This article is about the severe worldwide economic downturn in the 1930s. For other uses, see The Great Depression (disambiguation) and The Great Slump (disambiguation).
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, originating in the United States.[dubious– discuss][unbalanced opinion?] The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until 1941. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how far the world's economy can decline.
The depression started in the United States after a major fall in stock prices that began around September 4, 1929, and became worldwide news with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929 (known as Black Tuesday). Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by an estimated 15%. By comparison, worldwide GDP fell by less than 1% from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession. Some economies started to recover by the mid-1930s. However, in many countries, the negative effects of the Great Depression lasted until the beginning of World War II.
The Great Depression had devastating effects in countries both rich and poor. Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices dropped, while international trade plunged by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25% and in some countries rose as high as 33%.
Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming communities and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by about 60%. Facing plummeting demand with few alternative sources of jobs, areas dependent on primary sector industries such as mining and logging suffered the most.
See also: Timeline of the Great Depression
Economic historians usually attribute the start of the Great Depression to the sudden devastating collapse of U.S. stock market prices on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday. However, some dispute this conclusion and see the stock crash as a symptom, rather than a cause, of the Great Depression.
Even after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 optimism persisted for some time. John D. Rockefeller said "These are days when many are discouraged. In the 93 years of my life, depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again." The stock market turned upward in early 1930, returning to early 1929 levels by April. This was still almost 30% below the peak of September 1929.
Together, government and business spent more in the first half of 1930 than in the corresponding period of the previous year. On the other hand, consumers, many of whom had suffered severe losses in the stock market the previous year, cut back their expenditures by 10%. In addition, beginning in the mid-1930s, a severe drought ravaged the agricultural heartland of the U.S.
By mid-1930, interest rates had dropped to low levels, but expected deflation and the continuing reluctance of people to borrow meant that consumer spending and investment were depressed. By May 1930, automobile sales had declined to below the levels of 1928. Prices in general began to decline, although wages held steady in 1930. Then a deflationary spiral started in 1931. Conditions were worse 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 U.S. economy was the factor 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, such as the 1930 U.S. Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act and retaliatory tariffs in other countries, exacerbated the collapse in global trade. By late 1930, a steady decline in the world economy had set in, which did not reach bottom until 1933.
Change in economic indicators 1929–32
|United States||Great Britain||France||Germany|
Main article: Causes of the Great Depression
The two classical competing theories of the Great Depression are the Keynesian (demand-driven) and the monetarist explanation. There are also various heterodox theories that downplay or reject the explanations of the Keynesians and monetarists. The consensus among demand-driven theories is that a large-scale loss of confidence led to a sudden reduction in consumption and investment spending. Once panic and deflation set in, many people believed they could avoid further losses by keeping clear of the markets. Holding money became profitable as prices dropped lower and a given amount of money bought ever more goods, exacerbating the drop in demand. Monetarists believe that the Great Depression started as an ordinary recession, but the shrinking of the money supply greatly exacerbated the economic situation, causing a recession to descend into the Great Depression.
Economists and economic historians are almost evenly split as to whether the traditional monetary explanation that monetary forces were the primary cause of the Great Depression is right, or the traditional Keynesian explanation that a fall in autonomous spending, particularly investment, is the primary explanation for the onset of the Great Depression. Today the controversy is of lesser importance since there is mainstream support for the debt deflation theory and the expectations hypothesis that building on the monetary explanation of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz add non-monetary explanations.
There is consensus that the Federal Reserve System should have cut short the process of monetary deflation and banking collapse. If they had done this, the economic downturn would have been far less severe and much shorter.
British economist John Maynard Keynes argued in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that lower aggregate expenditures in the economy contributed to a massive decline in income and to employment that was well below the average. In such a situation, the economy reached equilibrium at low levels of economic activity and high unemployment.
Keynes' basic idea was simple: to keep people fully employed, governments have to run deficits when the economy is slowing, as the private sector would not invest enough to keep production at the normal level and bring the economy out of recession. Keynesian economists called on governments during times of economic crisis to pick up the slack by increasing government spending and/or cutting taxes.
As the Depression wore on, Franklin D. Roosevelt tried public works, farm subsidies, and other devices to restart the U.S. economy, but never completely gave up trying to balance the budget. According to the Keynesians, this improved the economy, but Roosevelt never spent enough to bring the economy out of recession until the start of World War II.
Monetarists follow the explanation given by Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz. They argue that the Great Depression was caused by the banking crisis that caused one-third of all banks to vanish, a reduction of bank shareholder wealth and more importantly monetary contraction by 35%. This caused a price drop by 33% (deflation). By not lowering interest rates, by not increasing the monetary base and by not injecting liquidity into the banking system to prevent it from crumbling the Federal Reserve passively watched the transformation of a normal recession into the Great Depression. Friedman argued that the downward turn in the economy, starting with the stock market crash, would merely have been an ordinary recession if the Federal Reserve had taken aggressive action.
