Read an ExcerptThe Great Contraction, 1929-1933 (New Edition)
By Milton Friedman Anna Jacobson Schwartz Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
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Chapter One THE GREAT CONTRACTION 1929-33
The contraction from 1929 to 1933 was by far the most severe business-cycle contraction during the near-century of U.S. history we cover and it may well have been the most severe in the whole of U.S. history. Though sharper and more prolonged in the United States than in most other countries, it was worldwide in scope and ranks as the most severe and widely diffused international contraction of modern times. U.S. net national product in current prices fell by more than one-half from 1929 to 1933; net national product in constant prices, by more than one-third; implicit prices, by more than one-quarter; and monthly wholesale prices, by more than one-third.
The antecedents of the contraction have no parallel in the more than fifty years covered by our monthly data. As noted in the preceding chapter, no other contraction before or since has been preceded by such a long period over which the money stock failed to rise. Monetary behavior during the contraction itself is even more striking. From the cyclical peak in August 1929 to the cyclical trough in March 1933, the stock of money fell by over a third. This is more than triple the largest preceding declines recorded in our series, the 9 per cent declines from 1875 to 1879 and from 1920 to 1921. More than one-fifth of the commercial banks in the United States holding nearly one-tenth of the volume of deposits at the beginning of the contraction suspended operations because of financial difficulties. Voluntary liquidations, mergers, and consolidations added to the toll, so that the number of commercial banks fell by well over one-third. The contraction was capped by banking holidays in many states in early 1933 and by a nationwide banking holiday that extended from Monday, March 6, until Monday, March 13, and closed not only all commercial banks but also the Federal Reserve Banks. There was no precedent in U.S. history of a concerted closing of all banks for so extended a period over the entire country.
To find anything in our history remotely comparable to the monetary collapse from 1929 to 1933, one must go back nearly a century to the contraction of 1839 to 1843. That contraction, too, occurred during a period of worldwide crisis, which intensified the domestic monetary uncertainty already unleashed by the political battle over the Second Bank of the United States, the failure to renew its charter, and the speculative activities of the successor bank under state charter. After the lapsing of the Bank's federal charter, domestic monetary uncertainty was further heightened by the successive measures adopted by the government-distribution of the surplus, the Specie Circular, and establishment of an Independent Treasury in 1840 and its dissolution the next year. In 1839-43, as in 1929-33, a substantial fraction of the banks went out of business-about a quarter in the earlier and over a third in the later contraction-and the stock of money fell by about one-third.
The 1929-33 contraction had far-reaching effects in many directions, not least on monetary institutions and academic and popular thinking about the role of monetary factors in the economy. A number of special monetary institutions were established in the course of the contraction, notably the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Federal Home Loan Banks, and the powers of the Federal Reserve System were substantially modified. The contraction was shortly followed by the enactment of federal insurance of bank deposits and by further important modifications in the powers of the Federal Reserve System. It was followed also by a brief period of suspension of gold payments and then by a drastic modification of the gold standard which reduced it to a pale shadow of its former self (see Chapter 8).
The contraction shattered the long-held belief, which had been strengthened during the 1920's, that monetary forces were important elements in the cyclical process and that monetary policy was a potent instrument for promoting economic stability. Opinion shifted almost to the opposite extreme, that "money does not matter"; that it is a passive factor which chiefly reflects the effects of other forces; and that monetary policy is of extremely limited value in promoting stability. The evidence summarized in the rest of this chapter suggests that these judgments are not valid inferences from experience. The monetary collapse was not the inescapable consequence of other forces, but rather a largely independent factor which exerted a powerful influence on the course of events. The failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent the collapse reflected not the impotence of monetary policy but rather the particular policies followed by the monetary authorities and, in smaller degree, the particular monetary arrangements in existence.
The contraction is in fact a tragic testimonial to the importance of monetary forces. True, as events unfolded, the decline in the stock of money and the near-collapse of the banking system can be regarded as a consequence of nonmonetary forces in the United States, and monetary and nonmonetary forces in the rest of the world. Everything depends on how much is taken as given. For it is true also, as we shall see, that different and feasible actions by the monetary authorities could have prevented the decline in the stock of money-indeed, could have produced almost any desired increase in the money stock. The same actions would also have eased the banking difficulties appreciably. Prevention or moderation of the decline in the stock of money, let alone the substitution of monetary expansion, would have reduced the contraction's severity and almost as certainly its duration. The contraction might still have been relatively severe. But it is hardly conceivable that money income could have declined by over one-half and prices by over one-third in the course of four years if there had been no decline in the stock of money.
