The recession tracks the Great Depression
By Martin Wolf
Published: June 16 2009 19:41 | Last updated: June 16 2009 19:41
Green shoots are bursting out. Or so we are told. But before concluding that the recession will soon be over, we must ask what history tells us. It is one of the guides we have to our present predicament. Fortunately, we do have the data. Unfortunately, the story they tell is an unhappy one.
Two economic historians, Barry Eichengreen of the University of California at Berkeley and Kevin O’Rourke of Trinity College, Dublin, have provided pictures worth more than a thousand words (see charts).* In their paper, Profs Eichengreen and O’Rourke date the beginning of the current global recession to April 2008 and that of the Great Depression to June 1929. So what are their conclusions on where we are a little over a year into the recession? The bad news is that this recession fully matches the early part of the Great Depression. The good news is that the worst can still be averted.
First, global industrial output tracks the decline in industrial output during the Great Depression horrifyingly closely. Within Europe, the decline in the industrial output of France and Italy has been worse than at this point in the 1930s, while that of the UK and Germany is much the same. The declines in the US and Canada are also close to those in the 1930s. But Japan’s industrial collapse has been far worse than in the 1930s, despite a very recent recovery.
Second, the collapse in the volume of world trade has been far worse than during the first year of the Great Depression. Indeed, the decline in world trade in the first year is equal to that in the first two years of the Great Depression. This is not because of protection, but because of collapsing demand for manufactures.
Third, despite the recent bounce, the decline in world stock markets is far bigger than in the corresponding period of the Great Depression.
The two authors sum up starkly: “Globally we are tracking or doing even worse than the Great Depression ... This is a Depression-sized event.”
Yet what gave the Great Depression its name was a brutal decline over three years. This time the world is applying the lessons taken from that event by John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, the two most influential economists of the 20th century. The policy response suggests that the disaster will not be repeated.
Profs Eichengreen and O’Rourke describe this contrast. During the Great Depression, the weighted average discount rate of the seven leading economies never fell below 3 per cent. Today it is close to zero. Even the European Central Bank, most hawkish of the big central banks, has lowered its rate to 1 per cent. Again, during the Great Depression, money supply collapsed. But this time it has continued to rise. Indeed, the combination of strong monetary growth with deep recession raises doubts about the monetarist explanation for the Great Depression. Finally, fiscal policy has been far more aggressive this time. In the early 1930s the weighted average deficit for 24 significant countries remained smaller than 4 per cent of gross domestic product. Today, fiscal deficits will be far higher. In the US, the general government deficit is expected to be almost 14 per cent of GDP.
All this is consistent with the conclusions of an already classic paper by Carmen Reinhart of the university of Maryland and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard.** Financial crises cause deep economic crises. The impact of a global financial crisis should be particularly severe. Moreover, “the real value of government debt tends to explode, rising an average of 86 per cent in the major post–World War II episodes”. The chief reason is not the “bail-outs” of banks but the recessions. After the fact, runaway private lending turns into public spending and mountains of debt. Creditworthy governments will not accept the alternative of a big slump.
The question is whether today’s unprecedented stimulus will offset the effect of financial collapse and unprecedented accumulations of private sector debt in the US and elsewhere. If the former wins, we will soon see a positive deviation from the path of the Great Depression. If the latter wins, we will not. What everybody hopes is clear. But what should we expect?
We are seeing a race between the repair of private balance sheets and global rebalancing of demand, on the one hand, and the sustainability of stimulus, on the other.
Robust private sector demand will return only once the balance sheets of over-indebted households, overborrowed businesses and undercapitalised financial sectors are repaired or when countries with high savings rates consume or invest more. None of this is likely to be quick. Indeed, it is far more likely to take years, given the extraordinary debt accumulations of the past decade. Over the past two quarters, for example, US households reduced their debt at an annualised rate of just 3.1 per cent. Deleveraging is a lengthy process. Meanwhile, the federal government has become the only significant borrower. Similarly, the Chinese government can swiftly expand investment. But it is harder for policy to raise levels of consumption.
The great likelihood is that the world economy will need aggressive monetary and fiscal policies far longer than many believe. That is going to make policymakers – and investors – nervous.
