“Distorted Mirrors”

In a just released book – Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, The Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of HistoryBarry Eichengreen argues that:

There have been two global financial crises in the past century: the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession that began in 2008. Both featured loose credit, precarious real estate and stock market bubbles, suspicious banking practices, an inflexible monetary system, and global imbalances; both had devastating economic consequences. In both cases, people in the prosperous decade preceding the crash believed they were living in a post-volatility economy, one that had tamed the cycle of boom and bust. When the global financial system began to totter in 2008, policymakers were able to draw on the lessons of the Great Depression in order to prevent a repeat, but their response was still inadequate to prevent massive economic turmoil on a global scale.

In Hall of Mirrors, renowned economist Barry Eichengreen provides the first book-length analysis of the two crises and their aftermaths. Weaving together the narratives of the 30s and recent years, he shows how fear of another Depression greatly informed the policy response after the Lehman Brothers collapse, with both positive and negative results. On the positive side, institutions took the opposite paths that they had during the Depression; government increased spending and cut taxes, and central banks reduced interest rates, flooded the market with liquidity, and coordinated international cooperation. This in large part prevented the bank failures, 25% unemployment rate, and other disasters that characterized the Great Depression. But they all too often hewed too closely and too literally to the lessons of the Depression, seeing it as a mirror rather than focusing on the core differences. Moreover, in their haste to differentiate themselves from their forbears, today’s policymakers neglected the constructive but ultimately futile steps that the Federal Reserve took in the 1930s. While the rapidly constructed policies of late 2008 did succeed in staving off catastrophe in the years after, policymakers, institutions, and society as a whole were too eager to get back to normal, even when that meant stunting the recovery via harsh austerity policies and eschewing necessary long-term reforms. The result was a grindingly slow recovery in the US and a devastating recession in Europe.

The steps taken by the Federal Reserve (read FDR) in March 1933 (de-linking from gold) were certainly not futile. NIRA (also FDR) seems to have been counterproductive. And the tightening of monetary policy (increase in required reserves by the Fed and gold inflow sterilization by the Treasury) in 1937-38 caused grave damage!

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