IN the twilight of his long and laudable career, Bernard Baruch was invariably characterized as an adviser to Presidents or a park-bench philosopher who doled out wisdom from a seat in Central Park or Lafayette Square. Admirers tended to forgetBaruch never didthat in the forenoon of that career, he had also been one of Wall Street's craftiest speculators. Baruch could be bearish or bullish. He once sold Amalgamated Copper short and realized $700,000 when Amalgamated reduced a dividend, causing its overpriced stock to tumble. Another time, alerted by a newspaperman that Commodore Schley had beaten the Spanish at Santiago, virtually ending the Spanish-American War, Baruch spent July 4, 1898, on the cable buying U.S. stocks in the London market. Next day he made a neat profit when the New York Stock Exchange reopened following the holiday and prices shot upwards on word of the victory. Baruch was proud to have been a speculator, but he cringed at the implications the term came to carry. "Modern usage," he noted in a 1957 autobiography, "has made the term 'speculator' a synonym for gambler and plunger. Actually the word comes from the Latin speculari, which means to spy out and observe. I have defined a speculator as a man who observes the future and acts before it occurs."
The trouble with that definition and the reason why the word has fallen into even deeper disrepute was noted as far back as 1905. Handing down the opinion in the case of Chicago Board of Trade v. Christie Grain, in which the court ruled that commodities trading and the Board of Trade served a legitimate purpose, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes sagely commented that when competent men engage in speculation, it is "the self-adjustment of society to the probable." But he added that its pervasive peril surfaces when "the success of the strong induces imitation by the weak, and incompetent persons bring themselves to ruin." Incompetent speculators lack, somehow, the sang-froid of an emotionless Baruch or the attributes of another successful pre-Depression speculator, Joseph P. Kennedy. Old Joe succeeded in the Great Bull Market of the '20s and magnificently survived the crash, suggested a friend, because he possessed "a passion for facts, a complete lack of sentiment and a marvelous sense of timing."
Broadway as Well as Wall Street
At present, lacking these qualifications, many an incompetent has more opportunity than ever to achieve ruin. Speculation in the prospering U.S. has become not merely an easy but an enviable thing to do. For little money down and years to pay the balance, an Iowa farmer or Rhode Island schoolteacher can acquire without seeing it a small strip of Florida that is bound to quadruple in valueor so the salesmen hint, using a Will Rogers slogan, "Buy land, they're not makin' it any more." Art has become as much of a speculative exercise as an esthetic experience; collectors have bought millions of dollars worth of art works, often in hope that the purchase will increase in value as the artist becomes better known. Amateurs can also dabble in oil-well exploration, beef cattle, race horses, Broadway plays, foreign exchange, gold and silver and precious gems on the chance that Oliver Wendell Holmes's probable will occur.