It looks like we are going to repeat the past. In this case, it’s 1937. In 1937 the general discussion in U.S. politics had turned to concerns about debt and deficits. The conservative view that opposed both the New Deal and efforts to alleviate the Great Depression began to get the upper hand. Keep in mind that the economy had not fully recovered from the Great Depression and Great Crash of 1929. But the economy had been growing some in 1933-36 due largely to the New Deal and government deficit spending. The spending effort was too weak though and the economy struggled to grow. By 1937 it still hadn’t recovered to pre-crash levels. But politicians began to claim that deficits were bad and that all that was needed was “belt-tightening” by government. The result was disastrous. The economy plunged downward again and only began to resume a growth path once Europe went to war and started placing orders for food, equipment and materiel.
Sound familiar? We had a great crash three years ago. We stopped the downward spiral in 2009 due largely to a federal government stimulus program. But the program was too small relative to the size of the recession. Worse yet, the stimulus was 40% made up of tax cuts which in a financial crisis are no help. Even worse, the federal increase in spending barely offset the decline in state and local government spending. Result: we stopped the crash. We ended the decline. But there hasn’t been enough true stimulus to really recover. Now in 2011 the stimulus spending is being withdrawn and government spending is declining. Government employment is dropping significantly every month, putting a severe drag on aggregate demand.
Even the central bank appears to have lost the history lessons. Reuters ran a story recently called “That 1937 Feeling All Over Again” (bold emphasis mine):
(Reuters) – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, an expert on the Great Depression, once promised that the central bank would never repeat its 1937 mistake of rushing to tighten monetary policy too soon and prolonging an economic slump.
He has been true to his word, keeping interest rates near zero since late 2008 and more than tripling the size of the Fed’s balance sheet to $2.85 trillion. But cutbacks in government spending may end up having a similarly chilling effect on the economy, and there is little Bernanke can do to counter that.
Back in 1937, the U.S. economy had been growing rapidly for three years, thanks in large part to government programs aimed at ending the deep recession that began in 1929.
Then the central bank clamped down hard on lending, and federal government spending dropped 10 percent. The economy contracted again in 1938. The jobless rate soared.
“Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again,” Bernanke said back in 2002 at a conference honoring legendary economist Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday.
Bernanke convenes the Fed’s next policy-setting meeting on Tuesday, facing growing concern that the United States may be slipping into another recession while Europe staggers toward a deeper debt crisis. Standard & Poor’s decision on Friday to lower the U.S. credit rating adds yet another element of uncertainty.
His options are limited.
Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said the Fed could promise to keep interest rates near zero or its balance sheet swollen for even longer than investors anticipate. Or it could buy even more U.S. government debt.
“It is hard to see any of these options as ‘game changers,’” Gault said. “The Fed would be doing them not because it could be sure they would make a huge difference, but because it would feel the need to do something.”
Gault put the odds of another recession at 40 percent.
“Having said that, there are still plenty of headwinds, like Europe. I am also very encouraged to see the upward revisions to the previous months. This report pulls us back from the ledge a little bit.”
HITTING A POTHOLE
Full employment is one of the Fed’s prescribed goals, and it is clearly falling short. Government spending cuts are making matters worse. Friday’s employment report showed a net loss of 37,000 government jobs last month.
State and local governments with balanced budget rules had little choice but to cut jobs in order to make ends meet. The federal government has no such restriction, but its spending outside of defense fell at a 7.3 percent annual rate in the second quarter, crimping economic growth.
Michael Feroli, an economist with JPMorgan in New York, said he had held out some hope that Congress would approve some form of additional fiscal support in the coming months, but the debt ceiling fight showed lawmakers dead set against that.
“It now looks likely that growth could hit a pothole early next year,” Feroli said.
And as we all witnessed with the debt-ceiling debate fiasco, both parties in Washington D.C are battling to see who can be seen as the budget cutter. It’s 1937 all over. Let’s