We're hearing scary - and misplaced - references to the Great Depression, especially after yesterday's House vote. From the LAT:
"We're entering a new phase of the crisis," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist with the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York. "If you don't stop the domino effect, you're going to see one institution after another after another going down," he predicted. That's something the United States last experienced in the early 1930s, when Herbert Hoover was in the White House. Some conservatives believe that's still the best long-term solution to the problem, though none has gone so far as Hoover's Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, who said: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. . . . It will purge the rottenness out of the system." But House members and their supporters who insisted Monday that the government had no business staging a massive intervention in the financial marketplace were essentially making a modern-day argument for the laissez-faire economic policies of the Mellon era.
But the comparisons are still quite a stretch. The WSJ's Jason Zweig offers some badly needed perspective:
When you spend time studying the Crash of 1929 and the depression that followed, what stands out the most is the dearth of doomsayers. Even Roger Babson, the economist known to posterity as "the man who called the crash," did no such thing; he forecast only a 15% to 20% drop, not the apocalypse that actually occurred. Depressions start not when lots of people are worried about them, as we have today, but when no one is worried about them, as in 1929.
Second, the Great Depression and the Panic of 1873 (which triggered what arguably was the worst depression in U.S. history) both occurred before the Federal Reserve Bank had aggressively grown into its role as "lender of last resort." In the wake of 1873, after a railroad-building boom had swept the nation and then gone bust, companies and consumers alike were left gasping for capital. Nothing but the passage of time could supply it; the Fed would not be established until 1913. After the crash of 1929, when the Fed was still weak, years passed before the federal government could flood the economy with cash.
Today, however, the resolve of the Fed is not in question; nor is there any doubt that the Treasury Department is willing to provide the financing it takes to get the economy moving again. Furthermore, U.S. nonfinancial companies have just under $1 trillion in cash on their books. Even though Wall Street is dead, innovation is not: In the months to come, clever new financial go-betweens will spring up and find a way to get that cash flowing again. It's hard to see how a depression could get under way when so much capital is waiting in the wings.