The Roaring Twenties and the Stock Market Crash of 1929

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 23rd, 2013

History 101

The Roaring Twenties gave us the Modern World and one of the Greatest Economic Booms in History

When the steam engine hit the American farm it increased farm production.  By mechanizing the farm fewer farmers could farm more land.  Allowing American farmers to produce bumper crops.  Creating a boom in farm exports.  Especially during World War I.  As Europeans farmers exchanged their plows for rifles Europe had no one to grow their food.  So even though the mechanization of the American farm caused crop prices to fall the increase in sales volume brought in more farm revenue.  Life was good for the American farmer.  For businesses manufacturing all of that mechanized farm equipment.  And the banks making loans to farmers so they could mechanize their farms.

The1920 presidential election pitted a progressive Democrat against a conservative Republican.  The progressive promised to raise tax rates to pay down the war debt.  Andrew Mellon, Warren Harding’s treasury secretary, found that high tax rates were counterproductive.  They actually reduced tax revenue.  As wealthy people invested their money out of the country to avoid high tax rates.  So when Harding won the election they cut tax rates.  With no need to shelter their income the wealthy invested their money in the United States.  Pouring their money into the domestic economy caused great economic activity.  Great returns on investment.  And great income tax revenue.  The wealthy paid almost three times as much in tax revenue.  While the tax burden on the poor fell.  And the national debt fell by one third.

Harding died in office but Calvin Coolidge continued his policies.  He slashed government spending along with those tax cuts.  Pulling the government out of the private sector economy.  And the private sector economy responded.  Creating a lot of jobs.  Unemployment fell to as low as 2%.  And living standards soared.  For everyone.  Not just those in the unions.  In fact, this general rise in living standards weakened the unions.  For you didn’t need to belong to a union to live well.  It was the beginning of the modern world.  Brought about by a burst of innovation and manufacturing that lasted 8 years.  One of the greatest economic booms in history.  Henry Ford’s moving assembly line made the car affordable for the working man.  Auto registrations rose from 9 million in 1921 to 23 million by 1929.  An increase of 156%.  And keeping pace with the auto manufacturers were their suppliers.  Metal, steel, paint, lumber, leather, cotton, glass, rubber, etc.  And especially the oil industry.  That made lubricating oils and greases.  And the gasoline that powered all of these cars.  With so many jobs per capita income increased from $522 in 1921 to $716 in 1929.  An increase of 37%.  With people earning more home ownership soared.  And this boom in economic activity didn’t end there.

Herbert Hoover thought Government could better Manage the Economy than Messy Laissez-Faire Free Market Forces

Electric utilities were bringing the new electric power to industrial users and private homes during the Twenties.  Industry was using 300% more electric power than they were in 1899.  And it changed home life.  As electric clothes irons, vacuum cleaners, clothes washers, toasters and refrigerators became common household items by the end of the Twenties.  Households that had a telephone increased by 51% during the Twenties.  People were watching movies.  And saw the first talkies in the Twenties.  The radio also became a household fixture with some 7.5 million radio sets sold by 1928.   The economy was booming.  The middle class was expanding.  Consumer prices fell due to increases in productivity giving people more disposable income than they ever had before.  Causing an increase in consumer spending.  Allowing 1 in 5 Americans to own a car.  And increasing the number of people who could afford to fly from 40,000 in 1920 to 417,000 in 1930.  An increase of 943%.  So Americans were buying a lot.  But they were also saving a lot.  And investing.  Some 28% of American families owned stock.  Something once the exclusive privilege of the rich.  Wage earners were even buying life insurance policies to provide for their families in the event of their death.  Things were happening in the United States during the Twenties.  And the innovation and economic tsunami coming out of America had those in Europe worried.  So worried that they were discussing forming a United States of Europe to compete with the American system.

But all was not good.  During the Twenties those Europeans traded their rifles back for plows.  Reducing the export market for American farmers.  And when European governments threw up tariffs on America farm goods that export market disappeared.  Putting great surpluses into the American market.  Causing crop prices to fall further.  Crashing farm incomes.  Making some farmers unable to service their debt for all of that mechanized equipment they financed.  And when they defaulted on their loans en masse banks in the farming regions failed.  And when they did the money supply contracted.  The Federal Reserve made no effort to stop this contraction.  Which had a cooling effect.  Tapping the breaks on an expanding economy.

Coolidge chose not to run for a second term.  His successor, Herbert Hoover, was a progressive Republican.  And was everything Coolidge was not.  Hoover favored a big government perfecting the country.  He was a professional bureaucrat.  He loved bureaucracies.  And he loved paperwork and forms.  Which he wanted to bury private business in.  He thought the government could manage the economy better than messy laissez-faire free market forces.  Those very forces that created the Roaring Twenties.  He wanted to partner government with business.  With the emphasis on government.  (As president he increased the size of the Commerce Department and deepened its reach into the private sector economy.)