Two opposing dangers arise. One is that the stimulus is withdrawn too soon, as happened in the 1930s and in Japan in the late 1990s. There will then be a relapse into recession, because the private sector is still unable, or unwilling, to spend. The other danger is that stimulus is withdrawn too late. That would lead to a loss of confidence in monetary stability worsened by concerns over the sustainability of public debt, particularly in the US, the provider of the world’s key currency. At the limit, soaring dollar prices of commodities and rising long-term interest rates on government bonds might put the US – and world economies – into a malign stagflation. Contrary to some alarmists, I see no signs of such a panic today. But it might happen.
Last year the world economy tipped over into a slump. The policy response has been massive. But those sure we are at the beginning of a robust private sector-led recovery are almost certainly deluded. The race to full recovery is likely to be long, hard and uncertain.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009
A Tale of Two Depressions
This is an update of the authors' 6 April 2009 column comparing today's global crisis to the Great Depression. World industrial production, trade, and stock markets are diving faster now than during 1929-30. Fortunately, the policy response to date is much better. The update shows that trade and stock markets have shown some improvement without reversing the overall conclusion -- today's crisis is at least as bad as the Great Depression.
Editor’s note: The 6 April 2009 Vox column by Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke shattered all Vox readership records, with 30,000 views in less than 48 hours and over 100,000 within the week. The authors will update the charts as new data emerges; this updated column is the first, presenting monthly data up to April 2009. (The updates and much more will eventually appear in a paper the authors are writing a paper for Economic Policy.)
- World industrial production continues to track closely the 1930s fall, with no clear signs of ‘green shoots’.
- World stock markets have rebounded a bit since March, and world trade has stabilised, but these are still following paths far below the ones they followed in the Great Depression.
- There are new charts for individual nations’ industrial output. The big-4 EU nations divide north-south; today’s German and British industrial output are closely tracking their rate of fall in the 1930s, while Italy and France are doing much worse.
- The North Americans (US & Canada) continue to see their industrial output fall approximately in line with what happened in the 1929 crisis, with no clear signs of a turn around.
- Japan’s industrial output in February was 25 percentage points lower than at the equivalent stage in the Great Depression. There was however a sharp rebound in March.
The facts for Chile, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Sweden are displayed below; note the rebound in Eastern Europe.
Updated Figure 1. World Industrial Output, Now vs Then (updated)
Updated Figure 2. World Stock Markets, Now vs Then (updated)
Updated Figure 3. The Volume of World Trade, Now vs Then (updated)
Updated Figure 4. Central Bank Discount Rates, Now vs Then (7 country average)
New Figure 5. Industrial output, four big Europeans, then and now
New Figure 6. Industrial output, four Non-Europeans, then and now.
New Figure 7: Industrial output, four small Europeans, then and now.
Start of original column (published 6 April 2009)
The parallels between the Great Depression of the 1930s and our current Great Recession have been widely remarked upon. Paul Krugman has compared the fall in US industrial production from its mid-1929 and late-2007 peaks, showing that it has been milder this time. On this basis he refers to the current situation, with characteristic black humour, as only “half a Great Depression.” The “Four Bad Bears” graph comparing the Dow in 1929-30 and S&P 500 in 2008-9 has similarly had wide circulation (Short 2009). It shows the US stock market since late 2007 falling just about as fast as in 1929-30.
Comparing the Great Depression to now for the world, not just the US
This and most other commentary contrasting the two episodes compares America then and now. This, however, is a misleading picture. The Great Depression was a global phenomenon. Even if it originated, in some sense, in the US, it was transmitted internationally by trade flows, capital flows and commodity prices. That said, different countries were affected differently. The US is not representative of their experiences.
Our Great Recession is every bit as global, earlier hopes for decoupling in Asia and Europe notwithstanding. Increasingly there is awareness that events have taken an even uglier turn outside the US, with even larger falls in manufacturing production, exports and equity prices.
In fact, when we look globally, as in Figure 1, the decline in industrial production in the last nine months has been at least as severe as in the nine months following the 1929 peak. (All graphs in this column track behaviour after the peaks in world industrial production, which occurred in June 1929 and April 2008.) Here, then, is a first illustration of how the global picture provides a very different and, indeed, more disturbing perspective than the US case considered by Krugman, which as noted earlier shows a smaller decline in manufacturing production now than then.
