It is said we stand in preparation to fight the last war. It never plays out as planned and the war of the prior generation is ultimately not the war of the present.
Economic crises are cut from the same cloth as war. We prepare for the prior economic calamity with significant resources. Then, when we least expect it, a new threat rises and brings the best laid plans of men to dust.
We are presently experiencing a crisis like never before. A pandemic has swept the planet and threatens to keep circling the globe in waves of slightly different variations man has no natural immunity against. Knowing we have prepared for the last war, the pillars built after the financial crisis of 2008-9, is meaningless. Man has experienced pandemics before, even more deadly contagions than the current infection. But economically, we will have to venture further back in time for an equivalent. And when you mix the two together it becomes a crisis unrecognizable.
Fearful we will make the mistake of preparing for the wrong confrontation, we quickly shift our focus from the prior economic crisis of a decade ago and focus on the pandemic of 1918-9 and The Great Depression of the 1930s.
Except even that isn’t the same on virtually all levels. Never before has the stock market collapsed so fast from an all-time high to a bear market (a 20% or greater decline). The prior record from The Great Depression has fallen handily.
The death toll is lower today than the pandemic of 1918-9. So far. It is fear that drives us. In a knee-jerk reaction we shutter large swaths of the economy, leaving only those industries we consider vital, functioning. The wheels of industry ground to a halt until the world stopped. All is quiet on the Western front, a front that covers the whole of mankind.
Fear controls decisions — and if you have control of your fear — others will manipulate your activities as if you acted on your personal fears. The disease is not the worst and modern medicine is containing the damage. It is worrisome, but it seems man will conquer the new scourge in a reasonable amount of time. Then, life can return to normal.
Or can it?
Healing the sick and preventing illness will prove the easy part of this theatrical presentation. The damage already done to the economy is massive. Many businesses, large and small, will not return. The question remains: Is the the next Great Depression?
It is dangerous to say this time is different. Fortunately it is already different so there is room for hope.
And, before we point out why this is not the next Great Depression, we can thank the gods that be we had The Great Recession of 2008-9 as a dress rehearsal. For without that economic nightmare, we might never have had the courage to use the tools necessary to make this time different in a better way.
A History of Economic Collapse
It is acceptable banter in polite company to say this is the worst economy since The Great Depression or the economic consequences will be worse than The Great Depression. But the story starts before that great economic event, and Herbert Hoover was instrumental in the solution.
During World War I, The War to End All Wars, Herbert Hoover earned the nickname “The Great Humanitarian.” As Europe descended into war, Hoover organized the largest relief effort in history. With tireless effort he secured funding for resources to feed the civilians on the Continent. Even after the war he worked to stabilize the destroyed nations on both sides of the battlefield.
President Wilson turned to Hoover to head his Food Administration. Hoover labored hard to bring 120,000 Americans home when they were caught unprepared in Europe as war broke out. Then he fed Belgium, a nation controlled by Germany, an enemy of the U.S. in that Great War. Hoover manged to feed millions while keeping America’s soldiers well fed at the same time. A delicate balancing act at best.
After the war Hoover headed the American Relief Administration, feeding 20 million in Central Europe. A devastating pandemic took hold during the later days of the war. As soldiers returned home they brought the deadly Spanish Flu with them.
In 1918-9 the government closed businesses and churches to fight the pandemic. Face masks were required in many communities with harsh penalties for failure to comply. The shelter-in-place policies of today were not part of the strategy in fighting the Spanish Flu in the same blanket manner applied in early 2020.
After the war the stock market enjoyed a relief rally. Businesses grew tepidly, if at all, as a war hangover recession loomed. The reduced war spending eventually affected economic activity. Though not spoken about often historically, the recession of 1920-21 is the result, in part, from the efforts to combat the pandemic of a few years earlier.
President Harding tapped Hoover for his Secretary of Commerce. A recession that began in January of 1920 and ran until July of the following year was especially deep. Research conducted by Robert Barro and Jose Ursua indicated the Spanish Flu reduced worldwide economic activity by 6-8%.
Herbert Hoover proved up to the task of defeating this deep economic decline of the early 1920s. His work led to the booming economy in the decade ahead.
The Great Depression
If ever there was a president up to the task of defeating an economic crisis it was Herbert Hoover. President Hoover was concerned over the wild speculation on Wall Street. A nasty tariff fight in Congress spooked the markets and caused sharp declines, but quickly recovered each time in early and mid-1929. Then the wheels came off.
On September 3, 1929 the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a high, a level it would not see again until November 23, 1954. What started slow turned into a steamroll. In October 1929 it was free fall.
But the economy seemed sound by many measures. The stock market was down much more than economic activity would dictate. This started a process of efforts by President Hoover that never seems to work.
One measure after another was tried. Fear the solutions (usually involving more government debt) would exacerbate the problem caused President Hoover to use only half measures. Tax cuts were on the table, but not too many so as not to sink the national debt into the unknown abyss. Increased government spending was also on the table, but once again, only in half measures as to at least pretend fiscal constraint was being applied.
Hoover’s ideas were exactly what the nation needed to exit The Great Depression early, if only the president could have seen clear to unleash the dogs 100% in battle against the economic disaster unfolding. FDR, once in office, used virtually all the programs proposed by Hoover. FDR used greater flare to describe his programs and gave them different names. FDR also did not hold back. The national debt ballooned like never before. It was different that time.
Yet, even President Roosevelt could not go all-in. FDR’s programs started the economy rolling again, but not to new heights. And after a period of growth he increased taxes to reduce the deficit, triggering the second phase of The Great Depression in 1937. A quick learner, FDR saw the economy stall and stepped on the gas again quickly. There seemed no end to the deficit spending.
