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 “green shoots” 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 “very likely over”.

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 “Cash-for-Clunkers” 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 Street’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 “past performance is no guide to future performance”. 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 car’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 economy’s stabilizing mechanisms, which the economist Hyman Minsky termed “thwarting institutions”.

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.

6 comments

  • Andrew this was a great blog post. Thank you for making it easy to understand for a person who is not an economist (although I did take about 4 underground eco courses).

  • My guess is that the second dip and following stagnation won’t be as severe as the Great Depression, but may well resemble the “Great Malaise” Greenspan put forward as the modern alternative to a depression: unemployment in the teens, and significant idle capacity, for years to come.

  • The US and to a lesser extent Canada is heading into some difficult social terrain.

    On the one hand we have pundits predicting a slow and painful recovery in terms of job growth and stagnant incomes for the majority.

    On the oethrhand we have the executive pay and bonuses debate creeping front and center. Somehow, amidst all this pain and suffering, we have the finanical community pushing for a restoration of the good old days of millions of dollars in bonuses. This after billions of dollars in bail outs.

    THis sets the stage for one of the grandest public gatehring contradictions in modern economic history. The free marketeers defending there faith, after just unleashing financial armegeddon on the masses.

    Wow, if that don’t ignite a raging class war south of the border and maybe north of the border, then I am not sure what would. We are treading into some quite dangerous water, and the greed of the financial class keeps them blind to the process. If the government does not step in soon and reign in these pay bonuses, we could see the foundations crack even more.

    We need to have policy and regulation action now. We still have a whole pile of toxic assets that have not been dealt with and, the first out of the gate to be fixed is the corporate pay. Gee could it get anymore pathetic than that. how much is enough, i guess is the question- and from many different dimensions.

    pt

  • Great article and perhaps it will turn out to be more or less correct. But we should no forget that North America is populate by large numbers of people whose entire life is based around consumption. They want nothing more than a return to the boom times and may well do anything and everything to make that happen – including sacrificing family and personal relationships to work longer hours, engaging in more “enterprising” activities and in their “spare” time, etc…this is our culture now.

    I suspect their is a great fear out there that nothing real exists beyond “Me” and my credit card…

  • Good point John, and I hope like Marcusian like fashion, you are wrong. The wild cards for this time period in modernity is the shackles have been partly taken off of communication, and the degradation of the environment in this move into a risk society are a whole lot more visible than they used to be. Ulrich Beck I am hoping would agree with me! The transparency is still there but much more is now visible and a little more decentralization in communication could help amplify it.

    but lets be clear- a restless consumer- can pack a punch – and ultimately maybe we will finally see the restlessness grow to proportions that cannot be contained no matter how many cultural yokes are afixed eventually when the load becomes too heavy the bit starts to hurt.

    How much I guess is the question.

    Paul

  • we will suffer because of the laziness of people helping others and their selfishness also followed by me me me now now now and the lack of fear in our lord and no one takes responsability starting in their own homes then also at their work place. people dont realize what they have till it is gone nor is this generation willing to fight for it. its a attitude and a choice which leads to where north america is and here we are broke and digging the hole deeper. after the flood noahs family was all that was left. after 911 peolpe went to church more for a short time and they once again turned to there busy lifes and away from the lord. after the crash in march and now the market is regaining life and value i say look out satan would love you to chase the god of the stock market trusting this empty recovery and then whatch it crash even harder destorying peoples lives.then maybe north america will look up and trust in the almighty not satan and his world. please pray and take resposibility for your actions,work hard and pray even harder for our government.

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