Reminiscences of a Stock Operator - Chapter 19

Return to book index

Return to chapter index

<< Chapter 18 Chapter 20 >>

I do not know when or by whom the word "manipulation" was first used in connection with what really are no more than common merchandising processes applied to the sale in bulk of securities on the Stock Exchange. Rigging the market to facilitate cheap purchases of a stock which it is desired to accumulate is also manipulation. But it is different. It may not be necessary to stoop to illegal practices, but it would be difficult to avoid doing what some would think illegitimate. How are you going to buy a big block of a stock in a bull market without putting up the price on yourself ? That would be the problem. How can it be solved? It depends upon so many things that you can't give a general solution unless you say: possibly by means of very adroit manipulation. For instance? Well, it would depend upon conditions. You can't give any closer answer than that.

I am profoundly interested in all phases of my business, and of course I learn from the experience of others as well as from my own. But it is very difficult to learn how to manipulate stocks to-day from such yarns as are told of an afternoon in the brokers' offices after the close. Most of the tricks, devices and expedients of bygone days are obsolete and futile; or illegal and impracticable. Stock Exchange rules and conditions have changed, and the story-even the accurately detailed story-of what Daniel Drew or Jacob Little or Jay Gould could do fifty or seventy-five years ago is scarcely worth listening to. The manipulator to-day has no more need to consider what they did and how they did it than a cadet at West Point need study archery as practiced by the ancients in order to increase his working knowledge of ballistics.

On the other hand there is profit in studying the human factors-the ease with which human beings believe what it pleases them to believe; and how they allow themselves--indeed, urge themselves--to be influenced by their cupidity or by the dollar-cost of the average man's carelessness. Fear and hope remain the same; therefore the study of the psychology of speculators is as valuable as it ever was. Weapons change, but strategy remains strategy, on the New York Stock Exchange as on the battlefield. I think the clearest summing up of the whole thing was expressed by Thomas F. Woodlock when he declared: "The principles of successful stock speculation are based on the supposition that people will continue in the future to make the mistakes that they have made in the past."

In booms, which is when the public is in the market in the greatest numbers, there is never any need of subtlety, so there is no sense of wasting time discussing either manipulation or speculation during such times; it would be like trying to find the difference in raindrops that are falling synchronously on the same roof across the street. The sucker has always tried to get something for nothing, and the appeal in all booms is always frankly to the gambling instinct aroused by cupidity and spurred by a pervasive prosperity. People who look for easy money invariably pay for the privilege of proving conclusively that it cannot be found on this sordid earth. At. first, when I listened to the accounts of old-time deals and devices I used to think that people were more gullible in the l860's and '70's than in the 1900's. But I was sure to read in the newspapers that very day or the next something about the latest Ponzi or the bust-up of some bucketing broker and about the millions of sucker money gone to join the silent majority of vanished savings.

When I first came to New York there was a great fuss made about wash sales and matched orders, for all that such practices were forbidden by the Stock Exchange. At times the washing was too crude to deceive anyone. The brokers had no hesitation in saying that "the laundry was active" whenever anybody tried to wash up some stock or other, and, as I have said before, more than once they had what were frankly referred to as "bucket-shop drives," when a stock was offered down two or three points in a jiffy just to establish the decline on the tape and wipe up the myriad shoe-string traders who were long of the stock in the bucket shops. As for matched orders, they were always used with some misgivings by reason of the difficulty of coordinating and synchronising operations by brokers, all such business being against Stock Exchange rules. A few years ago a famous operator canceled the selling but not the buying part of his matched orders, and the result was that an innocent broker ran up the price twenty-five points or so in a few minutes, only to see it break with equal celerity as soon as his buying ceased. The original intention was to create an appearance of activity. Bad business, playing with such unreliable weapons. You see, you can't take your best brokers into your confidence-not if you want them to remain members of the New York Stock Exchange. Then also, the taxes have made all practices involving fictitious transactions much more expensive than they used to be in the old times.

The dictionary definition of manipulation includes corners. Now, a corner might be the result of manipulation or it might be the result of competitive buying, as, for instance, the Northern Pacific corner on May 9, 1901, which certainly was not manipulation. The Stutz corner was expensive to everybody concerned, both in money and in prestige. And it was not a deliberately engineered corner, at that.

As a matter of fact very few of the great corners were profitable to the engineers of them. Both Commodore Vander-bilt's Harlem corners paid big, but the old chap deserved the millions he made out of a lot of short sports, crooked legislators and aldermen who tried to double-cross him. On the other hand, Jay Gould lost in his Northwestern corner. Deacon S. V. White made a million in his Lackawanna corner, but Jim Keene dropped a million in the Hannibal St. Joe deal. The financial success of a corner of course depends upon the marketing of the accumulated holdings at higher than cost, and the short interest has to be of some magnitude for that to happen easily.

I used to wonder why corners were so popular among the big operators of a half-century ago. They were men of ability and experience, wide-awake and not prone to childlike trust in the philanthropy of their fellow traders. Yet they used to get stung with an astonishing frequency. A wise old broker told me that all the big operators of the '60's and '70's had one ambition, and that was to work a corner. In many cases this was the offspring of vanity; in others, of the desire for revenge. At all events, to be pointed out as the man who had successfully cornered this or the other stock was in reality recognition of brains, boldness and boodle. It gave the cornerer the right to be haughty. He accepted the plaudits of his fellows as fully earned. It was more than the prospective money profit that prompted the engineers of corners to do their damnedest. It was the vanity complex asserting itself among cold-blooded operators.

