“From Bubble to Depression?”

Steven Gjerstad and Vernon L. Smith argue that the “events of the past 10 years have an eerie similarity to the period leading up to the Great Depression.” More specifically, their argument is that contrary to the usual explanation that the troubles in the banking sector during the Great Depression were caused by stock-market speculation and a monetary contraction, they suggest that “both the Great Depression and the current crisis had their origins in excessive consumer debt — especially mortgage debt”:

From Bubble to Depression?, by Steven Gjerstad and Vernon L. Smith, Commentary, WSJ: Bubbles have been frequent in economic history… Bubbles can arise when some agents buy not on fundamental value, but on price trend or momentum. …

But what sparks bubbles? Why does one large asset bubble — like our dot-com bubble — do no damage to the financial system while another one leads to its collapse? … How can one crash that wipes out $10 trillion in assets cause no damage to the financial system and another that causes $3 trillion in losses devastate the financial system?

In the equities-market downturn early in this decade, declining assets were held by institutional and individual investors that either owned the assets outright, or held only a small fraction on margin, so losses were absorbed by their owners. In the current crisis, declining housing assets were often, in effect, purchased between 90% and 100% on margin. In some of the cities hit hardest, borrowers who purchased in the low-price tier at the peak of the bubble have seen their home value decline 50% or more. Over the past 18 months as housing prices have fallen, millions of homes became worth less than the loans on them, huge losses have been transmitted to lending institutions, investment banks, investors in mortgage-backed securities, sellers of credit default swaps, and the insurer of last resort, the U.S. Treasury. …

The events of the past 10 years have an eerie similarity to the period leading up to the Great Depression. Total mortgage debt outstanding increased from $9.35 billion in 1920 to $29.44 billion in 1929. In 1920, residential mortgage debt was 10.2% of household wealth; by 1929, it was 27.2% of household wealth.

The Great Depression has been attributed to excessive speculation on Wall Street, especially between the spring of 1927 and the fall of 1929. Had the difficulties of the banking system been caused by losses on brokers’ loans for margin purchases in 1929, the results should have been felt in the banks immediately after the stock market crash. But the banking system did not show serious strains until the fall of 1930.

Bank earnings reached a record $729 million in 1929. Yet bank exposures to real estate were substantial; as the decline in real estate prices accelerated, foreclosures wiped out banks by the thousands. Had the mounting difficulties of the banks and the final collapse of the banking system in the “Bank Holiday” in March 1933 been caused by contraction of the money supply, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz argued, then the massive injections of liquidity over the past 18 months should have averted the collapse of the financial market during this current crisis.

The causes of the Great Depression need more study, but the claims that losses on stock-market speculation and a monetary contraction caused the decline of the banking system both seem inadequate. It appears that both the Great Depression and the current crisis had their origins in excessive consumer debt — especially mortgage debt — that was transmitted into the financial sector during a sharp downturn.

What we’ve offered in our discussion of this crisis is the back story to Mr. Bernanke’s analysis of the Depression. Why does one crash cause minimal damage to the financial system, so that the economy can pick itself up quickly, while another crash leaves a devastated financial sector in the wreckage? The hypothesis we propose is that a financial crisis that originates in consumer debt, especially consumer debt concentrated at the low end of the wealth and income distribution, can be transmitted quickly and forcefully into the financial system. It appears that we’re witnessing the second great consumer debt crash, the end of a massive consumption binge.

Originally published at the Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.