Friday, May 22, 2009

The Great Depression of 1920 - Why Haven't We Heard of It?

The Great Depression Of 1920

Never heard of it? That’s not surprising - it didn’t last long. The 20’s were roaring, not greatly depressing. Yet virtually none of the American population knows that the nation’s economy actually took a worse hit in 1920 than it did at any point during the Great Depression.

Consider these wiki-nuggets of wiki-knowledge:

The recession in the United States was brief relative to the Great Depression later that decade, but it included a very sharp price deflation. The decline in the GNP price deflator from 1920 to 1921 is the largest one-year percentage decline in the series in the more than 120 years covered….

Various estimates show that one-year deflation figures were 18 percent, 13.0 percent, and 14.8 percent, respectively. The closest comparator is the 11.5 percent deflation recorded for 1931-32, the third year of the Great Depression. Wholesale prices declined by 36.8 percent for 1920-21, the largest one-year decline on record, going back at least to the American Revolutionary War period. The 1921 deflation contains another striking feature. Not only was it sharp, it was large relative to the accompanying decline in real product.

The ratio of the percentage decline in the GNP deflator for 1920-21 to the percentage decline in real GNP is 2.6 using the Department of Commerce figures. By contrast, during 1929-30, the first year of the Great Depression, the GNP deflator declined by 2.7 percent and real GNP by 9.4 percent, for a ratio of 0.3. The ratios of the percentage decline in GNP prices to the percentage decline in real GNP for 1930-31, 1931-32, 1932-33, and 1937-38, the other Great Depression years in which real GNP declined, were 1.0, 0.9, 1.2, and 0.3, respectively, all well below the 1920-21 figures.

In other words, if Jim Cramer were alive in 1920, he would have actually committed suicide on air.

So why did Al Capone spend the next decade walking around in pinstripe suits instead of rags stolen from orphans and the recently deceased? Because rather than the massive government intervention that took place in the 30’s, in 1920 and 1921, the feds hardly did anything at all:Federal spending was cut from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $5 billion in 1921 and $3.2 billion in 1922.

Federal taxes fell from $6.6 billion in 1920 to $5.5 billion in 1921 and $4 billion in 1922. Harding’s policies started a trend. The low point for federal taxes was reached in 1924; for federal spending, in1925. The federal government paid off debt, which had been $24.2 billion in 1920, and it continued to decline until 1930.

With Harding’s tax and spending cuts and relatively non-interventionist economic policy, GNP rebounded to $74.1 billion in 1922. The number of unemployed fell to 2.8 million— a reported 6.7 percent of the labor force— in 1922. So, just a year and a half after Harding became president, the Roaring Twenties were underway. The unemployment rate continued to decline, reaching an extraordinary low of 1.8 percent in 1926. Since then, the unemployment rate has been lower only once in wartime (1944), and never in peacetime.

The worst economic crash since we started keeping most relevant records didn’t happen during the Great Depression. It happened in 1920. Yet America was back on its feet in less than two years, while the next crunch was dragged out for a decade.

The free markets have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they grow faster than planned economies - why on earth wouldn’t they fix themselves faster, too?