Figure 1. World Industrial Output, Now vs Then
Source: Eichengreen and O’Rourke (2009) and IMF.
Similarly, while the fall in US stock market has tracked 1929, global stock markets are falling even faster now than in the Great Depression (Figure 2). Again this is contrary to the impression left by those who, basing their comparison on the US market alone, suggest that the current crash is no more serious than that of 1929-30.
Figure 2. World Stock Markets, Now vs Then
Source: Global Financial Database.
Another area where we are “surpassing” our forbearers is in destroying trade. World trade is falling much faster now than in 1929-30 (Figure 3). This is highly alarming given the prominence attached in the historical literature to trade destruction as a factor compounding the Great Depression.
Figure 3. The Volume of World Trade, Now vs Then
Sources: League of Nations Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, http://www.cpb.nl/eng/research/sector2/data/trademonitor.html
It’s a Depression alright
To sum up, globally we are tracking or doing even worse than the Great Depression, whether the metric is industrial production, exports or equity valuations. Focusing on the US causes one to minimise this alarming fact. The “Great Recession” label may turn out to be too optimistic. This is a Depression-sized event.
That said, we are only one year into the current crisis, whereas after 1929 the world economy continued to shrink for three successive years. What matters now is that policy makers arrest the decline. We therefore turn to the policy response.
Policy responses: Then and now
Figure 4 shows a GDP-weighted average of central bank discount rates for 7 countries. As can be seen, in both crises there was a lag of five or six months before discount rates responded to the passing of the peak, although in the present crisis rates have been cut more rapidly and from a lower level. There is more at work here than simply the difference between George Harrison and Ben Bernanke. The central bank response has differed globally.
Figure 4. Central Bank Discount Rates, Now vs Then (7 country average)
Source: Bernanke and Mihov (2000); Bank of England, ECB, Bank of Japan, St. Louis Fed, National Bank of Poland, Sveriges Riksbank.
Figure 5 shows money supply for a GDP-weighted average of 19 countries accounting for more than half of world GDP in 2004. Clearly, monetary expansion was more rapid in the run-up to the 2008 crisis than during 1925-29, which is a reminder that the stage-setting events were not the same in the two cases. Moreover, the global money supply continued to grow rapidly in 2008, unlike in 1929 when it levelled off and then underwent a catastrophic decline.
Figure 5. Money Supplies, 19 Countries, Now vs Then
Source: Bordo et al. (2001), IMF International Financial Statistics, OECD Monthly Economic Indicators.
Figure 6 is the analogous picture for fiscal policy, in this case for 24 countries. The interwar measure is the fiscal surplus as a percentage of GDP. The current data include the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Update forecasts for 2009 and 2010. As can be seen, fiscal deficits expanded after 1929 but only modestly. Clearly, willingness to run deficits today is considerably greater.
Figure 6. Government Budget Surpluses, Now vs Then
Source: Bordo et al. (2001), IMF World Economic Outlook, January 2009.
To summarise: the world is currently undergoing an economic shock every bit as big as the Great Depression shock of 1929-30. Looking just at the US leads one to overlook how alarming the current situation is even in comparison with 1929-30.
The good news, of course, is that the policy response is very different. The question now is whether that policy response will work. For the answer, stay tuned for our next column.
Eichengreen, B. and K.H. O’Rourke. 2009. “A Tale of Two Depressions.” In progress.
Bernanke, B.S. 2000. Bernanke, B.S. and I. Mihov. 2000. “Deflation and Monetary Contraction in the Great Depression: An Analysis by Simple Ratios.” In B.S. Bernanke, Essays on the Great Depression. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bordo, M.D., B. Eichengreen, D. Klingebiel and M.S. Martinez-Peria. 2001. “Is the Crisis Problem Growing More Severe?” Economic Policy32: 51-82.
Paul Krugman, “The Great Recession versus the Great Depression,” Conscience of a Liberal (20 March 2009).
Doug Short, “Four Bad Bears,” DShort: Financial Lifecycle Planning” (20 March 2009).
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