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Mon

03

Dec

2007

Boo Hoo — Deja Vu
Monday, 03 December 2007 23:45
by Stephen P. Pizzo

Every time I post an article warning that the US economy is about to go bust I get emails from right-wingers telling me I'm an idiot, un-American, a closet-commie, and worse. They point out that everything is fine, never been better and, "just look at the stock market," it's up.

I take such criticism seriously — even personally. So I hit the history books to see what people of that ilk were saying and doing just before the US stock market cratered in October 1929. (Hint: They were doing and saying exactly the same thing.)

That's when I came across a remarkably well-written detailed history of pre-depression American by historian (and former Harper Magazine Editor,) Fredrick Lewis Allen. It was long and you can – and should – read the whole thing yourself. It's free and it's online. (Here)

When I read it I kept having to check the dates he quoted be sure he was talking about the two-termed Calvin Coolidge administration and not the two-term George W. Bush administration.

I lifted some of the most startling similarities from Allen's tome and linked them to their 2007 corollaries. Sorry for the length of this, but it was unavoidable — a LOT shorter than the whole book. (more on the flip)

(Portions by Fredrick Lewis Allen in quote boxes)
Auto-craze drives economy during 1920s

"In 1919 there had been 6, 771,000 passenger cars in service in the United States; by 1929 there were no less than 23 million There you have possibly the most potent statistic of Coolidge Prosperity.... As early as the end of 1923 there were two cars for every three families in "Middletown," a typical American City...Investigators interviewed 123 working-class families of "Middletown" and found that 60 of them had cars. Of these 60, 26 lived in such shabby-looking houses that the investigators thought to ask whether they had bathtubs, and discovered that as many as 21 of the 26 had none. The automobile came even before the tub!
Today:

There are about 300 million Americans, and if you suppose that everyone over 18 drives, that is 285 million people. Subtract 10% for the blind and disabled and elderly, and just for error correction. There are actually more cars than there are people to drive them, so... There are more than 276 million cars in the US.

and

Study: Auto Loans For American-Made Cars More Likely To Default

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA (August 7, 2007) – New research co-authored by a professor at Penn State's Smeal College of Business could change the way banks assign interest rates to auto loans based on the make of the car being financed. (Full)
Radio technology pushes market in 1920s.

"The radio manufacturer occupied a less important seat than the automobile manufacturer on the prosperity bandwagon, but he had the distinction of being the youngest rider. You will remember that there was no such thing as radio broadcasting to the public until the autumn of 1920, but that by the spring of 1922 radio had become a craze-as much talked about as Mah Jong was to be the following year or cross-word puzzles the year after. In 1922 the sales of radio sets, parts, and accessories amounted to $60,000,000. In 1922 radio sales amounted to just $60 million. By early 1929 it had exploded 1400 percent to nearly $850 million.)
Today: Back then it was the nacient tele-communications and automobile industry booms that drove the market up. Over the last decade it was a housing boom.
Large Retailers squeeze out community shops.

“While the independent storekeeper struggled to hold his own, the amount of retail business done in chain stores and department stores jumped by leaps and bounds. For every $100 worth of business done in 1919, by 1927 the five-and-ten-cent chains were doing $260 worth, the cigar chains $153 worth, the drug chains $224 worth, and the grocery chains $387 worth. Mrs. Smith no longer patronized her "neighborhood" store; she climbed into her two-thousand-dollar car to drive to the red-fronted chain grocery and save twenty-seven cents on her daily purchases.”
Today: WalMart, Target and other Big Box stores have been doing the same thing to small merchants.

Utah activists parade against big chain stores

11/18/2007Activists dress up to boost support for locally owned businesses, saying they invest in the community "The Four Horsemen of the Shopocalypse" - greed, waste, vanity...

