Maury Klein: Is it 1929 all over again?





[Maury Klein is professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island. He is the author of 15 books, including "Rainbow's End: The Crash of 1929" and most recently "The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Made Modern America."]

Friday marks the 79th anniversary of the day that launched the stock market crash of 1929.

As an unprecedented wave of selling threw the floor of the New York Stock Exchange into pandemonium on a day that became known as Black Thursday, a show of organized support by a coterie of leading bankers halted the panic. But on the following Monday, the market collapsed in a tsunami of selling.

Every intense convulsion of the stock market raises primal fears spawned by the Great Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, which dragged on for a full decade and has haunted Americans ever since.

The Panic of 2008 is no exception.

In the past year, the market's fall has at times rivaled that of 1929. Are there connections or similarities between those earlier national traumas and our current crisis?

First some facts about that earlier experience. The Great Crash and the Great Depression were two separate events. The Crash was a financial panic, the Depression an economic downturn. The one does not necessarily lead to the other; the market has collapsed several times in American history without bringing on a depression.

The Crash began in October 1929, and the worst of it was over in three weeks; the Depression did not fasten itself on the nation for another year. To this day, the connection between them remains unclear, which makes it difficult to draw lessons or analogies from them....

Could it happen again? History never repeats itself, but historical patterns do -- though always in a new context. Here are just a few of the similarities and differences between the earlier crisis and its modern version.

During the 1920s, the financial industry underwent a great expansion, bringing into the business many inexperienced people and new investment vehicles -- most notably the investment trust, the forerunner of the modern mutual fund. Nobody knew what impact they would have on the market with their buying and selling on a large scale.

The business world hailed the 1920s as the "New Era," one with new rules in which the old pattern of cyclical depressions would no longer occur and prosperity would be continuous. Compare this delusion with the "New Economy" of the 1990s.

The 1920s marked the beginning of the consumer economy, and with it a broad expansion of credit. Installment buying made its debut on a large scale. Credit also was used to buy stocks on margin, greatly increasing the market's volume and volatility.

The banking system was shaky throughout the 1920s, and failures escalated steadily after 1929. The Crash exposed many cases of fraud that led to investigations and passage of the most significant banking reform in American history.

The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., or FDIC, gave rise to the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, and separated investment banks from commercial banks. The latter reform was repealed in 1999, giving banks free rein to perform both activities once again.

Some differences between the eras are worth noting. Prior to 1933, the federal government played virtually no active role in relieving the banking crisis of the 1920s. The stock market did not have giant institutional buyers moving huge blocks of stock. Nor did it operate on a global scale, though it was deeply influenced by international events.

After the crash, the banks had plenty of money to lend but no takers, the opposite of today's situation. ...


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