Are We Entering Another Great Depression?

[digg-reddit-me]Question: Are we entering another Great Depression?

Answer: I don’t think so, but I’m not an economist. (Though I did write a very popular piece on 11 Things I Learned While Trying to Figure Out the Financial Crisis a few weeks ago – which makes me a certified internet expert.)

Here’s why I don’t think we’re entering another Great Depression.

First, my understanding of the Great Depression is that it was – in essence – a crisis in the financial markets caused widespread fear and panic unchecked by the government. And as people lost faith in the financial system, it led to a paralysis of the entire economic system. The problem was not as much in the “real economy” – the economy whose primary purpose is to create products and services for uses other than creating profit – but in the financial economy – the part of the economy whose primary purpose is to redistribute excess wealth to create profits. The Great Depression was also worsed by the physical calamaties that hit America at the same time – most especially the Dust Bowl which devestated America’s farming belt – but at it’s core, the Great Depression was a matter of a broken financial system.

Since that time, a few factors have changed financial markets:

  • there has been a dramatic increase in liquidity, as money is able to be transferred almost instantaneously anywhere in the world;
  • the entire financial system has become remarkably interdependent and interconnected – so much so that the failure of one relatively small company directly effects most of the world’s financial institutions;
  • enormous amounts of data are collected and analyzed about the economies of the world and each particular company – including often by the companies themselves;
  • an implicit government guarantee backs large portions of the financial system.

The first three items on that list seem to demand a corollary to the Feiler Faster Thesis – promoted by Mickey Kaus – which explained how “political trends that used to last for weeks now last for hours.” This thesis was used recently to explain in part why Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s big moments in the campaign never seemed to give them any momentum – or more precisely why their momentum in the press and in public polls lasted for days rather than weeks as political reporters had come to expect. The corollary related to the current financial situation would be that as players in financial markets are bombarded with increasing amounts of data and are able to make trades and move money faster, the markets themselves speed up. This helps explain the dramatic ups and downs of Wall Street in the past few months – as the indices swung from positive to negative and back to positive in an unprecedented manner. The Feiler Faster thesis also could be said to have speeded up the real economy – as computerized inventory, logistical innovations, and more precise estimates of needed supplies have made many retailers and suppliers more responsive to economic conditions. But it seems clear that though these effects have speeded up the real economy at the margins, the financial markets have begun to move exponentially faster. The Great Depression – which lasted for over a decade – could be considerably shortened by this speeding up of the financial markets relative to the real economy – and to the extent that the effect of this volatility in the financial markets on the real economy could be mitigated, the results of this crisis would be minimized. The crisis will and already has effected the real economy – but so far, while the financial markets have fallen almost 30% from their relatively stable position in August, the real economy has only marginally slowed down.

The final item on the list should also give hope to those who fear we are entering another Great Depression. Unlike in 1929, we have a government willing to act and experiment in order to jumpstart the economy. And we will soon have a government led by Barack Obama that is more pragmatic and less ideological in proposing solutions. At the same time, various national and internationals reforms instituted by governments to protect against the kind of instability that caused the Great Depression have proved their worth in the past few months – as deposit insurance, regulation, coordination between central banks, a social safety net, and prompt government action have all contributed to mitigate the crisis.

Right now, the various governments’ decisions to act as a backstop against financial instability have helped begin to rationalize the markets – and prevented fear from entirely dominating. It has been argued that if Lehman Brothers had not been allowed to fail, this fear and sense of distrust pervading the financial markets could have been contained. Of course, few would have predicted the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have such a cascading effect – except now, after the fact, as it seems obvious.

It seems likely to me that the next Great Depression will likely be catalyzed not by a market collapse – but by the collapse of a nation, especially America. As long as governments are willing to place themselves as backstops against financial instability, the markets will go up and down – but the system will hold. It may be reformed. It may evolve. But the key characteristic of the Great Depression was the hoarding of financial resources caused by a lack of trust in the market. As long as the market is able to be backed by the government, it cannot truly fail – unless the government goes first. The paradox is that a government is only as strong as it’s economy is – which brings us back to trust.

Which is why – as Paul Krugman argues – Obama must act dramatically and quickly, while he still can.

Of course, as an alternative to all this – one might propose an effective tax on hoarding, inspired by the Austrian town of Worgl’s actions during the Great Depression – perhaps with exemptions for the first $100,000 of savings per person so as not to discourage saving.