and see why there is little to nothing to be gained by comparing what happened during “tulipmania” to asset price bubbles in the modern context.
As already stated, the Dutch stock market was the most sophisticated in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century, and already had a brisk futures trade. Similar to today’s futures trading, most Dutch traders at the time weren’t actually interested in owning the underlying asset. Rather, it was a simple bet on the future price of the asset. If the price went down, the seller got paid the difference, and vice versa for the buyer of the future if the prices went up.
Importantly, because of moral strictures much of this futures trading was done informally—contracting to sell something you didn’t yet own seeming an activity close to, if not indistinguishable from, gambling. And it was in late 1636 that informal futures markets for standard tulips began sprouting up. Because it was outside the existing market framework, these informal markets had their own rules but no real means of enforcing them; and it is here, in the structure and rules governing these emerging tulip futures markets, that we find the origins of the actual bubble of tulipmania.
First, everyone involved had to bid on every lot of tulips; second, new buyers were prohibited from immediately selling; third, all buying was fractional, with only one-fortieth of the price of the contract due down; fourth, there was a maximum cap of three guilders down, no matter how large the contract; and finally, while social exclusion would follow for anyone who reneged on what they owed, the contracts were technically unenforceable in Holland’s courts.
Reading over these conditions, it isn’t difficult to imagine how a bunch of bored Dutch traders with little else to do in the middle of a northern European winter, blew up and then popped an enormous bubble in the lower-tiered tulip market in just a few weeks: contracts were cheap; you might make some money; and if things somehow got out of hand, the contracts weren’t enforceable, anyway. Of course, no one wanted to have their name come under opprobrium, which is why virtually no one apparently reneged—at least at first. It also helps to explain why the bubble burst so quickly after forming. A lot of standard tulip bulbs worth only a guilder or two per bucketful quickly rose to hundreds of guilders in value. This was a huge sum, and no one wanted to risk being on the end of it.
Recognizing the mess they’d gotten themselves in, virtually everyone involved agreed to rip up the contracts and walk away. No damage was done to the Dutch economy, the price of ordinary tulips almost immediately returned to what it had been, and the value of high-tier broken bulbs, like the Semper Augusta continued to steadily appreciate.2
In short, the Dutch tulip bubble, or tulipmania, had virtually nothing in common with modern bubbles, though it is an interesting episode of economic history to be sure.
- 1. Unlike ordinary tulips, which are a single color—typically red, yellow, or pink—broken bulbs produce a range of multicolored, distinctly patterned petals. Smaller, slower-growing, and rare, botanists now know the flowers were actually infected with a mosaic virus, which stunted their growth and caused the erratic coloring.
- 2. And this is a key part of the story, for while the tulip bubble is generally said to have occurred between 1633 and 1637, this claim is contradicted by both Peter Gerber and Connel Fullenkamp, economists who have gone back and searched for tulip sales made in the years preceding and following that period. Their research and writings reveal that broken bulbs had been seeing a steady, almost 10 percent rise in value for at least a decade prior. To take just one example, as early as 1626 a single broken bulb had sold for just over two thousand guilders (the equivalent of around a half million dollars priced in today’s dollars). And while 10 percent is certainly brisk growth, it’s nowhere near today’s bubble level—except perhaps in housing, though this bubble is of the Fed’s creation. Lastly, as Kindleberger points out in his Manias, Panics, and Crashes this steady appreciation in high-tier tulip bulbs was happening within the context of broader asset price inflation following the economic hard times during and after the War of Spanish Succession.