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Lessons from the Great Depression: Christina D. Romer

by Christiana D. Romer Saturday, Apr. 04, 2009 at 8:31 PM
mbatko@lycos.com

This paper was presented at the Brookings Institution Washington D.C. March 9, 2009. Christina Romer, economics professor at Berkeley, is one of President Obama's economic advisers in the Council of Economic Advisers.

Lessons from the Great Depression

for Economic Recovery in 2009

Christina D. Romer

Council of Economic Advisers

To be presented at the Brookings Institution,

Washington, D.C., March 9, 2009

In the last few months, I have found myself uttering the words “worst since the

Great Depression” far too often: the worst twelve month job loss since the Great

Depression; the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; the worst rise in home

foreclosures since the Great Depression. In my previous life, as an economic historian

at Berkeley, one of the things I studied was the Great Depression. I thought it would be

useful to reflect on that episode and what lessons it holds for policymakers today. In

particular, what can we learn from the 1930s that will help us to end the worst recession

since the Great Depression?

To start, let me point out that though the current recession is unquestionably

severe, it pales in comparison with what our parents and grandparents experienced in

the 1930s. Last Friday’s employment report showed that unemployment in the United

States has reached 8.1%—a terrible number that signifies a devastating tragedy for

millions of American families. But, at its worst, unemployment in the 1930s reached

nearly 25%.

And, that quarter of American workers had painfully few of the social

safety nets that today help families maintain at least the essentials of life during

unemployment. Likewise, following last month’s revision of the GDP statistics, we know

that real GDP has declined almost 2% from its peak. But, between the peak in 1929 and

the trough of the great Depression in 1933, real GDP fell over 25%.

I don’t give these comparisons to minimize the pain the United States economy is

experiencing today, but to provide some crucial perspective. Perhaps it is the historian

and the daughter in me that finds it important to pay tribute to just what truly horrific

conditions the previous generation of Americans endured and eventually triumphed

over. And, it is the new policymaker in me that wants to be very clear that we are doing

all that we can to make sure that the word “great” never applies to the current downturn.

While what we are experiencing is less severe than the Great Depression, there

are parallels that make it a useful point of comparison and a source for learning about

policy responses today. Most obviously, like the Great Depression, today’s downturn

had its fundamental cause in the decline in asset prices and the failure or near-failure of

financial institutions. In 1929, the collapse and extreme volatility of stock prices led

consumers and firms to simply stop spending.

In the recent episode, the collapse of

housing prices and stock prices has reduced wealth and shaken confidence, and led to

sharp rises in the saving rate as consumers have hunkered down in the face of greatly

reduced and much more uncertain wealth.

In the 1930s, the collapse of production and wealth led to bankruptcies and the

disappearance of nearly half of American financial institutions.

This, in turn, had two

devastating consequences: a collapse of the money supply, as stressed by Milton

Friedman and Anna Schwartz, and a collapse in lending, as stressed by Ben Bernanke.

In the current episode, modern innovations such as derivatives led to a direct

relationship between asset prices and severe stress in financial institutions. Over the

fall, we saw credit dry up and learned just how crucial lending is to the effective

functioning of American businesses and households.

Another parallel is the worldwide nature of the decline. A key feature of the

Great Depression was that virtually every industrial country experienced a severe

contraction in production and a terrible rise in unemployment.

This past year, there

was hope that the current downturn might be mainly an American experience, and so

world demand could remain high and perhaps help pull us through. However, during

the past few months, we have realized that this hope was a false one. As statistics have

poured in, we have learned that Europe, Asia, and many other areas are facing declines

as large, if not larger, than our own. Indeed, rather than world demand helping to hold

us up, the fall in U.S. demand has had a devastating impact on export economies such as

Taiwan, China, and South Korea.

This similarity of causes between the Depression and today’s recession means

that President Obama begins his presidency and his drive for recovery with many of the

same challenges that Franklin Roosevelt faced in 1933. Our consumers and businesses

are in no mood to spend or invest; our financial institutions are severely strained and

hesitant to lend; short-term interest rates are effectively zero, leaving little room for

conventional monetary policy; and world demand provides little hope for lifting the

economy. Yet, the United States did recover from the Great Depression. What lessons

can modern policymakers learn from that episode that could help them make the

recovery faster and stronger today?

