The Economy Has Caused Riots Before – In the Great Depression

Washington’s Blog reminds us that things got ugly during the last prolonged depression in the United States.  This interesting historical footage from the Great Depression shows what happens when large numbers of people are unemployed for years at a time, get desperate, and perceive that the game is rigged to the benefit of Wall Street.

This depression isn’t as deep or severe as the Great Depression – the bank bailouts and the 2009 Obama stimulus spending/tax cut bill (ARRA) made sure of that.  But as this week’s GDP numbers show, we simply aren’t growing enough to fully recover.  For workers, the nightmare is real.  With the #OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) growing stronger, spreading, and continuing now for well over 6 weeks, perhaps the Wall Street banks are having nightmares of their own about such scenarios as what happened in the video.  Could that be why JP Morgan Chase bank is making such large payoffs donations to the New York City Police department?  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism fills us in:

Is JP Morgan Getting a Good Return on $4.6 Million “Gift” to NYC Police? (Like Special Protection from OccupyWallStreet?)

No matter how you look at this development, it does not smell right. From JP Morgan’s website, hat tip Lisa Epstein:

JPMorgan Chase recently donated an unprecedented $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation. The gift was the largest in the history of the foundation and will enable the New York City Police Department to strengthen security in the Big Apple. The money will pay for 1,000 new patrol car laptops, as well as security monitoring software in the NYPD’s main data center.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon a note expressing “profound gratitude” for the company’s donation.

“These officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe,” Dimon said. “We’re incredibly proud to help them build this program and let them know how much we value their hard work.”

But what, pray tell, is this about? The JPM money is going directly from the foundation to the NYPD proper, not to, say, cops injured in the course of duty or police widows and orphans…

And look at the magnitude of the JP Morgan “gift”. The Foundation has been in existence for 40 years. If you assume that the $100 million it has received over that time is likely to mean “not much over $100 million” this contribution could easily be 3-4% of the total the Foundation have ever received.

Now readers can point out that this gift is bupkis relative to the budget of the police department, which is close to $4 billion. But looking at it on a mathematical basis likely misses the incentives at work. Dimon is one of the most powerful and connected corporate leaders in Gotham City. If he thinks the police donation was worthwhile, he might encourage other bank and big company CEOs to make large donations.

And what sort of benefits might JPM get? It is unlikely that there would be anything as crass as an explicit quid pro quo. But it certainly is useful to be confident that the police are on your side, say if an executive or worse an entire desk is caught in a sex or drugs scandal. Recall that Charles Ferguson in Inside Job alleged that the use of hookers is pervasive on Wall Street (duh) and is invoiced to the banks.

Or the police might be extra protective of your interests. Today, [Oct 5] OccupyWallStreet decided to march across the Brooklyn Bridge (a proud New York tradition) to Chase Manhattan Plaza in Brooklyn. Reports in the media indicate that the police at first seemed to be encouraging the protestors not only to cross the bridge, but were walking in front of the crowd, seemingly escorting them across…

The wee problem is that the police are in the street, and part of the crowd is also on the street (others are on a pedestrian walkway that is above street level). That puts them in violation of NYC rules that against interfering with traffic. Note the protest were aware fo the rules; they were careful to stay on the sidewalk on the way to the bridge.

…some (many?) the protestors who used the walkway and got across the bridge were also corralled and not permitted to proceed to the Chase plaza. Greg Basta, deputy director of the New York Communities for Change, told me by phone, based on multiple reports from people who participated in the march, that as soon as protestors got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, they were kettled. Greg was under the impression that there were construction barricades at the foot of the bridge which made it impossible for the marchers not to walk on the street. Because the focus has been on the what happened on the bridge, the coverage of what happened to the rest of crowd is sparse.

Some confirmation in passing comes from MsExPat at Corrente (apparently some of the very first off the bridge were permitted to proceed):

My friends and I made it to the Brooklyn side okay–we ended up with about 350 other marchers in Cadman Plaza, a lovely 19th century park. What I didn’t find out until later is that several hundred people behind me also got kettled and barred from going all the way to Brooklyn. So I was among the lucky marchers in the middle.

