"Past Is Prologue: The Crash of 1929"
"People believed that everything was going to be great always, always. There was a feeling of optimism in the air that you cannot even describe today. There was great hope. America came out of World War I with the economy intact. We were the only strong country in the world. The dollar was king. We had a very popular president in the middle of the decade, Calvin Coolidge, and an even more popular one elected in 1928, Herbert Hoover. So things looked pretty good.
The economy was changing in this new America. It was the dawn of the consumer revolution. New inventions, mass marketing, factories turning out amazing products like radios, rayon, air conditioners, underarm deodorant. One of the most wondrous inventions of the age was consumer credit. Before 1920, the average worker couldn’t borrow money. By 1929, 'buy now, pay later” had become a way of life.
Wall Street got the credit for this prosperity and Wall Street was dominated by just a small group of wealthy men. Rarely in the history of this nation had so much raw power been concentrated in the hands of a few businessmen. One of the most common tactics was to manipulate the price of a particular stock, a stock like Radio Corporation of America. Wealthy investors would pool their money in a secret agreement to buy a stock, inflate its price and then sell it to an unsuspecting public. Most stocks in the 1920s were regularly manipulated by insiders.
I would say that practically all the financial journals were on the take. This includes reporters for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Herald-Tribune, you name it. So if you were a pool operator, you’d call your friend at The Times and say, "Look, Charlie, there’s an envelope waiting for you here and we think that perhaps you should write something nice about RCA.” And Charlie would write something nice about RCA. A publicity man called A. Newton Plummer had canceled checks from practically every major journalist in New York City. Then, they would begin to - what was called "painting the tape” and they would make the stock look exciting. They would trade among themselves and you’d see these big prints on RCA and people will say, 'Oh, it looks as though that stock is being accumulated'. Now, if they are behind it, you want to join them, so you go out and you buy stock also. Now, what’s happening is the stock goes from 10 to 15 to 20 and now, it’s at 20 and you start buying, other people start buying at 30, 40. The original group, the pool, they’ve stopped buying. They’re selling you the stock. It’s now 50 and they’re out of it. And what happens, of course, is the stock collapses.
The pools were a little like musical chairs. When the music stopped, somebody owned the stocks and those were the sufferers. If small investors suffered, they would soon be back for more. They knew the game was rigged, but maybe next time, they could beat the system. Wall Street had its critics, among them economist Roger Babson. He questioned the boom and was accused of lack of patriotism, of selling America short. Roger Babson warned of the speculation and said, "There’s going to be a crash and the aftermath is going to be quite terrible.” And people jumped on Babson from all around for saying such a thing, so that people who were cautious about their personal reputation, who did not want to call down on themselves a lot of calumny, kept quiet.
Politicians came and went, but in the 20s, the businessman was king. With everyone trying to borrow money to cover the falling value of their stocks, there was a credit crunch. Interest rates soared. At 20 percent, few people could afford to borrow more money. The boom was about to collapse like a house of cards. The National City Bank would provide $25 million of credit, immediately, the credit crisis was alleviated. In fact, within the next 24 hours, call money went from 20 percent to eight percent and that stopped the panic, then, in March .
Everything was not fine that spring with the American economy. It was showing ominous signs of trouble. Steel production was declining. The construction industry was sluggish. Car sales dropped. Customers were getting harder to find. And because of easy credit, many people were deeply in debt. Large sections of the population were poor and getting poorer.
Just as Wall Street had reflected a steady growth in the economy throughout most of the 20s, it would seem that now the market should reflect the economic slowdown. Instead, it soared to record heights. Stock prices no longer had anything to do with company profits, the economy or anything else. The speculative boom had acquired a momentum of its own.
It was this nature of mass illusion. Prices were going up, people bought. That forced prices up further, that brought in more people. And eventually, the process becomes self-perpetuating. Every increase brings in more people convinced of their God-given right to get rich.
