On This Date in History: When World War I first broke out, the United States was officially neutral. Calvin Coolidge would later say as President that the business of America was business and that idea had already taken hold at the outset of the Great War. America not only wanted to stay out of the war, but also expected the beligerants to adhere to international law and allow Uncle Sam to conduct business as usual. That meant allowing the United States to continue to participate in free trade. Well, the Brits weren’t about to give up their advantage on the high seas by allowing Germany to get supplies, even food, from overseas. Any supplies that Germany got would add to its ability to make war. So, the Royal Navy used its huge numerical advantage to use with a naval blockade. The US was not happy that its ships were being stopped and searched or its ships were denied entry to certain ports. But, typically, American merchants were simply escorted to British ports by the navy and their cargo was searched. A process was also set up for damage reparation claims. Fearing that good were getting to the Axis powers in an indirect way, the British expanded the blockade to include neutral Baltic states.
The Germans did not have a surface fleet sufficient to blockade goods from the Allies so they went below the waves. The Germans used their U-Boats, or submarines, to sink ships that were supplying the Allies, mainly through England. The difference between the two was that the U-Boats dispensed with the dangerous, more acceptable practice of stopping and searching ships and simply began torpedoing ships without warning. If the ship was suspected of supplying the Allies, the fish went in the water and down went the ship. Activity such as this began to gain the ire of the Americans with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.
Most of the time, people think that war is good for business. But, in this case, a compelling argument can be made that both before and after US entry into World War I, American business was adversely affected. One casualty of the war was the stock market. When war first broke out in 1914, the financial world was fearful of what would happen in international markets; perhaps European stock holders would sell their equities and the market would crash. So, in July 1914, the New York Stock Exchange closed and stayed closed for about 5 months. The thinking was that, with the major stock exchanged closed in the US and others overseas disrupted by war, then it would be much more difficult for anyone to dump their stocks. But, almost immediately, a curb or street exchange developed with traders working about a block from Wall Street matching up buyers and sellers for securities. It provided some much needed liquidity and was referred to as New Street. However, Uncle Sam ran into a problem. The government needed money and raising taxes wasn’t enough. They needed to sell bonds but without a market to sell its debt, then it was in trouble. So, on this date in 1914, the only US exchange reopened on a limited basis. Equities were still not traded but bond markets were re-opened. A few days later, stocks resumed trading. And, there was no crash. But, there also wasn’t a war boom. For the most part, the stock market went sideways except when one figures in the effect of inflation. In that case, the real stock value was decidedly downward.
Most of the time, we think of the US as being a wild west show when it came to financial markets prior to the Great Depression; that before 1929 there was no government regulation. But, as this story illustrates, the Federal Government was indeed involved in trying to control market results. In this case, it had the largest exchange in the world shuttered until the government needed it. Talk about insider trading. But, it was all about business and the declaration of Silent Cal was true before he was president and 80 years after his administration. The business of America is business.