Tulip Mania is considered by many as the first recorded story of a financial bubble, which supposedly occurred in the 1600s. Before discussing if the Tulip Mania was really a financial bubble or not, let’s go through the most common narrative that considers it to be a real bubble.
The Tulip Mania took place in the Netherlands, during the Dutch Golden Age. The country had the highest global per capita income at that time, thanks to its growing international commerce and extensive trading operations.
The economic boom helped many people achieve wealth and prosperity, which in turn drove the market for luxury goods. In this context, one of the most coveted items were tulips, particularly those that had a mutation to make them even more stunning than the typical flower. These unique flowers were much different from the other options available, so everyone wanted to show them off due to their unusual colors and patterns.
Depending on the variety, the price of flowers could exceed the income of some workers or even the price of a house. In addition, a futures market pushed the pricing up since the flowers didn't have to physically change hands in the process.
Eventually, the supply of tulips got too high due to the influx of farmers dedicating their land to grow the flowers, causing the bubble to burst in 1637, within the course of a week. Some believe that the bubonic plague also had an impact as buyers didn’t show up to a tulip auction right before the free fall. Historians aren't sure whether any bankruptcies actually occurred due to Tulip Mania, as financial records are hard to come by from that period, but the crash certainly caused significant losses to investors that were holding tulip contracts.
Tulip Mania is considered by many as a prime example of a bursting bubble. The popular narrative describes an episode of greediness and hype that drove the price of tulips far beyond reasonable levels. While savvy people started to get out early, the late ones were panic selling after the free fall started, causing many investors and service providers involved to lose a lot of money.
It is quite common to hear that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are following a similar pattern. However, the financial world is much different and with far more players than in the 17th century, so connecting Tulip Mania with Bitcoin fails to account for this environment. Moreover, the cryptocurrency and traditional markets are quite different in many other aspects.
One of the biggest differences between tulips and Bitcoins is the potential to act as a store of value. The tulips had a limited lifespan and it was almost impossible to tell the exact variety or appearance the flower would have just by looking at the bulb alone. Merchants would have to plant it and hope that they got the exact type that they invested in, especially if they paid for one of the rare colors. Other than that, if they wanted to transfer tulips, they needed a way to safely ship them to their destination with all of the associated costs. Tulips were also unsuitable for payments because it was not possible to divide them into smaller parts, as that would most likely kill the plants. In addition, flowers could be easily stolen from fields or out of a market stall, making them harder to protect.
In contrast, Bitcoin is digital and can be transferred within a global peer-to-peer network. It is a digital currency that is secured by cryptographic techniques, making it highly resistant to frauds. Bitcoin cannot be copied or destroyed and can be easily divided into multiple smaller units. Furthermore, it is relatively scarce, with a limited supply fixed at a maximum of 21 million units. It is true that the digital world of cryptocurrencies presents some risks, but following general security principles will likely keep your funds safe.
In 2006, the economist Earl A. Thompson published an article entitled “The tulipmania: Fact or artifact?”, where he discussed how the Tulip Mania was actually related to the implicit conversion, by the government, of tulip future contracts into option contracts - and not really to a market frenzy. According to Thompson, the Tulip Mania episode cannot be considered a bubble because “bubbles require the existence of mutually-agreed-upon prices that exceed fundamental values”, which was not really the case.
In 2007, Anne Goldgar published a book entitled “Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age”, where she presents lots of evidence that the popular Tulipmania story is actually full of myths. Based on extensive archival research, Goldgar’s arguments indicate that both the rise and the burst of the tulip bubble was much smaller than most of us tend to believe. She states that the economic repercussions were pretty minor and that the number of people involved in the tulip market was quite small.
Regardless of whether the Tulip Mania was a financial bubble or not, it is certainly irrational to compare tulips to Bitcoins (or any other cryptocurrency). The event took place almost 400 years ago, in a completely different historical context and flowers cannot really be compared to a digital currency that is secured by cryptographic techniques.