The Great Depression and today

In his book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke The World, Liquat Ahamed writes the story of the Great Depression of 1929 by following the lives of the Central Bankers of four of the leading countries of the time – France, Germany, England, and the United States. It is a new perspective to me, and while I don’t pretend to know all the differences between the Austrian School and the Keynesians, I thought it was very interesting. Reviews of the book are generally positive although there are followers of Austrian theory that state that Ahamed, who worked in the past for the World Bank, is too accepting of Keynes.

Again, I’m not well read enough in economic theory to say. Ahamed does make a case that the slavish adherence to the gold standard by these men was a prime cause of the Great Depression and that the ultimate cause was a “…series of misjudgments by economic policy makers” both in the decade before and during the Great Depression. By economic policy makers he refers to the politicians and the central bankers of the era. An item that caught my eye was the fact that the Great Depression was the confluence of a number of cascading failures:

* “The contraction in the German economy that began in 1928

* The Great Crash on Wall Street in 1929

* The serial bank panics that affected the United States from the end of 1930

* The unraveling of European finances in the summer of 1931″

Ahamed compares these to (respectively):

* The Mexican Peso crisis in 1994

* The bursting of the Dot-Com bubble in 2000

* The financial crisis of 2007-8

* The Asian Flu of 1997-8

He states that had these events occurred together, we may have seen a financial disaster of the scale of the Great Depression. There are, however, a number of financial bloggers that believe that we are indeed headed for one anyway, and that the crisis of 2007-8 isn’t really over…

Some other items from the book I thought were interesting:

* Before World War I, Norman Angell, a British journalist, wrote a book called Europe’s Optical Illusion. In it, he stated that “…the economic benefits of war were so illusory…and the commercial and financial linkages between countries now so extensive that no rational country should contemplate starting a war. The economic chaos, especially the disruptions to international credit, that would ensue from a war among the Great Powers would harm all sides and the victor would lose as much as the vanquished. Even if war were to break out in Europe by accident, it would speedily be brought to an end.” Both Tom Friedman and Tom Barnett (especially with respect to China) make similar arguments today – let’s hope they’re not as wrong as Angell was when he was “…trusting too much in the rationality of nations and seduced by the extraordinary economic achievements of the era.”

* Related to the above: “The argument that it was was not so much the cruelty of war as its economic futility that made it unacceptable as an instrument of state power struck a cord in that materialistic era.”

* An English newspaper article after the 1884 panic on the New York Stock Exchange: “The English, however speculative, fear poverty. The Frenchman shoots himself to avoid it. The American with a million speculates to win ten, and if he takes losses takes a clerkship with equanimity. This freedom from sordidness is commendable, but it makes a nation of the most degenerate gamesters in the world.”

* The signs of a mania: “…the progressive narrowing in the number of stocks going up, the nationwide fascination with the activities of Wall Street, the faddish invocations of a new era, the suspension of every conventional standard of financial rationality, and the rabble enlistment of an army of amateur and ill-informed speculators betting on the basis of rumors and tip sheets.” Indeed, ten percent of households were in the market in 1929.

* Almost a third of the speculators were female. There were even special brokerage houses set up to cater to only women.

* “One is led to the inescapable but unsatisfying conclusion that the bull market of 1929 was so violent and intense and driven by passions so strong that the Fed could do nothing about it. Every official had tried to talk it down. The president was against it; Congress too; even the normally reticent secretary of the treasury had spoken out. But it was remarkable how difficult it was to kill it. All that the Fed could do, it seemed, was to step aside and let the frenzy burn itself out. By trying to stand up to the market and then failing, it simply made itself look as impotent as everybody else.”

All in all, I thought it was a well-written summary of the actions and lives of the Central Bankers of the era, and it was an easy read. Whether or not you agree with the Keynesians or the Austrians, you should definitely read this book as a way of beginning to understand the events of the last few years…and where we could be headed in the future.

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