By Stan Billingsley LawReader Senior Editor Sept. 30, 2008
The following economic tutorial shows that in the run up to the Great Depression of the 1930’s we had many of the same conditions we are seeing now in our economy. The number one issue then was loss of liquidity in the credit markets. That is the problem the Paulson plan seeks to relieve.
The Government did not act to prevent bank failures in the Great Depression, as Hoover stood on doctrinaire grounds and allowed the Free Market to work itself out. This same doctrine was upheld by the House of Representatives yesterday when they failed to pass the Bailout bill.
The Bailout plan by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is an attempt to intervene quickly to prevent an economic collapse similar to that of the 1930’s.
We don’t know if the Paulsen plan is the right one, but we know from history that the Government did very little to save banks, and that in the end lack of consumer confidence in our banking and investment systems caused the problem to snowball.
Many protections (such as insured bank deposits) are in effect that so far has limited the effect on the consumer, of the half dozen bank failures to date. Whether this is enough to continue to uphold the consumer’s faith in our banking system is debatable. The reserves held by the government to insure depositors money up to $100,000 per account, is not a endless supply of funds….it can be depleted under a number of scenarios.
Recession cycles are thought to be a normal part of living in a world of inexact balances between supply and demand. What turns a usually mild and short recession or “ordinary” business cycle into a great depression is a subject of debate and concern. Scholars have not agreed on the exact causes and their relative importance.
The search for causes is closely connected to the question of how to avoid a future depression, and so the political and policy viewpoints of scholars are mixed into the analysis of historic events eight decades ago. The even larger question is whether it was largely a failure on the part of free markets or largely a failure on the part of governments to curtail widespread bank failures, the resulting panics, and reduction in the money supply.
Those who believe in a large role for governments in the economy believe it was mostly a failure of the free markets and those who believe in free markets believe it was mostly a failure of government that compounded the problem.
Current theories may be broadly classified into three main points of view.
First, there is orthodox classical economics: monetarist, Austrian Economics and neoclassical economic theory, all of which focus on the macroeconomic effects of money supply and the supply of gold which backed many currencies before the Great Depression, including production and consumption.
Second, there are structural theories, most importantly Keynesian, but also including those of institutional economics, that point to underconsumption and overinvestment (economic bubble), malfeasance by bankers and industrialists, or incompetence by government officials. The only consensus viewpoint is that there was a large-scale lack of confidence. Unfortunately, once panic and deflation set in, many people believed they could make more money by keeping clear of the markets as prices got lower and lower and a given amount of money bought ever more goods.
Third, there is the Marxist critique of political economy. This emphasizes contradictions within capital itself (which is viewed as a social relation involving the appropriation of surplus value) as giving rise to an inherently unbalanced dynamic of accumulation resulting in an overaccumulation of capital, culminating in periodic crises of devaluation of capital. The origin of crisis is thus located firmly in the sphere of production, though economic crisis can be aggravated by problems of disproportionality between spheres of production and the underconsumption of the masses.
Debt is seen as one of the causes of the Great Depression, particularly in the United States. Macroeconomists including Ben Bernanke, the current chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, have revived the debt-deflation view] of the Great Depression originated by Arthur Cecil Pigou and Irving Fisher:] in the 1920s, American consumers and businesses relied on cheap credit, the former to purchase consumer goods such as automobiles and furniture, and the latter for capital investment to increase production. This fueled strong short-term growth but created consumer and commercial debt. People and businesses who were deeply in debt when price deflation occurred or demand for their product decreased often risked default. Many drastically cut current spending to keep up time payments, thus lowering demand for new products. Businesses began to fail as construction work and factory orders plunged.
Massive layoffs occurred, resulting in US unemployment rates of over 25% by 1933. Banks which had financed this debt began to fail as debtors defaulted on debt and depositors attempted to withdraw their deposits en mass, triggering multiple bank runs. Government guarantees and Federal Reserve banking regulations to prevent such panics were ineffective or not used. Bank failures led to the loss of billions of dollars in assets. Outstanding debts became heavier, because prices and incomes fell by 20–50% but the debts remained at the same dollar amount. After the panic of 1929, and during the first 10 months of 1930, 744 US banks failed. (In all, 9,000 banks failed during the 1930s). By 1933, depositors had lost $140 billion in deposits.