Dressed up as a giant green elf, University of Utah student Robbie Rich pushed his shopping cart through the streets of downtown Salt Lake City. (Full)
The entertainment industry prospered in the 1920s

“The movies prospered, sending their celluloid reels all over the world and making Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow familiar figures to the Eskimo, the Malay, and the heathen Chinese; while at home the attendance at the motion-picture houses of "Middletown" during a single month (December, 1923) amounted to four and a half times the entire population of the city. Men, women, and children, rich and poor, the Middletowners went to the movies at an average rate of better than once a week!”
Today:

JPMorgan To Invest $200 Mln In Entertainment Sector

12/3/2007 — JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) confirmed its plans of investing in entertainment sector. The New York-based investment bank said it would invest $200 million of its own capital in the entertainment industry. (Full)

Corporate profits soared in 1920s
"Was this Coolidge Prosperity real? Farmers did not think so. Perhaps the textile manufacturers did not think so. But soaring corporation profits and wages and incomes left little room for doubt. “
Today:

Profits surge to 40-year high - When will corporations spend some of their hoard?

March 30, 2006 — WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — U.S. corporate profits have increased 21.3% in the past year and now account for the largest share of national income in 40 years, the Commerce Department said Thursday.
Easy Credit in 1920 fuels the market

“Prosperity was assisted...by two new stimulants to purchasing, each of which mortgaged the future but kept the factories roaring while it was being injected....The first was the increase in the installment buying. People were getting to consider it old-fashioned to limit their purchases to the amount of their cash balance; the thing to do was to "exercise their credit." By the latter part of the decade, economists figured that 15 per cent of all retail sales were on an installment basis, and that there were some six billions of "easy payment" paper outstanding.
Today:

According to CNNMoney, consumer spending accounts for some 70 percent of the US gross domestic product. “So the world economy is leveraged to the US consumer. And the US consumer is leveraged to the hilt,” states the web site.

and

Next Fear: Corporate Debt

Wall Street Journal - Nov. 7, 2007 — Financial markets have been hit by a wave of defaults on mortgage loans. Now it might be time to start worrying about a more-remote threat: shaky corporate debt. (Full)
Wall Street players prospered in the 1920s

“The other stimulant was stock-market speculation. When stocks were skyrocketing in 1928 and 1929 it is probable that hundreds of thousands of people were buying goods with money which represented, essentially, a gamble on the business profits of the nineteen-thirties. It was fun while it lasted.”

“In every American city and town, service clubs gathered the flower of the middle-class citizenry together for weekly luncheons noisy with good fellowship. They were growing fast, these service clubs. Rotary, the most famous of them, had been founded in 1905; by 1930 it had 150,000 members and boasted of — as a sign of its international influence — as many as 3,000 clubs in 44 countries....these clubs (did not) content themselves with singing songs and conducting social-service campaigns; they expressed the national faith in what one of their founders called "the redemptive and regenerative influence of business." The speakers before them pictured the businessman as a builder, a doer of great things, yes, and a dreamer whose imagination was ever seeking out new ways of serving humanity. ..The service clubs specialized in this sort of mysticism: a speaker of before the Rotarians of Waterloo, Iowa, quoted by the American Mercury declaring that "Rotary is a manifestation of the divine"?
Today:

It's a Wall Street bonus bonanza

NEW YORK — 2006: — Executives at Wall Street's top financial firms will probably remember this holiday season with particular fondness, as soaring profits cascade down to traders and bankers in the form of multimillion-dollar bonuses...Big Business Lauded in the 1920s, and today. — All told, this year's bonus pool for Wall Street executives hit $23.9 billion, the New York State Comptroller's office estimates. That's a 17% jump from last year's bonus pool of $20.5 billion, and it works out to an average bonus of $137,580 for every person employed in the financial services industry. (Full)
Business as a manifestation of Godliness

“Indeed, the association of business with religion was one of the most significant phenomena of the day. When the National Association of Credit Men held their annual convention at New York, there were provided for the three thousand delegates a special devotional service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and five sessions of prayer conducted by Protestant clergymen, a Roman Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi; and the credit men were uplifted by a sermon by Dr. S. Parkes Cadman on "Religion in Business."
Today:

(From Small Business Admin. Web site:)

