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Great Depression Of 1929

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The Great Depression was a worldwide economic downturn which started in October of 1929 and lasted through most of the 1930s. It began in the United States and quickly spread to Europe and every part of the world, with devastating effects in both industrialized countries and producers of raw materials. International trade declined sharply, as did personal incomes, tax revenues, prices and profits. Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those based on heavy industry. Unemployment and homelessness soared. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming and rural areas suffered as prices for crops fell by 40-60%. Mining and logging areas had perhaps the most striking blow because the demand fell sharply and there were few employment alternatives. The Great Depression ended at different times in different countries. Most countries set up relief programs, and most underwent some sort of political upheaval, pushing them to the left or right. Democracy was weakened and on the defensive, as dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini made major gains, which helped set the stage for World War II in 1939.

Causes of the Great Depression

Business cycles are a normal part of living in a world of inexact balances between supply and demand. What turns a usually mild and short recession or "ordinary" business cycle into a great depression is a subject of debate and concern. Scholars have not agreed on the exact causes and their relative importance. The search for causes is closely connected to the question of how to avoid a future depression, so the political and policy viewpoints of scholars are mixed into the analysis of historic events eight decades ago. The even larger question is whether it was largely a failure on the part of free markets, or largely a failure on the part of governments to prevent widespread bank failures and the resulting panics and reduction in the money supply. Those who believe in a large role for governments in the economy believe it was mostly a failure of the free markets and those who believe in free markets believe it was mostly a failure of government that exacerbated the problem. Current theories may be broadly classified into two or more main points of view. First, there is orthodox classical economics: monetarist, Keynesian, Austrian Economics and neoclassical economic theory, all which focus on the macroeconomic effects of money supply and the supply of gold which backed many currencies before the Great Depression, including production and consumption. Second, there are structural theories, including those of institutional economics, that point to underconsumption and overinvestment (economic bubble), malfeasance by bankers and industrialists or incompetence by government officials. Another theory revolves around the surplus of products and the fact that many Americans were not purchasing but saving. The only consensus viewpoint is that there was a large scale lack of confidence. Unfortunately, once panic and deflation set in, many people believed they could make more money by keeping clear of the markets as prices got lower and lower and a given amount of money bought ever more goods.

There are multiple reasons on what set off the first downturn in 1929, what were the structural weaknesses and specific events that turned it into a major depression, and how did the downturn spread from country to country. In terms of the 1929 small downturn, historians emphasize structural factors like massive bank failures and the stock market crash, while economists (such as Peter Temin and Barry Eichengreen) point to Britain's decision to return to the Gold Standard at pre-World War I parities ($4.86 Pound). Macroeconomists, including the current chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank System Ben Bernanke, have revived the debt-deflation view of the Great Depression originated by Arthur Cecil Pigou and Irving Fisher. In the 1920s, in the U.S. the widespread use of purchases of businesses and factories on credit and the use of home mortgages and credit purchases of automobiles, furniture and even some stocks boosted spending but created consumer and commercial debt. People and businesses who were deeply in debt when a price deflation occurred or demand for their product decreased were often in serious trouble--even if they kept their jobs, they risked default. Many drastically cut current spending to keep up time payments thus, lowering demand for new products. Businesses began to fail as construction work and factory orders plunged. Massive layoffs occurred, resulting in unemployment rates of over 25%. Banks which had financed a lot of this debt began to fail as debtors began defaulting on debt and bank depositors became worried about their deposits and began massive withdrawals. Government guarantees and Federal Reserve banking regulations to prevent these types of panics were ineffective or not used. Bank failures led to destruction of literally billions of dollars in assets. Up to 40% of the available money supply normally used for purchases and bank payments was destroyed by all these bank failures.

Furthermore, the debt became heavier, because prices and incomes fell 20-50%, but the debts remained at the same dollar amount. After the panic of 1929, and during the first 10 months of 1930, 744 banks failed. In all, 9,000 banks failed during the decade of the 30s. By 1933, depositors saw $140 billion of their deposits disappear due to uninsured bank failures. Unfortunately, bank failures snowballed as desperate bankers tried calling in loans which the borrowers did not have time or money to repay. With future profits looking poor, capital investment, construction etc. slowed or completely ceased. In the face of bad loans and worsening future prospects, the surviving banks became even more conservative in their lending. They built up their capital reserves, which intensified the deflationary pressures. The vicious cycle developed and the downward spiral accelerated. This kind of self-aggravating process may have turned a 1930 recession into a 1933 depression.

Trade decline and the U.S. Smoot-Hawley tariff act

Many economists have argued that the sharp decline in international trade after 1930 helped to worsen the depression, especially for countries significantly dependent on foreign trade. Most historians and economists assign the American Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 part of the blame for worsening the depression by seriously reducing international trade and causing retaliatory regulations in other countries. Foreign trade was a small part of overall economic activity in the United States and was concentrated in a few business like farming; it was a much larger factor in many other countries. The average ad valorem rate of duties on dutiable imports for 1921-1925 was 25.9% but under the new tariff



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