The Ghost of RN Williams

The name Richard Norris Williams II might not ring a bell to you. But in the 1920s, everyone knew who he was. In 1912, 21-year-old Williams gained fame as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Later that year, he went on to earn his first U.S. mixed tennis championship. Now a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, there wasn’t much Williams didn’t win. He was a 1924 Olympic gold medalist, Wimbledon champion and a five-time U.S. tennis champion.

On top of all his accomplishments, he was also a highly successful investment broker. He became a partner in an investment firm called C. Clothier Jones & Co. in 1929. His business partners in the small $5 million ($61.5 million today) firm were some of the brightest, most successful investors in the world.

Of course, after the stock market hit the skids in 1929, the company took a hit. But thanks to the rally in first half of 1930, C. Clothier Jones & Co. was in better shape than ever. He was on top of the world in the spring of 1930. But just like the year before, market speculators pushed stocks higher than they were worth. By late summer, the rally turned into another massive sell-off.

Dow in 1930

When October came around, Williams and his partners were doing everything they could to stay in business. Their investments turned to dust, and they were so incredibly overleveraged the only course for them was to fudge some numbers and blatantly lie to shareholders. Williams left the country in mid-October to get married in Europe. By the time he returned, he was a wanted man, for market manipulation. Four of his colleagues and large investors in the company had ended their own lives in that single week…

We’re fortunate to have history lessons when trying to figure out the market. But there are certain aspects of today’s market that just weren’t there in 1930. Some, like emerging economies, give us a serious advantage over our forefathers. Even if the average investor of 1930 were aware of a possible second downturn, his options would be incredibly limited. Only a millionaire in 1930 could invest in other, safer economies.

Today, it’s as effortless as buying an ADR through your online broker. We’ve ramped up our portfolio to reflect our favorites: Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The Daily Reckoning