Saturday, January 9, 2010

Lessons of 1937

Bruce Bartlett reminds us that the "Great Depression" was actually two recessions, from 1929-33, followed by a recovery and then a second recession in 1937. This second recesssion was attributable to a tightening of monetary and fiscal policy. Bartlett writes:
In early 1937, Roosevelt was preparing his budget for the next fiscal year, which began on July 1 in those days. Strong growth in the economy and tax increases over the previous three years, especially the institution of a new payroll tax for Social Security, had caused tax receipts to almost double from 2.8% of GDP in 1932 to 5% in 1936. Projections showed that budget balance was within reach with only a modest reduction of spending.

Roosevelt was also concerned about the reemergence of inflation. After falling 24% between 1929 and 1933, the Consumer Price Index rose by a total of 7% over the next three years and signs pointed to even higher prices in 1937. Indeed, the CPI rose 3.6% that year.

Rather than viewing this as a sign of progress, which had caused the stock market to almost double between 1935 and 1936, Roosevelt and the inflation hawks of the day were determined to pop what they viewed as a stock market bubble and nip inflation in the bud. Balancing the budget was an important step in this regard, but so was Federal Reserve policy, which tightened sharply through higher reserve requirements for banks. Between August 1936 and May 1937 reserve requirements doubled.

During 1937, Roosevelt pressed ahead with fiscal tightening despite the obvious downturn in economic activity. The budget deficit fell from 5.5% of GDP in 1936 to 2.5% in 1937 and the budget was virtually balanced in fiscal year 1938, with a deficit of just $89 million.

While Bartlett believes the mistake is unlikely to be repeated, there are some "hawkish" rumblings coming from parts of the Fed.

I discussed a similar argument from CEA chair Christina Romer in a post last June. The lessons of 1937 were also the subject of a recent Paul Krugman column.

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