Dog certainly ate dog in those days with relish and ease.

I think I told you before that I have managed to escape being squeezed more than once, not because of the possession of a mysterious ticker-sense but because I can generally tell the moment the character of the buying in the stock makes it imprudent for me to be short of it. This I do by common-sense tests, which must have been tried in the old times also. Old Daniel Drew used to squeeze the boys with some frequency and make them pay high prices for the Erie "sheers" they had sold short to him. He was himself squeezed by Commodore Vanderbilt in Erie, and when old Drew begged for mercy the Commodore grimly quoted the Great Bear's own deathless distich:

He that sells what isn't his'n

Must buy it back or go to pris'n.

Wall Street remembers very little of an operator who for more than a generation was one of its Titans. His chief claim to immortality seems to be the phrase "watering stock."

Addison G. Jerome was the acknowledged king of the Public Board in the spring of 1863. His market tips, they tell me, were considered as good as cash in bank. From all accounts he was a great trader and made millions. He was liberal to the point of extravagance and had a great following in the Street-until Henry Keep, known as William the Silent, squeezed him out of all his millions in the Old Southern corner. Keep, by the way, was the brother-in-law of Gov. Roswell P. Flower.

In most of the old corners the manipulation consisted chiefly of not letting the other man know that you were cornering the stock which he was variously invited to sell short. It therefore was aimed chiefly at fellow professionals, for the general public does not take kindly to the short side of the account. The reasons that prompted these wise professionals to put out short lines in such stocks were pretty much the same as prompts them to do the same thing to-day. Apart from the selling by faith-breaking politicians in the Harlem corner of the Commodore, I gather from the stories I have read that the professional traders sold the stock because it was too high. And the reason they thought it was too high was that it never before had sold so high; and that made it too high to buy; and if it was too high to buy it was just right to sell. That sounds pretty modern, doesn't it? They were thinking of the price, and the Commodore was thinking of the value! And so, for years afterwards, old-timers tell me that people used to say, "He went short of Harlem!" whenever they wished to describe abject poverty.

Many years ago I happened to be speaking to one of Jay Gould's old brokers. He assured me earnestly that Mr. Gould not only was a most unusual man-it was of him that old Daniel Drew shiveringly remarked, "His touch is Death!"- but that he was head and shoulders above all other manipulators past and present. He must have been a financial wizard indeed to have done what he did; there can be no question of that. Even at this distance I can see that he had an amazing knack for adapting himself to new conditions, and that is valu-able in a trader. He varied his methods of attack and defense without a pang because he was more concerned with the manipulation of properties than with stock speculation. He manipulated for investment rather than for a market turn. He early saw that the big money was in owning the railroads instead of rigging their securities on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

He utilised the stock market of course. But I suspect it was because that was the quickest and easiest way to quick and easy money and he needed many millions, just as old Collis P. Huntington was always hard up because he always needed twenty or thirty millions more than the bankers were willing to lend him. Vision without money means heartaches; with money, it means achievement; and that means power; and that means money; and that means achievement; and so on, over and over and over.

Of course manipulation was not confined to the great figures of those days. There were scores of minor manipulators. I remember a story an old broker told me about the manners and morals of the early '60's. He said:

"The earliest recollection I have of Wall Street is of my first visit to the financial district. My father had some business to attend to there and for some reason or other took me with him. We came down Broadway and I remember turning off at Wall Street. We walked down Wall and just as we came to Broad or, rather, Nassau Street, to the corner where the Bankers' Trust Company's building now stands, I saw a crowd following two men. The first was walking eastward, trying to look unconcerned. He was followed by the other, a red-faced man who was wildly waving his hat with one hand and shaking the other fist in the air. He was yelling to beat the band: 'Shylock! Shylock! What's the price of money? Shylock! Shylock!' I could see heads sticking out of windows. They didn't have skyscrapers in those days, but I was sure the second- and third-story rubbernecks would tumble out. My father asked what was the matter, and somebody answered something I didn't hear. I was too busy keeping a death clutch on my father's hand so that the jostling wouldn't separate us. The crowd was growing, as street crowds do, and I wasn't comfortable. Wild-eyed men came running down from Nassau Street and up from Broad as well as east and west on Wall Street. After we finally got out of the jam my father explained to me that the man who was shouting 'Shylock!' was So-and-So. I have forgotten the name, but he was the biggest operator in clique stocks in the city and was understood to have made-and lost-more money than any other man in Wall Street with the exception of Jacob Little. I remember Jacob Little's name because I thought it was a funny name for a man to have. The other man, the Shylock, was a notorious locker-up of money. His name has also gone from me. But I remember he was tall and thin and pale. In those days the cliques used to lock up money by borrowing it or, rather, by reducing the amount available to Stock Exchange borrowers. They would borrow it and get a certified check. They wouldn't actually take the money out and use it. Of course that was rigging. It was a form of manipulation, I think."

I agree with the old chap. It was a phase of manipulation that we don't have nowadays.

<< Chapter 18 Chapter 20 >>

Return to book index

Return to chapter index