1999-10

March 26, 1999

Monetary Policy and the Great Crash of 1929: A Bursting Bubble or Collapsing Fundamentals?

In recent years, a number of economists have expressed concern that the stock market is overvalued. Some have compared the situation with the 1920s, warning that the market may be headed for a similar collapse. Indeed, some suggest that lax monetary policy contributed to the Great Crash and have argued that current monetary policy is also dangerously lax. For example, an April 1998 Economist article stated:

In the late 1920s, the Fed was also reluctant to raise interest rates in response to soaring share prices, leaving rampant bank lending to push prices higher still. When the Fed did belatedly act, the bubble burst with a vengeance.

To avoid the same mistake, The Economist suggested that it would be better for the Fed to take deliberate, preemptive steps to deflate the bubble in share prices. It warned that the bubble could harm the economy if it were to burst suddenly, reducing the value of collateral assets and bringing on a recession. The article went on to say that “the longer that asset prices continue to be pumped up by easy money, the more inflated the bubble will become and the more painful the economic after-effects when it bursts,” and it concluded that “the Fed needs to raise interest rates.”

In this Economic Letter, I argue that The Economist has misinterpreted the lessons of the Great Crash. A closer examination of the events of the late 1920s suggests it is mistaken on at least four points. First, stock prices were not obviously overvalued at the end of 1927. Second, starting in 1928 the Fed shifted toward increasingly tight monetary policy, motivated in large part by a concern about speculation in the stock market. Third, tight monetary policy probably did contribute to a fall in share prices in 1929. And fourth, the depth of the contraction in economic activity probably had less to do with the magnitude of the crash and more to do with the fact that the Fed continued a tight money policy after the crash. Hence, rather than illustrating the dangers of standing on the sidelines, the events of 1928-1930 actually provide a case study of the risks associated with a deliberate attempt to puncture a speculative bubble.

Monetary Policy 1927-1930

In 1927, there was a mild recession in the United States. In addition, Britain was threatened by a balance of payments crisis whose proximate cause was a demand by France to convert a large quantity of sterling reserves into gold. Thus, both domestic and international conditions inclined the Fed to shift toward easing. The resulting fall in interest rates helped damp the decline in domestic economic activity and facilitated an outflow of gold toward Britain and France.

Should the Fed have refrained from easing in 1927 because of concerns that the stock market might be overvalued? Measures of conventional valuation suggest the answer is no, for there was no obvious sign of an emerging bubble at that time. For example, Figure 1 illustrates the price-dividend ratio on the value-weighted New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) portfolio. At the end of 1927, the price-dividend ratio was around 23, which is actually a bit below its long-run average of 25. Although share prices had risen rapidly in the 1920s, so had dividends. Given that the price-dividend ratio was slightly below average, the Fed would have had little reason to refrain from easing in a recession year or to decline assistance to a gold standard partner in maintaining balance of payments equilibrium.

In any case, equity prices began to accelerate in January 1928, and they rose by 39% for the year. Dividend payments also grew rapidly that year, and the price-dividend ratio increased by 27%.

Motivated by a concern about speculation in the stock market, the Fed responded aggressively. Between January and July 1928 the Fed raised the discount rate from 3.5% to 5%. Because nominal prices were falling, the latter translated into a real discount rate of 6%, which is quite high in a year following a recession. At the same time, the Fed engaged in extensive open market operations to drain reserves from the banking system. Hamilton (1987) reports that it sold more than three-quarters of its total stock of government securities: “in terms of the magnitudes consciously controlled by the Federal Reserve, it would have been difficult to design a more contractionary policy.”

Furthermore, as Eichengreen (1992) has emphasized, monetary policy was tight not only in the U.S. but also throughout much of the rest of the world. By that time, roughly three dozen countries had returned to the gold standard, and when the Fed tightened, many countries faced a dilemma: Unless their central banks also tightened, lending from the U.S. would be disrupted and their balance of payments would move toward a deficit. In that case, they would either have to devalue or abandon the gold standard altogether. The former option was unattractive for countries with dollar-denominated debts, and the latter was virtually out of the question at the time, especially for countries where restoration of the gold standard had been painful and difficult.

The alternative was to conform with the Fed. By shifting toward more contractionary monetary policies, other gold standard countries could ensure that domestic interest rates would rise in parallel with those in the U.S. and would be able to maintain balance of payments equilibrium. This explains, for example, why the Bank of England shifted toward tighter policy in 1928, three years after Britain had entered a slump. It also explains why countries still rebuilding from WWI would adopt contractionary policies.

The implication is that monetary policy was far more restrictive than a purely domestic perspective might suggest. In 1928 there was a synchronized, global contraction of monetary policy, which occurred primarily because the Fed was concerned about stock prices. These actions had predictable effects on economic activity. By the second quarter of 1929 it was apparent that economic activity was slowing. The U.S. economy peaked in August and fell into a recession in September.