But notice even then that the procession to Chase Manhattan Plaza [correction, Cadman Plaza} was effectively barred. [Note JPM may have operations nearby, Bear Stearns had much of its back office there, and if the leases were cheap, JPM may have kept the space].

We simply don’t know whether the police would have behaved one iota differently in the absence of the JP Morgan donation. But it raises the troubling perspective that they might have. …

So far, the JP Morgan donation is an isolated example. But the high odds of continuing deep budget cuts at the state and local level open up the opportunity for corporate funding of preferred services, and with it, much greater private sector influence on the apparatus of government. This is a worrisome enough possibility to warrant a high degree of vigilance by all of us.

Learning From the Past – Or Maybe Not.

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

What to Call This Unpleasantness? Little Depression or Workers’ Depression?

Brad Delong has had enough.  So have I.

“The Little Depression”

Back in late 2008 people asked me: is this a recession or a depression? I said that I would call it a depression if the unemployment rate kissed 12%. I said that I would call it a depression if the unemployment rate stayed above 10% for a year.

Neither of those has come to pass. But the unemployment rate has kissed 10%, and has stayed at or above 9% for two years now.

So I am moving the goalposts. I am adopting a suggestion in comments of Full Employment Hawk . Henceforth, I will call the current unpleasantness not “The Great Recession,” but rather “The Little Depression.”

It’s a good question.  In late 2008 when people were asking me, I said I wasn’t sure.  It would either be “The Great Recession” or “The Lesser Depression”, I said.  Eventually I fell in line with most commentators and referred to it as “Great Recession”.  But with the continuing bad, very bad, news on employment, wages, and growth, I’m with Brad.  We need to call this what it is.  It’s not been a “Great Recession”.  Recessions are events when the central bank says things have gotten out of hand, they raise interest rates, and everybody sobers up.  Then after an appropriate time of perhaps 6-12 months, the growth machine fires up and we start to regain lost territory.  This is different. We aren’t regaining lost ground and people are suffering.

What most folks are calling the “Great Recession” I think we ought to call the “Panic of 2008”.  It was, after all, a good old-fashioned financial panic updated with 21st century technology and corporate forms. It lasted roughly the time period the NBER says was the recession.

What has me going though is the continuing poor conditions for the millions of Americans.  This unpleasantness has gone on too long and been too severe to call it recession.  It’s a depression of some form.  The problem here is how to distinquish it semantically from the Great Depression of 1929-1940, or the Long Depression of 1873-1896.  My personal preference is for Workers’ Depression.  I think it sums it up.  For the banks and rentier classes, it’s good times again.  It’s only for working stiffs that things continue so ugly.  But if people want to use “Little Depression”, I could go along for the sake of clarity.

Income Inequality and Financial Crisis

The Great Recession of 2007-9, like the Great Depression in 1929-33, was triggered by a massive financial crisis: stock market crash, falling asset prices, bank failures, and liquidity crisis. One of the key triggers of instability in banking and the resulting financial crises is what economists call “over-leverage”, meaning too much (private) credit and too much (private) borrowing relative to incomes. When the crisis hits, people start to “de-leverage”, that is pay-off debts and/or write-them-off in bankruptcy.  The process of de-leveraging forces people to use more of their incomes to pay off debt and less on spending. The decline in spending causes a decline in GDP, leading to layoffs, and a downward spiral.

Many of us have been intuitively saying that this over-leveraging (over-borrowing and going into debt) is the result of rising income inequality. Now Michael Kumhoff and Romaine Ranciere have published a study and a formal model to explain how such a process works. They note:

Of the many origins of the global crisis, one that has received comparatively little attention is income inequality. This column provides a theoretical framework for understanding the connection between inequality, leverage and financial crises. It shows how rising inequality in a climate of rising consumption can lead poorer households to increase their leverage, thereby making a crisis more likely.

They further show the similarities between 1929 and 2008.  It’s striking. As income inequality increases, i.e. the rich get richer faster, the rest have to go further into debt to maintain lifestyle or lifestyle progress. Overall debt and leverage rises until a crisis happens and the crash begins.

