Saturday, July 6, 2013

Fortune Was His Middle Name

Thomas Fortune Ryan

We know that William C. Whitney (paternal grandfather of John Hay "Jock" Whitney) was ready for retirement by 1900, and that Thomas Fortune Ryan, his "pump and dump" associate on Wall Street, was then still on the move, having purchased the Equitable Life Assurance Society in 1905. The New York Times on May 19, 1907 said of Ryan, quoting:
"the closest financial friend that Ryan ever had,... the late William C. Whitney:
 'He is the most adroit, suave, and noiseless man that American finance has ever known.' "

America's richest man, it was speculated, would also soon be ready for retirement. Who would succeed him? Without answering that question, the Times moved on, reciting for posterity Ryan's vast wealth of properties:
120 Broadway, Equitable Bldg.
  • The Equitable Life Assurance Society, with $434,000,000 of assets;
  • the Washington Life Insurance Company, with about $20,000,000 of assets;
  • the National Bank of Commerce, with $35,000,000 capital and surplus and nearly $200,000,000 of deposits;
  • the Morton Trust Company, with $6,500,000 capital and $880,000,000 of deposits;
  • the Mercantile Trust Company, with $8,000,000 capital and surplus and $70,000,000 of deposits;
  • the Equitable Trust Company, with $12,000,000 capital and surplus and $50,000,000 of deposits;
  • the American Tobacco Company, with $300,000,000 capital and bonded indebtedness and annual net earnings of $25,000,000 or more;
  • the Interborough-Metropolitan Street Railroad system, with $225,000,000 capital stock and bonded debt issued and authorized;
  • the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, with $125,000,000 capitalization.
Continuing in this line, the article succinctly summarized how the syndicates with which Ryan had been associated up until 1907 had operated:

How a syndicate really works?

In street railroad affairs it was first, William C. Whitney, then the Whitney-Widener-Elkins syndicate, then more recently August Belmont through the merger of Mr. Ryan's Metropolitan with Mr. Belmont's Interborough. In the Consolidated Gas Company the Standard Oil group of capitalists are more widely interested than any other. In the Southern Railroad Reorganization it was Morgan and Co.; in the Seaboard Airline, Blair & Co. with Morgan "willin'." In the Bank of Commerce the "life insurance interests," as they were known in the old days, were the co-participators, while the American Tobacco Company, as it is called to-day, represents a wide variety of financial affiliation. Only in the purchase of the Equitable did Thomas Ryan go it alone, as Mr. Harriman has had occasion to remark on several notable occasions.
The Vision Thing

In the midst of all his ability to work compatibly with certain of his competitors, Ryan was said to have suffered one memorable defeat, which he eventually turned into an advantage.  Throughout the twenty years or so of activity in building and reorganizing his various businesses, Ryan had the advice primarily of William C. Whitney, Elihu Root, and attorney Paul D. Cravath.

Electric street railways
These men had bet their future wealth on the advancement of a public-sponsored system of electric street railways without having a vision of individually owned petroleum-powered automobiles. Thus their short-sighted vision for the future is now notable only as fanciful history, which disappeared in the great stock market crash of 1929.

Leading up to that crash was a series of run-ins between Ryan, whose Irish Catholic roots in Virginia were at odds with a fellow Virginia capitalist named J.S. Williams. Back in the 1890s, Ryan had been challenged for control of the Seaboard Air Line Railway by this rival, about whom we have already written:
John Skelton Williams
John Skelton Williams of Richmond, who, with J. William Middendorf, organized a new syndicate and offered $200 a share. The Williams party planned a connection with the Baltimore and Ohio. The courts of Baltimore refused Mr. Ryan an injunction to prevent the transfer of the stock of the Williams crowd, and he appeared to have suffered defeat. Thomas F. Ryan never forgot that defeat. He had to wait—wait until the slow panic of 1903 brought the Williams group of financiers into difficulties. Then, through the banking house of Blair & Co. [operated by C. Ledyard Blair], he helped finance the needs of the Seaboard system with the inevitable result. Ryan got the Seaboard....

The question arises naturally, enough, who have been the advisers of Thomas F. Ryan during these twenty years of his participation in the larger financial doings of this town? Two of them, Elihu Root and William C. Whitney, have been already disclosed. Whitney was the close business and personal associate whose stake went in with Mr. Ryan's stake and whose profits came out with those of Mr. Ryan.
When we follow the money, rather than the men themselves, all roads lead to Brown Brothers, the American bank which spread its daughters out like Rothschild's arrows. It's a complicated story, which we'll attempt to clarify over a series of steps.

Start with these links:
  • T.F. Ryan lost control of the Seaboard Airline Railroad in 1893 to John Langbourne Williams' son, John Skelton Williams, who was working to connect it to the railroad controlled by Baltimore's premier banking family, Alexander Brown and his son, George Brown.
  • In 1903 Ryan worked through C. Ledyard Blair, head of a bank at 24 Broad Street in New York to regain control of the Seaboard Airline.
  • During the Panic of 1907, Morgan, with the help of James Stillman of the National City Bank (now Citigroup), and a few other bankers, pooled enough money together to allow Morgan-financed U.S. Steel to purchase the shares of the "too big to fail" Moore and Schley brokerage company in a competitor steel company, with last-minute approval of President Theodore Roosevelt.
  • C. Ledyard Blair, Ryan's banker in 1903, supported Republican William Howard Taft (Yale, Skull and Bones, 1878) for President in 1908 and again in 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson won.
  • Wilson selected T.F. Ryan's nemesis, John Skelton Williams, to be Comptroller of the Currency in the very year, 1913, the new Federal Reserve Act went into effect and the same year J.P. Morgan died. James Stillman had retired from City Bank in 1908, and E.H. Harriman died in 1909. There was a vacuum at the top of the big banks during this time, waiting for someone to fill.

Who would fill this gap after the big names either retired or died? A group of banking scions were chomping at the bit to make their names known.