The Federal Reserve allowed some large public bank failures – particularly that of the New York Bank of United States – which produced panic and widespread runs on local banks, and the Federal Reserve sat idly by while banks collapsed. He claimed that, if the Fed had provided emergency lending to these key banks, or simply bought government bonds on the open market to provide liquidity and increase the quantity of money after the key banks fell, all the rest of the banks would not have fallen after the large ones did, and the money supply would not have fallen as far and as fast as it did.
With significantly less money to go around, businesses could not get new loans and could not even get their old loans renewed, forcing many to stop investing. This interpretation blames the Federal Reserve for inaction, especially the New York Branch.
One reason why the Federal Reserve did not act to limit the decline of the money supply was the gold standard. At that time, the amount of credit the Federal Reserve could issue was limited by the Federal Reserve Act, which required 40% gold backing of Federal Reserve Notes issued. By the late 1920s, 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. A "promise of gold" is not as good as "gold in the hand", particularly when they only had enough gold to cover 40% of the Federal Reserve Notes outstanding. 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. On April 5, 1933, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102 making the private ownership of gold certificates, coins and bullion illegal, reducing the pressure on Federal Reserve gold.
From the point of view of today's mainstream schools of economic thought, government should strive to keep the interconnected macroeconomic aggregates money supply and/or aggregate demand on a stable growth path. When threatened by the forecast of a depression central banks should pour liquidity into the banking system and the government should cut taxes and accelerate spending in order to keep the nominal money stock and total nominal demand from collapsing. At the beginning of the Great Depression most economists believed in Say's law and the self-equilibrating powers of the market and failed to explain the severity of the Depression. Outright leave-it-alone liquidationism was a position mainly held by the Austrian School. The liquidationist position was that a depression is good medicine. The idea was the benefit of a depression was to liquidate failed investments and businesses that have been made obsolete by technological development in order to release factors of production (capital and labor) from unproductive uses so that these could be redeployed in other sectors of the technologically dynamic economy. They argued that even if self-adjustment of the economy took mass bankruptcies, then so be it. An increasingly common view among economic historians is that the adherence of some Federal Reserve policymakers to the liquidationist thesis led to disastrous consequences. Regarding the policies of President Hoover, economists like Barry Eichengreen and J. Bradford DeLong point out that President Hoover tried to keep the federal budget balanced until 1932, when he lost confidence in his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon and replaced him. Despite liquidationist expectations, a large proportion of the capital stock was not redeployed but vanished during the first years of the Great Depression. According to a study by Olivier Blanchard and Lawrence Summers, the recession caused a drop of net capital accumulation to pre-1924 levels by 1933. Milton Friedman called the leave-it-alone liquidationism "dangerous nonsense". He wrote:
|“||I think the Austrian business-cycle theory has done the world a great deal of harm. If you go back to the 1930s, which is a key point, here you had the Austrians sitting in London, Hayek and Lionel Robbins, and saying you just have to let the bottom drop out of the world. You've just got to let it cure itself. You can't do anything about it. You will only make it worse. … I think by encouraging that kind of do-nothing policy both in Britain and in the United States, they did harm.||”|
Additional modern nonmonetary explanations
The monetary explanation has two weaknesses. First it is not able to explain why the demand for money was falling more rapidly than the supply during the initial downturn in 1930–31. Second it is not able to explain why in March 1933 a recovery took place although short term interest rates remained close to zero and the Money supply was still falling. These questions are addressed by modern explanations that build on the monetary explanation of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz but add non-monetary explanations.
Irving Fisher argued that the predominant factor leading to the Great Depression was a vicious circle of deflation and growing over-indebtedness. He outlined nine factors interacting with one another under conditions of debt and deflation to create the mechanics of boom to bust. The chain of events proceeded as follows:
- Debt liquidation and distress selling
- Contraction of the money supply as bank loans are paid off
- A fall in the level of asset prices
- A still greater fall in the net worth of businesses, precipitating bankruptcies
- A fall in profits
- A reduction in output, in trade and in employment
- Pessimism and loss of confidence
- Hoarding of money
- A fall in nominal interest rates and a rise in deflation adjusted interest rates
During the Crash of 1929 preceding the Great Depression, margin requirements were only 10%. Brokerage firms, in other words, would lend $9 for every $1 an investor had deposited. When the market fell, brokers called in these loans, which could not be paid back. Banks began to fail as debtors defaulted on debt and depositors attempted to withdraw their deposits en masse, triggering multiple bank runs. Government guarantees and Federal Reserve banking regulations to prevent such panics were ineffective or not used. Bank failures led to the loss of billions of dollars in assets.
