John Pierpont Morgan? John D. Rockefeller? William Rockefeller? Jay Gould? Jesse Livermore?
Dear Quote Investigator: The best-known prediction for investors is also the most humorously vacuous. According to legend a young person approached one of the top businessmen in the U.S. and asked with an undertone of desperation for guidance in the stock market. The prominent man looked gravely at his questioner and replied:
I believe the market will fluctuate.
Who crafted this unerringly accurate and perfectly useless forecast? I have heard it attributed to the powerful financier J. P. Morgan and the major industrialist John D. Rockefeller.
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in an anecdote credited to Henry Poor in the pages of the Wall Street Journal in October 1922. Today, Henry Poor is remembered as the founder of the firm which became the powerhouse financial analysis company called Standard & Poor’s. He died in 1905 several years before the article presenting the tale was published.
In this version of the story Poor was inquiring about a set of companies called Standard Oils. There were several Standard Oil companies, e.g., Standard Oil of Ohio and Standard Oil of New Jersey, even before the breakup mandated by anti-trust regulators in 1911. The companies were linked together through a trust structure, and John D. Rockefeller was the most powerful owner and executive of the Standard Oil Trust:
Henry Poor used to tell this story: He walked down to the financial district with John D. Rockefeller one morning and tried to elicit some information as to the market for Standard Oils. The latter passed two blocks before giving an answer and then said slowly, “I think they will fluctuate.” During the next few days they dropped over 30 points.
In 1924 another instance of the story was printed in the Washington Post. The questioner was an unidentified young person:
A smart young man is said to have approached Mr. Rockefeller with the question, “Mr. Rockefeller, what do you think Standard Oil stocks will do?” After ponderous deliberation, the reply was, “Young man, I think they will fluctuate.”
In 1926 the book “Security Speculation: The Dazzling Adventure” was published, and the author presented a variant of the anecdote featuring John Pierpont Morgan instead of Rockefeller. The inquiry concerned the overall stock market and not specific securities. Also, the label “legend” was already being employed:
Legend avers that an alert young man once found himself in the immediate presence of the late Mr. J. P. Morgan. Seeking to improve the golden moment, he ventured to inquire Mr. Morgan’s opinion as to the future course of the stock market. The alleged reply has become classic: “Young man, I believe the market is going to fluctuate.”
It did. It always has. Perhaps it always will. In the main, security prices are always and eternally going somewhere.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.