The Great Crash

May 26th, 2009 at 4:23 am David Frum | 3 Comments |

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In the quarter century from 1983 though 2008, Americans witnessed three stock market crashes: 1987, 1990 and 2000. The first of those crashes represented the sharpest one-day drop in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. Comparisons to 1929 obviously suggested themselves. But when no recession materialized – and the market quickly reversed itself – the investors of the 1980s took a very different lesson from their grandparents: a crash is a time to buy.

In 1990 and 2000, stock market declines were followed by recessions, but mild and brief recessions. Again the markets recovered in impressively short order – and again the 1929 comparison receded into historical remoteness.

But now, Depression economics again demands attention. The world this year suffered the first global economic contraction since World War II. The recession that started in the summer of 2008 looks also to be the harshest since 1945. The crash in asset values that originated in the US housing market has spread to just about anything and everything – stocks very much included. It seemed time to read a book I’d been hearing about all my life: John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash.

Galbraith’s reputation as a theoretical economist has declined greatly over the past half-century. Despite the efforts of admirers like biographer Richard Parker, that reputation seems unlikely to revive. Galbraith devoted his attention to a subject that seems as vanished as the gold standard: the management of the big-unit, mass production American economy of the mid-20th century. That economy has vanished as utterly as plantation agriculture or the gold standard, and with it much of the relevance of Galbraith’s analytic work.

As a narrative economic historian, however, Galbraith has rarely been rivaled, never exceeded. Long after dust covers over The New Industrial State (1967), The Great Crash will remain the most vivid and grimly entertaining account of the financial disaster that announced the Great Depression.

Galbraith begins with a simple logical proposition: You cannot understand the crash unless you first understand the preceding boom. By the summer of 1928, the expansion of the Harding-Coolidge years was perceptibly faltering. Yet at precisely that moment, the US stock market hurtled off into the wild blue yonder. Stocks that had traded at an already dizzying 20-1 price-earnings multiple in mid-1928 rocketed to a 32-1 multiple at the market peak in September 1929.

The mystery to be explained is not that this bull market ended. The mystery is: why did it happen in the first place?

Galbraith’s answer is both simple and ideologically challenging: the 1928-29 bull was a purely speculative event, utterly irrational, an example of the kind of mania to which human beings are prone.

One by one he knocks aside explanations that tried to offer some kind of rational basis for the Hoover market. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates in 1927 in an effort to weaken the dollar against European currencies. At the time, that 1-point cut was famously described as “un petit coup de whisky” for the New York market. Did it trigger the runup? Galbraith argues no, on three grounds.
1) Even after the cut, interest rates remained relatively high: 5% at a time of zero inflation.
2) Low interest rates alone do not in themselves trigger speculative bubbles. Rates at the Fed are much lower today than they were in 1928 – but who is speculating in the summer of 2009?
3) For the many who traded on margin in the 1920s, interest rates were never low. Brokers’ loans carried interest rates of 10%, sometimes 12%. People paid those rates because they expected to score gains of 100% or more on their stock trades.
Galbraith makes this case explicitly. His story makes the case implicitly – and more powerfully. Here are the investment trusts of the 1920s, that created the appearance of value by buying up each other’s shares; the ultra-leveraged utility companies that depended on hypothetical future earnings growth to pay massive existing debts; the glamour companies of the era, General Motors and Radio Corporation of America, continuing to soar even after the stock market generally has begun to tumble.

The literary classic at the core of the book is the day-by-day telling of the terrible last week of October 1928. Galbraith at his best is a great literary stylist, ironic, witty, highly alert to human folly, but not unsympathetic to it. (As he notes, disdain for the errors of the previous generation only invites retaliation upon the present generation from the next.) The Galbraith style grew prolix and unpleasantly self-satisfied in the maestro’s later years, but in the early 1950s and on this subject he wrote in his very sharpest and most elegant manner, dispensing witticisms as off-handedly as a retired robber baron distributing dimes to newsboys.

The bull market was destroyed in three terrible days, Monday October 24, Thursday October 28 and Monday October 31. The 24th suffered the steepest plunge, the 28th the most chaotic trading, although with the market ending net positive. The 31st was the very worst day of all: as chaotic as the Thursday and nearly as plunging as the Monday.  That day many stocks found no buyers at all.

Galbraith debunks the myth that the crash was followed by a spate of suicides, especially of the leaping out of windows sort. (They seem to have been inspired by a trick of the eye: As crowds gathered around the stock exchange on the 28th, somebody spotted a workman preparing to descend a skyscraper to wash the windows. The rumor spread that the man was readying himself to leap.)