Outstanding debts became heavier, because prices and incomes fell by 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 U.S. banks failed. (In all, 9,000 banks failed during the 1930s). By April 1933, around $7 billion in deposits had been frozen in failed banks or those left unlicensed after the March Bank Holiday. 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 and made fewer loans, which intensified deflationary pressures. A vicious cycle developed and the downward spiral accelerated.
The liquidation of debt could not keep up with the fall of prices which it caused. The mass effect of the stampede to liquidate increased the value of each dollar owed, relative to the value of declining asset holdings. The very effort of individuals to lessen their burden of debt effectively increased it. Paradoxically, the more the debtors paid, the more they owed. This self-aggravating process turned a 1930 recession into a 1933 great depression.
Fisher's debt-deflation theory initially lacked mainstream influence because of the counter-argument that debt-deflation represented no more than a redistribution from one group (debtors) to another (creditors). Pure re-distributions should have no significant macroeconomic effects.
Building on both the monetary hypothesis of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz as well as the debt deflation hypothesis of Irving Fisher, Ben Bernanke developed an alternative way in which the financial crisis affected output. He builds on Fisher's argument that dramatic declines in the price level and nominal incomes lead to increasing real debt burdens which in turn leads to debtor insolvency and consequently leads to lowered aggregate demand, a further decline in the price level then results in a debt deflationary spiral. According to Bernanke, a small decline in the price level simply reallocates wealth from debtors to creditors without doing damage to the economy. But when the deflation is severe falling asset prices along with debtor bankruptcies lead to a decline in the nominal value of assets on bank balance sheets. Banks will react by tightening their credit conditions, that in turn leads to a credit crunch which does serious harm to the economy. A credit crunch lowers investment and consumption and results in declining aggregate demand which additionally contributes to the deflationary spiral.
Since economic mainstream turned to the new neoclassical synthesis, expectations are a central element of macroeconomic models. According to Peter Temin, Barry Wigmore, Gauti B. Eggertsson and Christina Romer, the key to recovery and to ending the Great Depression was brought about by a successful management of public expectations. The thesis is based on the observation that after years of deflation and a very severe recession important economic indicators turned positive in March 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. Consumer prices turned from deflation to a mild inflation, industrial production bottomed out in March 1933, and investment doubled in 1933 with a turnaround in March 1933. There were no monetary forces to explain that turn around. Money supply was still falling and short term interest rates remained close to zero. Before March 1933 people expected further deflation and a recession so that even interest rates at zero did not stimulate investment. But when Roosevelt announced major regime changes people began to expect inflation and an economic expansion. With these positive expectations, interest rates at zero began to stimulate investment just as they were expected to do. Roosevelt's fiscal and monetary policy regime change helped to make his policy objectives credible. The expectation of higher future income and higher future inflation stimulated demand and investments. The analysis suggests that the elimination of the policy dogmas of the gold standard, a balanced budget in times of crises and small government led endogenously to a large shift in expectation that accounts for about 70–80 percent of the recovery of output and prices from 1933 to 1937. If the regime change had not happened and the Hoover policy had continued, the economy would have continued its free fall in 1933, and output would have been 30% lower in 1937 than in 1933.
The recession of 1937–38, which slowed down economic recovery from the Great Depression, is explained by fears of the population that the moderate tightening of the monetary and fiscal policy in 1937 would be first steps to a restoration of the pre-March 1933 policy regime.
Theorists of the "Austrian School" who wrote about the Depression include Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and American economist Murray Rothbard, who wrote America's Great Depression (1963). In their view and like the monetarists, the Federal Reserve, which was created in 1913, shoulders much of the blame; but in opposition to the monetarists, they argue that the key cause of the Depression was the expansion of the money supply in the 1920s that led to an unsustainable credit-driven boom.
In the Austrian view it was this inflation of the money supply that led to an unsustainable boom in both asset prices (stocks and bonds) and capital goods. By the time the Fed belatedly tightened in 1928, it was far too late and, in the Austrian view, a significant economic contraction was inevitable. In February 1929 Hayek published a paper predicting the Federal Reserve's actions would lead to a crisis starting in the stock and credit markets.
According to Rothbard, government support for failed enterprises and keeping wages above their market values actually prolonged the Depression. Hayek, unlike Rothbard, believed since the 1970s, along with the monetarists, that the Federal Reserve further contributed to the problems of the Depression by permitting the money supply to shrink during the earliest years of the Depression. However, in 1932 and 1934 Hayek had criticised the FED and the Bank of England for not taking a more contractionary stance.