Bank failures snowballed as desperate bankers called in loans which the borrowers did not have time or money to repay. With future profits looking poor, capital investment and construction slowed or completely ceased. In the face of bad loans and worsening future prospects, the surviving banks became even more conservative in their lending. Banks built up their capital reserves and made fewer loans, which intensified deflationary pressures. A vicious cycle developed and the downward spiral accelerated. This kind of self-aggravating process may have turned a 1930 recession into a 1933 great depression
Monetarists, including Milton Friedman and current Federal Reserve System chairman Ben Bernanke, argue that the Great Depression was caused by monetary contraction, the consequence of poor policymaking by the American Federal Reserve System and continuous crisis in the banking system. In this view, the Federal Reserve, by not acting, allowed the money supply as measured by the M2 to shrink by one-third from 1929 to 1933. Friedman argued that the downward turn in the economy, starting with the stock market crash, would have been just another recession. The problem was that some large, public bank failures, particularly that of the Bank of the United States, produced panic and widespread runs on local banks, and that the Federal Reserve sat idly by while banks fell. He claimed that, if the Fed had provided emergency lending to these key banks, or simply bought government bonds on the open market to provide liquidity and increase the quantity of money after the key banks fell, all the rest of the banks would not have fallen after the large ones did, and the money supply would not have fallen as far and as fast as it did. With significantly less money to go around, businessmen could not get new loans and could not even get their old loans renewed, forcing many to stop investing. This interpretation blames the Federal Reserve for inaction, especially the New York branch.
One reason why the Federal Reserve did not act to limit the decline of the money supply was regulation. At that time the amount of credit the Federal Reserve could issue was limited by laws which required partial gold backing of that credit. By the late 1920s the Federal Reserve had almost hit the limit of allowable credit that could be backed by the gold in its possession. This credit was in the form of Federal Reserve demand notes. Since a “promise of gold” is not as good as “gold in the hand”, during the bank panics a portion of those demand notes were redeemed for Federal Reserve gold. Since the Federal Reserve had hit its limit on allowable credit, any reduction in gold in its vaults had to be accompanied by a greater reduction in credit. Several years into the Great Depression, the private ownership of gold was declared illegal, reducing the pressure on Federal Reserve gold.
Marriner S. Eccles, who served as Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s Chairman of the Federal Reserve from November 1934 to February 1948, detailed what he believed caused the Depression in his memoirs, Beckoning Frontiers (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1951):
As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth — not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced — to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation’s economic machinery. [Emphasis in original.]
Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants. In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.
That is what happened to us in the twenties. We sustained high levels of employment in that period with the aid of an exceptional expansion of debt outside of the banking system. This debt was provided by the large growth of business savings as well as savings by individuals, particularly in the upper-income groups where taxes were relatively low. Private debt outside of the banking system increased about fifty per cent. This debt, which was at high interest rates, largely took the form of mortgage debt on housing, office, and hotel structures, consumer installment debt, brokers’ loans, and foreign debt. The stimulation to spending by debt-creation of this sort was short-lived and could not be counted on to sustain high levels of employment for long periods of time. Had there been a better distribution of the current income from the national product — in other words, had there been less savings by business and the higher-income groups and more income in the lower groups — we should have had far greater stability in our economy.
Had the six billion dollars, for instance, that were loaned by corporations and wealthy individuals for stock-market speculation been distributed to the public as lower prices or higher wages and with less profits to the corporations and the well-to-do, it would have prevented or greatly moderated the economic collapse that began at the end of 1929.
The time came when there were no more poker chips to be loaned on credit. Debtors thereupon were forced to curtail their consumption in an effort to create a margin that could be applied to the reduction of outstanding debts. This naturally reduced the demand for goods of all kinds and brought on what seemed to be overproduction, but was in reality underconsumption when judged in terms of the real world instead of the money world. This, in turn, brought about a fall in prices and employment.
Unemployment further decreased the consumption of goods, which further increased unemployment, thus closing the circle in a continuing decline of prices. Earnings began to disappear, requiring economies of all kinds in the wages, salaries, and time of those employed.
And thus again the vicious circle of deflation was closed until one third of the entire working population was unemployed, with our national income reduced by fifty per cent, and with the aggregate debt burden greater than ever before, not in dollars, but measured by current values and income that represented the ability to pay. Fixed charges, such as taxes, railroad and other utility rates, insurance and interest charges, clung close to the 1929 level and required such a portion of the national income to meet them that the amount left for consumption of goods was not sufficient to support the population.