Mission
SBA’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives seeks to empower faith-based and other community organizations to apply for federal social service grants. It supplies information and training, but does not make the actual funding decisions. Those decisions are made through procedures established by each grant program, generally involving a competitive process. There are no grant funding set-asides for faith-based organizations. Instead, the Faith-Based and Community Initiative creates a level playing field for faith-based as well as other community organizations to work with the government to meet the needs of America’s communities.
Mainstream Media in 1920's
“Newspaper owners and editors found that whenever a Dayton trial or a Vestris disaster took place, they sold more papers if they gave it all they had-their star reporters, their front-page display, and the bulk of their space. They took full advantage of this discovery: according to Mr. Bent's compilations, the insignificant Gray-Snyder murder trial got a bigger "play" in the press than the sinking of the Titanic; Lindbergh's flight, than the Armistice and the overthrow of the German Empire. Syndicate managers and writers, advertisers, press agents, radio broadcasters, all were aware that mention of the leading event of the day, whatever it might be, was the key to public interest. The result was that when something happened which promised to appeal to the popular mind, one had it hurled at one in huge headlines, waded through page after page of syndicated discussion of it, heard about it on the radio, was reminded of it again and again in the outpourings of publicity-seeking orators and preachers, saw pictures of it in the Sunday papers and in the movies, and (unless one was a perverse individualist) enjoyed the sensation of vibrating to the same chord which thrilled a vast populace.
"The country had bread, but it wanted circuses-and now it could go to them a hundred million strong....For the system of easy nation-wide communication which had long since made the literate and prosperous American people a nation of faddists was rapidly becoming more widely extended, more centralized, and more effective than ever before.
Today:

Police car chases preempt regular programming. Britney, Paris... et al, Like, duh.

And that brings us to where they were then and where we are today.
Market uncertainy grows

“One Day in February, 1928, an investor asked an astute banker about the wisdom of buying common stocks. The banker shook his head. "Stocks look dangerously high to me," he said. "This bull market has been going on for a long time, and although prices have slipped a bit recently, they might easily slip a good deal more. Business is none too good. Of course if you buy the right stock you'll probably be all right in the long run and you may even make a profit. But if I were you I'd wait awhile and see what happens."

The Federal Reserve steps in

“The speculative fever had been intensified by the action of the Federal Reserve System in lowering the discount rate from 4 per cent to 3'/2 per cent in August, 1927, and purchasing Government securities in the open market. This action had been taken from the most laudable motives: several of the European nations were having difficulty in stabilizing their currencies, European exchanges were weak, and it seemed to the Reserve authorities that the easing of American money rates might prevent the further accumulation of gold in the United States and thus aid in the recovery of Europe and benefit foreign trade.”
Today:

Is the dollar leading us into a depression?

A fallen greenback could mean economic turmoil, or it could trigger an economic crisis. Economists are having trouble predicting the outcome because investors are not behaving rationally (Taipei Times)

U.S. Fed Reserve Could Slash 25 Points More In Discount Rate Before Dec 11 Meeting:
The Feds has already cut the funds rate two times in the last three months, brining the short-term interest rates to 4.50 percent...This time, the Feds are likely to reduce its discount rate by 25 basis points down to 4.75 percent. (Full)
Denial from above
"American business was beginning to lose headway; the lowering of money rates might stimulate it. But the lowering of money rates also stimulated the stock market. The bull party in Wall Street had been still further encouraged by the remarkable solicitude of President Coolidge and Secretary Mellon, who whenever confidence showed signs of waning came out with opportunely reassuring statements which at once sent prices upward again. In January 1928, the President had actually taken the altogether unprecedented step of publicly stating that he did not consider (stock) brokers' loans too high, thus apparently giving White House sponsorship to the very inflation which was worrying the sober minds of the financial community.
Today:

U.S. Treasury's Paulson says economy healthy

Nov 16, 2007 — (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said on Friday Washington was following a strong dollar policy and indicated he expected it to rebound, emphasizing the U.S. economy's long-term strength should help the currency. (Full)
Sucker rallies of 1929