What were the effects on the stock market? At the beginning of 1929, it seemed that the contractionary measures taken in 1928 were working. The NYSE price-dividend ratio reached a local peak in January and then fell gradually through the first half of the year. Thus, it appeared that stock prices had stabilized. Furthermore, shares still were not obviously overvalued. The local peak was reached at 30.5, which is roughly 20% above the long-term average. Dividends had grown rapidly through 1928, and investors projecting similar growth rates forward may have been willing to settle for dividend yields somewhat below the long-run average.

Monetary policy was on hold during the first half of 1929, and some economists have argued that inaction in this period was responsible for the events that followed. But three observations are relevant here. First, as mentioned above, price-dividend ratios had stabilized and were falling gradually. To a contemporary observer, it would have appeared that the actions of 1928 were having the intended effects. Second, it was becoming increasingly apparent that general economic activity was slowing, and many other countries already had entered recessions. And third, while monetary policy was not becoming tighter, it was still quite tight. Short-term real interest rates were still around 6%, and there was no growth in the monetary base.

Price-dividend ratios continued to fall until July 1929, but then prices began to take off. In August, the Fed raised the discount rate by another percentage point to 6%. The stock market peaked in the first week of September. It is worth noting that at its peak the price-dividend ratio was 32.8, which is well below values reached in the 1960s or 1990s. Share prices declined in a more or less orderly fashion until the end of October, but then the market crashed. From its peak, the price-dividend ratio fell roughly 30%, to a level roughly similar to that prevailing at the beginning of 1928, when the Fed began to tighten.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the New York Fed took prompt and decisive action to ease credit conditions. When investors attempted to liquidate their equity holdings, many lenders also called their loans to securities brokers. With the encouragement of officials at the New York Fed, many of these brokers’ loans were taken over by New York banks, who were allowed to borrow freely at the discount window for this purpose. The New York Fed also bought government securities on its own account in order to inject reserves into the banking system. In this way, they were able to contain an incipient liquidity crisis and prevent the crash from spreading to money markets.

But this respite from tight money proved to be temporary. After the liquidity crisis had been contained, monetary policy once again resumed a contractionary stance. Throughout 1930, officials at the New York Fed repeatedly proposed that the System buy government securities on the open market, but they were systematically rebuffed. The reasons other members of the Federal Reserve gave for opposing monetary expansion are instructive. Several felt that much of the investment undertaken in the previous expansion was fundamentally unsound and that the economy could not recover until it was scrapped. Others felt that a monetary expansion would only ignite another round of speculative activity, perhaps even in the stock market. In any event, monetary policy remained contractionary; the monetary aggregates fell by 2% to 4%, and long- term real interest rates increased.

By maintaining a contractionary stance throughout 1930, after a recession had already begun, the Fed contributed to a further decline in economic activity and share prices. By the end of the year, the price-dividend ratio had fallen to 16.6, or roughly 34% below the long-run average. By then, there was a consensus that speculative activity had been eliminated!

Were the Fed’s actions stabilizing or destabilizing?

If one grants that a speculative bubble existed at the beginning of 1928, when the Fed began to tighten, then stocks must have still been overvalued in the aftermath of the crash. After all, price-dividend ratios were about the same in the dark days of November 1929 as at the beginning of 1928, and fundamentals must surely have taken a turn for the worse. If equities were still overvalued, it follows that a further dose of contractionary monetary policy was needed to purge speculative elements from the market. Perhaps this is what motivated the famous advice of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon to President Herbert Hoover, to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” To argue that the actions of 1928-1930 were stabilizing, one must adopt the liquidationist position.

On the other hand, if one interprets the Great Crash as a bursting bubble, so that shares were more or less properly valued in the aftermath, then it follows that they were probably also not far from their fundamental values at the start of 1928, when the Fed began to tighten. Again, prices and price-dividend ratios were about the same after the crash, and fundamentals had surely become less favorable. According to this interpretation, the Fed’s initial actions may have been destabilizing, and the actions of 1930 certainly were.

Conclusion

In retrospect, it seems that the lesson of the Great Crash is more about the difficulty of identifying speculative bubbles and the risks associated with aggressive actions conditioned on noisy observations. In the critical years 1928 to 1930, the Fed did not stand on the sidelines and allow asset prices to soar unabated. On the contrary, its policy represented a striking example of The Economist’s recommendation: a deliberate, preemptive strike against an (apparent) bubble. The Fed succeeded in putting a halt to the rapid increase in share prices, but in doing so it may have contributed one of the main impulses for the Great Depression.

Timothy Cogley
Senior Economist


References

Economist. 1998. “America’s Bubble Economy” (April 18).

Eichengreen, Barry. 1992. Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, James D. 1987. “Monetary Factors in the Great Depression.” Journal of Monetary Economics 19, pp. 145-169.

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