Figure 1 plots the evolution of the share of total income commanded by the top 5% of households (ranked by income) against household debt to GNP or GDP ratios in the two decades preceding 1929 and 2008. The income share of the top 5% increased from 24% in 1920 to 34% in 1928, and from 22% in 1983 to 34% in 2007. During the same two periods, the ratio of household debt to GNP or to GDP increased dramatically. It almost doubled between 1920 and 1932, and also between 1983 and 2008, when it reached much higher levels than in 1932.

Figure 1. Income Inequality and Household Leverage

 

Excerpt is copyright by Voxeu.org, at Inequality, leverage and crises by Michael Kumhof Romain Rancière

Banks Failures: The 1920’s and The Great Depression

From the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) itself, a great brief history of banking failures in the 1920’s and the Great Depression.  see:  FDIC: Managing the Crisis: The FDIC and RTC Experience.

On average, more than 600 banks failed each year between 1921 and 1929. Those failures led to the end of many state deposit insurance programs. The failed banks were primarily small, rural banks, and people in metropolitan areas were generally unconcerned. Investors and other businessmen thought that the failing institutions were weak and badly managed and that those failures served to strengthen the banking system. A major wave of bank failures during the last few months of 1930 triggered widespread attempts to convert deposits to cash. Confidence in the banking system began to erode, and bank runs became more common. In all, 1,350 banks suspended operations during 1930. Some simply closed their doors due to financial difficulties, while others were placed into receivership.

To begin to understand both the severity of the crisis and the impact it had on everyday Americans, it is necessary to try to come to grips with its magnitude.  In the four years of 1930-1933 alone, nearly 10,000 banks failed or were suspended.  These banks held deposits of over $6.8 billion (equivalent to perhaps $60 billion today’s dollars, but representing a much larger share of depositor’s wealth then).  The depositors in these banks lost nearly 20% of these deposits when the banks failed.  Since there was no FDIC yet, and most state deposit insurance schemes had shut down already, this meant that everyday folks lost their savings, their money.  Imagine that impact.  You’ve worked hard. Saved money to buy a house on one of those shiny new Ford Model A’s or a Chevrolet.  Then one day, your money is just gone.  Disappeared.  It’s a life-changing event for many of those depositors. But then consider that the monies lost by these unfortunate bank customers represented (over the 4 years) approximately 4% of ALL DEPOSITS at ALL BANKS.  Even those fortunate (or lucky) enough to have their money in a sound bank would be scared.  Were they next?  With the Hoover administration and The Federal Reserve seemingly doing nothing to slow the accelerating trend of bank failures, it is no wonder that FDR won a landslide election in 1932 and that a bank holiday and bank reforms were job #1 of his New Deal.

Details in the table after the Continue reading

Keynes Was Really A Conservative, Not a Socialist

Bruce Bartlett sets the history straight.  Contrary to today’s populist political rhetoric from right-wing, so-called conservative politicians, Keynes, and Keynesian economics is anything BUT socialist.  In fact, Keynes sought to save free-market, private-property capitalism from itself.   Follow the link for the complete story.  Here’s an excerpt:

Those on the right have been making this same argument ever since British economist John Maynard Keynes popularized the idea of using budget deficits to stimulate growth in his 1936 book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. For this reason, Keynes, even more so than Karl Marx, is the principal bête noire of free market economists. They believe governments should never do anything to counteract economic downturns. Consequently, they must implicitly believe that all recessions are the result of massive and simultaneous failures by private businesses and workers who must therefore bear all the costs of adjustment. By opposing government intervention, free market economists are saying that it either made no mistakes or should do nothing to fix those it may have made.

What Keynes understood is that governments bear primary responsibility for recessions. In really severe downturns, such as we suffered in the 1930s and are suffering today, government action is essential to turn the economy around; the private sector simply can’t do it on its own. He also understood that democratic societies cannot long tolerate high levels of unemployment. At some point, people will jettison capitalism for some sort of socialism, which would threaten democracy as well.

via Keynes Was Really A Conservative – Forbes.com.

Unboxed – How Crisis Shapes the Corporate Model – NYTimes.com

Interesting article on economic crisis and changing corporate structures.  For example, it describes how The Great Depression led to the creation of multi-divisional large corporations such as GE, GM, and DuPont (the corps already existed, the structure changed).  Interesting to speculate how the current crisis will change corporate business organizations.

via Unboxed – How Crisis Shapes the Corporate Model – NYTimes.com.