Great Depression of the 1920's in USA Thesis

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Great Depression

Today's global economic crisis frequently has been related to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many of the symptoms appear to be the same -- stock market volatility, credit crunch and rapidly escalating unemployment among them. Yet, the two scenarios have more differences than similarities. The Great Depression may have arisen in the wake of a massive economic expansion, but many of the systems and safeguards of modern capitalism did not exist during the Great Depression. Neither did many of the social programs that help to insulate us now against the grinding poverty of that era. The breadth and depth of the Great Depression was unprecedented. Yet this disaster has had many positive consequences, in terms of the lessons that economists and policymakers learned. The first attempts at economic recovery failed because of faulty economic logic, and we still remember those mistakes today. This paper will examine the Great Depression. Its causes and outcomes will be examined. By doing this, the objective is to gain insight into the event and what it has meant for our understanding of economic systems, lessons that can still be applied today.


"Wall Street, usually as deserted and quiet on Sunday as a country graveyard, hummed with activity yesterday as bankers and brokers strove to put their houses in order after the most strenuous week in history, in which all previous records for the exchange of securities on the New York Stock Exchange, the Curb Market and over the counter were broken." -- New York TimesDownload full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Thesis on Great Depression of the 1920's in USA Assignment

It was October 1929 and the stock markets had rocked and reeled, with unprecedented volatility and volume. The industry had put in the overtime in order to prepare for a week in which the markets stabilized themselves after the crisis of the preceding week. Nervousness had passed, the author concluded and the business of restoring faith in the economy was about to begin. The date was Monday October 28th. The market fell, and bankers promised to support the market the next day. That day, Tuesday October 29th, would become known as Black Tuesday. The New York Times was less optimistic on the morning of October 29th, noting "Stock prices virtually collapsed…most disastrous trading day in stock market history…billions of dollars of values were wiped out." (NYT, 1929).

In popular lore Black Tuesday was the primary antecedent to the Great Depression, but stock markets do not crash without cause. The crash was symptomatic of major structural deficiencies in the American economy. The collective responses of the market and the government over the next couple of years would bring the country into the worst economic climate the nation had seen.

The stock market crashed in large part because valuations were excessive. The years leading up to the crash had seen a speculative bubble in both stocks and real estate. The real estate bubble began to collapse in 1925, but the stock market bubble persisted. At the heart of the bubble was a combination of risk-taking and willful ignorance. Investors had ceased to become rational actors, and consequently drove stock valuations up to irrational levels.

Part of the problem was the prevalence of margin buying. Margin buying increases the risk of an investment. This was not a problem while stocks were on the rise, but when they failed, the investor generally defaulted. Credit was easy in the 1920s, a consequence of a robust economy. This easy credit was dispensed to investors who could not afford to lose. This points to a governance problem in the brokerage houses and banks of the day. Margin buying increased demand and much of that demand became speculative. When the fundamentals of the economy began to turn, neither regulators nor banks nor the government acted.

The strong growth that America enjoyed in the 1920s had become to slow by the end of the decade. Americans had become satisfied with their level of wealth. Cars and radios had diffused and consequently consumer demand fell. In the absence of further stimulus, GDP growth began to slow. This would inevitably bring stocks down, but speculative buying on margin distorted the market, keeping prices artificially high. This precipitated the crash, but signaled bigger problems in the U.S. economy.

The slowing of consumer demand growth at the time had contributed to a flattening of GDP growth until 1929, when it began to spike again (Carter, 2006). This spike was an aberration, however, rather than based on fundamentals. At the time of the stock market crash, the fundamentals in the U.S. economy were not poor, but Black Tuesday and the other "black" days surrounding it dramatically altered the American psyche.

Making matters worse was the impending Smoot-Hawley Act, which President Hoover was going to allow to be brought into law (Salesman, 2004). The prevailing economic order at the time -- laissez-faire economics -- was not congruous with such regulation. Thus, the impending Act caused concern among investors.

Laissez-faire was not without its own problems however. The philosophy is based on minimal government intervention in economic activities. The excessive use of margin and poor governance on the part of banks and brokers was in part a consequence of laissez-faire policies. Political leaders at the time did not understand the basic risk-return relationship -- lack of regulation increased risk. This worked well during the good times but the effects into the 1930s were catastrophic.


The stock market crash was an example not of devastation but of volatility. Following the evisceration of shareholder wealth in the fall of 1929, stocks rebounded, at least up to levels found in early 1929. Stocks had made a strong rebound by the first of November, 1929. This was followed later that month by more crashing. Whether it was the crash on its own that impacted the psyche of the nation or the newfound instability of the country's capital markets, the effect was chilling.

Despite strong government and business investment, consumers were wary, and a ten percent decline in consumer spending sent the balance of payments downward. There was no credit crunch at this point in the Depression, but consumers were reluctant to spend. Automobile sales were down and other goods followed. Capital markets were not attracting as many investors as consumers stayed on the sidelines.

Several other economic factors contributed at this point to the decline of the economy as well. Drought in the nation's heartland had resulted in widespread unemployment and poverty. This drove wages down as desperate workers took whatever jobs they could find. Despite the drought, commodity prices plunged due to low consumer demand.

The Depression was exacerbated when Smoot-Hawley was passed. The tariffs imposed by this bill not only reduced imports, but they inspired rounds of retaliatory tariffs from America's major trading partners. Canada hit the U.S. hard with tariffs amounting to 30% of U.S. exports (Brown & Hogendorn, 2000). The result was a steep decline in trade. U.S. producers lost markets for their goods, and were forced to lay off more workers. Unemployment increased from 7.8% to 25.1% after the act was passed (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1960).

As the crisis deepened there was significant political fallout. Herbert Hoover was replaced with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who campaigned against Smoot-Hawley and on a platform of restoring the economy. He entered office and ushered in the New Deal. This stimulus package included provisions to protect unemployed workers. He instituted Glass-Stegall, which created the FDIC. These two acts were intended to restore consumer confidence and thereby improved the amount of money in circulation. Banks around the world had been weak, as consumers had lost confidence in the institutions. By protection deposits, confidence in the banking system would be restored. Deposits would improve, which would allow the banks to increase lending. The welfare provisions were direct stimulus to increase the spending of unemployed Americans, many of whom had nothing to spend.

Major public works projects were instituted as well, to provide jobs and stimulus for companies. To help pay for these initiatives, Prohibition was repealed and later a payroll tax was instituted. Although economists argue about the efficacy of the New Deal, GDP began to increase following Roosevelt's election (Carter, 2006). In many other countries, the Depression began to end as early as 1931 as they abandoned the gold standard which had reduced fiscal flexibility.

The Great Depression peaked in the early thirties but economic growth during Roosevelt's tenure was not met with a restoration of jobs. Government spending had spurred some job creation but the private sector had not responded with spending of its own. It took wartime conscription to reign in the unemployment rates.

Economic Influence

The Great Depression had a profound influence on the way in which the U.S. economy functioned. The laissez-faire economic policies of the 1920s were abandoned. Regulations were increased. New taxes were developed. A social safety net was developed. Many Depression-era institutions still exist today.

The Securities Exchange Commission was created in response to the view that the stock market crash had contributed too much to the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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