Hans Sennholz argued that most boom and busts that plagued the American economy in 1819–20, 1839–43, 1857–60, 1873–78, 1893–97, and 1920–21, were generated by government creating a boom through easy money and credit, which was soon followed by the inevitable bust. The spectacular crash of 1929 followed five years of reckless credit expansion by the Federal Reserve System under the Coolidge Administration. The passing of the Sixteenth Amendment, the passage of The Federal Reserve Act, rising government deficits, the passage of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, and the Revenue Act of 1932, exacerbated the crisis, prolonging it.
Ludwig von Mises wrote in the 1930s: "Credit expansion cannot increase the supply of real goods. It merely brings about a rearrangement. It diverts capital investment away from the course prescribed by the state of economic wealth and market conditions. It causes production to pursue paths which it would not follow unless the economy were to acquire an increase in material goods. As a result, the upswing lacks a solid base. It is not a real prosperity. It is illusory prosperity. It did not develop from an increase in economic wealth, i.e. the accumulation of savings made available for productive investment. Rather, it arose because the credit expansion created the illusion of such an increase. Sooner or later, it must become apparent that this economic situation is built on sand."
Karl Marx saw recession and depression as unavoidable under free-market capitalism as there are no restrictions on accumulations of capital other than the market itself. In the Marxist view, capitalism tends to create unbalanced accumulations of wealth, leading to over-accumulations of capital which inevitably lead to a crisis. This especially sharp bust is a regular feature of the boom and bust pattern of what Marxists term "chaotic" capitalist development. It is a tenet of many Marxist groupings that such crises are inevitable and will be increasingly severe until the contradictions inherent in the mismatch between the mode of production and the development of productive forces reach the final point of failure. At which point, the crisis period encourages intensified class conflict and forces societal change.
Two economists of the 1920s, Waddill Catchings and William Trufant Foster, popularized a theory that influenced many policy makers, including Herbert Hoover, Henry A. Wallace, Paul Douglas, and Marriner Eccles. It held the economy produced more than it consumed, because the consumers did not have enough income. Thus the unequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920s caused the Great Depression.
According to this view, the root cause of the Great Depression was a global over-investment in heavy industry capacity compared to wages and earnings from independent businesses, such as farms. The proposed solution was for the government to pump money into the consumers' pockets. That is, it must redistribute purchasing power, maintaining the industrial base, and re-inflating prices and wages to force as much of the inflationary increase in purchasing power into consumer spending. The economy was overbuilt, and new factories were not needed. Foster and Catchings recommended federal and state governments to start large construction projects, a program followed by Hoover and Roosevelt.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the [productivity, output and employment] trends we are describing are long-time trends and were thoroughly evident prior to 1929. These trends are in nowise the result of the present depression, nor are they the result of the World War. On the contrary, the present depression is a collapse resulting from these long-term trends. 
— M. King Hubbert
The first three decades of the 20th century saw economic output surge with electrification, mass production and motorized farm machinery, and because of the rapid growth in productivity there was a lot of excess production capacity and the work week was being reduced.
The dramatic rise in productivity of major industries in the U.S. and the effects of productivity on output, wages and the work week are discussed by Spurgeon Bell in his book Productivity, Wages, and National Income (1940).
Worsening of global depression
The gold standard was the primary transmission mechanism of the Great Depression. Even countries that did not face bank failures and a monetary contraction first hand were forced to join the deflationary policy since higher interest rates in countries that performed a deflationary policy led to a gold outflow in countries with lower interest rates. Under the gold standard's price–specie flow mechanism, countries that lost gold but nevertheless wanted to maintain the gold standard had to permit their money supply to decrease and the domestic price level to decline (deflation).
There is also consensus that protectionist policies such as the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act helped to worsen the depression.
Some economic studies have indicated that just as the downturn was spread worldwide by the rigidities of the Gold Standard, it was suspending gold convertibility (or devaluing the currency in gold terms) that did the most to make recovery possible.
Every major currency left the gold standard during the Great Depression. Great Britain was the first to do so. Facing speculative attacks on the pound and depleting gold reserves, in September 1931 the Bank of England ceased exchanging pound notes for gold and the pound was floated on foreign exchange markets.
Great Britain, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries left the gold standard in 1931. Other countries, such as Italy and the U.S., remained on the gold standard into 1932 or 1933, while a few countries in the so-called "gold bloc", led by France and including Poland, Belgium and Switzerland, stayed on the standard until 1935–36.
