The rise and collapse of the South Sea Company, and its impact on the British economy.
When Robert Harley steps in as England's new Chancellor of the Exchequer, he discovers that not only is the government deeply in debt, but no one knows quite how much debt it owes. Because vicious political infighting between the Tory and Whig politic parties made it difficult to pass new tax laws, Harley turned to a private financier named John Blunt to help find enough money for England to keep up with its expenses for the year. Using Harley's government resources, Blunt instigated a series of get-rich schemes that drove artificial demand for unsustainable land and lottery investments with tremendous short term gains. Before the year was done, Blunt had successfully covered the shortfall for the government that year - albeit at the cost of driving England's already outrageous debt even higher.
Frustrated at every turn by the Whig-controlled Bank of England, Harley and Blunt decide to start their own instution: a trading company that will exchange government debt for stock shares. This new South Sea Company will have a monopoly on trade in the rich new lands of South America, but all the ports there are controlled by Spain, with whom Britain is at war. So Blunt pushes the country into a premature and unfavorable peace with Spain, enlisting famous authors to write his propaganda and convincing Queen Anne herself to tip the balance of Parliament in his favor. After the queen dies and the government changes hands, Blunt kicks Harley and his Tory leaders out of the company. He manages to bring King George I himself on board as a ceremonial leader, linking the success of the South Sea Company with the reputation of the monarchy. But while his maneuvering inflates the value of his company's stock, it's never produced anything close to the amount of money he's convinced people to invest in it.
The time has come for Blunt to enact the final act of his scheme: taking on the 31 million pound British debt. When Parliament initially balks at transferring responsibility for that much money to Blunt's insolvent South Sea Company, he bribes them with special deals on his own stock. Despite a legal clause that should have locked the stock price until the company began paying off the debt, Blunt keeps introducing new plans to inflate the stock price and pocket the money for himself. He does everything from selling stocks on layaway to loaning people money so they could buy more stocks from him, creating an artificial demand for South Sea Company stock that drives the company's worth up to 300 million pounds: a staggering ten times the initial value of the already stunning debt it had assumed. His success, founded entirely on speculation with no actual revenue from trade, not only starves out other businesses across Britain but exceeds the total amount of money in the country's entire economy. This bubble can not last.
With the South Sea Company's value dangerously inflated, Blunt drives one more scheme to raise stock prices - and it finally backfires on him. Early investors (including the famous politician Robert Walpole) seize the opportunity to sell their stock while the value is high, and the general public finally realizes that the South Sea Company has no actual worth. Everyone who didn't sell their stock in the first round finds themselves suddenly bankrupt as the stock value plummets. Even King George, on vacation when disaster strikes, loses a large amount of the royal fortune. Robert Walpole, however, sees this as an opportunity to make himself a hero of the public. Hiding his own involvement in the South Sea Swindle, he cancels all debts owed for the company's stock to help put its public investors back on their feet. Despite this, the public demands an inquiry and Walpole must walk a thin line between his facade as defender of the people and the reality of his, his party, and the King's blatant corruption.
Robert Walpole's attempts to use the South Sea Company scandal to enhance his own ambitions are threatened by the appearance of Robert Knight, a former South Sea employee whose records of corporate bribery implicate Walpole and his friends in Parliament. But faced with threats of retribution if he ever shares these records, Knight flees the country rather than face a public inquiry. Although he gets caught and sent to prison in Antwerp, Walpole deftly engineers his release and escape. With Knight finally gone, Walpole teams up with John Blunt to pin the blame for the South Sea stock bubble on his political opponents, conveniently clearing the way for himself to become essentially the first Prime Minister of England. He also makes sure that all of his own supporters get off easy (if not scot free) for their involvement, and even Blunt walks away from the South Sea Bubble with more money than he started with.