While stock prices had been climbing, business activity had been undeniably subsiding. The tone of the business analysts and forecasters-a fraternity whose numbers had hugely increased in recent years and whose lightest words carried weight-was anything but exuberant. The National City Bank looked for gradual improvement in business and the Standard Statistics Company suggested that a turn for the better had already arrived; but the latter agency also sagely predicted that the course of stocks during the coming months would depend "almost entirely upon the money situation." The financial editor of the New York Times described the picture of current conditions presented by the mercantile agencies as one of "hesitation." The newspaper advertisements of investment services testified to the uncomfortable temper of Wall Street with headlines like "Will You `Overstay' This Bull Market?" and "Is the Process of Deflation Under Way?" The air was fogged with uncertainty.
Today:

Bernanke and the Last Legs of the Stock Market Sucker's Rally

Nouriel Roubini | Nov 29, 2007: How sharply will the US stock market fall if the US experiences a recession? Given the recent flow of very negative macro news, the likelihood of a US hard landing has sharply increased; thus, it is important to assess the implication of such growth slowdown, hard landing or outright recession on the stock market...It is true that in the last two days the US stock market has recovered sharply after a significant 10% downward correction in the period from early October until Monday. But the most sensible interpretation of the upward move on Tuesday and Wednesday this week (in spite of an onslaught of lousy macro news: consumer confidence, existing home sales, Beige Book, fall in durable goods orders, regional Fed manufacturing reports, initial claims for unemployment benefits, expectations that Q4 growth will be closer to 0% after the revised 4.9% in Q3, sharply rising credit losses, falling home prices and a worsening housing recession, etc.) is that this is the last leg of a sucker's rally (or dead cat's bounce) driven by wishful hopes that the Fed easing will prevent a recession. (Full)
Whistling past the graveyard in Fall of 1929

"Anybody who had chosen this moment to predict that the bull market was on the verge of a wild advance which would make all that had gone before seem trifling would have been quite mad-or else inspired with a genius for mass psychology. The banker who advised caution was quite right about financial conditions, and so were the forecasters. But they had not taken account of the boundless commercial romanticism of the American people, inflamed by year after plentiful year of Coolidge Prosperity. For on March 3, 1928-the very day when the Harvard prophets were talking about intermediate declines and the Times was talking about hesitation — the stock market entered upon its sensational phase.

(In the weeks that followed the stock market actually rose.) What on earth was happening? Wasn't business bad, and credit inflated, and the stock-price level dangerously high? Was the market going crazy? Suppose all these madmen who insisted on buying stocks at advancing prices tried to sell at the same moment! Canny investors, reading of the wild advance in Radio, felt much as did the forecasters of Moody's Investors Service a few days later: the practical question, they said, was "how long the opportunity to sell at the top will remain."
Today:

Pump it and dump it
Insider/Government market-fixers

“What was actually happening was that a group of powerful speculators with fortunes made in the automobile business and in the grain markets and in the earlier days of the bull market in stocks-men like W. C. Durant and Arthur Cutten and the Fisher Brothers and John J. Raskobwere buying in unparalleled volume.... The big bull operators knew, too, that thousands of speculators had been selling stocks short in the expectation of a collapse in the market, would continue to sell short, and could be forced to repurchase if prices were driven relentlessly up. And finally, they knew their American public. It could not resist the appeal of a surging market. It had an altogether normal desire to get rich quick, and it was ready to believe anything about the golden future of American business. If stocks started upward the public would buy, no matter what the forecasters said, no matter how obscure was the business prospect. They were right. The public bought.
Today:

Stock Market Manipulation!

