From Global Financial Data:
Jacob Little was the first and one of the greatest speculators on Wall Street. He engineered the first successful stock corner on the New York Stock Exchange in 1835, and was known as “Ursa Major,” or “the Great Bear of Wall Street.” Like any bear, he was loathed by the bulls, but through his stock operations, he became one of the richest men in the United States. Although Little is now mostly forgotten, his speculative expertise laid the foundation for Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, Jesse Livermore and others who followed in his footsteps.
Jacob Little was born in 1794. His father was a man of large wealth and distinction who was ruined financially in the War of 1812. Little’s father helped Jacob get a position with Jacob Barker, one of the leading merchants of New York. In 1822, Little started his own business as an exchange specie broker, dealing in banknotes issued by private bank, where he gained a “reputation as an honest, energetic, and successful broker.” Jacob Little opened his own brokerage house in 1834 in the old Exchange Building in Wall Street, and for the next twenty-five years, Jacob Little & Co. dominated Wall Street.Previous visits to Global Financial Data;
Railroads Transform the Stock Market
When Little entered the stock market in 1834, it was going through tremendous changes. Until the 1830s, most of the listed stocks were in insurance companies and banks. Most finance companies were small, had a limited number of shares outstanding, and their shares traded infrequently. Speculative activity was limited.
In the 1820s and 1830s, shares in railroads began to dominate the stock market since they needed large amounts of capital to fund their operations. The first exchange-listed railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, started trading in 1828. Whereas railroads weren’t even represented on the NYSE in 1825, by the 1840s, they represented around ninety percent of the volume of the exchange. With the growth in share size and volume, speculators like Little were able to jump into the market and seize opportunities that didn’t exist until the 1830s.
Little had a fanatical obsession with the market. He would often work twelve hours at his office speculating on stocks, only to spend another six hours at night buying and selling banknotes issued by private banks. Little played both sides of the market, shorting stocks he felt were overpriced, trying to corner stocks the shorts were selling, or going long during a bull market. Little could remember every transaction he made, and attended to every detail of his transactions. He even delivered stock he sold personally to make sure there was no mistake in the transaction.
Until Jacob Little arrived on the scene, most speculators used inside information to make their fortunes, but Little relied upon predicting the future direction of stocks and manipulating stocks to reap his fortune. Little was an inveterate gambler, but one who wanted the cards stacked in his favor. The spirit of Jacob Little was summed up when he said, “I don’t care what happens, so long as I am in it.”
To understand Little’s involvement in the stock market, you have to understand how the stock market of the 1830s differed from the market today. Of course, there was no CNBC or ticker tape, telegraph or telephones, all trading was done on the floor of the exchange.
Shares were not traded all day long as they are today. Instead there was a morning session and an afternoon session. During each session, a representative of the exchange would run through each of the listed stocks. Traders could only buy and sell when a stock was announced. When the representative of the Exchange arrived at Erie, for example, he would offer to buy or sell shares at set prices. Traders would respond by offering to buy and sell shares. Then the exchange moved on to the next stock.
Continuous trading in stocks did not exist. You had two chances each day to trade a stock. That was it. Each and every transaction was written down, and published in The New York Times, The New York Herald or another newspaper the following day. If you go to a copy of The New York Times from the 1850s, you can see a record of every transaction that took place on the stock exchange.
Shares were sold short either through borrowing shares directly from an owner, or more often through selling options on the stock. In the 1830s, options were not derivatives ruled by Black-Scholes mathematical formulae calculated on computers with a fixed premium. Instead, someone would offer a customer the opportunity to buy or sell the stock to them at a fixed price to be delivered at the request of the buyer at any point in the next six months. If you look at the record of transactions published in The New York Times, you can see the notation of the time period the buyer had the option to buy or sell the stock as well as the agreed upon price. Since this was how foreign exchange transactions and moving money between cities were carried out, this methodology seemed natural to people on the floor of the exchange.
Little and Morris: The First Corner
Little’s first coup occurred in his corner of the Morris Canal and Banking Company in 1835. There had been an attempt to corner the stock of the First Bank of the United States in 1792 by William Duer and Alexander Macomb, but the attempt had failed, leading to the Panic of 1792....MUCH MORE
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