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused Investors to Dump their Stocks causing the Stock Market Crash of 1929

The Federal Reserve misjudged the stock market.  They thought it was nothing but speculation.  Citing radio maker RCA’s stock price’s meteoric rise.  So the Fed tapped the breaks further to cool this ‘speculative’ fervor.  Further contracting the money supply.  But this wasn’t speculation.  The rate of growth in radio sales actually was greater than the rate of growth in the stock price.  Making it more likely that the stock was undervalued.  Not overvalued.  But the Fed went ahead and contracted the money supply anyway.  Making it difficult for business to get funding for continued growth.  Despite there still being people out there who hadn’t bought a car, a house, electric appliances or a radio yet.  And wanted to.

In 1929 a new tariff bill was moving through Congressional committees.  The Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Which would raise taxes on imports by up to 30%.  Which would greatly increase the cost of business.  Because most if not all of American manufacturing used some imported raw materials.  Which would increase their selling prices.  Making them less competitive.  Worse, if the U.S. slapped tariffs on imports it was certain their trading partners would respond with some retaliatory tariffs.  Which would just shut down their export markets.  Much like those tariffs shut down the export markets for American farmers.  Then in the autumn of 1929 the Smoot-Hawley Tariff passed critical votes in committee.  Sending the tariff bill on its way to becoming law.  This was not good news for investors.

It was all too much.  The coming expansion of government regulation over the private sector economy.  Higher taxes to pay for this bigger government.  The contraction of the money supply.  And then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Investors could read the writing on the wall.  None of this would be good for business.  It would just smother the economic growth of the Twenties.  For if you increase businesses’ costs and decrease their markets you will slash their profits.  Which will reduce the value of these companies.  And reduce the value of their stock prices.  As investors live by the adage of “buy low, sell high” they’d want to sell those stocks fast before the Smoot-Hawley Tariff sent their prices into a tailspin.  Which they did.  Causing a great selloff starting in October.  That led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Now contrast that with a true speculative bubble.  The dot-com bubble.  Where investors poured money into these dot-com companies eager to find the next Microsoft.  Aided and abetted by the Federal Reserve that was keeping interest rates artificially low.  To encourage all sorts of investment.  Including ones driven by irrational exuberance.  So investors were bidding those stock prices into the stratosphere.  For companies that had no profits.  For companies that didn’t have a product or service to sell.  But these investors were looking with great anticipation at their future profits.  Even though they really didn’t understand the Internet.  They just knew that computers were involved.  Which is what made Microsoft rich.  Producing software to run on computers.  And every investor was sure their dot-com was going to produce something to run on computers.  Making that company rich.  And their investors.  But when the start-up capital ran out there were no earnings to replace it.  And the speculative bubble burst beginning on March 11, 2000.  And those highly overvalued stock prices began to fall back to earth.  With the tech-laden NASDAQ losing 78% of its value before it was all over.  Now THAT is a speculative bubble that the Federal Reserve should have tried to prevent.  Not the economic boom of the Twenties where companies were building real things that real people were buying.

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LESSONS LEARNED #28: “Politicians love failure because no one ever asked government to fix something that was working.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2010

THE TELEVISION SHOW Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. aired from 1964-1969.  It was a spinoff from the Andy Griffith Show.  Gomer, a naive country bumpkin who worked at Wally’s filling station, joined the Marines Corps.  And there was much mirth and merriment.  To the chagrin of Sergeant Carter, Pyle’s drill instructor (DI).  Think of Gunny Sergeant R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket only with no profanity or mature subject matter.  Sergeant Carter was a tough DI like Sergeant Hartman.  But more suitable for the family hour on prime time television.

Gunny sergeants are tough as nails.  And good leaders.  They take pride in this.  But sometimes a gunny starts to feel that he’s not himself anymore.  This was the subject of an episode.  And Gomer, seeing that Sergeant Carter was feeling down, wanted to help.  So he stuffed Sergeant Carter’s backpack with hay before a long march.  While the platoon was worn and tired, Sergeant Carter was not.  He was feeling good.  Like his old self.  Until he found out he was not carrying the same load his men were.  He asked Pyle, “why hay?”  He could understand rocks, but hay?  Because if he outlasted his men while carrying a heavier load, he would feel strong.  But knowing he had carried a lighter load only made him feel weak.

This is human nature.  People take pride in their achievements.  They don’t take pride in any achievement attained by an unfair advantage.  Self-esteem matters.  And you can’t feel good about yourself if you need help to do what others can do without help. 