The 20s was a decade of all sorts of fast money schemes. Three years earlier, everyone was buying Florida real estate. As prices of land skyrocketed, more people jumped in, hoping to make a killing. Then, overnight, the boom turned to bust and investors lost everything.
On September 5th, economist Roger Babson gave a speech to a group of businessmen. ‘Sooner or later, a crash is coming and it may be terrific.’ He’d been saying the same thing for two years, but now, for some reason, investors were listening. The market took a severe dip. They called it the 'Babson Break.' The next day, prices stabilized, but several days later, they began to drift lower. Though investors had no way of knowing it, the collapse had already begun.
The market fluctuated wildly up and down. On September 12th, prices dropped ten percent. They dipped sharply again on the 20th. Stock markets around the world were falling, too. Then, on September 25th, the market suddenly rallied. Reuben L. Cain, Stock Salesman, 1929: "I remember well that I thought, Why is this doing this? And then I thought, Well, I’m new here and these people - like every day in the paper, Charlie Mitchell would have something to say, the J.P. Morgan people would have something to say about how good things were - and I thought, Well, they know a lot more about this market than I do. I’m fairly new here and I really can’t see why it’s going up. But then, when they say it can’t go down or if it does go down today, it’ll go back tomorrow, you think, Well, they really are like God. They know it all and it must be the way it’s going because they say so."
As the market floundered, financial leaders were as optimistic as ever, more so. Just five days before the crash, Thomas Lamont, acting head of the highly conservative Morgan Bank, wrote a letter to President Hoover: "The future appears brilliant. Our securities are the most desirable in the world.” Practically every business leader in American and banker, right around the time of 1929, was saying how wonderful things were and the economy had only one way to go and that was up.
There came a Wednesday, October 23rd, when the market was a little shaky, weak. And whether this caused some spread of pessimism, one doesn’t know. It certainly led a lot of people to think they should get out. And so, Thursday, October the 24th - the first Black Thursday - the market, beginning in the morning, took a terrific tumble. The market opened in an absolutely free fall and some people couldn’t even get any bids for their shares and it was wild panic. And an ugly crowd gathered outside the stock exchange and it was described as making weird and threatening noises. It was, indeed, one of the worst days that had ever been seen down there.
There was a glimmer of hope on Black Thursday. About 12:30, there was an announcement that this group of bankers would make available a very substantial sum to ease the credit stringency and support the market. And right after that, Dick Whitney made his famous walk across the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. At 1:30 in the afternoon, at the height of the panic, he strolled across the floor and in a loud, clear voice, ordered 10,000 shares of U.S. Steel at a price considerably higher than the last bid. He then went from post to post, shouting buy orders for key stocks. And sure enough, this seemed to be evidence that the bankers had moved in to end the panic. And they did end it for that day. The market then stabilized and even went up.
But Monday was not good. Apparently, people had thought about things over the weekend, over Sunday, and decided maybe they might be safer to get out. And then came the real crash, which was on Tuesday, when the market went down and down and down, without seeming limit. Morgan’s bankers could no longer stem the tide. It was like trying to stop Niagara Falls. Everyone wanted to sell. In brokers’ offices across the country, the small investors - the tailors, the grocers, the secretaries - stared at the moving ticker in numb silence. Hope of an easy retirement, the new home, their children’s education, everything was gone.
At the end of 1929, as they celebrated New Year’s Eve, all that lay in the future. Nobody knew that the Great Depression was coming - unemployment, bread lines, bank failures - this was unimaginable. But the bubble had burst. Gone was that innocent optimism, the confidence, the illusion of wealth without work. One era had ended. They toasted the coming of the 30s, but somewhere, deep down, they knew the party was over."
A Comment: There are literally thousands of economy related posts on this little blog, dating from 2008, informing you, warning you about what's coming, now much sooner than later. Of course, times are different now in the totally interlocked global financial system, right? Like, oh, $1.5 QUADRILLION in derivatives, banks leveraged 300 to 1, $21 trillion national dept... What could possibly go wrong? And if you think the crash of 1929 was bad, you're just gonna love what's coming!