The World Depression (also known in the U.K. as the Great Slump) was a dramatic, worldwide economic downturn beginning in some countries as early as 1928. The beginning of the Great Depression in the United States is associated with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday.
The depression had devastating effects in both the industrialized countries and those which exported raw materials. International trade declined sharply, as did personal incomes, tax revenues, prices, and profits. Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by 40 to 60 percent.
Facing plummeting demand with few alternate sources of jobs, areas dependent on primary sector industries such as farming, mining and logging suffered the most. At the time, Herbert Hoover was President of the United States.
The World Depression ended at different times in different countries; for subsequent history see Home front during World War II.
The majority of countries set up relief programs, and most underwent some sort of political upheaval, pushing them to the left or right.
The World Depression was not a sudden total collapse. The stock market turned upward in early 1930, returning to early 1929 levels by April, though still almost 30 percent below the peak of September 1929. Together government and business actually spent more in the first half of 1930 than in the corresponding period of the previous year. But consumers, many of whom had suffered severe losses in the stock market the prior year, cut back their expenditures by ten percent, and a severe drought ravaged the agricultural heartland of the USA beginning in the northern summer of 1930. In early 1930, credit was ample and available at low rates, but people were reluctant to add new debt by borrowing. By May 1930, auto sales had declined to below the levels of 1928. Prices in general began to decline, but wages held steady in 1930, then began to drop in 1931. Conditions were worst in farming areas where commodity prices plunged, and in mining and logging areas where unemployment was high and there were few other jobs. The decline in the American economy was the motor that pulled down most other countries at first, then internal weaknesses or strengths in each country made conditions worse or better. Frantic attempts to shore up the economies of individual nations through protectionist policies, like the 1930 U.S. Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and retaliatory tariffs in other countries, helped to strangle global trade. By late in 1930, a steady decline set in which reached bottom by March 1933.
Business cycles are thought to be a normal part of living in a world of inexact balances between supply and demand. What turns a usually mild and short recession or "ordinary" business cycle into a great depression is a subject of debate and concern. Scholars have not agreed on the exact causes and their relative importance. The search for causes is closely connected to the question of how to avoid a future depression, and so the political and policy viewpoints of scholars are mixed into the analysis of historic events eight decades ago. The even larger question is whether it was largely a failure on the part of free markets or largely a failure on the part of governments to not exacerbate widespread bank failures and the resulting panics and reduction in the money supply. Those who believe in a large role for governments in the economy believe it was mostly a failure of the free markets and those who believe in free markets believe it was mostly a failure of government that expounded the problem. Current theories may be broadly classified into three main points of view. First, there is orthodox classical economics: monetarist, Austrian Economics and neoclassical economic theory, all which focus on the macroeconomic effects of money supply and the supply of gold which backed many currencies before the Great Depression, including production and consumption.
There were multiple causes for the first downturn in 1929, including the structural weaknesses and specific events that turned it into a major depression and the way in which the downturn spread from country to country. In terms of the 1929 small downturn, historians emphasize structural factors like massive bank failures and the stock market crash. Economists point to Britain's decision to return to the Gold Standard at pre-World War I parities (US$4.86:£1).
Debt is seen as one of the causes of the Great Depression. In the 1920s, American consumers and businesses relied on cheap credit, the former to purchase consumer goods such as automobiles and furniture and the later for capital investment to increase production. This fueled strong short-term growth but created consumer and commercial debt. People and businesses who were deeply in debt when price deflation occurred or demand for their product decreased often risked default. Many drastically cut current spending to keep up time payments, thus lowering demand for new products. Businesses began to fail as construction work and factory orders plunged. Massive layoffs occurred, resulting in unemployment rates of over 25%. (US) Banks which had financed this debt began to fail as debtors defaulted on debt and depositors became worried about their deposits and began massive withdrawals. Government guarantees and Federal Reserve banking regulations to prevent these types of panics were ineffective or not used. Bank failures led to the loss of billions of dollars in assets. The debt became heavier, because prices and incomes fell 20-50% but the debts remained at the same dollar amount. After the panic of 1929, and during the first 10 months of 1930, 744 US banks failed. (In all, 9,000 banks failed during the 1930s). By 1933, depositors had lost $140 billion in deposits. Bank failures snowballed as desperate bankers called in loans which the borrowers did not have time or money to repay. With future profits looking poor, capital investment and construction slowed or completely ceased. In the face of bad loans and worsening future prospects, the surviving banks became even more conservative in their lending. Banks built up their capital reserves, which intensified deflationary pressures. The vicious cycle developed and the downward spiral accelerated. This kind of self-aggravating process may have turned a 1930 recession into a 1933 great depression.