It took another world war to open the spending gates wide enough to permanently end The Great Depression. In 1946 the federal budget deficit exceeded 26% of GDP. This may stand as the largest imbalance in the U.S. government’s history.
2020 Is Not the Next Great Depression
This time is different is the battle cry of the unenlightened. History may not repeat, but is tends to rhyme. My good buddy Samuel Clemens once told me something along those lines a long time ago. However, every once in a while, it is different. In short, there always has to be a first time for everything.
By many economic measures the economy is taking it on the chin worse than any time in modern history. The stock market collapse is faster than 1929 or 1987. Thirty million are out of work in the first month of the pandemic and counting. Many businesses were forced to close and many never reopen due to the financial shock to their budget.
There is another difference nobody wants to place front and center. Unlike the early days of The Great Depression, the government stepped up with all canons and fired fast and hard this time around. Even during the Great Recession of a decade ago Congress dragged its feet on how much stimulus should be provided the economy.
Unlike The Great Depression and with lessons learned from a half generation ago, the Fed dropped rates to zero instantly and reignited quantitative easing on a scale unthinkable a decade ago. Congress passed, and the president signed, stimulus bills at lightning speed. Trillions of dollars were pumped into the economy with fiscal policy (government spending) and trillions more with monetary policy (Federal Reserve activities).
Never before have so many economic weapons been brought to bear, not even in a wartime situation. Some snickered when President Trump said he was a wartime president. Not a personal fan of the current president, I still agree with him on this issue. It will take a war time effort and war time powers to right the economic ship.
The Great Depression spiraled ever downward as elected leaders provided ineffective levels of economic stimulus 90 years ago and the reluctant efforts of a decade ago led to anemic economic growth as the economy left the Great Recession behind. The just finished economic expansion had one of the slowest, if not slowest, starts in U.S. history.
The willingness of leaders in Washington to spend whatever is necessary, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s willingness to use unlimited resources to counter the economic dislocation, make it impossible for economic activity to descend into the chaos of the 1930s. Stimulus checks to individuals and forgivable loans to small businesses will limit the damage. Make no mistake, the damage will be acute and will linger. That lesson was taught us by The Great Depression. WWII spending proved the path necessary financially to beat the economic demon into submission.
More proposals keep coming forward. Nearly $3 trillion in stimulus spending is already passed and working its way into the hands of individuals and businesses. It is not enough and will run short. Congress knows it and keeps pumping more stimulus measures at every whiff of a slowing economy. How much more stimulus spending will come is anyone’s guess. All I know is nobody seems to want to rein in the excesses at this time. And that is probably a good thing. The 26% of GDP deficit in 1943 is only the worst year of many with large fiscal deficits in the early 1940s. The spending was insane back then and America thrived afterwards. With the money going into the hands of Americans (back then and now) there is no doubt in this accountant’s mind the economy will pass this painful speed bump reasonably quickly with far fewer casualties than if belated measures similar to 2008-9 were used; or worse, the reluctant policies of 1929-1932.
The stock market has enjoyed a healthy bounce off the initial bottom. Nobody knows if this is a bear market rally or the first leg up in a V-shaped recovery. As always, follow the advice from another buddy of mine, Warren Buffett: It has never been a good bet to bet against America.
What Could Derail the Stimulus Measures
The Fed dropped rates to zero, opened the gates to unlimited quantitative easing bond purchases and has extended the purchases far beyond Treasuries. It seems the printing press (creation of more money/increasing the money supply) has not caused inflation to increase by any discernible amount over the past decade. In fact, inflation has been stepping lower and lower since the early 1980s.
Printing more money, if you will allow my use of the term, has not ignited inflation in recent decades. What always seems to be an unbreakable law in times past does not seem to be an issue at present. Reason says at some point more money will force prices higher. Where that point is nobody knows. Many economists expected it to be an issue by now. Since inflation never seems to rear its ugly head anymore, economists as less frightened by it.
Perhaps the lack of fear over inflation is low because most have never lived through it or it is a very distant memory.
If inflation should make an appearance it could be game over. This whole fantasy of stimulus spending with the Federal Reserve buying all the newly issued bonds with fiat money only works if inflation does not attend the party.
The national debt is likely to pass $25 trillion this calendar year with more red ink on the horizon. We could be paving the groundwork for one of the richest economic booms in the history of mankind or a worldwide inflationary disaster of Biblical proportions. I lay odds on the former.
Inflation may increase for a short time as demand is high and supply is artificially constrained. Once the pandemic passes completely in a year or two (the virus fades into the history books like the Spanish Flu or with the advent of a vaccine) supply and demand should find an equilibrium.
I know people are scared. Scared of getting sick and of losing loved ones. Scared of not having enough to feed themselves or their family, shelter and care for their family. Scared their business will fail. There are so many things that can befall us. I am an optimist and a realist. Businesses will fail. People will die. It will not be all roses. But we, as a people, will survive and even thrive.
New businesses will be started; jobs will be created. Families will heal and new friendships forged. Warren Buffett is right, America’s best days are still ahead. The same can be said of the entire human race, all peoples, from all nations.
This time is different. It is also the same. And like every time tragedy struck in the past, humanity has survived, thrived, grown and reached higher afterwards than ever before.
I for one am glad I am on this journey with you, kind readers. We should never be afraid of making the hard decisions. It will not be as bad as The Great Depression because this will not stretch out for a decade followed by a world war. This will last a year or so at most with the worst happening this year. And the other side will be glorious as the resources to build new businesses that will travel to the stars and beyond as being created as we speak.
That is the hope you and I both need to live through this trial. There is no one more than you I would rather be on this journey with. Godspeed.
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