According to later analysis, the earliness with which a country left the gold standard reliably predicted its economic recovery. For example, Great Britain and Scandinavia, which left the gold standard in 1931, recovered much earlier than France and Belgium, which remained on gold much longer. Countries such as China, which had a silver standard, almost avoided the depression entirely. The connection between leaving the gold standard as a strong predictor of that country's severity of its depression and the length of time of its recovery has been shown to be consistent for dozens of countries, including developing countries. This partly explains why the experience and length of the depression differed between national economies.
Breakdown of international trade
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. In a 1995 survey of American economic historians, two-thirds agreed that the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act at least worsened the Great Depression. Most historians and economists partly blame the American Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act (enacted June 17, 1930) for worsening the depression by seriously reducing international trade and causing retaliatory tariffs in other countries. While foreign trade was a small part of overall economic activity in the U.S. 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 1921–25 was 25.9% but under the new tariff it jumped to 50% during 1931–35. In dollar terms, American exports declined over the next four (4) years from about $5.2 billion in 1929 to $1.7 billion in 1933; so, not only did the physical volume of exports fall, but also the prices fell by about 1/3 as written. Hardest hit were farm commodities such as wheat, cotton, tobacco, and lumber.
Governments around the world took various steps into spending less money on foreign goods such as: "imposing tariffs, import quotas, and exchange controls". These restrictions formed a lot of tension between trade nations, causing a major deduction during the depression. Not all countries enforced the same measures of protectionism. Some countries raised tariffs drastically and enforced severe restrictions on foreign exchange transactions, while other countries condensed "trade and exchange restrictions only marginally":
- "Countries that remained on the gold standard, keeping currencies fixed, were more likely to restrict foreign trade." These countries "resorted to protectionist policies to strengthen the balance of payments and limit gold losses." They hoped that these restrictions and depletions would hold the economic decline.
- Countries that abandoned the gold standard, allowed their currencies to depreciate which caused their balance of payments to strengthen. It also freed up monetary policy so that central banks could lower interest rates and act as lenders of last resort. They possessed the best policy instruments to fight the Depression and did not need protectionism.
- "The length and depth of a country’s economic downturn and the timing and vigor of its recovery is related to how long it remained on the gold standard. Countries abandoning the gold standard relatively early experienced relatively mild recessions and early recoveries. In contrast, countries remaining on the gold standard experienced prolonged slumps."
Effect of tariffs
See also: Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act
The consensus view among economists and economic historians is that the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff exacerbated the Great Depression, although there is disagreement as to how much. In the popular view, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was a leading cause of the depression. However, many economists hold the opinion that the tariff act did not greatly worsen the depression.
German banking crisis of 1931 and British crisis
The financial crisis escalated out of control in mid-1931, starting with the collapse of the Credit Anstalt in Vienna in May. This put heavy pressure on Germany, which was already in political turmoil. With the rise in violence of Nazi and communist movements, as well as investor nervousness at harsh government financial policies. Investors withdrew their short-term money from Germany, as confidence spiraled downward. The Reichsbank lost 150 million marks in the first week of June, 540 million in the second, and 150 million in two days, June 19–20. Collapse was at hand. U.S. President Herbert Hoover called for a moratorium on Payment of war reparations. This angered Paris, which depended on a steady flow of German payments, but it slowed the crisis down and the moratorium, was agreed to in July 1931. International conference in London later in July produced no agreements but on August 19 a standstill agreement froze Germany's foreign liabilities for six months. Germany received emergency funding from private banks in New York as well as the Bank of International Settlements and the Bank of England. The funding only slowed the process; it's nothing. Industrial failures began in Germany, a major bank closed in July and a two-day holiday for all German banks was declared. Business failures more frequent in July, and spread to Romania and Hungary. The crisis continued to get worse in Germany, bringing political upheaval that finally led to the coming to power of Hitler's Nazi regime in January 1933.
The world financial crisis now began to overwhelm Britain; investors across the world started withdrawing their gold from London at the rate of £2½ millions a day. Credits of £25 millions each from the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and an issue of £15 millions fiduciary note slowed, but did not reverse the British crisis. The financial crisis now caused a major political crisis in Britain in August 1931. With deficits mounting, the bankers demanded a balanced budget; the divided cabinet of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government agreed; it proposed to raise taxes, cut spending and most controversially, to cut unemployment benefits 20%. The attack on welfare was totally unacceptable to the Labour movement. MacDonald wanted to resign, but King George V insisted he remain and form an all-party coalition "National government." The Conservative and Liberals parties signed on, along with a small cadre of Labour, but the vast majority of Labour leaders denounced MacDonald as a traitor for leading the new government. Britain went off the gold standard, and suffered relatively less than other major countries in the Great Depression. In the 1931 British election the Labour Party was virtually destroyed, leaving MacDonald as Prime Minister for a largely Conservative coalition.