Many economists have argued that the sharp decline in international trade after 1930 helped to worsen the depression, especially for countries significantly dependent on foreign trade. Most historians and economists assign the American Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (enacted June 17, 1930) part of the blame for worsening the depression by seriously reducing international trade and causing retaliatory tariffs (i.e., a tax increase) in other countries. Foreign trade was a small part of overall economic activity in the United States and was concentrated in a few businesses like farming; it was a much larger factor in many other countries. The average ad valorem rate of duties on dutiable imports for 1921-1925 was 25.9% but under the new tariff it jumped to 50% in 1931-1935. In dollar terms, American exports declined from about $5.2 billion in 1929 to $1.7 billion in 1933; but prices also fell, so the physical volume of exports only fell in half. Hardest hit were farm commodities such as wheat, cotton, tobacco, and lumber. According to this theory, the collapse of farm exports caused many American farmers to default on their loans leading to the bank runs on small rural banks that characterized the early years of the Great Depression.
The Federal Reserve, by design, is not controlled by the President or the U.S. Treasury; it is primarily controlled and owned by its member banks and the chairman of the Federal Reserve. One reason why the Federal Reserve did not act to limit the decline of the money supply was regulation. At that time the amount of credit that the Federal Reserve could issue was limited due to laws which required partial gold backing of that credit. By the late 1920's the Federal Reserve had almost hit the limit of allowable credit that could be backed by the gold in its possession. This credit was in the form of Federal Reserve demand notes. Since a "promise of gold" is not as good as "gold in the hand", during the bank panics a portion of those demand notes were redeemed for Federal Reserve gold. Since the Federal Reserve had hit its limit on allowable credit, any reduction in gold in its vaults had to be accompanied by a greater reduction in credit. Several years into the Great Depression the private ownership of gold was declared illegal and reduced the pressure on Federal Reserve gold.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, primarily blamed the excesses of big business for causing an unstable bubble-like economy. Democrats believed the problem was that business had too much power, and the New Deal was intended as a remedy, by empowering labor unions and farmers and by raising taxes on corporate profits. Regulation of the economy was a favorite remedy. Some New Deal regulation (the NRA and AAA) was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Most New Deal regulations were abolished or scaled back in the 1970s and 1980s in a bipartisan wave of deregulation. However the Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Reserve, and Social Security won widespread support.
The U.S. Depression has been the subject of much writing, as the country has sought to reevaluate an era that dumped financial as well as emotional catastrophe on its people. Perhaps the most note-worthy and famous novel written on the subject is The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and written by John Steinbeck, who was awarded both the Nobel Prize for literature and the Pulitzer Prize for the work. The novel, which was later made into a movie, focuses on a poor family of sharecroppers who are forced from their home as drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agricultural industry occur during the Great Depression. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is another important novel about a journey during the Great Depression. The Great Depression is a novella written by Alon Bersharder about a sad, disgruntled temporary worker, making the title both an homage to the historical event and a double entendre. Additionally, the Great Depression was an infuence dealing with the setting of Harper Lee's famous book To Kill a Mockingbird.
Australia's extreme dependence on agricultural and industrial exports meant it was one of the hardest-hit countries in the Western world, amongst the likes of Canada and Germany. Falling export demand and commodity prices placed massive downward pressures on wages. Further, unemployment reached a record high of almost 32% in 1932, with incidents of civil unrest becoming common. After 1932, an increase in wool and meat prices led to a gradual recovery.
Harshly impacted by both the global economic downturn and the Dust Bowl, Canadian industrial production had fallen to only at 58% of the 1929 level by 1932, the second lowest level in the world after the United States, and well behind nations such as Britain, which only saw it fall to 83% of the 1929 level. Total national income fell to 55% of the 1929 level, again worse than any nation other than the United States.