What did follow the crash was a spate of revelations of embezzlement. Galbraith is credited with the aphorism: “Recessions catch what the auditors miss.” Some anonymous editor has redacted the remark out of a somewhat wordier presentation here, but it’s the thought that counts. In Galbraith’s telling, the brokers come out rather well from the 1929 crash. The bad practices exposed by 1929 occurred in corporate America. Galbraith quotes Walter Bagehot’s observation that people are most credulous when most happy, and in the happy 1920s, unscrupulous business operators used that credulity to conceal all kinds of schemes against investors and the larger public. Galbraith narrates the story of a bank in Flint, Michigan, where all the top officers were helping themselves to company money. They accidentally discovered each other’s thefts and decided to work together. They pooled their misappropriated funds and shorted the market on the eve of its most euphoric spurt. Panicked, they reversed themselves and went long – only to be hit by the October crash.

What also followed the crash of course was the Great Depression. Unlike most economists then and since, Galbraith argues that the crash represented much more than a signal of the impending downturn: he argues that it was an important causal factor.

In the first place, the crash destroyed enormous amounts of wealth. The 1920s expansion had been led by business investment – and this sudden evanescence of asset values abruptly called a halt to further investment plans.

Second, the stock market boom had depended heavily on leverage in the form of brokers’ loans to buy stocks on margin. When stock prices tumbled, brokers called those loans, forcing the sale of the stock – which drove the price down more, triggering more margin calls, and down down down through a vicious cycle. The crash destroyed the value of the heavily leveraged investment trusts, the hedge funds of their day. That in turn prompted a round of bank loan calls. The crash, Galbraith contents, commenced a massive, unexpected and rapid forced deleveraging that paralyzed economic activity.

Perhaps at some other time – 1987 say – the broader economy could have sustained such an event without untoward effect. Not in 1929. Galbraith argues that the economy of the 1920s was unsound in five important ways: (1) business was too indebted, (2) the banking system was too fractured, (3) wealth was too concentrated (making spending too vulnerable to a shock to the financial health of the most affluent), (4) economic understanding too primitive to enable policymakers to respond effectively, and (5) American tariffs had locked European exporters out of the US market at a time when Europeans had huge dollar debts to service  – creating a need for dollars that was met by excessive international lending.

Note that four out of Galbraith’s five causes are domestic. Galbraith’s life and work coincided perfectly with what might be called the isolationist phase of American economic life. Before 1914, the United States was tightly integrated into the global financial system. It borrowed massively from Europe, and especially Britain, to develop its industries and resources – and then ran a huge export surplus to pay the interest on that debt. Since 1980, the United States has again become conscious of its place in a larger world economy. In between – and most especially in the years of Galbraith’s maximum professional success, 1950-1970 – the economic activity of the rest of the world felt far off, the American economy a world unto itself. Only – it wasn’t. The mid-century economy on which Galbraith founded his theories was a passing phenomenon, a product of the wars and crises of a terrible moment in human history.

The Great Depression was a global event, and its history has to be a global history. If you want a short explanation for the Great Depression, “the New York stock market crash” cannot be it. The short explanation for the Great Depression is, “the failure to restore a functioning world economy after the First World War.” Galbraith’s narrative of that terrible month on Wall Street 80 years ago remains definitive and fascinating. The intellectual context in which Galbraith set his magnificent narrative, however, is partial and defective. The man who coined the phrase “conventional wisdom” himself was himself not only a creator of one moment’s wisdom, but also its prisoner. The global view would have to await a very different era – superbly represented by a book that I’ll be discussing in this space shortly, Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • derm81

    “Detroit has never been protective of its past”

    That is true. Detroit has never been protective of its buildings and will continue to tear them down. Had Detroit saved dozens of its glorious buildings its architecture stock would rival that of Chicago. Untold numbers of mansions, cathedrals, theaters, office buildings and monuments have been destroyed.

    “The second factor in Detroit’s decline is the city’s defiant rejection of education and the arts”

    Bullshiat. Detroit had a much larger and wealthier community than Cleveland ever had and a larger upper class than Chicago. The DIA when it was built could rival Chicago and Cleveland. Having visited well north of 200 art museums across the globe, I can conclude that Detroit’s art museum is much better than the one in Cleveland.

    How about of culture? Motown music? Jazz and Blues? Birthplace of punk rock? Your definition of culture seems to be something out of Ward Cleaver’s book. Culture and art can come in many forms and doesn’t have to be in a formal museum or structure. It can be more holistic…something Cleveland never really had.

    “Why did Chicago recover and Detroit fail?”

    The white population never came back…period. Not just gays, but the white population general. You see, the whites controlled everything in Detroit and they took it with them out the burbs. No offense, but the gay population isn’t always the magic key to creating and cleaning up downtrodden neighborhoods.

    “Detroit has… Wayne State”

    So? Nothing better than hearing A Yale grad piss on a working class school. David Frum just hates Wayne State because Helen Thomas graduated from there.

    The whites picked up the toys and moved to the burbs and never came back. Cleveland and Chi never suffered that same fate. An outsider like me and Frum will never really understand what happened….when I visited Detroit the segeration was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Blacks and whites generally do not get alon in Detroit or SE Mich. in general.

