Banking, War, and a Bursting Beanie Bubble

Banking, War, and a Bursting Beanie Bubble

On this day in economic and business history ...

When most people think about JPMorgan Chase , it's the first part of the megabank's name that stands out. J.P. Morgan was a legendary financier, but he was not the earliest foundation of the bank that now bears his name. That honor belongs to the Bank of the Manhattan Company, predecessor of Chase Manhattan and only the second bank established in New York City. The Bank of Manhattan was established on Sept. 1, 1799, born out of one of the most legendary political rivalries in American history. David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace tell the tale of the Bank of the Manhattan:

On April 2, 1799, the New York State legislature granted a charter to the president and directors of the Manhattan Company to supply New York City with water. The charter included a clause that could be interpreted as a permit for the company to invest excess funds in banking. The clause was included by one of the founders, Aaron Burr, who wanted to compete with Alexander Hamilton's Bank of New York, which then had a monopoly on New York's banking business.

On Sept. 1, 1799, the company bought a house at 40 Wall Street for $30,000, and Hamilton's Federalist Party's monopoly on banking was broken by Burr's Republican Party. The current Chase Manhattan Bank [this was written before the JPMorgan merger] is still operating under that 1799 charter, making it the oldest bank in the country operating under its original charter.

The Bank of the Manhattan Company stopped supplying water to New York in 1842. It merged with a number of banks, including the Merchants National Bank (founded in 1803), the Central National Bank of New York, and the Seward National Bank and Trust Company.

The Economistdug a little deeper into the bank's background, and Burr's machinations:

After an epidemic of yellow fever in 1798, in which coffins had been sold by itinerant vendors on street corners, Burr established the Manhattan Company, with the ostensible aim of bringing clean water to the city from the Bronx River but in fact designed as a front for the creation of New York's second bank. ...

Once Burr had persuaded the city's politicians to approve a permissive charter allowing his company to undertake in effect whatever commercial activities it liked, water was always a secondary consideration. The Bronx supply never materialized, and for years New Yorkers had to make do with water fed into public wells and standpipes from the increasingly unhygienic Collect Pond, on the edge of the settled area.

The Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank in 1955 to form Chase Manhattan, and this augmented bank was acquired by Chemical Bank, another notable New York financial pioneer, in 1996. The present-day JPMorgan Chase is more directly descended from Chemical Bank than either J.P. Morgan, Chase National Bank, or the Bank of the Manhattan Company, but the company can still trace its lineage back to the schemes of Aaron Burr in 1799.

The war that changed everything
World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, with the German blitz of Poland. A day later, The Washington Post declared what everyone already knew: A Second World War was inevitable.

Europe today entered what may be the second day of the Second World War, with three German columns smashing deeply into Poland and with the French and British governments expected to declare war before the day's end.

Sole hope lay in the unlikely possibility that Adolf Hitler would bow to a joint British-French "ultimatum" demanding that he called off his undeclared war on Poland.

German planes had bombed more than 20 Polish cities. There were reports of growing casualty lists. But Germans stoutly asserted, as did the Japanese in China, that only "military objectives" were bombed.

Both France and Britain decreed general mobilization after the Polish government asked for help under the London-Paris-Warsaw mutual guarantee pacts. ...

Britain and France warned Hitler it will be a long war, with 13 million British and French troops pitted against him, as well as vastly superior naval strength and overwhelming reserves of men, money, and materials.

But Hitler retorted Britain wants a world war and Germany will go ahead with the course she has chosen even if it means "a 10-year war." ...

"We stand ready at the bar of history," said [British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain, "knowing that the responsibility for this terrible catastrophe rests on the shoulders of one man -- the German Chancellor."

The Polish campaign was over by Oct. 6, but the World War would drag on for another six years. It would be the largest, deadliest, most complete, and most transformative war in world history.

Dawn of a food empire
Nestle was established in Switzerland in September 1866. A pharmacist by trade, founder Henri Nestle had developed a new infant formula and sought to market it. In the mid-1800s, infant mortality was still a pressing concern for any mother who couldn't effectively breastfeed, and after Nestle proved the value of this milk substitute over other conventional alternatives, the product -- Farine Lactee Nestle -- quickly spread across Europe. Nestle, quick to learn the power of marketing, branded his product with his own coat of arms, which includes the "little nest" that remains Nestle's logo today.

At the same time, the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company was also growing. Likewise founded in Switzerland in September 1866, this company entered into direct competition with Nestle when it began marketing infant formulas in the mid-1870s. In response, Nestle, which was purchased by outside investors in 1875, launched its own condensed-milk product. This fierce rivalry continued until 1905, when the two companies merged and the modern Nestle began to take shape.

Today, Nestle is the world's largest publicly traded food company. In 2011, it became the most profitable company on Fortune's annual Global 500 list. Approximately 30 of its brands generate more than a billion dollars in annual sales.

A bean-filled bubble bursts
The Beanie Baby craze reached its fevered peak on Sept. 1, 1999, when manufacturer Ty announced the end of production, slated for the last day of that year. By then, more than 100 iterations of the miniature beanbag toys had been produced, generating billions of dollars in profit for company founder Ty Warner. By 1999, Beanie Babies had become "among the most popular items" on fast-growing auction marketplace eBay , where one "Ty No. 1 Bear," a limited-edition gift to Ty employees, was offered for as much as $20,000. The creator of Duke Nukem bought four. Maybe that's why Duke Nukem Forever took so long to reach the market.

Popular interest (and the desire for more money, no doubt) pressured Ty into restarting production the following year, but by then the damage was done, and the collecting world had come to its senses. In 1998, a Beanie Baby Handbook was produced that offered some rather absurd forward valuation estimates, later compiled by BuzzFeed alongside their present, far lower prices. Stripes the Dark Tiger, estimated to cost $1,000 in 2008, now sells for $10. Teddy the Violet Bear, estimated to cost up to $5,000, now tries to sell for $700. As for that No. 1 Bear, good luck finding any price information -- most Beanie Baby collector sites shut down years ago.

The Beanie Baby rise and fall rather neatly paralleled the surging stock market of the 1990s. The Dow Jones Industrial Average tripled from the launch of the first Beanies in late 1993 to their "retirement" at the end of 1999. Unlike Beanie Babies, the Dow eventually recovered and even surpassed its 1999 levels after the dot-com crash, because it's a representation of 30 of the most powerful companies in the United States, and Beanie Babies are sacks of beans. At least one person had the foresight to call the Beanie Bust: On the day of Ty's announcement, collectibles expert Tony Hyman's scathing and prophetic anti-Beanie commentary showed up on CNN:

"This is all phony," he said. "This is a passing fad. Fifteen years from now people will say 'Beanie Baby what?' America is this insane nation driven by one fad after another. Something's going to come screaming out of the cupboard in six months to replace them."

Hyman, author of Trash or Treasure: A Directory of Buyers, said that while the numbers surrounding the Beanies may be impressive, "value only takes place when an item changes hands."

"You don't have something worth $100,000 until you find someone who will pay you $100,000," he said. "In 15 years, my prediction is that it's going to be damn hard to find someone willing to take serious money out of his pocket to buy a stuffed little bag of beans."

Nearly 15 years later, Hyman was absolutely right. In mid-2013, a documentary called Bankrupt by Beanies surfaced to tell the tale of one ridiculous family that sank -- no lie -- $100,000 into its collection, which numbers in the thousands. Family patriarch Chris Robinson later told the press that he viewed his collectible craze as "bonding with my family, despite it being an extraordinary waste of money that would have been better spent on pretty much anything else."

For sale: family bonding time, $100,000. May resemble a sack of beans.

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