Turning point and recovery
In most countries of the world, recovery from the Great Depression began in 1933. In the U.S., recovery began in early 1933, but the U.S. did not return to 1929 GNP for over a decade and still had an unemployment rate of about 15% in 1940, albeit down from the high of 25% in 1933. The measurement of the unemployment rate in this time period was unsophisticated and complicated by the presence of massive underemployment, in which employers and workers engaged in rationing of jobs.
There is no consensus among economists regarding the motive force for the U.S. economic expansion that continued through most of the Roosevelt years (and the 1937 recession that interrupted it). The common view among most economists is that Roosevelt's New Deal policies either caused or accelerated the recovery, although his policies were never aggressive enough to bring the economy completely out of recession. Some economists have also called attention to the positive effects from expectations of reflation and rising nominal interest rates that Roosevelt's words and actions portended. It was the rollback of those same reflationary policies that led to the interruption of a recession beginning in late 1937. One contributing policy that reversed reflation was the Banking Act of 1935, which effectively raised reserve requirements, causing a monetary contraction that helped to thwart the recovery. GDP returned to its upward trend in 1938.
According to Christina Romer, the money supply growth caused by huge international gold inflows was a crucial source of the recovery of the United States economy, and that the economy showed little sign of self-correction. The gold inflows were partly due to devaluation of the U.S. dollar and partly due to deterioration of the political situation in Europe. In their book, A Monetary History of the United States, Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz also attributed the recovery to monetary factors, and contended that it was much slowed by poor management of money by the Federal Reserve System. Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke agreed that monetary factors played important roles both in the worldwide economic decline and eventual recovery. Bernanke also saw a strong role for institutional factors, particularly the rebuilding and restructuring of the financial system, and pointed out that the Depression should be examined in an international perspective.
Role of women and household economics
Women's primary role were as housewives; without a steady flow of family income, their work became much harder in dealing with food and clothing and medical care. Birthrates fell everywhere, as children were postponed until families could financially support them. The average birthrate for 14 major countries fell 12% from 19.3 births per thousand population in 1930, to 17.0 in 1935. In Canada, half of Roman Catholic women defied Church teachings and used contraception to postpone births.
Among the few women in the labor force, layoffs were less common in the white-collar jobs and they were typically found in light manufacturing work. However, there was a widespread demand to limit families to one paid job, so that wives might lose employment if their husband was employed. Across Britain, there was a tendency for married women to join the labor force, competing for part-time jobs especially.
In rural and small-town areas, women expanded their operation of vegetable gardens to include as much food production as possible. In the United States, agricultural organizations sponsored programs to teach housewives how to optimize their gardens and to raise poultry for meat and eggs. In American cities, African American women quiltmakers enlarged their activities, promoted collaboration, and trained neophytes. Quilts were created for practical use from various inexpensive materials and increased social interaction for women and promoted camaraderie and personal fulfillment.
Oral history provides evidence for how housewives in a modern industrial city handled shortages of money and resources. Often they updated strategies their mothers used when they were growing up in poor families. Cheap foods were used, such as soups, beans and noodles. They purchased the cheapest cuts of meat—sometimes even horse meat—and recycled the Sunday roast into sandwiches and soups. They sewed and patched clothing, traded with their neighbors for outgrown items, and made do with colder homes. New furniture and appliances were postponed until better days. Many women also worked outside the home, or took boarders, did laundry for trade or cash, and did sewing for neighbors in exchange for something they could offer. Extended families used mutual aid—extra food, spare rooms, repair-work, cash loans—to help cousins and in-laws.
In Japan, official government policy was deflationary and the opposite of Keynesian spending. Consequently, the government launched a nationwide campaign to induce households to reduce their consumption, focusing attention on spending by housewives.
In Germany, the government tried to reshape private household consumption under the Four-Year Plan of 1936 to achieve German economic self-sufficiency. The Nazi women's organizations, other propaganda agencies and the authorities all attempted to shape such consumption as economic self-sufficiency was needed to prepare for and to sustain the coming war. The organizations, propaganda agencies and authorities employed slogans that called up traditional values of thrift and healthy living. However, these efforts were only partly successful in changing the behavior of housewives.
World War II and recovery
The common view among economic historians is that the Great Depression ended with the advent of World War II. Many economists believe that government spending on the war caused or at least accelerated recovery from the Great Depression, though some consider that it did not play a very large role in the recovery. It did help in reducing unemployment.
The rearmament policies leading up to World War II helped stimulate the economies of 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 ended unemployment.
When the United States entered into the war in 1941, it finally eliminated the last effects from the Great Depression and brought the U.S. unemployment rate down below 10%. In the U.S., massive war spending doubled economic growth rates, either masking the effects of the Depression or essentially ending 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.
