Tuesday, September 30, 2008
We're going into another Great Depression - WSJ
Willingess and ability of Fed to help the slumping economy will prevent it from falling into depression. It is hard to imagine a depression could get under way when capital is waiting in the swing.... Let's consider some of the arguments that have been surfacing lately. "We're going into another Great Depression." The failure on Monday of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the bailout plan makes those G-D words seem possible for the first time. But I don't think another depression is likely, for two reasons. First, when you spend time studying the Crash of 1929 and the depression that followed, what stands out the most is the dearth of doomsayers. Even Roger Babson, the economist known to posterity as "the man who called the crash," did no such thing; he forecast only a 15% to 20% drop, not the apocalypse that actually occurred. Depressions start not when lots of people are worried about them, as we have today, but when no one is worried about them, as in 1929. Second, the Great Depression and the Panic of 1873 (which triggered what arguably was the worst depression in U.S. history) both occurred before the Federal Reserve Bank had aggressively grown into its role as "lender of last resort." In the wake of 1873, after a railroad-building boom had swept the nation and then gone bust, companies and consumers alike were left gasping for capital. Nothing but the passage of time could supply it; the Fed would not be established until 1913. After the crash of 1929, when the Fed was still weak, years passed before the federal government could flood the economy with cash. Today, however, the resolve of the Fed is not in question; nor is there any doubt that the Treasury Department is willing to provide the financing it takes to get the economy moving again. Furthermore, U.S. nonfinancial companies have just under $1 trillion in cash on their books. Even though Wall Street is dead, innovation is not: In the months to come, clever new financial go-betweens will spring up and find a way to get that cash flowing again. It's hard to see how a depression could get under way when so much capital is waiting in the wings. "Diversification is dead." There's an old saying that the only things that go up in a down market are correlations -- the tightness of the linkages among various assets like U.S. and foreign markets, stocks and bonds, commodities or real estate. Normally, one asset will tend to zig while another zags. But in bear markets, they converge -- and in really terrible bear markets, they move in complete lockstep. That's what is happening now, but it will not last indefinitely. It never does. While diversification does not work all the time, it does work over the course of time. There's nothing wrong with raising a little cash if that would prevent you from panicking completely. This is particularly true for retirees. Whittle down your stock position gradually, in baby steps -- say, 1% at a time -- not in one fell swoop. And set a limit beyond which you will not go; otherwise, when stocks stage their inevitable recovery, you will miss out.