A Second Great Depression?
From the on line issue of the Financial Times, Sunday.
A Second Great Depression Is Still Possible
Copyright Thomas I. Palley
Over the past year the global economy has experienced a massive contraction, the deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But this spring, economists started talking of â€œgreen shootsâ€ of recovery and that optimistic assessment quickly spread to Wall Street. More recently, on the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers crash, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke officially blessed this consensus by declaring the recession is â€œvery likely overâ€.
The future is fundamentally uncertain, which always makes prediction a rash enterprise. That said there is a good chance the new consensus is wrong. Instead, there are solid grounds for believing the US economy will experience a second dip followed by extended stagnation that will qualify as the second Great Depression. Some indications to this effect are already rolling in with unexpectedly large US job losses in September and the crash in US automobile sales following the end of the â€œCash-for-Clunkersâ€ program.
That rosy scenario thinking has returned to Wall Street should be no surprise. Wall Street profits from rising asset prices on which it charges a management fee, from deal making on which it earns advisory fees, and from encouraging retail investors to buy stock which boosts transaction fees. Such earnings are far larger when stock markets are rising, which explains Wall Streetâ€™s genetic propensity to pump the economy.
As for mainstream economists, their theoretical models were blind-sided by the crisis and only predict recovery because of the assumptions in the models. According to mainstream theory, it is assumed that full employment is a gravity point to which the economy is pulled back.
Empirical econometric models are equally questionable. They too predict gradual recovery but that is driven by patterns of reversion to trends found in past data. The problem, as investment professionals say, is â€œpast performance is no guide to future performanceâ€. The economic crisis represents the implosion of the economic paradigm that has ruled US and global growth for the past thirty years. That paradigm was based on consumption fuelled by indebtedness and asset price inflation, and it is done.
There is a simple logic to why the economy will experience a second dip. That logic rests on the economics of deleveraging which inevitably produces a two step correction. The first step has been worked through, and it triggered a financial crisis that caused the worst recession since the Great Depression. The second step has only just begun.
Deleveraging can be understood through a metaphor in which a car symbolizes the economy. Borrowing is like stepping on the gas and accelerates economic activity. When borrowing stops, the foot comes off the pedal and the car slows down. However, the carâ€™s trunk is now weighed down by accumulated debt so economic activity slows below its initial level.
With deleveraging, households increase saving and re-pay debt. This is the second step and it is like stepping on the brake, which causes the economy to slow further akin to a double dip. Rapid deleveraging, as happening now, is equivalent to hitting the brakes hard. The only positive is it reduces debt, which is like removing weight from the trunk. That helps stabilize activity at a new lower level, but it does not speed up the car as economists claim.
Unfortunately, the car metaphor only partially captures current conditions as it assumes the braking process is smooth. Yet, there has already been a financial crisis and the real economy is now infected by a multiplier process causing lower spending, massive job loss, and business failures. That plus deleveraging creates the possibility of a downward spiral which would constitute a depression.
Such a spiral is captured by the metaphor of the Titanic, which was thought to be unsinkable owing to its sequentially structured bulkheads. However, those bulkheads had no ceilings, and when the Titanic hit an iceberg that gashed its side, the front bulkheads filled with water and pulled down the bow. Water then rippled into the aft bulkheads, causing the ship to sink.
The US economy has hit a debt iceberg. The resulting gash threatens to flood the economyâ€™s stabilizing mechanisms, which the economist Hyman Minsky termed â€œthwarting institutionsâ€.
Unemployment insurance is not up to the scale of the problem and is expiring for many workers. That promises to further reduce spending and aggravate the foreclosure problem.
States are bound by balanced budget requirements and they are cutting spending and jobs. Consequently, the public sector is joining the private sector in contraction.
The destruction of household wealth means many households have near-zero or even negative net worth. That increases pressure to save and blocks access to borrowing that might jump-start a recovery. Moreover, both the household and business sector face extensive bankruptcies that amplify the downward multiplier shock and also limit future economic activity by destroying credit histories and access to credit.
Lastly, the US continues to bleed through the triple hemorrhage of the trade deficit that drains spending via imports, off-shoring of jobs, and off-shoring of new investment. This hemorrhage was evident in the cash for clunkers program in which eight of the top ten vehicles sold were foreign brands. Consequently, even enormous fiscal stimulus will be of diminished effect.
The financial crisis created an adverse feedback loop in financial markets. Unparalleled deleveraging and the multiplier process have created an adverse feedback loop in the real economy. That is a loop which is far harder to reverse, which is why a second Great Depression remains a real possibility.