One crucial lesson from the 1930s is that a small fiscal expansion has

only small effects. I wrote a paper in 1992 that said that fiscal policy was not the key

engine of recovery in the Depression.

From this, some have concluded that I do not

believe fiscal policy can work today or could have worked in the 1930s. Nothing could

be farther than the truth. My argument paralleled E. Cary Brown’s famous conclusion

that in the Great Depression, fiscal policy failed to generate recovery “not because it

does not work, but because it was not tried.”

The key fact is that while Roosevelt's fiscal actions were a bold break from the

past, they were nevertheless small relative to the size of the problem. When Roosevelt

took office in 1933, real GDP was more than 30% below its normal trend level. (For

comparison, the U.S. economy is currently estimated to be between 5 and 10% below

trend.)

The emergency spending that Roosevelt did was precedent-breaking—balanced

budgets had certainly been the norm up to that point. But, it was quite small. The

deficit rose by about one and a half percent of GDP in 1934.

One reason the rise

wasn't larger was that a large tax increase had been passed at the end of the Hoover

administration. Another key fact is that fiscal expansion was not sustained. The deficit

declined in fiscal 1935 by roughly the same amount that it had risen in 1934. Roosevelt

also experienced the same inherently procyclical behavior of state and local fiscal

actions that President Obama is facing. Because of balanced budget requirements, state

and local governments are forced to cut spending and raise tax rates when economic

activity declines and state tax revenues fall. At the same time that Roosevelt was

running unprecedented federal deficits, state and local governments were switching to

running surpluses to get their fiscal houses in order.

The result was that the total fiscal

expansion in the 1930s was very small indeed. As a result, it could only have a modest

direct impact on the state of the economy.

This is a lesson the Administration has taken to heart. The American Recovery

and Reinvestment Act, passed less than thirty days after the Inauguration, is simply the

biggest and boldest countercyclical fiscal action in history. The nearly 0 billion

fiscal stimulus is roughly equally divided between tax cuts, direct government

investment spending, and aid to the states and people directly hurt by the recession.

The fiscal stimulus is close to 3% of GDP in each of the next two years. And, as I

mentioned, a good chunk of this stimulus takes the form of fiscal relief to state

governments, so that they do not have to balance their budgets only by such measures as

raising taxes and cutting the employment of nurses, teachers, and first responders. We

expect this fiscal expansion to be extremely important to countering the terrible job loss

that last Friday's numbers show now totals 4.4 million since the recession began

fourteen months ago.

While the direct effects of fiscal stimulus were small in the Great Depression, I

think it is important to acknowledge that there may have been an indirect effect.

Roosevelt's very act of doing something must have come as a great relief to a country

that had been suffering depression for more than three years. To have a President step

up to the challenge and say the country would attack the Depression with the same

fervor and strength it would an invading army surely lessened uncertainty and calmed

fears. Also, signature programs such as the WPA that directly hired millions of workers

no doubt contributed to a sense of progress and control. In this way, Roosevelt’s actions

may have been more beneficial than the usual estimates of fiscal policy suggest. If the

actions President Obama is taking in the current downturn can generate the same kind

of confidence effects, they may also be more effective than estimates based on

conventional multipliers would lead one to believe.

A second key lesson from the 1930s is that monetary expansion can

help to heal an economy even when interest rates are near zero. In the same

paper where I said fiscal policy was not key in the recovery from the Great Depression, I

argued that monetary expansion was very useful. But, the monetary expansion took a

surprising form: it was essentially a policy of quantitative easing conducted by the U.S.

Treasury.

The United States was on a gold standard throughout the Depression. Part of the

explanation for why the Federal Reserve did so little to counter the financial panics and

economic decline was that it was fighting to defend the gold standard and maintain the

prevailing fixed exchange rate.

In April 1933, Roosevelt temporarily suspended the

convertibility to gold and let the dollar depreciate substantially. When we went back on

gold at the new higher price, large quantities of gold flowed into the U.S. Treasury from

abroad. These gold inflows serendipitously continued throughout the mid-1930s, as

political tensions mounted in Europe and investors sought the safety of U.S. assets.

