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James Grant Explains ‘The Forgotten Depression’

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Mr. Grant confronts the subjectivity of economic measurement head-on in his book in an enlightening discussion of whether the 1921 depression was, in fact, a depression at all.

The Forgotten Depression: 1921 — The Crash That Cured Itself, by James Grant, Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Joseph Calandro Jr. writes: To better understand the current economic environment, financial analyst, historian, journalist, and value investor James forgottendepressionGrant, who is informed by both Austrian economics and the value investing theory of the late Benjamin Graham, analyzes the Depression of 1920–1921 in his latest work, The Forgotten Depression: 1921 — The Crash That Cured Itself.

[Order James Grant’s book “The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself from Amazon.com]

Grant understands that despite the pseudo-natural science veneer of mainstream economics the fact remains that economic value is inherently subjective and thus economic measurement is also subjective. Mr. Grant confronts the subjectivity of economic measurement head-on in his book in an enlightening discussion of whether the 1921 depression was, in fact, a depression at all.

Was It a Depression?

Grant concludes it was a depression, but mainstream economist Christine Romer, for example, concludes it was not a depression. As Grant observes, Ms. “Romer, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, presented her research, titled ‘World War I and the Postwar Depression,’ in a 1988 essay in the Journal of Monetary EconomicsThe case she made for discarding one set of GNP estimates for another is highly technical. But the lay reader may be struck by the fact that neither the GNP data she rejected, nor the ones she preferred, were compiled in the moment. Rather, each set was constructed some 30 to 40 years after the events it was intended to document” (p. 68).

In contrast, Mr. Grant surveys economic activity as it existed prior to and during 1920–21 and as it was evaluated during those times. Therefore, five pages into chapter 5 of his book, which is titled “A Depression in Fact,” we read that:

A 1920 recession turned into a 1921 depression, according to [Wesley Clair] Mitchell, whose judgment, as a historian, business-cycle theorist and contemporary observer, is probably as reliable as anyone’s. This was no mere American dislocation but a global depression ensnaring nearly all the former Allied Powers (the defeated Central Powers suffered a slump of their own in 1919). “Though the boom of 1919, the crisis of 1920 and the depression of 1921 followed the patterns of earlier cycles,” wrote Mitchell, “we have seen how much this cycle was influenced by economic conditions resulting from the war and its sudden ending. … If American business men were betrayed by postwar demands into unwise courses, so were all business men in all countries similarly situated.”

So depression it was … (p. 71)

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Interestingly, there are a variety of similarities between “The Forgotten Depression” of 1921 and “The Great Recession” of 2007–2008. For example:

  • War finance (the currency debasement and credit expansion associated with funding war) has long been associated with economic distortion including World War I, which preceded “The Forgotten Depression.” Such distortions unfortunately continue to the present day.
  • Scandal is also associated with booms and busts; for example, the boom preceding “The Forgotten Depression” had Charles Ponzi while the boom preceding “The Great Recession” had Bernie Madoff.
  • The booms preceding both financial disruptions also saw governmental banking regulators not doing a very good job of regulating the banks under their supervision.
  • Citibank famously fell under significant distress in both events.
  • Both eras had former professors of Princeton University in high-ranking governmental positions: Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States at the beginning of “The Forgotten Depression” while Ben Bernanke was chairman of the Fed during “The Great Recession.”
  • On the practitioner-side, value investor Benjamin Graham profited handsomely from the distressed investments that he made during “The Forgotten Depression” while his best known student, Warren Buffett, profited from the distressed investments that he made during “The Great Recession.”

The Crash That Cured Itself

Despite similarities, there are noteworthy differences between these two financial events. Foremost among the differences is the reason why “The Forgotten Depression” has, in fact, been forgotten: the government did nothing to stop it. Not only were interest rates not lowered and public money not spent, but interest rates were actually raised and debt paid down. The context behind these actions is fascinating and superbly told and analyzed by Mr. Grant. Read the rest of this entry »

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