    The problem with Detroit’s racial issues really stems from the poor WHITES and poor BLACKS migrating from the South in search for work. Add that issue with the labor issues in a hardworking town and you will get trouble. Cleveland and Cji never had the types of migration that Detroit had. I know you would like to see that they had similar migrations from blacks but that is not true. Detroit was FAR more industrialized that C-land and Chi put together.

    Detroit has THREE defintions so Frum and the east Coasters….listen up.

    Detroit defitnion #1: The actual City of Detroit with 140 sq miles.
    Detroit defitnion #2: SE Michigan or Metro Detroit
    Detroit defitnion #3: The automobile industry…synonymous like Vietnam is with the Vietanm War and not the nation of Vietnam or how Hollywood defines movies.

  • Ron8200

    David Frum has covered most of the issues.
    The catalyst was the riots of 1967, 5000 federal troops were called in because the city and state could not handle the crisis. That was the heart attack that lead to the death of Detroit. Other cities recovered from riots, many learned their lessons and moved forward Detroit began to die. If you drive the streets that were burned out 42 years ago many of the lots are still vacant. The small businesses took the insurance money and moved to the suburbs.

    Detroit has spent hundreds of millions of dollars planning mass transit. The only thing ever built was a people mover that covers much of downtown. It has 13 stops and has never been profitable. If any mass transit had been built it might have saved Detroit. It would have had to been connected to the suburbs to have any effect. If the money spent extending any of the freeways had been spent on transit things might have been better.

    When a judge ruled busing was necessary to achieve integration white flight soared. Ask someone to put their 8 year old on a bus for 40 minutes each way shipping them to school miles from home. The community spirit schools foster was destroyed. Neighborhoods were destroyed, homeowners who left took high income, skills, jobs, education and community with them. In Rosedale Park 300 homes changed hands in less then a year. Even Motown moved to LA.

    Mr. Frum is right about Wayne State it is a commuter school hardly anybody lived on campus. There is little community, no academic society. Few campus spots to attract people. No artsy area’s of galleries, restaurants, theartres, bars etc like you see in Ann Arbor and Lansing.

    The government of Detroit is designed with a strong mayor and a common council elected at large. No local alderman who is in charge of a district. No local accountablilty, No local leadership, No competition between wards. No two party system to balance each other off and provide some leverage to the control of the mayor. Who do you go to with a problem.

    Coleman Young, one of America’s first black mayors, a hero to the black community. mayor from 1974 to 1993. He consolidated black control over Detroit. He said we are in charge and if you don’t like it hit 8 mile road. As his tax base dissolved he raised the city income and property taxes. Businesses also fled Detroit.

    Detroit was the Murder capital of America. Foreign news crews came in to film Devil’s Night in Detroit where a new type of urban renewal was displayed as dozens of abandoned home were burned sometimes igniting other occupied dwellings nearby.

    When my home was broken into, my wife and one year old daughter walked into the house and called police. It took three hours for police to respond to our home, the decision to leave was made on that day.
    We moved to Livonia, MI had better schools, city services and no fears of crime. My tax savings more then made up for the slightly higher morgage payment. Today my old neightborhood has boarded up abandoned homes.

    Detroit has been represented by John Conyers in the House of Representives since 1964 I believe no part of the United States has more poverty, unemployment, welfare, corruption then Mr. Conyers district. Mrs. Conyers has recently pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Carl Levin has been Senator from Michigan since 1978 it would not out of line to say he is Detroit’s Senator. While bringing a great many government programs to Detroit no one can say Detroit is a better city then it was thirty years ago.
    Republicans gave up on Detroit, they have no base, no organization. Governor Engler (R)won with very little support from Detroit. Gov. Granholm (D)won with overwhelming support from Detroit.

    Great cities have politicial battles and several strong leaders. Monopoly leads to corruption and a lack of political competition has been terrible for Detroit.

    It pains me to visit Detroit. I was born and grew up there. I attended Cass Tech and Wayne State University. Michigan needs Detroit to recover Mayor Dave Bing may be the first step of that recovery.
    I wish him well.

  • BradTempleman

    You nailed a lot of their problems, but one underreported problem is how udnerpopulated and big it is. Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco are 118 square miles combined; Detroit is 138 by itself. It has less than 1 million people, while the other three cities combine for almost 3 million people. A lot of that area is a wasteland that will not be developed and where they will get no tax revenue.

    I did not grow up in Detroit, but I live in one of the suburbs in the Detroit Metro area right now. There are so many abandoned buildings and factories that you see driving down there and once you are in the city. t would be great to see them demolished. They held onto the dream of returning to the post-war auto industry for too long and the identity of being the Motor City. Now, they have to reinvent themselves into something other than the Motor City, which will be difficult and require a lot of new thinking. I’m not optimistic about the near future, but eventually leaders in Detroit and Michigan will wise up. I hope.