We previously posted chapter 5 of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s favorite book, the book is out of print and selling for $1500 on Amazon (slightly cheaper than Margin of Safety). Thanks so much to a reader for sending us the full book, which can be found below.

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street

The Fluctuation


THE STOCK MARKET—the daytime adventure serial of the well-to-do—would not be the stock market ifit did not have its ups and downs. Any board-room sitter with a taste for Wall Street lore has heard of the retort that J. P. Morgan the Elder is supposed to have made to a naïve acquaintance who had ventured to ask the great man what the market was going to do. “It will fluctuate,” replied Morgan dryly. And it has many other distinctive characteristics. Apart from the economic advantages and disadvantages of stock exchanges—the advantage that they provide a free flow of capital to finance industrial expansion, for instance, and the disadvantage that they provide an all too convenient way for the unlucky, the imprudent, and the gullible to lose their money—their development has created a whole pattern of social behavior, complete with customs, language, and predictable responses to given events. What is truly extraordinary is the speed with which this pattern emerged full blown following the establishment, in 1611, of the world’s first important stock exchange—a roofless courtyard in Amsterdam—and the degree to which it persists (with variations, it is true) on the New York Stock Exchange in the nineteen-sixties. Present-day stock trading in the United States—a bewilderingly vast enterprise, involving millions of miles of private telegraph wires, computers that can read and copy the Manhattan Telephone Directory in three minutes, and over twenty million stockholder participants—would seem to be a far cry from a handful of seventeenth-century Dutchmen haggling in the rain. But the field marks are much the same. The first stock exchange was, inadvertently, a laboratory in which new human reactions were revealed. By the same token, the New York Stock Exchange is also a sociological test tube, forever contributing to the human species’ self-understanding.


The behavior of the pioneering Dutch stock traders is ably documented in a book entitled “Confusion of Confusions,” written by a plunger on the Amsterdam market named Joseph de la Vega; originally published in 1688, it was reprinted in English translation a few years ago by the Harvard Business School. As for the behavior of present-day American investors and brokers—whose traits, like those of all stock traders, are exaggerated in times of crisis—it may be clearly revealed through a consideration of their activities during the last week of May, 1962, a time when the stock market fluctuated in a startling way. On Monday, May 28th, the Dow-Jones average of thirty leading industrial stocks, which has been computed every trading day since 1897, dropped 34.95 points, or more than it had dropped on any other day except October 28, 1929, when the loss was 38.33 points. The volume of trading on May 28th was 9,350,000 shares—the seventh-largest one-day turnover in Stock Exchange history. On Tuesday, May 29th, after an alarming morning when most stocks sank far below their Monday-afternoon closing prices, the market suddenly changed direction, charged upward with astonishing vigor, and finished the day with a large, though not record-breaking, Dow-Jones gain of 27.03 points. Tuesday’s record, or near record, was in trading volume; the 14,750,000

shares that changed hands added up to the greatest one-day total ever except for October 29, 1929, when trading ran just over sixteen million shares. (Later in the sixties, ten, twelve, and even fourteen-million share days became commonplace; the 1929 volume record was finally broken on April 1st, 1968, and fresh records were set again and again in the next few months.) Then, on Thursday, May 31st, after a Wednesday holiday in observance of Memorial Day, the cycle was completed; on a volume of 10,710,000 shares, the fifth-greatest in history, the Dow-Jones average gained 9.40 points, leaving it slightly above the level where it had been before all the excitement began.


The crisis ran its course in three days, but, needless to say, the post-mortems took longer. One of de la Vega’s observations about the Amsterdam traders was that they were “very clever in inventing reasons” for a sudden rise or fall in stock prices, and the Wall Street pundits certainly needed all the cleverness they could muster to explain why, in the middle of an excellent business year, the market had suddenly taken its second-worst nose dive ever up to that moment. Beyond these explanations— among which President Kennedy’s April crackdown on the steel industry’s planned price increase ranked high—it was inevitable that the postmortems should often compare May, 1962, with October, 1929. The figures for price movement and trading volume alone would have forced the parallel, even if the worst panic days of the two months—the twenty-eighth and the twenty-ninth—had not mysteriously and, to some people, ominously coincided. But it was generally conceded that the contrasts were more persuasive than the similarities. Between 1929 and 1962, regulation of trading practices and limitations on the amount of credit extended to customers for the purchase of stock had made it difficult, if not actually impossible, for a man to lose all his money on the Exchange. In short, de la Vega’s epithet for the Amsterdam stock exchange in the sixteen-eighties—he called it “this gambling hell,” although he obviously loved it—had become considerably less applicable to the New York exchange in the thirty-three years between the two crashes.


THE 1962 crash did not come without warning, even though few observers read the warningscorrectly. Shortly after the beginning of the year, stocks had begun falling at a pretty consistent rate, and the pace had accelerated to the point where the previous business week—that of May 21st through May 25th—had been the worst on the Stock Exchange since June, 1950. On the morning of Monday, May 28th, then, brokers and dealers had reason to be in a thoughtful mood. Had the bottom been reached, or was it still ahead? Opinion appears, in retrospect, to have been divided. The Dow-Jones news service, which sends its subscribers spot financial news by teleprinter, reflected a certain apprehensiveness between the time it started its transmissions, at nine o’clock, and the opening of the Stock Exchange, at ten. During this hour, the broad tape (as the Dow-Jones service, which is printed on vertically running paper six and a quarter inches wide, is often called, to distinguish it from the Stock Exchange price tape, which is printed horizontally and is only three-quarters of an inch high) commented that many securities dealers had been busy over the weekend sending out demands for additional collateral to credit customers whose stock assets were shrinking in value; remarked that the type of precipitate liquidation seen during the previous week “has been a stranger to Wall Street for years;” and went on to give several items of encouraging business news, such as the fact that Westinghouse had

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