The Depression began, to a large extent, as a garden-variety downturn. The 1920s were a boom decade, and as it came to a close the Federal Reserve tried to rein in what might have been called the irrational exuberance of the era.But the big question is What does this have to do with the situation we face today? Mankiw sees parallels. But Anna Schwartz, co-author with Milton Friedman of "A Monetary History of the United States" thinks not much. In a recent interview she said
In 1928, the Fed maneuvered to drive up interest rates. So interest-sensitive sectors like construction slowed.
But things took a bad turn after the crash of October 1929. Lower stock prices made households poorer and discouraged consumer spending, which then made up three-quarters of the economy. (Today it’s about two-thirds.)
According to the economic historian Christina D. Romer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the great volatility of stock prices at the time also increased consumers’ feelings of uncertainty, inducing them to put off purchases until the uncertainty was resolved. Spending on consumer durable goods like autos dropped precipitously in 1930.
Next came a series of bank panics. From 1930 to 1933, more than 9,000 banks were shuttered, imposing losses on depositors and shareholders of about $2.5 billion. As a share of the economy, that would be the equivalent of $340 billion today.
The banking panics put downward pressure on economic activity in two ways. First, they put fear into the hearts of depositors. Many people concluded that cash in their mattresses was wiser than accounts at local banks.
As they withdrew their funds, the banking system’s normal lending and money creation went into reverse. The money supply collapsed, resulting in a 24 percent drop in the consumer price index from 1929 to 1933. This deflation pushed up the real burden of households’ debts.
Second, the disappearance of so many banks made credit hard to come by. Small businesses often rely on established relationships with local bankers when they need loans, either to tide them over in tough times or for business expansion. With so many of those relationships interrupted at the same time, the economy’s ability to channel financial resources toward their best use was seriously impaired.
Today's crisis isn't a replay of the problem in the 1930s, but our central bankers have responded by using the tools they should have used then. They are fighting the last war. The result, she argues, has been failure. "I don't see that they've achieved what they should have been trying to achieve. So my verdict on this present Fed leadership is that they have not really done their job."Schwartz and Friedman argued in "A Monetary History," that in the 1930s the US was faced with a liquidity crisis in the banking sector. As banks failed, depositors became alarmed that they'd lose their money if their bank, too, failed. So bank runs began, and these became self-reinforcing. If borrowers had left their money in the banks, the banks would have been fine. But they didn't and importantly the Fed just sat by and did nothing, so bank after bank failed. And that only motivated depositors to withdraw funds from banks that were not in distress. This just deepened the crisis and causing still more failures. But
"that's not what's going on in the market now," Ms. Schwartz says. Today, the banks have a problem on the asset side of their ledgers -- "all these exotic securities that the market does not know how to value."So the history of the Great Depression may not be a good guide to what needs to be done today. The problems of the two time periods are different and thus the solutions need to be different. The government's justification for the current activism in terms of monetary policy just doesn't meet the historical test.