The Depression began to affect France from about 1931. France has a relatively high degree of self-sufficiency meant the damaged was considerably less than nations like Germany. However hardship and unemployment were high enough to lead to rioting and the rise of the socialist Popular Front.
Germany's Weimar Republic was hit hard by the depression, as American loans to help rebuild the German economy now stopped. Unemployment soared, especially in larger cities, and the political system veered toward extremism. Repayment of the war reparations due by Germany were suspended in 1932 following the Lausanne Conference of 1932. By that time Germany had repaid 1/8th of the reparations. Hitler's Nazi Party came to power in January 1933. In 1934 the economy was still not balanced enough for Germany to work on its own.
Because of high levels of United States investment in Latin American economies, they were severely damaged by the Depression. Within the region, Chile, Bolivia and Peru were particularly badly affected. One result of the Depression in this area was the rise of fascist movements.
From roughly 1931 until 1937, the Netherlands suffered a deep and exceptionally long depression. This depression was partly caused by the after-effects of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 in the United States, and partly by internal factors in the Netherlands. Government policy, especially the very late dropping of the Gold Standard, played a role in prolonging the depression. The Great Depression in the Netherlands led to some political instability and riots, and can be linked to the rise of the Dutch national-socialistic party NSB. The depression in the Netherlands lessened somewhat in force at the end of 1936, when the government finally dropped the Gold Standard, but real economic stability did not return until after World War II.
Having removed itself from the capitalist world system both by choice and as a result of efforts of the capitalist powers to isolate it, the Great Depression had little effect on the Soviet Union. This was a period of industrial expansion for the Soviet Union as it recovered from Revolution and Civil War, and the apparent immunity of the Soviet Union to the Great Depression seemed to validate the theory of Marxism and contributed to Socialist and Communist agitation in affected nations. This in turn increased fears of Communist revolution among the elite, strengthening their support for anti-Communist leaders such as Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini.
Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon advised President Hoover that shock treatment would be the best response: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.... That will purge the rottenness out of the system. Hoover rejected this advice, not believing government should directly aid the people, but insisted instead on "voluntary cooperation" between business and government.
Shortly after President Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, drought and erosion combined to cause the Dust Bowl, shifting hundreds of thousands of displaced persons off of their farms in the midwest. From his inauguration onward, Roosevelt argued a restructuring of the economy would be needed to prevent another or avoid prolonging the current depression. New Deal programs sought to stimulate demand and provide work and relief for the impoverished through increased government spending, by:
Reforming the financial system, especially the banks and Wall Street. The Securities Act of 1933 comprehensively regulated the securities industry. This was followed by the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which created the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Though amended, the key provisions of both Acts are still in force as of 2008). Federal insurance of bank deposits was provided by the FDIC (still operating as of 2008), and the Glass-Steagal Act (which remained in effect for 50 years). The institution of the National Recovery Administration remains a controversial act to this day. Although it only lasted until 1935, it made a number of sweeping changes to the American economy until it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Instituting regulations which ended what was called "cut-throat competition," which kept forcing down prices for everyone (done by the NRA). Setting minimum prices and wages and competitive conditions in all industries (done by the NRA). Encouraging unions that would raise wages, to increase the purchasing power of the working class (done by the NRA). Cutting farm production so as to raise prices and make it possible to earn a living in farming (done by the AAA and successor farm programs). Forcing businesses to work with government to set price codes (done by the NRA). Creating the NRA board to set labor codes and standards (done by the NRA). These reforms (together with relief and recovery measures) are called by historians the First New Deal. It was centered around the use of an alphabet soup of agencies set up in 1933 and 1934, along with the use of previous agencies such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to highly regulate and stimulate the economy but the two concepts were incompatible, as the economy continued to stagnate. By 1935, the "Second New Deal" added Social Security, a national relief agency (the Works Progress Administration, WPA) and, through the National Labor Relations Board, a strong stimulus to the growth of labor unions. Unemployment fell by two-thirds in Roosevelt's first term (from 25% to 14.3%, 1933 to 1937), but faster than the economic upturn came 1938's "recession within a depression" and unemployment zoomed to 19% and only until the draft to fight World War II, and then post-war 1946's vast decontrol of the (wartime) command economy that included a sharp reduction of taxes and regulations finally allowed consumer goods to be created, and unemployment finally fell to normal levels.
