What Today's Investor Can Learn From the Black Friday Gold Collapse

By Andrew Snyder
Editorial Director
The Oxford Club

Here's a story I bet you haven't heard before. It's worth a read. This interesting tale details the original "Black Friday" - a day that every American should know and understand.  After all, you'll notice some eerie similarities between past and present. Virtually the same calamity could happen today. 

The financial tragedy started in the late 1860s with something no government can resist tackling. America's leaders were manipulating its currency in hopes of boosting the economy.  You see, America was loaded with debt after the Civil War. The federal government had issued hordes of paper money, backed by little more than a promise. These "greenbacks" pushed gold coins out of the market, sending the price of the precious metal plummeting. 

It's not all that different from the fiat currency in our wallets today. If it were suddenly backed by gold (a very limited resource), the price of the metal would surge.  Andrew Johnson knew it. So as part of his post-war economic stimulus plan, the government began buying the fiat currency and replacing it with money backed by Washington's huge stockpile of gold. 

In other words, America traded a flimsy government promise for something with real value - something the economy could build on.  

No Good Deed

Two men - Jay Gould and Jim Fisk - took note of the plan and worked to take advantage of it. They were convinced the price of the metal would soar, but only after the government stopped flooding the market with its gold stockpile.  At the time, Washington controlled the then-tiny gold market. If prices rose, it would lower them by selling its gold. If prices dipped, it'd buy and raise the metal's price. 

Believing the government would eventually stop selling gold or would flat-out run out of the stuff, Gould and Fisk saw an opportunity. They'd buy gold and wait for the government to stop selling. But then Ulysses Grant took office. He vowed to continue the plan by dumping even more gold into the market.  Gould and Fisk didn't like the idea. Not a bit. 

So they did what any good lobbyist with a chunk of change at stake would do. They cozied up to the right people and offered to line their pockets. In this case, they became good "friends" with the man married to Grant's sister. They used him to get close to Grant, where they could directly influence his thoughts on gold.

It worked. They got Grant to name another of their schemers to a high post at the Treasury.

"America was loaded with debt after the Civil War. The federal government had issued hordes of paper money, backed by little more than a promise. These 'greenbacks' pushed gold coins out of the market, sending the price of the precious metal plummeting. 

"It's not all that different from the fiat currency in our wallets today."

In fact, he was put in charge of the gold sales. As a man on the inside, he'd alert Gould and Fisk if and when the government was going to push more of its gold stockpile onto the market and lower prices. With their scheme in place, the nefarious duo bought their gold. A lot of it. They eventually ended up with some $60 million worth of the metal.  Their buying sparked a fast-moving bull market as other investors took note and piled in. 

Over the span of just a couple weeks in 1869, the price of gold soared. The value of a $100 gold piece surged to $130... then $140... all the way to $160.  Grant soon got suspicious. He uncovered bribes offered to his wife and family.

He knew he got duped. 

Brutal Payback

On Wednesday, September 22, Gould found out his plot was foiled. His man on the inside quietly told him Grant was onto him and would soon flood the market with gold.  Gould secretly started selling his gold the next day... sheepishly neglecting to tell his partner in crime who had millions on the line.

On Friday, September 24, word hit Wall Street. A telegraph hit New York announcing Grant was breaking the bull's back. He ordered the Treasury to dump $4 million worth of gold into the open market. 

Prices plunged.  The markets were stunned... as was Fisk. Almost instantly, gold fell by 20%. Stocks followed in kind. Foreign trade came to a halt. Commodity prices imploded, dipping by more than 50%. 

Investors went bankrupt. And the economy was shattered.  "Black Friday," as it quickly became known, was painful. And yet, as remains oh so true today, the perpetrators walked away unscathed. Although his partner let him hang out to dry, Fisk never realized his losses. He lied and said his brokers bought the gold without his permission. They paid the bill. 

Gould, you'll remember, sold much of his gold the day before the meltdown. He walked away with some $12 million.  Although Grant tried, the government found them guilty of no crimes.  Gould went on to use his newfound wealth to build an empire. He eventually controlled the Union Pacific Railroad, Western Union Telegraph Company and the Manhattan Elevated Railroad.

Fisk, on the other hand, later got shot and killed... supposedly over some money and a girl named Josie.  The first Black Friday took place nearly 150 years ago. And yet the same themes run true today.  Washington is still manipulating the economy... to the benefit of a few.

Gold still surges and falls on a whim. The well-connected, white-collar criminals that set the financial world in a tailspin rarely get punished.  And men still get shot over money and women. 

Some things - especially on Wall Street - never change.

Good investing,

Andrew