1. The Course of Money, Income, Prices, Velocity, and Interest Rates
Figure 1, which covers the two decades from 1914 to 1933, shows the magnitude of the contraction in the perspective of a longer period. Money income declined by 15 per cent from 1929 to 1930, 20 per cent the next year, and 27 per cent in the next, and then by a further 5 per cent from 1932 to 1933, even though the cyclical trough is dated in March 1933. The rapid decline in prices made the declines in real income considerably smaller but, even so, real income fell by 11 per cent, 9 per cent, 18 per cent, and 3 per cent in the four successive years. These are extraordinary declines for individual years, let alone for four years in succession. All told, money income fell 53 per cent and real income 36 per cent, or at continuous annual rates of 19 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively, over the four-year period.
Already by 1931, money income was lower than it had been in any year since 1917 and, by 1933, real income was a trifle below the level it had reached in 1916, though in the interim population had grown by 23 per cent. Per capita real income in 1933 was almost the same as in the depression year of 1908, a quarter of a century earlier. Four years of contraction had temporarily erased the gains of two decades, not, of course, by erasing the advances of technology, but by idling men and machines. At the trough of the depression one person was unemployed for every three employed.
In terms of annual averages-to render the figures comparable with the annual income estimates-the money stock fell at a decidedly lower rate than money income-by 2 per cent, 7 per cent, 17 per cent, and 12 per cent in the four years from 1929 to 1933, a total of 33 per cent, or at a continuous annual rate of 10 per cent. As a result, velocity fell by nearly one-third. As we have seen, this is the usual qualitative relation: velocity tends to rise during the expansion phase of a cycle and to fall during the contraction phase. In general, the magnitude of the movement in velocity varies directly with the magnitude of the corresponding movement in income and in money. For example, the sharp decline in velocity from 1929 to 1933 was roughly matched in the opposite direction by the sharp rise during World War I, which accompanied the rapid rise in the stock of money and in money income; and, in the same direction, by the sharp fall thereafter accompanying the decline in money income and in the stock of money after 1920. On the other hand, in mild cycles, the movement of velocity is also mild. In 1929-33, the decline in velocity, though decidedly larger than in most mild cycles, was not as much larger as might have been expected from the severity of the decline in income. The reason was that the accompanying bank failures greatly reduced the attractiveness of deposits as a form of holding wealth and so induced the public to hold less money relative to income than it otherwise would have held (see section 3, below). Even so, had a decline in the stock of money been avoided, velocity also would probably have declined less and thus would have reinforced money in moderating the decline in income.
For a closer look at the course of events during these traumatic years, we shift from annual to monthly figures. Figure 2 reproduces on an expanded time scale for 1929 through March 1933 the stock of money, as plotted on Figure 1, and adds series on deposits and currency. Figure 3 reproduces the series on industrial production and wholesale prices, and adds a series on personal income. Figure 4 plots a number of interest rates-of special importance because of the crucial role played during the contraction by changes in financial markets-and also Standard and Poor's index of common stock prices and the discount rates of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
It is clear that the course of the contraction was far from uniform. The vertical lines mark off segments into which we have divided the period for further discussion. Although the dividing lines chosen designate monetary events-the focus of our special interest-Figures 3 and 4 demonstrate that the resulting chronology serves about equally well to demarcate distinctive behavior of the other economic magnitudes.