Under a gold standard, the Treasury could increase the money supply without

going through the Federal Reserve. It was allowed to issue gold certificates, which were

interchangeable with Federal Reserve notes, on the basis of the gold it held. When gold

flowed in, the Treasury issued more notes. The result was that the money supply,

defined narrowly as currency and reserves, grew by nearly 17% per year between 1933

and 1936.

This monetary expansion couldn’t lower nominal interest rates because they were

already near zero. What it could do was break expectations of deflation. Prices had

fallen 25% between 1929 and 1933.

People throughout the economy expected this

deflation to continue. As a result, the real cost of borrowing and investing was

exceedingly high. Consumers and businesses wanted to sit on any cash they had

because they expected its real purchasing power to increase as prices fell. Devaluation

followed by rapid monetary expansion broke this deflationary spiral. Expectations of

rapid deflation were replaced by expectations of price stability or even some inflation.

This change in expectations brought real interest rates down dramatically.

The change in the real cost of borrowing and investing appears to have had a

beneficial impact on consumer and firm behavior. The first thing that turned around

was interest-sensitive spending. For example, car sales surged in the summer of 1933.

One sign that lower real interest rates were crucial is that real fixed investment and

consumer spending on durables both rose dramatically between 1933 and 1934, while

consumer spending on services barely budged.

In thinking about the lessons from the Great Depression for today, I want to

tread very carefully. A key rule of my current job is that I do not comment on Federal

Reserve policy. So, let me be very clear – I am not advocating going on a gold standard

just so we can go off it again, or that Tim Geithner should start conducting rogue

monetary policy. But the experience of the 1930s does suggest that monetary policy can

continue to have an important role to play even when interest rates are low by affecting

expectations, and in particular, by preventing expectations of deflation.

This discussion of fiscal and monetary policy in the 1930s leads me to

a third lesson from the Great Depression: beware of cutting back on

stimulus too soon.

As I have just described, monetary policy was very expansionary in the mid-

1930s. Fiscal policy, though less expansionary, was also helpful. Indeed, in 1936 it was

inadvertently stimulatory. Largely because of political pressures, Congress overrode

Roosevelt’s veto and gave World War I veterans a large bonus. This caused another one-

time rise in the deficit of more than 1½% of GDP.

And, the economy responded. Growth was very rapid in the mid-1930s. Real

GDP increased 11% in 1934, 9% in 1935, and 13% in 1936. Because the economy was

beginning at such a low level, even these growth rates were not enough to bring it all the

way back to normal. Industrial production finally surpassed its July 1929 peak in

ecember 1936, but was still well below the level predicted by the pre-Depression

trend.

Unemployment had fallen by close to 10 percentage points—but was still over

15%. The economy was on the road to recovery, but still precarious and not yet at a

point where private demand was ready to carry the full load of generating growth.

In this fragile environment, fiscal policy turned sharply contractionary. The one-

time veterans’ bonus ended, and Social Security taxes were collected for the first time in

1937. As a result, the deficit was reduced by roughly 2½% of GDP.

Monetary policy also turned inadvertently contractionary. The Federal Reserve

was becoming increasingly concerned about inflation in 1936. It was also concerned

that, because banks were holding such large quantities of excess reserves, open-market

operations would merely cause banks to substitute government bonds for excess

reserves and would have no impact on lending. In an effort to put themselves in a

position where they could tighten if they needed to, the Federal Reserve doubled reserve

requirements in three steps in 1936 and 1937. Unfortunately, banks, shaken by the bank

runs of just a few years before, scrambled to build reserves above the new higher

required levels. As a result, interest rates rose and lending plummeted.

The results of the fiscal and monetary double whammy in the precarious

environment were disastrous. GDP rose by only 5% in 1937 and then fell by 3% in 1938,

and unemployment rose dramatically, reaching 19% in 1938. Policymakers soon

reversed course and the strong recovery resumed, but taking the wrong turn in 1937

effectively added two years to the Depression.

