Anthony Trollope (died in 1882), the great British novelist, gives us a glimpse of the world of speculative finance in the nineteenth century where to some extent the stock market becomes a kind of “betting parlor” where abstract bets can be made on previous bets in a kind of “infinite regress.”
The example here concerns coffee, guano, and something called “Kauri gum” which is the title of a chapter in The Prime Minister, Trollope’s novel, which introduces us to the “betting parlor” tendency, which is not unique to the prelude to our own Great Recession of 2008.
Sexty Parker sympathized with him to the full, — especially as that first 500 pounds, which he had received from Mr Wharton, had gone into Sexty’s coffers. At that time Lopez and Sexty were together committed to large speculations in the guano trade, and Sexty’s mind was by no means easy in the early periods of the day. As he went into town by his train he would think of his wife and family and of the terrible things that might happen to them. But yet, up to this period, money had always been forthcoming from Lopez when absolutely wanted, and Sexty was quite alive to the fact that he was living with a freedom of expenditure in his own household that he had never known before, and that without apparent damage. Whenever, therefore, at some critical moment, a much-needed sum of money was produced Sexty would become lighthearted, triumphant, and very sympathetic. ‘Well; — I never heard such a story,’ he had said when Lopez was insisting on his wrongs. ‘That’s what the Dukes and Duchesses call honour among thieves! Well, Ferdy, my boy, if you stand that you’ll stand anything.’ In these latter days Sexty had become very intimate with his partner.
It was evident on that day to Sexty Parker that his partner was a man of great resources. Though things sometimes looked very bad, yet money always ‘turned up’. Some of their buyings and sellings had answered pretty well. Some had been great failures. No great stroke had been made as yet, but then the great stroke was always being expected. Sexty’s fears were greatly exaggerated by the feeling that the coffee and guano were not always real coffee and guano. His partner, indeed, was of the opinion that in such a trade as this they were following there was no need at all of real coffee or real guano, and explained his theory with considerable eloquence. ‘If I buy a ton of coffee and keep it six weeks, why do I buy it and keep it, and why does the seller sell it instead of keeping it? The seller sells it because he thinks he can do best by parting with it now at a certain price. I buy it because I think I can make money by keeping it. It is just the same as though we were back to our opinions. He backs the fall. I back the rise. You needn’t have coffee and you needn’t have guano to do this. Indeed the possession of the coffee or guano is only a very clumsy addition to the trouble of your profession. I make it my study to watch the markets; — but I needn’t buy everything I see in order to make money by my labour and intelligence.’ Sexty Parker before his lunch always thought that his partner was wrong, but after that ceremony he almost daily became a convert to the great doctrine. Coffee and guano still had to be bought because the world was dull and would not learn the tricks of trade as taught by Ferdinand Lopez, — also possibly because somebody might want such articles, — but our enterprising hero looked for a time in which no such dull burden should be imposed on him.
On this day, when the Duke’s 500 pounds was turned into the business, Sexty yielded in a large matter which his partner had been pressing upon him for the last week. They bought a cargo of Kauri gum, coming from New Zealand. Lopez had reasons for thinking that Kauri gum must have a great rise. There was an immense demand for amber, and Kauri gum might be used as a substitute, and in six months’ time would be double its present value. This unfortunately was a real cargo. He could not find an individual so enterprising as to venture to deal in a cargo of Kauri gum after his fashion. But the next best thing was done. The real cargo was bought, and his name and Sexty’s name were on the bills given for the goods. On that day he returned home in high spirits for he did believe in his own intelligence and good fortune.
(Trollope, The Prime Minister, Chapter 43, “Kauri Gum”)
One could “marry” this mini-essay to the previous one about Dreiser’s novel to get a fuller picture of the story of our technology-and-finance strand of the present world.
There is a potentially unhealthy “dephysicalization” of finance whereby you don’t need to think about actual “coffee and guano and Kauri gum” at all but only on the “betting structure” (i.e., horse races without horses, so to speak).