Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Great Depression and Now

Remember reasoning by analogies always have a limited run - no two things are ever identical. Here is a good reminder of that fact. Learn what you can and then figure out what are the differences.

Robert J. Samuelson - The Financial Crisis and the Great Depression -
The Depression was exceptional in its economic ferocity. As Liaquat Ahamed writes in his book "Lords of Finance": "During a three-year period, real GDP [gross domestic product] in the major economies fell by over 25 percent, a quarter of the adult male population was thrown out of work. . . . The economic turmoil created hardships in every corner of the globe, from the prairies of Canada to the teeming cities of Asia."

Anyone who wants to know why should read this engrossing book. Ahamed, a professional money manager, attributes the Depression to two central causes: the misguided restoration of the gold standard in the 1920s and the massive inter-governmental debts, including German reparations, resulting from World War I.

Still, striking differences separate now from then. The biggest is that governments -- unencumbered by the gold standard -- have eased credit, propped up financial institutions and increased spending to arrest an economic free fall. The Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund have made loans available to emerging-market countries to offset the loss of private credit. Nor is there anything like the international rancor that followed World War I and impeded cooperation: In 1931, the French balked at rescuing Austria's biggest bank (Creditanstalt), whose failure triggered a chain reaction of European panics.

When countries left the gold standard -- the United States effectively did so in 1933 -- their economies began to recover. Some indicators now imply that the present decline is ebbing ("glimmers of hope," says President Obama). China shows similar signs of improvement. All this diminishes the dreary comparisons with the Depression. But if these omens prove false, a more somber conclusion could emerge.

The mistakes of the Depression were rooted in prevailing economic orthodoxies, which had been overtaken by new realities. The present policies likewise reflect today's orthodoxies. But what if they, too, turn out to be misguided because the world has moved on in ways that become obvious mostly in retrospect?

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