The 1937 episode is an important cautionary tale for modern policymakers. At

some point, recovery will take on a life of its own, as rising output generates rising

investment and inventory demand through accelerator effects, and confidence and

optimism replace caution and pessimism. But, we will need to monitor the economy

closely to be sure that the private sector is back in the saddle before government takes

away its crucial lifeline.

The fourth lesson we can draw from the recovery of the 1930s is that

financial recovery and real recovery go together. When Roosevelt took office,

his immediate actions were largely focused on stabilizing a collapsing financial system.

He declared a national Bank Holiday two days after his inauguration, effectively

shutting every bank in the country for a week while the books were checked. This 1930s

version of a “stress test” led to the permanent closure of more than 10% of the nation’s

banks, but improved confidence in the ones that remained.

As I discussed before,

Roosevelt temporarily suspended the gold standard, before going back on gold at a

lower value for the dollar, paving the way for increases in the money supply. In June

1933, Congress passed legislation establishing deposit insurance through the FDIC and

helping homeowners through the Home Owners Loan Corporation.

The actual

rehabilitation of financial institutions, obviously took much longer. Indeed, much of the

hard work of recapitalizing banks and dealing with distressed homeowners and farmers

was spread out over 1934 and 1935.

Nevertheless, the immediate actions to stabilize the financial system had

dramatic short-run effects on financial markets. Real stock prices rose over 40% from

March to May 1933, commodity prices soared, and interest-rate spreads shrank.

And,

the actions surely contributed to the economy’s rapid growth after 1933, as wealth rose,

confidence improved, and bank failures and home foreclosures declined.

But, it was only after the real recovery was well established that the financial

recovery took firm hold. Real stock prices in March 1935 were more than 10% lower

than in May 1933; bank lending continued falling until mid-1935; and real house prices

rose only 7% from 1933 to 1935.

The strengthening real economy improved the health

of the financial system. Bank profits moved from large and negative in 1933 to large and

positive in 1935, and remained high through the end of the Depression, with the result

that bank suspensions were minimal after 1933. Real stock prices rose robustly.

Business failures and home foreclosures fell sharply and almost without interruption

after 1932.

And, this virtuous cycle continued as the financial recovery led to further

narrowing of interest-rate spreads and increased willingness of banks to lend.

This lesson is another one that has been prominent in the minds of policymakers

today. The Administration has from the beginning sought to create a comprehensive

recovery program. The Financial Stabilization Plan, which involves evaluating the

capital needs of financial institutions, as well as crucial programs to directly increase

lending, is central to putting the financial system back to work for American industry

and households. Together with the Administration’s housing plan, these financial

rescue measures should provide the lending and stability needed for economic growth.

The fiscal stimulus package was designed to create jobs quickly. In doing so, it should

lower defaults and improve balance sheets so that our financial system can continue to

strengthen.



The fifth lesson from the Great Depression is that worldwide

expansionary policy shares the burdens and the benefits of recovery.

Research by Barry Eichengreen and Jeffrey Sachs shows that going off the gold standard

and increasing the domestic money supply was a key factor in generating recovery and

growth across a wide range of countries in the 1930s.

Importantly, these actions

worked to lower world interest rates and benefit other countries, rather than to just shift

expansion from one country to another.

The implications for today are obvious. The more that countries throughout the

world can move toward monetary and fiscal expansion, the better off we all will be. In

this regard, the aggressive fiscal action in China and the reduction in interest rates in

Europe and the U.K. announced last week were welcome news. They are paving the way

for a worldwide end to this worldwide recession.

The final lesson that I want to draw from the 1930s is perhaps the

most crucial. A key feature of the Great Depression is that it did eventually

end. Despite the devastating loss of wealth, chaos in our financial markets, and a loss

of confidence so great that it nearly destroyed Americans’ fundamental faith in

capitalism, the economy came back. Indeed, the growth between 1933 and 1937 was the

highest we have ever experienced outside of wartime. Had the U.S. not had the terrible

policy-induced setback in 1937, we, like most other countries in the world, would

probably have been fully recovered before the outbreak of World War II.

