Economists are Ignorant About History → Washingtons Blog
Economists are Ignorant About History - Washingtons Blog

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Economists are Ignorant About History

Most economists believe the recession will end in 2009. Specifically, a survey by the National Association for Business Economics found that 90 percent of economists believe that the recession will end this year.

As the Washington Post writes:

Mainstream economists generally believe the recession will end -- meaning the economy will stop contracting -- sometime in the second half of the year.

Among the arguments in favor of that view: The recession is already the longest since World War II, the financial system is stabilizing, the Federal Reserve has cut a key interest rate to near zero, and a program of federal spending and tax cuts is beginning to have an effect.

Are they right?

Well, one of the world's leading economic historians - Harvard professor Niall Ferguson - says:

The economists are ill qualified to analyse the current economic situation since they lack the overview of historians such as himself.

"There are economic professors in American universities who think they are masters of the universe, but they don't have any historical knowledge. I have never believed that markets are self correcting. No historian could."

Ferguson warns of huge government debts threatening the solvency of entire nations:

"The idea that countries don't go bust is a joke... The debt trap may be about to spring ... for countries that have created large stimulus packages in order to stimulate their economies."

And as most of you know, even after the 1929 crash, there were a couple of bear market rallies on the way down to the bottom:

As you may have heard, people were making humorously rosy predictions during those bear market rallies:

“The Government’s business is in sound condition.”
Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury
-December 5, 1929

Despite the obvious slackening of the pace of business at the close of the year, leaders in banking and industry throughout the country maintain an optimistic attitude toward the prospects for 1930.
-January 1, 1930

“The worst is over without a doubt.”
James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor.
- June 1930

‘BUSINESS CYCLE’ SEEN AT NEW PHASE; Bankers Hold Downward Trend in Markets Indicates Recovery Is Near. DENY ANALOGY TO 1920-21 Economists Point to Superior Credit Conditions Now, Holding Easy Money Points to Revival.
-July 6, 1930

BIG BANKERS PUT UP $100,000 SAFEGUARD; House of Morgan Among Those Required to Provide Protection for Investors. -August 3, 1930
“We have hit bottom and are on the upswing.”
James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor.
-September 12, 1930

“30% OF STOCKS SELL UNDER BOOK VALUES; Capital Is Above Market Price.”
-December 14, 1930

“The depression has ended.”
Dr. Julius Klein, Assistant Secretary of Commerce.
- June 9, 1931 (Stock market did bottom one year and 50% later)

But its not just the Great Depression.

As economist historian Bob Hoye points out, economists and the other "experts" say the same thing during every depression throughout history (the article is worth reading in full):

For most participants, post-bubble bear markets have been sudden and severe. The 1929 example ran for three years and the post 1873 example lasted for five years...

Although crashes are grisly events, they share a common response from the establishment. No matter how shocking, bloody, expensive, ruinous or just plain shattering a crash is – within a week, there is no one in the street who didn't see it coming. As ironical as this is, there is a critical link from the stock market to the economy...

This melancholy event is being confirmed by the behaviour of politicians and policymakers. After swanning around claiming credit for the boom politicians panic and then find scapegoats. Remember the "Goldilocks" celebration of perfect management of interest rates, money supply and the economy. Well, all five great bubbles from the first in 1720 to the infamous 1929 have been accompanied by such boasting, followed by what can best be described as frenzies of recriminatory regulation. If the political path continues – protectionism – will follow.

One of the worst such examples was called, in real time, the Tariff of Abominations. But, this is enough of dismal events and it is time to turn to irony for amusement and enlightenment. The clash between the establishment and financial history is rich with irony. Beyond that, financial history, itself, should be considered as an impartial "due diligence" on every grand scheme promoted during a financial mania by the private sector as well as by policymakers. Let's use a good old fashioned term – policymakers have been financial adventurers.

One of the richest ironies occurred with the 1873 mania and its collapse. With typical strains developing in the credit markets during a speculative summer, the leading New York newspaper editorialized:

“but while the Secretary of the Treasury plays the role of banker for the entire United States it is difficult to conceive of any condition of circumstances which he cannot control. Power has been centralized in him to an extent not enjoyed by the Governor of the Bank of England. He can issue the paper representatives of gold, and count it as much as the yellow metal itself. [He has] a greater influence than is possessed by all the banking institutions of New York.”

In so many words, because the treasury secretary was outstanding and had the benefit of unlimited issue of a fiat currency – nothing could go wrong. But it did; the initial bear market lasted for five years and the initial recession ran a year longer. The pattern of severe recessions and poor recoveries continued such that in 1884 leading economists began to call it "The Great Depression", that endured from the 1873 bubble until 1895.

An index of farm land value in England fell almost every year from 1873 to 1895. Of course, academic economists were fascinated and for a couple of decades wondered how such a dislocation could have happened, or even worse, discussed how it could have been prevented. Ironically, this debate continued until as late as 1939 when another Great Depression was belatedly discovered.

Naturally the long depression was blamed upon the old and unstable Treasury System, and at the height of the "Roaring Twenties" John Moody summed it up with:

"The Federal Reserve Law has demonstrated its thorough practicality, and thus secured the general confidence of the business interests. The breeder of financial panics, the National Banking Law, which had been a menace to American progress for two decades, has now been replaced by a modern scientific system which embodies an elastic currency and an orderly control of money markets."...

In late 2007, Gregory Mankiw, boasted that the US had a "dream team" of economists as advisors, and as with all claims at the top of six previous bubbles "Nothing could go wrong". And even if things went only a little wrong there were the "safety nets" that Krugman claimed would prevent serious deterioration. Our view on Keynesian safety nets has always been that in a bust they would be about as useless as a hardhat in a crowbar storm.

