Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal. Read the entire article here, as I’ve merely excerpted the conclusion:
In an important paper in 1983, Ben Bernanke argued that during the Depression, severe damage to the financial system impeded its ability to perform its economic role of lending to households for durable goods consumption and to firms for production and trade. We are seeing this process playing out now as loan funds for automobile purchases have withered. Auto sales fell 41% between February 2008 and February 2009. Retail and labor markets too are now part of the collateral damage from the housing debacle. Housing peaked in early 2006. Losses from the mortgage market began to infect the financial system in 2006; asset prices in that sector began to decline at the end of 2006. Meanwhile, equities and the broader economy were performing well, but as the financial sector deteriorated, its problems blindsided the rest of the economy.
The events of the past 10 years have an eerie similarity to the period leading up to the Great Depression. Total mortgage debt outstanding increased from $9.35 billion in 1920 to $29.44 billion in 1929. In 1920, residential mortgage debt was 10.2% of household wealth; by 1929, it was 27.2% of household wealth.
The Great Depression has been attributed to excessive speculation on Wall Street, especially between the spring of 1927 and the fall of 1929. Had the difficulties of the banking system been caused by losses on brokers’ loans for margin purchases in 1929, the results should have been felt in the banks immediately after the stock market crash. But the banking system did not show serious strains until the fall of 1930.
Bank earnings reached a record $729 million in 1929. Yet bank exposures to real estate were substantial; as the decline in real estate prices accelerated, foreclosures wiped out banks by the thousands. Had the mounting difficulties of the banks and the final collapse of the banking system in the “Bank Holiday” in March 1933 been caused by contraction of the money supply, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz argued, then the massive injections of liquidity over the past 18 months should have averted the collapse of the financial market during this current crisis.
The causes of the Great Depression need more study, but the claims that losses on stock-market speculation and a monetary contraction caused the decline of the banking system both seem inadequate. It appears that both the Great Depression and the current crisis had their origins in excessive consumer debt — especially mortgage debt — that was transmitted into the financial sector during a sharp downturn.
What we’ve offered in our discussion of this crisis is the back story to Mr. Bernanke’s analysis of the Depression. Why does one crash cause minimal damage to the financial system, so that the economy can pick itself up quickly, while another crash leaves a devastated financial sector in the wreckage? The hypothesis we propose is that a financial crisis that originates in consumer debt, especially consumer debt concentrated at the low end of the wealth and income distribution, can be transmitted quickly and forcefully into the financial system. It appears that we’re witnessing the second great consumer debt crash, the end of a massive consumption binge.
H/T Fresh Bilge
There was far too much easy credit for too long a time. My daughter was approved for credit cards when she was in high school and working a part-time job! Momma was NOT happy about that, but she made her payments. Unfortunately, many people (like high school age daughter) did NOT understand that making the minimum payment each month meant that they were going to owe on those cards for 30 years or more on things that were not assets but consumables.
Then there are the people that were buying houses and vehicles that they could not afford. Unfortunately, I know far too many good, well-meaning people who have new cars, new appliances, and new house who have to juggle bills every month to make the payments when both are employed. There is no cushion of savings for illness, accident, or periods of unemployment. The sudden increase in energy prices devastated their budgets for food, transportation, and electricity all increased suddenly and they didn’t have the budget to cover it. They are one paycheck away from financial disaster, and I fear for them.