FT127: “Obamacare is a lot like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in terms of scaring the bejesus out of businesses.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 20th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

The Roaring Twenties gave us Automobiles, Electric Power, Radio, Movies, Telephones and Air travel

In 1921 there were 9 million automobile registrations.  That jumped to 23 million by 1929.  An increase of 156%.  That’s a lot more cars on the roads.  In the Roaring Twenties we made cars out of steel, paint and glass.  Inside we fitted them with lumber, cotton and leather.  We put rubber tires on them.  And filled their fuel tanks with gasoline.  So this surge in car ownership created a surge in all of these industries.  Extraction of raw materials.  Factories and manufacturing plants to build the equipment to extract those raw materials.  As well as the machinery to build these automobile components.  And the moving assembly lines in assembly plants to assemble these automobiles.  The plants, warehouses and automobile dealers created a surge in the construction industry.  And all the industries that fed the construction industry.  Including the housing industry to house all these gainfully employed workers.

And this was just the auto industry.  Which wasn’t the only industry that was booming during the Roaring Twenties.  Thanks to the hands-off government policies of the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge businesses introduced us to the modern world.  Electric power came into its own.  By 1929 about 80% of all installed horsepower was electrical.  And it entered our homes.  Electric lighting and electric appliances.  Vacuum cleaners.  Washing machines.  Refrigerators.  All of this required even more raw material extraction from the ground.  More manufacturing equipment and plants.  More wholesale and retail construction.  And more housing to house all of these workers earning a healthy paycheck.

And there was more.  The Roaring Twenties gave us broadcast radio in our electric-powered homes.  Free entertainment, sports broadcasts and news.  Paid for by the new industry of advertising.  Competing with radio was another growing industry.  Motion pictures.  That by the end of the Roaring Twenties were talkies.  And speaking of talking there was a lot of that on the new telephone.  In our homes.  Interconnecting all of these industries was ship, rail and truck transportation.  Even air travel took off during the Twenties.  More raw material extraction.  More equipment.  More manufacturing.  More construction.  And jobs.  More and more jobs.  The hands-off government policies of the Harding and Coolidge administrations created the great Bull Market of the Twenties.  Explosive economic activity.  Real economic growth.  Creating low-cost consumer goods to modernize America.  Increase her productivity.  Making her the dominant economic power in the world.  The Europeans were so worried about America’s economic prowess that they met in 1927 at the International Economic Conference in Geneva to discuss the American problem.  And how they were going to compete with the American economic juggernaut.  Because the free market capitalism of the New World was leaving the Old World in the dust.

Herbert Hoover was a Republican in Name Only that FDR once Admired but Calvin Coolidge Despised

This was real economic growth.  It was not speculation.  This wasn’t artificially low interest rates creating an asset bubble.  Working Americans bought homes and cars.  And furnishings.  Businesses produced these to meet that demand.  They had growing sales.  And growing profits.  Which increased their stock prices.  Investors wanted to own their stocks because these companies were making money.  And with the world modernizing these stock prices weren’t going anywhere but up in the foreseeable future.  Unless something changed the business environment.  Well, something did.

Despite the roaring economy Calvin Coolidge did not run for a second term.  Which was a pity.  For his successor, Herbert Hoover, was a Republican in name only.  He was a big time progressive.  Who wanted to use the power of government to make the world perfect.  A devout believer in the benevolence of Big Government.  He added about 2,000 bureaucrats to the Department of Commerce.  FDR at one time admired him (before he ran against him for president).  Coolidge despised him.  Under Hoover the federal government intruded into the private sector.  His economics were Keynesian.  He, too, worshipped at the altar of demand.  He believed high wages were the key to prosperity.  For people with more money buy more.  And all that buying created demand for businesses to meet.  Even during a recession he believed wages should not fall.  Despite the fact that’s what recessions do on the back side of the business cycle.  Lower prices and wages.  And lay off people.

By the Twenties American farmers were mechanizing their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever before.  Agriculture prices fell.  At first this wasn’t a problem as there were export markets for their bumper crops.  Thanks to a war-devastated Europe.  But eventually the European soldiers returned to the farm.  And the Europeans didn’t need the American food anymore.  Even places tariffs on U.S. imports to their countries to help their farmers get back on their feet.  Add in a bad winter that killed livestock.  Some bad insect infestation in the summer.  Add all this together and you had the beginning of the great farm crisis.  Debt defaults.  Bank failures.  And the contraction of the money supply.  Which the Federal Reserve (the Fed) did not step in to compensate for by expanding the money supply.  Which was sort of their purpose for being in existence.  As there was less money to borrow business could longer borrow to continue their growth.  Because of the time factor in the stages of production to expand production required borrowing money.  To make matters worse the Fed was actually pulling more money out of circulation.  Because they looked at the rising stock prices and concluded that speculators were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  Thus inflating stock prices.  But it wasn’t speculators running up those prices.  It was an economic boom that was running up those stock prices.  Until the government put a stop to that, at least.

Bad Government Policy didn’t Create the Roaring Twenties but Bad Government Policy ended Them

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was close to becoming law in the fall of 1929.  It was moving through committees on its way to becoming law.  This tariff would raise the tax on all imports by about 30%.  The idea was to protect domestic supplies and manufacturers.  But even in 1929 it was a global economy.  A lot of imports entered the stages of production.  Which meant costs would be increasing throughout the stages of productions.  Greatly increasing the input costs of all those businesses enjoying those high stock prices.  Which would raise their prices (to cover those higher input costs).  Reducing their sales.  And slashing their profits.  Add this to the contracting money supply and it painted a very bleak picture for business.

With demand sure to fall due to a massive new tariff that was about to become law businesses cut back.  To get rid of what was about to become excess capacity.  For they were smart.  And understood what affected their businesses.  And you know who else were smart?  Investors.  Who looked at this tariff and saw a locomotive engineer about to slam on the brakes.  And if Congress passed this into law after 1928 Coolidge wasn’t going to be there to veto the law.  So they all came to the same conclusions.  The bull market was coming to an end.  And they wanted to sell their stock to lock in their stock gains.  Which caused the great sell-off of 1929.  And the stock market crash.  Starting the Great Depression.

People still debate the cause of the Great Depression.  A popular argument is that greedy investors caused it by speculating in the stock market.  Or that greedy businesses out-produced demand.  But the economics of the Roaring Twenties don’t support this.  This wasn’t people buying big houses because interest rates were low.  This was the electrification of America.  Cars.  Telephones.  Radio.  Movies.  Air travel.  This was broad and real economic growth.  Bad government policy didn’t create it.  But bad government policy ended them.  And it was the expectations of even worse government policies that yanked the rug out from underneath the economy.  By causing a business contraction and stock market sell-off.  Much like Obamacare is doing to businesses today.  Scaring the bejesus out of them.  For they have no idea what their future costs will be under Obamacare.  So they are doing their best to prepare for it.  By not expanding their businesses.  By not hiring anyone.  And sitting on their cash.  To prepare for the worst.  Much like businesses did in 1928.  Which explains why the Great Recession lingers on.

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