The Stock Market Crash, October 1929
The first date marked is October 1929, the month in which the bull market crashed. Though stock prices had reached their peak on September 7, when Standard and Poor's composite price index of 90 common stocks stood at 254, the decline in the following four weeks was orderly and produced no panic. In fact, after falling to 228 on October 4, the index rose to 245 on October 10. The decline thereafter degenerated into a panic on October 23. The next day, blocks of securities were dumped on the market and nearly 13 million shares were traded. On October 29, when the index fell to 162, nearly 16 1/2 million shares were traded, compared to the daily average during September of little more than 4 million shares. The stock market crash is reflected in the sharp wiggle in the money series, entirely a result of a corresponding wiggle in demand deposits, which, in turn, reflects primarily an increase in loans to brokers and dealers in securities by New York City banks in response to a drastic reduction of those loans by others. The adjustment was orderly, thanks largely to prompt and effective action by the New York Federal Reserve Bank in providing additional reserves to the New York banks through open market purchases (see section 2, below). In particular, the crash left no mark on currency held by the public. Its direct financial effect was confined to the stock market and did not arouse any distrust of banks by their depositors.
The stock market crash coincided with a stepping up of the rate of economic decline. During the two months from the cyclical peak in August 1929 to the crash, production, wholesale prices, and personal income fell at annual rates of 20 per cent, 7 1/2 per cent, and 5 per cent, respectively. In the next twelve months, all three series fell at appreciably higher rates: 27 per cent, 13 1/2 per cent, and 17 per cent, respectively. All told, by October 1930, production had fallen 26 per cent, prices, 14 per cent, and personal income, 16 per cent. The trend of the money stock changed from horizontal to mildly downward. Interest rates, generally rising until October 1929, began to fall. Even if the contraction had come to an end in late 1930 or early 1931, as it might have done in the absence of the monetary collapse that was to ensue, it would have ranked as one of the more severe contractions on record.
Partly, no doubt, the stock market crash was a symptom of the underlying forces making for a severe contraction in economic activity. But partly also, its occurrence must have helped to deepen the contraction. It changed the atmosphere within which businessmen and others were making their plans, and spread uncertainty where dazzling hopes of a new era had prevailed. It is commonly believed that it reduced the willingness of both consumers and business enterprises to spend; or, more precisely, that it decreased the amount they desired to spend on goods and services at any given levels of interest rates, prices, and income, which has, as its counterpart, that it increased the amount they wanted to add to their money balances. Such effects on desired flows were presumably accompanied by a corresponding effect on desired balance sheets, namely, a shift away from stocks and toward bonds, away from securities of all kinds and toward money holdings.
The sharp decline in velocity-by 13 per cent from 1929 to 1930-and the turnaround in interest rates are consistent with this interpretation though by no means conclusive, since both declines represent fairly typical cyclical reactions. We have seen that velocity usually declines during contraction, and the more so, the sharper the contraction. For example, velocity declined by 10 per cent from 1907 to 1908, by 13 per cent from 1913 to 1914, and by 15 per cent from 1920 to 1921-though it should be noted that the banking panic in 1907, the outbreak of war in 1914, and the commodity price collapse in 1920 may well have had the same kind of effect on the demand for money as the stock market crash in 1929 had. In contraction years that were both milder and unmarked by such events-1910-11, 1923-24, and 1926-27-velocity declined by only 4 to 5 per cent. It seems likely that at least part of the much sharper declines in velocity in the other years was a consequence of the special events listed, rather than simply a reflection of unusually sharp declines in money income produced by other forces. If so, the stock market crash made the decline in income sharper than it otherwise would have been. Certainly, the coincidence in timing of the stock market crash and of the change in the severity of the contraction supports that view.
Whatever its magnitude, the downward pressure on income produced by the effects of the stock market crash on expectations and willingness to spend-effects that can all be summarized in an independent decline in velocity- was strongly reinforced by the behavior of the stock of money. Compared to the collapse in the next two years, the decline in the stock of money up to October 1930 seems mild. Viewed in a longer perspective, it was sizable indeed. From the cyclical peak in August 1929-to avoid the sharp wiggle in the stock of money produced by the immediate effects of the stock market crash-the money stock declined 2.6 per cent to October 1930, a larger decline than during the whole of all but four preceding reference cycle contractions-1873-79, 1893-94, 1907-08, and 1920-21-and all the exceptions are contractions that were extraordinarily severe by other indications as well. The decline was also larger than in all succeeding reference cycle contractions, though only slightly larger than in 1937-38, the only later contraction comparable in severity to the earlier ones listed.
Excerpted from The Great Contraction, 1929-1933 by Milton Friedman Anna Jacobson Schwartz
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