AN OLD CHINESE proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Let’s say I am a fisherman in a small village.  I catch fish to feed my family and sell/trade for other family needs.  There’s a man in my village who asks me for a fish each day so he can eat.  I’m a caring person.  So I give him a fish each day.  So a pattern develops.  Each day he shows up when I come in from my fishing.  He takes the fish and goes away.  It works out well for him.  He doesn’t have to work.  He can live off of my kind charity.  Then I move.  Without me being there to give him a fish each day, he no longer can eat.  And dies.  If I only had taught that man to fish. 

Kindness can lead to dependency.  And once dependent, you become lazy.  Why develop marketable skills to provide for yourself when someone else will provide for you?  The problem is, of course, what happens when that charity ends?  If you’re unable to provide for yourself and there is no longer someone providing for you, what do you do?  Steal?

Dependency and a lack of self-esteem are a dangerous combination.  And they feed off of each other.  This combination can lead to depression.  Behavioral problems.  Resentment.  Bitterness.  Envy.  Or a defeatist attitude.

These are often unintended consequences of government programs.  A failed program, then, has far reaching consequences beyond the initial economic costs of a program.

LIQUIDITY CRISES CAUSE a lot of economic damage.  If capital is not available for businesses to borrow, businesses can’t grow.  Or create jobs.  And we need jobs.  People have to work.  To support themselves.  And to pay taxes to fund the government.  So everyone is in favor of businesses growing to create jobs.  We all would like to see money being easy and cheap to borrow if it creates jobs.

But there is a downside to easy money.  Inflation.  Too much borrowing can create inflation.  By increasing the money supply (via fractional reserve banking).  More money means higher prices.  Because each additional dollar is worth a little less. This can lead to overvalued assets as prices are ‘bid’ up with less valuable dollars.  And higher prices can inflate business profits.  Looks good on paper.  But too much of this creates a bubble.  Because those high asset values and business profits are not real.  They’re inflated.  Like a bubble.  And just as fragile.  When bubbles burst, asset values and business profits drop.  To real values.  People are no longer ‘bidding’ up prices.  They stop buying until they think prices have sunk to their lowest.  We call this deflation.  A little bit of inflation or deflation is normal.  Too much can be painful economically.  Like in the Panic of 1907.

Without going into details, there was a speculative bubble that burst in 1907.  This led to a liquidity crisis as banks failed.  Defaults on loans left banks owing more money than they had (i.e., they became illiquid).  They tried to borrow money and recall loans to restore their liquidity.  Borrowers grew concerned that their bank may fail.  So they withdrew their money.  This compounded the banks problems.  This caused deflation.  Money was unavailable.  Causing bank runs.  And bank failures.  Business failures.  And unemployment grew. So government passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.  The government gave the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) great powers to tweak the monetary system.  The smartest people at the time had figured out what had gone wrong in 1907.  And they created a system that made it impossible for it to happen again.

The worst liquidity crisis of all time happened from 1929-1933.  It’s part of what we call the Great Depression.  The 1920s had a booming economy.  Real income was rising.  Until the Fed took action.  Concerned that people were borrowing money for speculative purposes (in paper investments instead of labor, plant and material), they put on the brakes.  Made it harder and more expensive to borrow money.  Then a whole series of things happened along the way that turned a recession into a depression.  When people needed money, they made it harder to get it, causing a deflationary spiral.  The Great Depression was the result of bad decisions made by too few men with too much power.  It made a crisis far worse than the one in 1907.  And the Roosevelt administration made good use of this new crisis.  FDR exploded the size of government to respond to the unprecedented crisis they found themselves in.  The New Deal changed America from a nation of limited government to a country where Big Government reigns supreme.

ONE PROGRAM OF the New Deal was Social Security.  Unemployment in the 1930s ran at or above 14%.  This is for one whole decade.  Never before nor since has this happened.  Older workers generally earn more than younger ones.  Their experience commands a higher pay rate.  Which allows them to buy more things.  Resulting in more bills.  Therefore, the Great Depression hit older workers especially hard.  A decade of unemployment would have eaten through any life savings of even the most prudent savers.  And what does this get you?  A great crisis.

The government took a very atypical moment of history and changed the life of every American.  The government forced people to save for retirement.  In a very poor savings plan.  That paid poorly by comparison to private pensions or annuities.  And gave the government control over vast amounts of money.  It was a pervasive program.  They say FDR quipped, “Let them try to undo this.” 

With government taking care of you in retirement, more people stopped providing for themselves.  When they retired, they scrimped by on their ‘fixed’ incomes.  And because Social Security became law before widespread use of birth control and abortion, the actuaries of the day were very optimistic.  They used the birth rate then throughout their projections.  But with birth control and abortion came a huge baby bust.  The bottom fell out of the birth rate.  A baby bust generation followed a baby boom generation.  Actually, all succeeding generations were of the bust kind.  The trend is growing where fewer and fewer people pay for more and more people collecting benefits.  And these people were living longer.  To stay solvent, the system has to raise taxes on those working and reduce benefits on those who are not.  Or raise the retirement age.  All these factors have made it more difficult on our aged population.  Making them working longer than they planned.  Or by making that fixed income grow smaller.

