A Market Parallel

Amity Shlaes has noted some interesting parallels between today’s economic situation and that of 1937, post reelection of another Progressive President (she’s politer than I am).

In this case, “1937” means a market drop similar to the one after the re-election of another Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1936.

[T]he parallels are visible enough to be worth tracing.  They have to do with the danger of big government, and can be captured in a few categories.

Here are those parallels [emphasis added]:

Pre-election spree that sets records.  In the old days, federal spending amounted to about 19 percent or 19.5 percent of gross domestic product. …[from that] federal spending would have dropped back once the worst of the 2008 economic crisis passed.

…even in 2012, when the crisis was long past, the government went on a spree, spending the equivalent of 24.3 percent of the economy, more than the 24.1 percent for the year earlier.

Up until 1936, federal spending flowed at smaller levels than the spending by states and towns combined, with wartime being the exception.  Roosevelt slowly ratcheted up the outlays, and in 1936, Washington spent more than the states and towns.  This shift was dizzying for a country based on the principle of federalism, of strong states.


Fearsome attack on the status quo.  In his first news conference on Nov 14, Obama went out of his way to make clear his tax increases would fall on the rich: “What I’m concerned about is not finding ourselves in a situation where the wealthy aren’t paying more or aren’t paying as much as they should.”

Roosevelt was also ferocious, telling the old guard: “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”

When Roosevelt followed through in 1937, both with high taxes and his effort to pack the Supreme Court with more progressives, markets shivered.

Shlaes concludes with

The obvious question is why an announcement by Obama or Roosevelt to cut back just after the election doesn’t reassure those who dislike government expansion.

The answer is that the markets, which observe a giant march forward and then a step backward, don’t believe the step back is permanent.  Giants are giants.  Expansionists tend to revert to expanding government….

In the end, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, learned that lesson:

We have tried spending money.  We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work.  I want to see this country prosper.  I want to see people get a job.  I want to see people get enough to eat.  We have never made good on our promises.  I say after eight years of this administration, we have just as much unemployment as when we started.  And enormous debt to boot.

The Obama administration, unfortunately, has no Treasury Secretary, or anyone else, capable of (re)learning that lesson.

Why should we care about the stock market, though?  The problem with significant drop in overall market stock prices isn’t just one of hammering rich investors and any workaday American with an IRA, a 401(k), or a 403(b) retirement account.  It’s that selling shares in a company is one of two ways in which businesses raise money (the other being borrowing) for product development or business expansion, either of which means prosperity for the company and, oh by the way, more jobs.  A significant market drop, then, closes off one more avenue for business expansion, jobs, and economic recovery.

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