The majority of countries set up relief programs and most underwent some sort of political upheaval, pushing them to the right. Many of the countries in Europe and Latin America that were democracies saw them overthrown by some form of dictatorship or authoritarian rule, most famously in Germany in 1933. The Dominion of Newfoundland gave up democracy voluntarily.
Main article: Great Depression in Australia
Australia's dependence on agricultural and industrial exports meant it was one of the hardest-hit developed countries. Falling export demand and commodity prices placed massive downward pressures on wages. Unemployment reached a record high of 29% in 1932, with incidents of civil unrest becoming common. After 1932, an increase in wool and meat prices led to a gradual recovery.
Main article: Great Depression in Canada
“The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a worldwide phenomenon composed an infinite number of separate but related events.” The Great Depression was a time of poverty and despair caused by many different events. Its hard to say what caused this worldwide depression because it’s all based on opinion as opposed to factual data. There are many contributing factors but not one specific event can be pin pointed for starting the depression. It is believed that some events contribute more than others-such as the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 was in the majorities opinion, a long and overdue crash that was bound to happen. Prices sky-rocketed so high that when they reached what was believed to be it’s all time high, most people sold their gaining stocks for a profit. So many people sold their stocks at a rapid rate that the corporations were unable to pay the shareholders. Speculation arouse months before the crash when Roger Babson made his speech at the annual National Business Conference which he said “….. Sooner or later a crash is coming which will take the leading stocks and cause a decline from 60 to 90 points in the Dow Jones Barometer.” This and many others speeches like this scared people into selling there stocks before the inevitable would happen. This was a leading causes that assisted the Great Depression become one of the bleakest and most studied events in the history of our country: yet not the only cause.
Another large contributing factor was Mother Nature, I say this because in Oklahoma the weather was so dry that the farmers were unable to harvest their crops: these farmers became known as Okies. The land was a barren wasteland of dust and dirt in which it got it’s name the Dust Bowl. In other areas, the extreme opposite took place: farmers overproduced and prices rapidly dropped because the demand decreased. The drastic result of this oversupply made it hard for farmers to make money due to the fact that they had so much that they were forced to sell it at substantial low priced just to remain competitive enough to make even the small profit they were making. The imbalances were however, self correcting in which if manufacturers made too much of something, it’s price would fall, profits would disappear, and the producers would cut back on output. In 1932 the American writer, Stuart Chase described cycles as “the spree and hangover of an undisciplined economy.”
Economists recognized the depression as a cycle in which there were four cycles; expansion; crisis(or panic); recession (or contraction); and recovery. The definitive description was made by Wesley Clair Mitchell of the University of California. A cycle Mitchell explained in Business Cycles(1913) was “the process of cumulative change by renewal of [Economic] activity develops into intense prosperity by which the prosperity engenders a crisis, by which crisis turns into depression and by which depression finally leads to…. a revival of activity.”
Banks played a significant role in the depression because they were in charge of all the money and interest rates. For example when banks had large reserves, they lowered interest rates. Cheaper loans encouraged manufactures to invest in new equipment and hire additional workers. The resulting expansion of production caused an upswing of the cycle. The increased borrowing eventually reduced the bank’s reserves, thus resulting in a drastic increase of interest rates. That discouraged investors and slowed the economy down. Another good explanation was the bad distribution of wealth for the cycles. During these challenging and difficult times the rich opted not to spend there money: they saved in banks, vaults, etc. This resulted in increased investments, more production, and eventually more goods piled up on shelves and warehouses. Prices fell, production was cut back and workers were discharged. As a result, the economy entered the depression phase of the cycle.
The crisis stage of the cycle was brought about by bank failures and by irrational selling of stocks ;thus causing business failures, a slowing in production, a rise in unemployment, and an overall optimistic view about the future.
Another helpful aide in the depression was the chief International creditor who was described as “unexperienced and less careful about it’s lendings because it was less dependent on this business than the chief pre-war tender, Great Britain.” He granted huge short term loans to politically unstable nations.
Lionel Robbins was a professor at the London School of Economics. He offered what was probably “the most influential contemporary explanation of the length of the downturn in the Great Depression(1934). The World War (World War I) had destroyed much property and stimulated nationalistic sentiments that resulted in restrictions on international trade; Robbins wrote” Robbins believed that the depression was dragging on because of structural weaknesses. An example of Robbins philosophy was that the monetary confusion and rampant inflation after the war had hampered.
Many policies that the government put out hurt and slowed the recovering economy. One act known as the American Hawley-Smooth of 1930 crushed the European industry which was already unstable from the depression. It stopped European trade and prevented European from earning the almighty dollar. This Act also destroyed any possibilities of regaining the money loaned to them during World War I.