This fact should give Americans hope. We are starting from a position far

stronger than our parents and grandparents were in in 1933. And, the policy response

has been fast, bold, and well-conceived. If we continue to heed the lessons of the Great

Depression, there is every reason to believe that we will weather this trial and come

through to the other side even stronger than before.

NOTES

1

Unemployment data for the 1930s are from Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial

Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975), Part 1, p. 135, series D86.

2

Real GDP data are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis,

http://www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb/SelectTable.asp?Selected=Y, Table 1.1.3.

3

Christina D. Romer, “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression,” Quarterly

Journal of Economics 105(August 1990): 597-624.

4

Data on the number of banks is from Banking and Monetary Statistics (Washington, D.C.:

Board of Governors of the Federal reserve System, 1943), Table 1.

5

Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States:

1867-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press for NBER, 1963), and Ben S. Bernanke,

“Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression,”

American Economic Review 73 (June 1983): 257-276.

6

Christina D. Romer, “The Nation in Depression,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7 (Spring

1993): 19-39.

7

Christina D. Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?” Journal of Economic History 52

(December 1992): 757-784.

8

E. Cary Brown, “Fiscal Policy in the ‘Thirties: A Reappraisal,” American Economic Review 46

(December): 857-879.

9

The 2009 figure is an extrapolation to the current quarter based on estimates of potential

output by the Congressional Budget Office,

http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9957/Background_Table2-2_090107.xls. For 1933, the

estimate is based on the facts that the economy does not appear to have been substantially above

trend in 1929 and that real GDP fell 25% from 1929 to 1933. Normal growth would have added

at least 10% to GDP over this period.

10

The deficit figures are from Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970,

Part 2, p. 1194, series Y337. Nominal GDP data are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis,

http://www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb/SelectTable.asp?Selected=Y, Table 1.1.5.

I average

calendar year figures to estimate fiscal year values.

11

The data on state and local fiscal stance are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis,

http://www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb/SelectTable.asp?Selected=Y, Table 3.3.

12

Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?”

13

For a comprehensive history of the role of the gold standard in the Great Depression, see

Barry Eichengreen, Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939

(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

14

Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, Table A-1, column 1 and

Table A-2, column 3. The growth rate refers to the period December 1933 to December 1936.

15

The GDP price index data are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis,

http://www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb/SelectTable.asp?Selected=Y, Table 1.1.4.

16

Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?”

17

Peter Temin and Barrie A. Wigmore, “The End of One Big Deflation,” Explorations in

Economic History 27 (October 1990): 483-502.

18

Data on the components of spending are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis,

http://www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb/SelectTable.asp?Selected=Y, Table 1.1.3.

19

Industrial production data are from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve,

http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/g17/iphist/iphist_sa.txt.

20

The data on interest rates are from Banking and Monetary Statistics, Table 120; the data on

lending are from the same source, Table 2.

21

Of course, every episode is different, and the Federal Reserve will come to its own

independent management of monetary policy.

22

See Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, pp. 328, 421-428, for

more information on the 1933 Bank Holiday.

23

For a good description of the various financial stabilization measures Roosevelt took, see

Lester V. Chandler, America’s Greatest Depression, 1929-1941 (New York: Harper & Row,

1970), Chapter 9.

24

Stock price data are from Robert Shiller, http://www.econ.yale.edu/shiller/data.htm. Temin

and Wigmore, “The End of One Big Deflation,” describe the behavior of commodity prices and

interest-rate spreads in 1933.

25

The data on bank lending are from Banking and Monetary Statistics (Washington, D.C.:

Board of Governors of the Federal reserve System, 1943), Table 2; the data on house prices are

from Robert Shiller, http://www.econ.yale.edu/shiller/data.htm.

26

The data on bank suspensions and profits are from Banking and Monetary Statistics (Section

7 and Table 56, Column 5, respectively). The data on business failures are from Historical

Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part 2, p. 912, series V27. The data on

home foreclosures are from Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970,

Part 2, p. 651, series N301.

27

Data on U.S. and corporate bond yields are available in Banking and Monetary Statistics,

Table 128.

28

Barry Eichengreen and Jeffrey Sachs, “Exchange Rates and Economic Recovery in the 1930s,”

Journal of Economic History 45 (December 1985): 925-946

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