"When God throws ... The dice are loaded!" Greek Proverb

I have been around the markets for more time that I do care to remember and I have seen some really "incredible games" played by market makers, brokers, traders and many other individuals and or various groups!
On June 12th 1928 a new decline began. The ticker slipped almost two hours behind in recording prices on the floor....But had the bull market collapsed? On June 13th it appeared to have regained its balance. On June 14th, the day of Hoover's nomination, it extended its recovery. The promised reckoning had been only partial. Prices still stood well above their February levels. A few thousand traders had been shaken out, a few big fortunes had been lost, a great many pretty paper profits had vanished; but the Big Bull Market was still young. (Full)
Volume and Volatility "During that "Hoover bull market" of November, 1928, the records made earlier in the year were smashed. Had brokers once spoken with awe of the possibility of five-million-share days? By the summer of 1929, prices had soared far above the stormy levels of the preceding winter into the blue and cloudless empyrean. All the old markers by which the price of a promising common stock could be measured had long since been passed; if a stock once valued at 100 went to 300, what on earth was to prevent it from sailing on to 400? And why not ride with it for 50 or 100 points, with Easy Street at the end of the journey?”
Today:

Just two months ago the DOW Industrial average passed the 14,300 mark.. a new record high.
Rationalizations

"By every rule of logic the situation had now become more perilous than ever. If inflation had been serious in 1927, it was far more serious in 1929, as the total of brokers' loans climbed toward six billion (it had been only three and a half billion at the end of 1927). If the price level had been extravagant in 1927 it was preposterous now; and in economics, as in physics, there is no gainsaying the ancient principle that the higher they go, the harder they fall. But the speculative memory is short. As people in the summer of 1929 looked back for precedents, they were comforted by the recollection that every crash of the past few years had been followed by a recovery, and that every recovery had ultimately brought prices to a new high point. Two steps up, one step down, two steps up again-that was how the market went. If you sold, you had only to wait for the next crash (they came every few months back then) and buy in again. And there was really no reason to sell at all: you were bound to win in the end if your stock was sound. The really wise man, it appeared, was he who "bought and held on."
Today:

No Sign of `Sell' on Wall Street as Analysts Say: `Buy,' `Hold'

Dec. 3 (Bloomberg) — Anybody who followed the advice of Wall Street's top-ranked analysts, none of whom would say ``sell'' for a single company in the securities industry this year, is reckoning with subprime-like losses...Merrill Lynch & Co.'s Guy Moszkowski, UBS AG's Glenn Schorr and Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.'s Brad Hintz maintained either buy or hold recommendations on Bear Stearns Cos. as it fell 39 percent in 2007, the most since the firm went public in 1985. Moszkowski and Hintz had buy ratings on Morgan Stanley while the stock shed 22 percent in New York trading. Moszkowski and Schorr advised holding on to Citigroup Inc. as it dropped 40 percent. (Full)
Warnings met by happy talk
"Time and again the economists and forecasters had cried, "Wolf, wolf," and the wolf had made only the most fleeting of visits. Time and again the Reserve Board had expressed fear of inflation, and inflation had failed to bring hard times. Business in danger? Why, nonsense!...On every side one heard the new wisdom sagely expressed: "Prosperity due for a decline? Why, man, we've scarcely started!" "Be a bull on America." "Never sell the United States short." "I tell you, some of these prices will look ridiculously low in another year or two." "Just watch that stock-it's going to five hundred." "The possibilities of that company are unlimited." "Never give up your position in a good stock."
Today:

US News: Nov. 3, 2007 — About the only people who still see the glass half full are Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues at the Federal Reserve Board. They propped the market up on Halloween with a treat of a quarter-point drop in the overnight bank lending rate to 4.5 percent and also pumped in $41 billion to help steady the credit markets. The Fed explained the rate cut in a statement that said the following in a nutshell: "Credit markets stable. Economy and inflation stable. We're done. Mission accomplished." But the happy talk was interrupted by panic on Wall Street, as traders digested news of more trouble at the world's big banks resulting from the ongoing credit crisis. (Full)
1929 "patriots" encouraged to shop

“Meanwhile, one heard, the future of American industry was to be assured by the application of a distinctly modern principle. Increased consumption, as Waddill Catchings and William T. Foster had pointed out, was the road to plenty. If we all would only spend more and more freely, the smoke would belch from every factory chimney, and dividends would mount.”
Today:

"The unemployment rate has remained low, at 4.5 percent. A recent report on retail sales shows a strong beginning to the holiday shopping season across the country — and I encourage you all to go shopping more."

