article-single

A Second Great Depression Is Still Possible

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, Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chairman, 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” programme.

End the Fed Ron Paul Best Price: $1.12 Buy New $8.53 (as of 10:10 UTC - Details)

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.

Meltdown: A Free-Marke... Thomas E. Woods Best Price: $0.25 Buy New $20.00 (as of 02:20 UTC - Details)

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 that “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 symbolises 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, in a motion akin to a double dip. Rapid deleveraging, as is happening now, is the equivalent of hitting the brakes hard. The only positive is it reduces debt, which is like removing weight from the trunk. That helps stabilise activity at a new lower level, but it does not speed up the car, as economists claim.

Read the rest of the article

October 13, 2009