October 7, 2008

Cyclic History in Action

Finance professionals have had quite a negative attitudes to talk of paralles between the current situation and that prior to the Great Depression of the 1930's. Now that such comparisons are starting to appear in many mainstream publications, Scott Reynolds Nelson, a professor of history, in a guest post in iTulip.com, makes a claim that the 1930's depression is not the correct parallel with the current situation. Instead he makes direct parallels with the Real Great Depression that started with the panic of 1873. (Hat tip to Tim of The Mess That Greenspan Made)
When commentators invoke 1929, I am dubious. According to most historians and economists, that depression had more to do with overlarge factory inventories, a stock-market crash, and Germany's inability to pay back war debts, which then led to continuing strain on British gold reserves. None of those factors is really an issue now. Contemporary industries have very sensitive controls for trimming production as consumption declines; our current stock-market dip followed bank problems that emerged more than a year ago; and there are no serious international problems with gold reserves, simply because banks no longer peg their lending to them.

In fact, the current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls "the real Great Depression." She pinched pennies in the 1930s, but she says that times were not nearly so bad as the depression her grandparents went through. That crash came in 1873 and lasted more than four years. It looks much more like our current crisis.
He also provides a nice lithograph from 1875 that shows the get-rich-quick attitude of the time as people chasing bubbles that are blown by a devil-looking character. I have reproduced the lithograph here in a less compressed format from the US Library of Congress.

He also draws analogies to the global imbalances caused by unequal cost factors across the global marketplace.
Wheat exporters from Russia and Central Europe faced a new international competitor who drastically undersold them. The 19th-century version of containers manufactured in China and bound for Wal-Mart consisted of produce from farmers in the American Midwest. They used grain elevators, conveyer belts, and massive steam ships to export train loads of wheat to abroad.


The echoes of the past in the current problems with residential mortgages trouble me. Loans after about 2001 were issued to first-time home buyers who signed up for adjustable rate mortgages they could likely never pay off, even in the best of times. Real-estate speculators, hoping to flip properties, overextended themselves, assuming that home prices would keep climbing. [...] As in 1873, a complex financial pyramid rested on a pinhead. Banks are hoarding cash. Banks that hoard cash do not make short-term loans. Businesses large and small now face a potential dearth of short-term credit to buy raw materials, ship their products, and keep goods on shelves.
Wow. I hope that he is not proven right in this assessment.


Geraldo Maia said...

Hello Reino Ruusu,
Blogisi on hyvin kaunis. Pidin siitä.
Terveisin Brasiliasta:

Reino Ruusu said...

Kiitos Geraldo.

Palautteesi on kyllä melko hämmentävää. Kauniiksi en osaa blogiani mieltää, ainakaan verrattuna sinun valokuviisi.

Missä olet oppinut suomea?