The collapse of the German Banking system in 1931 had monumental affects on the entire world. It aided to turn, what would have been, a small economic problem into the Great Depression. President Hoover was outraged and blamed the Great Depression on the Europeans by saying, “the hurricane that swept our shores were of European origin.” He also said, “European statesmen did not even have the courage to meet the real issues and heavy spending on arms and frantic public works programs to meet unemployment led to unbalanced budget and inflation that tore their system assunder.”
The Germans also blamed the depression on the harsh terms imposed by the Versailles Treaty, especially the reparation they were forced to pay. They claimed the reparations brought down the economic vitality of their country to an all time low.
Not one single book I have read has blamed any one specific country for the start of this catastrophe. As a matter of fact, each book has said if the countries would have worked in unison rather than focusing solely on themselves we might not have ever heard of the Great Depression. Nobody knows what the result would have been if the countries worked together and resolved the problem before it festered as it did. No one ever envisioned the extensive duration of the depression. My only prayer is that we never see another time like this again.
The United States was and still is a great power in the world’s manufactured goods – twice as much as Great Britain and Germany combined. When American producers cut back on their purchases of raw materials and other supplies, the effect on other countries was devastating. The policies of the Federal Reserve Board in the early 1930’s put added pressure on European currencies. After Great Britain was again forced to leave the gold standard in 1931, many foreign banks withdrew deposits from America in the form of gold: they were afraid that the United States might go off the gold standard too. “When the Reserve Board raised the discount rate to discourage these withdrawals it inadvertently exacerbated the deflationary trend, thus deepening and prolonging the world depression.” The America delfation was probably the cause of much of the deflation that took place elsewhere and thus an important reason why the depression lasted so long.
High unemployment was the most alarming aspect of the Great Depression. “In every industrial nation, more people were out of work than in any period in the past. It has been estimated that in 1933 about thirty million workers were jobless, about two-thirds of these in three countries – the United States, Germany, and Great Britain. If anything, this estimate is low.” In New York City a survey was conducted by the Welfare Council and in New York alone 100,000 families were being treated for physical and mental effects of unemployment. The homeless rate increased dramatically. So much so that many people did not even have a roof over their heads. The majority of homeless people had nothing at all and the minority made shacks on vacant land: these shacks soon became known as “Hoovervilles”.
Women played a new role during this time. When a man lost his job and was having difficulty locating a new one, it was up to the women to work. This made a man “feel less than a man” because the women were supporting the family and at that point in time such an event was frowned upon. Worldwide, in 1929 about one-third of all workers were women. Everyone agreed that ending the depression would solve the unemployment problem or at least bring unemployment down to “manageable” levels. There was also, however, the more immediate problem of what to do about the people who were unemployed and needed assistance merely to survive. Whether efforts to aid the unemployed would help to end the depression or make it worse was a matter of risk-taking. Another way to solve the unemployment problem was to export people to other countries that had available jobs so that people could survive.
I do not think the Great Depression could have been avoided: we simply do not live in a perfect world. There is no way of telling when or if the next depression will occur. I feel if the governments worked together then the depression would not have been such a catastrophe as it ended up being. Did the nations not know that they influenced the course of the depression and in turn, the course of history. Another reason why the depression lasted so long was because politicians were so busy in pointing fingers at each other instead of resolving it.
Who knows how long the depression would have lasted if World War II never came to be. Because of World War II industries began making weapons and these industries hired the workers to meet the high demands. The United States would sell their weapons world wide and make a profit.
This turn in events concludes the era of the Great Depression with the last cycle: recovery.
It is an amazing and complex phenomena, that at seventeen years old I am able to pin-point (in what is my opinion), the leading cause of the duration of the Great Depression: uncooperative leaders unwilling to aid and assist so that harmonious coexistence would have prevailed.
Hopefully, at this point in our history we have learned from our past mistakes and will never see such a dreadful and dire time again!
1). Bernstein, Irving. A Caring Society, The New Deal, The Workers, And The Great Depression. Haugghton Mifflin Company. 1985
2). Garraty, John A. The Great Depression. Harrcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers. 1986
3). Hoover, Herbert. The Memoirs Of Herbert Hoover 1920-1933. The Macmillan Company. 1953
4). Meltzer, Milton. Brother Can You Spare A Dime. Random House Inc. 1969
5). Patterson, Robert T. The Great Boom And Panic. Henry Regenery Company. 1965
6). Rothbard, Murray W. America’s Great Depression. D. Van Nostrand Company Inc. 1963
7). Smith, Gene The Shattered Dream. William Morrow and Company. 1970
8). Watleins, T.H. The Great Depression, America in the 30’s. Little Brown Company. 1993
Filed Under: Great Depression, History