Monday, March 3, 2014
What happens if short sellers of stock are unable to cover because no one has any shares to sell? That’s one of the many interesting issues in the new book, Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War, by Larry Haeg (University of Minnesota Press 2013). Haeg details the fight between Edward Henry Harriman, supported by Jacob Schiff of the Kuhn, Loeb firm, and James J. Hill, supported by J.P. Morgan (no biographical detail needed), for control of the Northern Pacific railroad. Harriman controlled the Union Pacific railroad and Hill controlled the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads. When Hill and Harriman both became interested in the Burlington Northern system and Burlington Northern refused to deal with Harriman, Harriman raised the stakes a level by pursuing control of Hill’s own Northern Pacific.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of either the Northern Pacific affair or the stock market panic it caused. I had heard of the Northern Securities antitrust case that grew out of the affair; I undoubtedly encountered it in my antitrust class in law school. (Everything the late, great antitrust scholar Phil Areeda said in that class is still burned into my brain.)
I’m happy I stumbled across this book, and I think you would enjoy it as well. Harriman vs. Hill has everything needed to interest a Business Law Prof reader: short selling; insider trading; securities fraud; a stock market panic; a hostile takeover; a historical antitrust case; and, of course, J. P. Morgan. This was a hostile takeover before hostile takeovers were cool (and before tender offers even existed, so the fight was pursued solely through market and off-market purchases).
The book does have a couple of shortcomings. One is a polemic at the end of the book against the antitrust prosecution. The antitrust case was clearly a political play by Theodore Roosevelt, and Haeg may be right that the railroads’ actions were economically defensible, but his discussion is a little too one-sided for my taste. Haeg also has a tendency to put thoughts into the characters’ minds (Hill might have been thinking . . .), but he only uses the device to add factual background, so it isn’t terribly offensive. Finally, Haeg occasionally gets the legal terminology wrong. For example, he refers to the railroad holding company “that the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly declared unconstitutional,” when what he means is that the court upheld the law outlawing the holding company. He only makes legal misstatements like that a couple of times, but those errors are very grating on a lawyer reading the book.
Still, in spite of those minor flaws, this is a very good book and I highly recommend it.