George W. Bush — December 2006
Milking consumers
“Gradually the huge pyramid of capital rose. While super-salesmen of automobiles and radios and a hundred other gadgets were loading the ultimate consumer with new and shining wares, super-salesmen of securities were selling him shares of investment trusts which held stock in holding companies owned the stock of banks which had affiliates which in turn controlled holding companies — and so on ad infinitum. Though the shelves of manufacturing companies and jobbers and retailers were not overloaded, the shelves of the ultimate consumer and the shelves of the distributors of securities were groaning. Trouble was brewing-not the same sort of trouble which had visited the country in 1921, but trouble none the less. Still, however, the cloud in the summer sky looked no bigger than a man's hand.
Today:

Are you a patriot? Are you pulling your weight? Got your iPod, your X-Box, your Hummer, your iPhone? Why not? Why do you hate America?
Obscuring the “oh shit,”moment

“Early in September 1929 the stock market broke. It quickly recovered however, indeed, on September 19th the averages as compiled by the New York Times reached an even higher level than that of September 3rd. Once more it slipped, farther and faster, until by October 4th the prices of a good many stocks had coasted to what seemed first-class bargain levels.... there was little real alarm until the week of October 21st. The consensus of opinion, in the meantime, was merely that the equinoctial storm of September had not quite blown over. The market was readjusting itself into a "more secure technical position."
Today:

Stocks Rally Sharply; What Bad News?

Barrons Dec. 3, 2007 — AMNESIA HAS LONG BEEN A convenient plot device in daytime soap operas, but lately it's also showing up in stock-market dramas...We recount the saga of the market's epic run at a pivotal point: The Dow Jones Industrial Average had just careened to its first 10% correction of this bull market, and the U.S. economy was fighting the unknowable spread of mortgage-related cancer at its core when through the door burst the beloved Dr. Bernanke...So smooth was the good doctor (such soothing words! that authoritative beard!), and so effective his promise of relief (a likely interest-rate cut!) Full
"In view of what was about to happen, it is enlightening to recall how things looked at this juncture to the financial prophets, those gentlemen whose wizardly reputations were based upon their supposed ability to examine a set of graphs brought to them by a statistician and discover, from the relation of curve to curve and index to index, whether things were going to get better or worse...Professor Irving Fisher, however, was more optimistic. In the newspapers of October 17, 1929 he was reported as telling the Purchasing Agents Association that stock prices had reached "what looks like a permanently high plateau." He expected to see the stock market, within a few months, "a good deal higher than it is today."

"The disaster which was impending was destined to be as bewildering and frightening to the rich and the powerful and the customarily sagacious as to the foolish and unwary holder of fifty shares of margin stock. On October 29, 1929 the market crashed.

"Prosperity is more than an economic condition; it is a state of mind. The Big Bull Market had been more than the climax of a business cycle; it had been the climax of a cycle in American mass thinking and mass emotion. There was hardly a man or woman in the country whose attitude toward life had not been affected by it in some degree and was not now affected by the sudden and brutal shattering of hope.

"With the Big Bull Market zone and prosperity going, Americans were soon to find themselves living in an altered world which called for new adjustments. new ideas, new habits of thought, and a new order of values. The psychological climate was changing; the ever-shifting currents of American life were turning into new channels.
My parents, now in the 80's, remember making those "adjustments," and were both painful and ugly. Eventually an unlikely savior — a member of the very monied class that had pumped and dumped the entire American economy — appeared on the scene and put America's engine back on the tracks. Franklin Roosevelt may have lived a privileged life but he understood the key ingredient that keeps any free market economy perking right along — a vibrant working middle class. And that's where he began his rescue efforts with the WPA.

Roosevelt understood something that any good stone fence builder knows instinctually — that when building a loose stone fence or wall the big rocks are impressive, but it's the little rocks that hold them in place.



 
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