Friday, December 26, 2008

Are our current financial problems more like the Panic of 1873 or the Great Depression of the 19 1930s?

Here's another interesting article on our current economic difficulties. This historian, Scott Reynolds Nelson says a better analogy for our current economic difficulties are the Panic of 1873 rather than the Great Depression of the 1930s. If either serves as a model for what we can expect, tough times are ahead of us and they won't end soon. My chief concern is the government will do the wrong thing and only prolong the crisis and make it worse.

He writes in conclusion:

If there are lessons from 1873, they are different from those of 1929. Most important, when banks fall on Wall Street, they stop all the traffic on Main Street — for a very long time. The protracted reconstruction of banks in the United States and Europe created widespread unemployment. Unions (previously illegal in much of the world) flourished but were then destroyed by corporate institutions that learned to operate on the edge of the law. In Europe, politicians found their scapegoats in Jews, on the fringes of the economy. (Americans, on the other hand, mostly blamed themselves; many began to embrace what would later be called fundamentalist religion.)

The post-panic winners, even after the bailout, might be those firms — financial and otherwise — that have substantial cash reserves. A widespread consolidation of industries may be on the horizon, along with a nationalistic response of high tariff barriers, a decline in international trade, and scapegoating of immigrant competitors for scarce jobs. The failure in July of the World Trade Organization talks begun in Doha seven years ago suggests a new wave of protectionism may be on the way.

In the end, the Panic of 1873 demonstrated that the center of gravity for the world's credit had shifted west — from Central Europe toward the United States. 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.

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