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Two Senseless Tragedies and One Positive Legacy

By Alex Planes - Dec 3, 2012 at 10:30AM

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Learning from the market's past to understand its present.

On this day in economic and financial history...

Today's history headline is brought to you by the Fool's Isaac Pino, Charlie Kannel, and Tom Gardner, who offer not only an overview of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, but also a discussion on what must be done to fully remedy the damage of that disaster:

Early in the morning on Dec. 3, 1984, a leaking tank within an insecticide plant unleashed approximately 45 tons of a toxic gas in the northern area of Bhopal, a city in central India. The poisonous gas cloud -- a methyl isocyanate compound -- spread across the surrounding neighborhoods and slums as the people of Bhopal slept. Direct exposure to the substance reportedly killed 3,800 people during the night, while thousands of others fled the city and the expanding cloud of toxic fumes.

According to some estimates, in the weeks and months that followed, the gas leak killed as many as 16,000. More than 500,000 injuries have also been tied to the leak. The plant responsible was majority-owned by Union Carbide, which was purchased by Dow Chemical (DOW) in 2001. Union Carbide has for years maintained that the disaster was the result of a single act of sabotage, although the precise mechanisms of that sabotage have not been duplicated in later investigations. Union Carbide agreed to a $470 million settlement with the Indian government in February 1989, and the entire settlement was paid within a day.

Indian activists have yet to be satisfied by the results of the settlement. The lead-up to the disaster's 25th anniversary saw mass protests against Dow Chemical's New Delhi headquarters. As the Fool's overview points out, substantial cleanup efforts remain necessary to remove toxic chemicals from the Bhopal site nearly three decades later.

You're not ready
The 1980s were very much Nintendo's (NTDOY 1.75%) decade. The Nintendo Entertainment System controlled up to 90% of the American video game console market, and the Super Nintendo console also dominated the market despite arriving years after the earliest 16-bit consoles. The 1990s, however, were the PlayStation era, and it all began on Dec. 3, 1994, when Sony (SONY 2.26%) first released the console in Japan, prior to its global launch.

The PlayStation went on to become the first console to break 100 million global sales, a feat it reached nine and a half years after its launch. Sony's PlayStation 2 (released worldwide by late 2000) also dominated global sales charts to such a degree that Microsoft's (MSFT 3.42%) Xbox, released a year later, managed to sell less than one unit for every five PS2s sold. Sony's success, beginning with the original PlayStation, has made it by far the all-time leader in worldwide game console sales, with 326.3 million consoles sold since 1994. Nintendo, with an 11-year head start, has managed to sell only 262.9 million consoles, beginning with the original NES.

Speak softly and carry a big stick
President William McKinley was assassinated on Sept. 6, 1901. One of the immediate results of that tragedy was the elevation of young Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to the Oval Office. On Dec. 3, 1901, Roosevelt delivered his first State of the Union address to the houses of Congress, setting the trust-busting but pro-business tone that he would maintain throughout his presidency. Here are some of the more notable statements from this first address:

"Prosperity can never be created by law alone, although it is easy enough to destroy it by mischievous laws."

"The welfare of each citizen, and therefore the welfare of ... the nation, must rest upon individual thrift and energy, resolution, and intelligence. Nothing can take the place of this individual capacity, but wise legislation and honest and intelligent administration can give it the fullest scope, the largest opportunity to work to good effect."

"It is not true that as the rich have grown richer the poor have grown poorer. On the contrary, never before has the average man ... been so well off as in this country and at the present time. There have been abuses connected with the accumulation of wealth; yet it remains true that a fortune accumulated in legitimate business can be accumulated ... only on condition of conferring immense incidental benefits upon others."

"Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions."

"Artificial bodies such as corporations ... should be subject to proper governmental supervision, and full and accurate information as to their operations should be made public regularly at reasonable intervals."

"With the exception of the farming interest, no one matter is of such vital moment to our whole people as the welfare of the wage-workers. If the farmer and the wage-worker are well off, it is absolutely certain that all others will be well off, too."

"Each man must work for himself, and unless he so works no outside help can avail him; but each man must remember also that he is indeed his brother's keeper, and that while no man who refuses to walk can be carried with advantage to himself or anyone else, yet that each at times stumbles or halts, that each at times needs to have the helping hand outstretched to him."

Roosevelt's presidency saw 44 antitrust lawsuits filed against monopolistic trusts. One of the landmark cases fought by his attorney general was that against Northern Securities, a massive railroad trust that counted J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller among its principal owners. Northern Securities was broken up in 1904. Three years after his presidency ended, Teddy's trust-busting initiatives resulted in the takedown of Standard Oil, one of the largest monopolies the United States has ever seen. Its post-breakup legacy can be seen today in ExxonMobil (XOM 1.98%), ConocoPhillips (COP 3.44%), and Chevron (CVX 1.64%), which combine for a market cap of $675 billion.

Investors, perhaps afraid of the consequences of his proposals, kept the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 2.68%) flat for Roosevelt's entire first term. However, once he earned re-election in 1904, the Dow enjoyed one of the largest post-election gains of any president, and the index finished the following year with a 44% gain. However, the Panic of 1907 ensured that economic progress during Roosevelt's terms remained on the lower end of modern presidential rankings.

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Stocks Mentioned

Dow Jones Industrial Average (Price Return) Stock Quote
Dow Jones Industrial Average (Price Return)
$31,500.68 (2.68%) $823.32
Sony Corporation Stock Quote
Sony Corporation
$85.64 (2.26%) $1.89
Microsoft Corporation Stock Quote
Microsoft Corporation
$267.70 (3.42%) $8.84
DuPont de Nemours, Inc. Stock Quote
DuPont de Nemours, Inc.
Chevron Corporation Stock Quote
Chevron Corporation
$144.77 (1.64%) $2.34
Exxon Mobil Corporation Stock Quote
Exxon Mobil Corporation
$86.90 (1.98%) $1.69
ConocoPhillips Stock Quote
$90.91 (3.44%) $3.02
Nintendo Co., Ltd. Stock Quote
Nintendo Co., Ltd.
$54.15 (1.75%) $0.93

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