In 1929, federal expenditures constituted only 3% of the GDP. Between 1933 and 1939, they tripled, funded primarily by a growth in the national debt. The debt as proportion of GNP rose under Hoover from 20% to 40%. Roosevelt kept it at 40% until the war began, when it soared to 128%. After the Recession of 1937, conservatives were able to form a bipartisan conservative coalition to stop further expansion of the New Deal and, by 1943, had abolished all of the relief programs.
In 1937, the American economy took an unexpected nosedive, lasting through most of 1938. Production declined sharply, as did profits and employment. Unemployment jumped from 14.3% in 1937 to 19.0% in 1938. The Roosevelt administration reacted by launching a rhetorical campaign against monopoly power, which was cast as the cause of the depression, and appointing Thurman Arnold to act; Arnold's effectiveness ended once World War II began and corporate energies had to be directed to winning the war. The administration's other response to the 1937 deepening of the Great Depression had more tangible results. Ignoring the pleas of the Treasury Department, Roosevelt embarked on an antidote to the depression, reluctantly abandoning his efforts to balance the budget and launching a $5 billion spending program in the spring of 1938, an effort to increase mass purchasing power. Business-oriented observers explained the recession and recovery in very different terms from the Keynesians. They argued the New Deal had been very hostile to business expansion in 1935-37, had encouraged massive strikes which had a negative impact on major industries such as automobiles, and had threatened massive antitrust legal attacks on big corporations. All those threats diminished sharply after 1938. For example, the antitrust efforts fizzled out without major cases. The CIO and AFL unions started battling each other more than corporations, and tax policy became more favorable to long-term growth.
Great Britain departed from the gold standard in September 1931, allowing the pound sterling to float internationally. The value of the pound then dropped significantly and British exports became cheaper. In April 1933, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102 prohibiting citizens of the U.S. from owning other-than-token amounts of gold and from using gold as money. Citizens were forced to sell all gold holdings (apart from jewelry and "coins of special collector value") to the federal government at a price of $20.67 per ounce. In January 1934, Roosevelt raised the official price of gold to $35 per ounce, thereby devaluing the U.S. dollar by 41%.
The massive rearmament policies helped stimulate the economies in Europe in 1937-39. By 1937, unemployment in Britain had fallen to 1.5 million. The mobilization of manpower following the outbreak of war in 1939 finally ended unemployment. In the United States, the massive war spending doubled the GNP, masking the effects of the Depression. Businessmen ignored the mounting national debt and heavy new taxes, redoubling their efforts for greater output to take advantage of generous government contracts. Most people worked overtime and gave up leisure activities to make money after so many hard years. People accepted rationing and price controls for the first time as a way of expressing their support for the war effort. Cost-plus pricing in munitions contracts guaranteed businesses a profit no matter how many mediocre workers they employed or how inefficient the techniques they used. The demand was for a vast quantity of war supplies as soon as possible, regardless of cost. Businesses hired every person in sight, even driving sound trucks up and down city streets begging people to apply for jobs. New workers were needed to replace the 11 million working-age men serving in the military. These events magnified the role of the federal government in the national economy. In 1929, federal expenditures accounted for only 3% of GNP. Between 1933 and 1939, federal expenditure tripled, and Roosevelt's critics charged that he was turning America into a socialist state. However, spending on the New Deal was far smaller than on the war effort.
The crisis had many political consequences, among which was the abandonment of classic economic liberal approaches, which Roosevelt replaced in the United States with Keynesian policies. It was a main factor in the implementation of social democracy and planned economies in European countries after the war. Although Austrian economists had challenged Keynesianism since the 1920s, it was not until 1974, when the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to Friedrich Hayek notably for being "one of the few economists who gave warning of the possibility of a major economic crisis before the great crash came in the autumn of 1929", and the beginning of monetarism, that the Keynesian approach was politically questioned, leading the way to neoliberalism.
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