FDR used a crisis to create Social Security.  Now our elderly people are dependent on that system.  It may suck when they compare it to private pensions or annuities, but it may be all they have.  If so, they’ll quake in their shoes anytime anyone mentions reforming Social Security.  Because of this it has become the 3rd rail of politics.  A politician does not touch it lest he or she wishes to die politically.  But it’s not all bad.  For the politician.  Because government forced the elderly to rely on them for their retirement, it has made the Social Security recipient dependent on government.  In particular, the party of government who favors Big Government.  The Democrats.  And with a declining birth rate and growing aged population, this has turned into a large and loyal voting bloc indeed.  Out of fear.

A PROGRAM THAT straddled the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  Its original New Deal purpose was to help widows take care of their children.  When program outlays peaked in the 1970s, the majority of recipients were unmarried women and divorced women.  Because this was a program based on need, the more need you had the more you got.  Hence more children meant more money.  It also reduced the importance of marriage as the government could replace the support typically provided by a husband/father.  Noted economist Dr. Thomas Sowell blames AFDC as greatly contributing to the breakdown of the black family (which has the highest incidence of single-parent households).

With the women’s liberation movement, women have come to depend less on men.  Some affluent women conceive and raise children without a husband.  Or they adopt.  And the affluent no doubt can provide all the material needs their children will ever need.  Without a husband.  Or a father for their children.  But is that enough?

The existence of ‘big brother’ programs would appear to prove otherwise.  Troubled children are often the products of broken families.  Mothers search for big brothers to mentor these fatherless sons.  To be role models.  To show an interest in these children’s lives.  To care.  When no such role models are available, some of these troubled children turn to other sources of acceptance and guidance.  Like gangs.

AFDC has compounded this problem by providing the environment that fosters fatherless children.  And another government program compounds that problem.  Public housing.

POOR HOUSING CONDITIONS hurt families.  They especially hurt broken families.  Without a working husband, these families are destined to live in the cheapest housing available.  These are often in the worst of neighborhoods.  This is an unfair advantage to the children raised in those families.  For it wasn’t their fault they were born into those conditions.  So, to solve that problem, government would build good public housing for these poorest of the poor to move into.  Problem solved.

Well, not exactly.  Public housing concentrates these broken families together.  Usually in large apartment buildings.  This, then, concentrates large numbers of troubled children together.  So, instead of having these children dispersed in a community, public housing gathers them together.  Where bad behavior reinforces bad behavior.  It becomes the rule, not the exception.  Making a mother’s job that much more difficult.  And because these children live together, they also go to school together.  And this extends the bad behavior problem to the school.  Is it any wonder that public housing (i.e., the projects) have the worst living conditions?  And some of the highest gang activity? 

Government didn’t plan it this way.  It’s just the unintended consequences of their actions.  And those consequences are devastating.  To the poor in general.  To the black family in particular.  AFDC and public housing enabled irresponsible/bad behavior.  That behavior destroyed families.  As well as a generation or two.  But it wasn’t all bad.  For the politicians.  It made a very large constituency dependent on government.

THERE ARE SO many more examples.  But the story is almost always the same.  Dependency and a lack of self-esteem will beat down a person’s will.  Like an addict, it will make the dependent accept poorer and poorer living standards in exchange for their fix of dependency.  Eventually, the dependency will reach the point where they will not know how to provide for themselves.  The dependency will become permanent.  As will the lack of self-esteem.  Conscious or not of their actions, Big Government benefits from the wretched state they give these constituencies.  With no choice but continued dependence, they vote for the party that promises to give the most.  Which is typically the Democrat Party.

But how can you fault these politicians?  They acted with the best of intentions.  And they can fix these new problems.  They’ll gather the brightest minds.  They’ll study these problems.  And they will produce the best programs to solve these problems.  All it will take is more government spending.  And how can you refuse?  When people are hungry.  Or homeless.  Or have children that they can’t care for.  How can anyone not want to help the children?  How can anyone not have compassion?

Well, compassion is one thing.  When the innocent suffer.  But when government manufactures that suffering, it’s a different story.  Planned or not the result is the same whenever government tries to fix things.  The cost is high.  The solution is typically worse than the original problem.  And the poorest of the poor are pawns.  To be used by Big Government in the name of compassion. 

Of course, if Big Government were successful in fixing these problems, they would fix themselves right out of existence.  So as long as they want to run Big Government programs, they’ll need a stock of wretched, suffering masses that need their help.  And, of course, lots of crises.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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