Finance

Great Depression II: The 800-Pound “D” Word in the Room

Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men,
for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the
benefit of us all.
John Maynard Keynes

WHEN THE STOCK MARKET CRASHED IN 1929, my mother worked as a teller at the Park Ridge (Illinois) State Bank.

“Best job I ever had,” she used to tell me.

She loved dealing with customers. Knew them all by name and many by what they were saving for in those pre-credit card days.

Park Ridge State Bank Photo
Park Ridge State Bank

The crash and eventual erosion of consumer confidence changed everything. With incomes falling, companies and jobs failing, debtors defaulted, leaving banks like my mom’s with no cash.

When panicked bank customers demanded their savings, Park Ridge State failed, along with 9,000 other banks. By 1933, depositors had lost $140 billion in the Great Depression.

Disheartened, my mother felt personally responsible.

As some of you remember, those were very tough times.

My father, unable to find any kind of work in Chicago, went searching for employment in the Oklahoma oil fields. In December of 1935 my mother joined him in Ada, where I was born. They had no money to pay the hospital for my delivery. No money even for food. Every day mother would push and hold my stomach tight so I wouldn’t cry with hunger.

It wasn’t until the war that the economy righted itself.

The Unsinkable Ship of State

Of course, that could never happen again, right? Under Roosevelt, banking oversight was put in place. The Federal Reserve was freed from regulation and political influence to better maintain monetary stability, and to act as a “bailout” lender of last resort during times of financial crisis.

Then we forgot.

For the past 30 years, Congress has neutered government oversight in the certainty of the infallibility of a free market.

Unfortunately, capitalism, without checks and controls, encourages greed and imprudence. Especially when Wall Street knows that to save us from another crash the Fed will bail them out.

Recession Tunnel Cartoon

Take the savings and loan crisis of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Taxpayers lost $160 billion paying for what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “the largest and costliest venture in public misfeasance, malfeasance and larceny of all time.” Even with the infusion of all those billions, the economy went into a tailspin; 900 banks failed while new home construction fell to its lowest rate since WWII.

Today it’s not just the banks, not just S&Ls. This time the Fed is attempting to keep the entire global financial system from collapsing.

After they bet the house and lost on questionable “sub-prime” home mortgages, the same moneymen who demanded that the government keep its nose out of the private economy now want a $285- to $400-billion bailout. Maybe more. No one yet knows the depth of rapacity.

Obliging with artificially low interest rates and flooding the markets with cash, the Fed hopes to prime the machine to once again restart faith in the economy.

Falling Interest Rates Steal from Elders

But sinking interest rates rob income from retirees. (Remember the 18 percent to 20 percent interest rates of the early ’80s? Chances are, with the money printing presses now running full tilt, inflation is right around the corner.)

Feb Bailout CartoonBailouts further debase our currency.

And instead of freeing up cash intended to ease this perilous credit crunch, our financial institutions selfishly hoard the dough, profiting from their created fiasco by putting the bailout money into super-safe short-term US Treasury bills.

What’s different about this current crisis is our huge personal and public debt. In just the last six years, the federal government has spent almost $2 trillion more than it has taken in while a consumer debt bubble now threatens to burst. Personal bankruptcy filings jumped 15 percent in February over January, 37 percent over February 2007.

Add to all that our massive inequality of wealth and income.

Billions in bailouts plus the $152 billion stimulus package, all borrowed money, could even boomerang into an inflation-induced run on the falling dollar.

And deepening US financial inequality – since 1966 only the richest 10 percent enjoyed a growth rate in their real wages and salaries that was equal to or above the average rate of growth in productivity – puts dollars into fewer and fewer hands eventually causing a crash. At least that’s what Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Chairman of the Federal Reserve believed caused the meltdown after 1929.

For certain we are much more unequal than any other advanced industrial country.

It’s too early to forecast Great Depression II but if the credit crisis of today drives the dollar down too far, too fast, you can expect to see foreign capitalists, who have been financing us for the past several years, start to pull their money from our markets as their U.S. investments tumble.

Even China and Japan, faced with a choice of losing the US market or losing their financial viability, will have little choice but to cash in their dollars forcing the now not-so-almighty dollar ever lower.

Ruled by irrational fear and greed, it’s all a head game with dire consequences as the dominos start falling catastrophically.


WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW

1. Don’t believe everything our government tells you. Just two days before the fifth largest US investment bank, Bear Sterns, collapsed requiring a $29 billion guarantee from the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission declared the company sound.

2. Make certain that the federal government insures your savings. And while your broker insists the stock market is the best place for your money, with today’s volatility and the knowledge that, on average, the stock market has performed worse than Treasury bonds for the past nine years, you might sleep better getting out of the stock market for now.

3. Make yourself as debt free as possible, especially high-interest credit card debt. And pray.

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