In the post-1929 bust policymakers were realistic enough to know that the boom caused the bust. The SEC was established to prevent another hazardous 1929 mania. Also, one of the promoters of the SEC boasted that the SEC would put a "Cop at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets". Without much doubt the SEC has failed to live up to its billing. The discovery of malfeasance always accompanies the discovery of malinvestment.

Of course, the other act passed to prevent another 1929 mania was Glass-Steagal, which separated commercial banking from the evils of Wall Street. This was taken off the books in 1999 as too many banks were participating in the high-tech frenzy.

Has this happened before? I'm glad I asked the question. With the financial violence of the South Sea Company in 1720, the House of Commons passed the "Anti-Bubble" Act, which was taken off the books in 1771 – just in time for the full expression of the 1772 bubble. As with the climax of the 1720 bubble the Great Depression ran for some twenty years. This was also the case for the bubbles that blew out in 1825, 1873, and 1929...

The real audacity is in the claims of charismatic economists that their personal revelations can provide one continuous throb of happy motoring. As Hayek said – Keynes, as a young scholar, was absolutely ignorant of financial or economic history. Only someone who was ineffably ignorant of financial history would claim that it can arbitrarily be altered...

On May 5, Bernanke observed that the "broad rally in equity prices" is indicating that "economic activity will pick up later in the year."

At the height of a similar rebound to April-May of 1930, Barron's wrote:

“It is thus apparent that the public preference for stock is not only as marked as ever, but also the will to speculate is still a speculative factor not to be overlooked. The prompt return of huge speculation and the liberal manner in which current earnings are again being discounted indicate that it will be difficult to quench the fires of stock-market enthusiasm for long.”

Prompted by an animated stock rally, the Harvard Economic Society, but with more gravitas, concluded that it "augured" a recovery by late in the year. As we all know this did not last and what we should understand is that it is the dynamics of a crash that sets up the exciting rebound. Not policymakers.

Let's look at a classic fall crash, which we expected. The pattern is interesting. The 1929 crash amounted to 48%. The decline to the low in November 2008 was 47%, and within this the hit to October 27 amounted to 42%. In 1929 the initial plunge amounted to 40% to October 29.

The rebound was to November 4, in both examples, with 2008 gaining 17% and 1929 gaining 12%. The final slump into each November was 22% and 23%. Is it important to identify it as 1929 or 2008?

Our "historical" model expected the crash and the rebound, as well as the nature of the establishment's utterances...

Ironically, today's excitement in the markets and convictions in policymaking circles are important steps on the path to a great depression. As disconcerting as this may be, it is worth reviewing another cliché of policymaking, which is the notion that lowering administered rates will restore the momentum of a boom. Massive declines in short rates, such as Treasury Bills have only occurred in a post-bubble crash. In 1873 the senior bank rate plunged from 9% to 2.5%, as the stock market crashed. In the 1929 example the fed discount rate plunged from 6% to 1.5%, as the stock market crashed...

There are some early terms to describe the sudden loss of liquidity that marks the end of a bubble. In the 1561 crash Gresham wrote the “Credit cannot be obtained – even on double collateral.”.

Another term goes back to the 1600s when Amsterdam was the commercial and financial center of the world. The Dutch described the good times as associated with "easy" credit and the consequence as "diseased" credit...

Misselden in the 1618 to 1622 crash earnestly believed that throwing credit at a credit contraction would make it go away. [He was wrong].
Given that 2001-2007 was the biggest bubble in world history, I am not confident that the downturn will end this year.

Search for Related Information:


  1. Here is what may throw a monkey wrench into any recovery. Remember, Bush cozied up to the Saudis and got them to tie the dollar to oil, making it artificially stable. Greenspan was over there some time back trying to get them to untie it. Now, the Saudis and Dubai are in financial trouble and looking to Rothschild who has ties to the FED and the CDS/subprime mess designed to take down the financial system and install one world government. In exchange for assistance, Rothschild is going to want the dollar severed from oil, causing our currency to crash. Rothschild is also going to want assistance in a war against Iran, not because of religion but because war promotes further consolidation of power and money. It explains why Obama sided with the Saudis on the 911 lawsuit and why he is going over there to court Arab favor. It also explains roadblocks on investigations into 911 and anything else to do with past bad deeds.

  2. Excellent article, Mr. Washington! These same "experts" never saw this disaster coming, so why should we believe them now?

    Too big to fail really means simply too big, and government and innocent people should get out from under its shadow so as not to be crushed in the fall.

    Government out of business and business out of government. This unholy alliance of the money men and the political class is the root of our current evil.

  3. As long as economists are woefully ignorant and continue to believe that they can mathematically model a system of billions of unique participants, the field is hopeless.

  4. Beautiful essay. I love the historical references so thanks for teaching me some history. Governments have traditionally been the 'buyer of last resort' and indeed there doesn't seem to be such an animal as a 'self-correcting market' in the long run. Oh well, I like the Bank of North Dakota, public ownership model.


→ Thank you for contributing to the conversation by commenting. We try to read all of the comments (but don't always have the time).

→ If you write a long comment, please use paragraph breaks. Otherwise, no one will read it. Many people still won't read it, so shorter is usually better (but it's your choice).

→ The following types of comments will be deleted if we happen to see them:

-- Comments that criticize any class of people as a whole, especially when based on an attribute they don't have control over

-- Comments that explicitly call for violence

→ Because we do not read all of the comments, I am not responsible for any unlawful or distasteful comments.