Panic ‘08 sparks loud warning

05/11/2008 - 22:00

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IF we're to be subjected to that "D" word, then let's at least focus on the correct one, which means ignoring the depression sparked by Wall Street's 1929 crash.

IF we're to be subjected to that "D" word, then let's at least focus on the correct one, which means ignoring the depression sparked by Wall Street's 1929 crash.

Look instead to the one that struck 56-years earlier since it more closely resembles the current global financial turmoil.

According to historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, of the College of William and Mary - one of America's oldest universities - the depression to look at is the truly horrendous one that struck Europe and the US in 1873.

But firstly, here's what Professor Nelson says of the 1929 slump in his article - The Real Great Depression: The depression of 1929 is the wrong model for the current economic crisis. (The Chronicle of Higher Education. Volume 55, Issue 8, October 17, 2008).

"When commentators invoke 1929, I am dubious," he begins.

"According to most historians and economists, that depression had more to do with over-large factory inventories, a stock-market crash and Germany's inability to pay back war debts, which then led to continuing strain on British gold reserves.

"None of those factors is really an issue now.

"Contemporary industries have very sensitive controls for trimming production as consumption declines; our current stock-market dip followed bank problems that emerged more than a year ago; and there are no serious international problems with gold reserves, simply because banks no longer peg their lending to them."

He consequently contends that the crash of 1873 that lasted more than four years "looks much more like our current crisis".

Here's why.

"The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe," he said.

"In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris.

"Mortgages were easier to obtain than before and a building boom commenced.

"Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral.

"The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called Founder Period."

And just as in the US today "economic fundamentals" had surfaced in the central European economies of the 1870s, Professor Nelson said.

European, including Russian, grain exporters began facing competition from the newly-emerged farm-belt of central US - those hugely productive prairie states.

Agrarian Europe consequently felt, for the first time, the full force of an expansive newcomer upon its food-producing sector.

To Professor Nelson, this was the "19th-century version of containers manufactured in China and bound for Wal-Mart consisting of produce from farmers in the American mid-west."

The American heartland was witnessing the emergence of the railway age.

And with the "iron horse" came grain elevators and other efficiency-oriented techniques that helped ensure grain reached markets in the major and growing cities of America and Europe.

"Britain, the biggest importer of wheat, shifted to the cheap stuff quite suddenly around 1871," he said.

"By 1872, kerosene and manufactured food were rocketing out of America's heartland, undermining rapeseed, flour, and beef prices.

"The crash came in Central Europe in May 1873, as it became clear that the region's assumptions about continual economic growth were too optimistic.

"Europeans faced what they came to call the American commercial invasion.

"A new industrial superpower had arrived, one whose low costs threatened European trade and a European way of life."

Europe's weaker economic foundations meant continental banks began tumbling with, and this sounds familiar, inter-bank rates rising.

Nor was the newly emerged US immune to all this since Europe's expanding banking crisis was to be felt there by late 1873.

That meant railroad companies were the first to tumble since they, like Europe's shaky real estate sector, had devised suspect financial methods to "bankroll" their enormous capital requirements.

"When the railroad financier Jay Cooke proved unable to pay off his debts, the stock market crashed in September [1873], closing hundreds of banks over the next three years," Professor Nelson says.

"The panic continued for more than four years in the US and for nearly six years in Europe."

The next phase saw those with access to sizeable stocks of capital emerging as the new industrial barons across the Atlantic grew.

"Andrew Carnegie, Cyrus McCormick and John D. Rockefeller had enough capital reserves to finance their own continuing growth," he says.

"For smaller industrial firms that relied on seasonal demand and outside capital, the situation was dire.

"As capital reserves dried-up, so did their industries.

"The Gilded Age in the US, as far as industrial concentration was concerned, had begun."

Not surprisingly, the 1870s witnessed ongoing political strife, social unrest and widespread disorder, especially in labour relations.

"In the end, the panic of 1873 demonstrated that the centre of gravity for the world's credit had shifted west -- from central Europe toward the United States," says Professor Nelson.

"The current panic suggests a further shift -- from the United States to China and India.

"Beyond that I would not hazard a guess. I still have microfilm to read.''

Significantly, Professor Nelson has been cautious by saying the current panic only "suggests a further shift - from the United States to China and India."

In other words, he's far from definite, just postulating what he regards as a possibility.

Two points need highlighting.

Firstly, even though the 1873 depression saw collapses across western and central Europe, Frankfurt and London are to this day major financial hubs.

Let's also not forget that, since 1873, they've endured the impact of the Great War, depression of 1929, and World War II, with each city being blitzed by their respective air forces during the latter global conflict.

Secondly, as bad as panic 2008 has so far been, it's quite premature to be postulating Shanghai and Mumbai will displace Wall Street.

True, both may well emerge as major financial centres.

In fact it's difficult to imagine otherwise since China and India are rapidly industrialising.

In other words, Shanghai's and Mumbai's continued growth is set to go on, though not because of any postulated decline of Wall Street, but rather the strength of their own national economies.

To suggest Wall Street will be displaced by either or both is therefore as valid as claiming Frankfurt and London were doomed after the 1870s, whereas they've remained major financial centres to this day.

Also worth noting is that Shanghai's stock exchange continues to be regarded as a huge gambling den, a casino, rather than a centre with proper capital raising requirements.

And China's communist party-controlled crony-capitalist system inspires little faith in ensuring well-founded long-term economic growth.

Certainly, it would be myopic to claim panic 2008 isn't a loud warning to all on Wall Street, especially the emergence and explosion in those dodgy IOUs.

Even so, it's difficult not to recall the precise words Mark Twain uttered when hearing rumors of his death.

The way to ensure Wall Street not only survives but blossoms is for the new administration to launch an independent root-and-branch inquiry into all practices and also, crucially, how politicians impacted upon them, and recommend far-reaching reforms based on honesty and prudence.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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