sinn109_ DANIEL ROLANDAFP via Getty Images_financial crisis DANIEL ROLAND/AFP via Getty Images

Accounting for Casino Capitalism

The current financial crisis has more than a little in common with the startup crisis that preceded the stock-market panic of 1873. In both cases, mark-to-market accounting standards turned the banking system into a playground for gamblers, fueling instability while adding little economic value.

MUNICH – The spectacular collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) – the second-largest bank failure in US history – has evoked memories of the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, which sparked the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But the current situation is, at least for Germans and other Europeans, more reminiscent of the “founder’s crash” (Gründerkrach) of 1873. Then, as now, an era of cheap credit had fueled a tech boom and then triggered a banking crisis. In those days, the startups were in railroads, electronics, and chemistry, but there were also a large number of financial startups rising with the tide. In both cases, the crisis was rooted in bad accounting rules that turned the financial system into a playground for gamblers.

Before the 1870s, the liberalization of German and Austro-Hungarian corporate laws that paved the way for joint-stock companies had exempted founders from private liability, leading to an explosion of new, well-financed startups. Much of this joint-stock frenzy was concentrated in the fledgling manufacturing industries, whose rapid growth brought a period of unprecedented economic prosperity known as the “founders’ era” (Gründerzeit). The cities of Europe’s German-speaking countries were soon filled with magnificent Gründerzeit buildings, some of which can still be admired today, while new financial institutions collected funds and deposits to invest in securities and company shares.

But lax accounting standards ultimately led to disaster for the new financial firms. Readily available bank credit resulted in an overheated economy and fueled a dangerous speculative bubble. The bubble burst when the Vienna Stock Exchange crashed on the “Black Friday” of May 9, 1873, days after Österreichische Creditanstalt – the most important bank in the Austro-Hungarian empire – divested from a very large securities portfolio following rumors of an impending stock-market collapse. Within a year, almost one-fifth of the 843 new joint-stock corporations founded in Germany since 1870 were bankrupt. That summer, the bankruptcy wave reached the United States, ushering in a long-lasting global economic slump.

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