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Replace 1929 with 2008 and the story, I’m afraid, is eerily familiar: a speculative orgy, crescendo, climax and crash. As this plays out, important people – business and political leaders – rely on “the power of incantation” to keep the rest of us calm. Their efforts are doomed to fail.
“Cause and effect run from the economy to the stock market, never the reverse. In 1929, the economy was headed for trouble,” wrote Galbraith.
As now, too few understood this. Many who foresaw disaster kept quiet. There was a conspiracy of silence. “The foolish thus [had] the field to themselves.”
In the 1920s, says Galbraith, America’s economy had been weakened by “bad distribution of income... bad corporate structure... bad banking structure... dubious state of the foreign balance... and poor state of economic intelligence”. Who can say with certainty that today it is different? Who now wants to defend the promoters of a one-way bet on property? Any takers?
For those hoping that the stock market’s recent “correction” will be followed by a swift recovery, Galbraith puts a wealth warning on suckers’ rallies. “The singular feature of the great crash of 1929 was that the worst continued to worsen. What looked one day like the end proved on the next day to have been only the beginning. Nothing could have been more ingeniously designed to maximise the suffering.”
It’s worth remembering that a full recovery in the stock market took more than 20 years.