The History Herald
Crash! Bang! Boom! The Stock Market Crash of 1929
BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?
So It Begins....
At the end of the 1920's, the United States boasted the largest economy in the world. With the destruction wrought by World War I, Europeans struggled while Americans flourished. Upon succeeding to the Presidency, Herbert Hoover predicted that the United States would soon see the day when poverty was eliminated. Then, in a moment of apparent triumph, everything fell apart. The stock market crash of 1929 touched off a chain of events that plunged the United States into its longest, deepest economic crisis of its history.
Nine thousand banks failed during the months following the stock market crash of 1929. It is far too easy to view the stock market crash as the single cause of the Great Depression. A healthy economy can recover from such a contraction. Long-term underlying causes sent the nation into a downward spiral of despair. First, American firms earned record profits during the 1920's and reinvested much of these funds into expansion. By 1929, companies had expanded to the bubble point. Workers could no longer continue to fuel further expansion, so a slowdown was inevitable. While corporate profits, skyrocketed, wages increased incrementally, which widened the distribution of wealth.
The richest one percent of Americans owned over a third of all American assets. Such wealth concentrated in the hands of a few limits economic growth. The wealthy tended to save money that might have been put back into the economy if it were spread among the middle and lower classes. Middle class Americans had already stretched their debt capacities by purchasing automobiles and household appliances on installment plans.
There were fundamental structural weaknesses in the American economic system. Banks operated without guarantees to their customers, creating a climate of panic when times got tough. Few regulations were placed on banks and they lent money to those who speculated recklessly in stocks. Agricultural prices had already been low during the 1920's, leaving farmers unable to spark any sort of recovery. When the Depression spread across the Atlantic, Europeans bought fewer American products, worsening the slide.
When President Hoover was inaugurated, the American economy was a house of cards. Unable to provide the proper relief from hard times, his popularity decreased as more and more Americans lost their jobs. His minimalist approach to government intervention made little impact . The economy shrank with each successive year of his Presidency. As middle class Americans stood in the same soup lines previously graced only by the nation's poorest, the entire social fabric of America was forever altered.
The Great Crash in 1929
Although the 1920's were marked by growth in stock values, the last four years saw an explosion in the market. In 1925, the total value of the NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE was $27 billion. By September 1929, that figure skyrocketed to $87 billion. This means that the average stockholder more than tripled the value of the stock portfolio he or she was lucky enough to possess.
Fueling the rapid expansion was the risky practice of buying stock on margin. A MARGIN PURCHASE allows an investor to borrow money, typically as much as 75% of the purchase price, to buy a greater amount of stock. Stockbrokers and even banks funded the reckless SPECULATOR. Borrowers were often willing to pay 20% interest rates on loans, being dead certain that the risk would be worth the rewards. The lender was so certain that the market would rise that such transactions became commonplace, despite warnings by the Federal Reserve Board against the practice. Clearly, there had to be a limit to how high the market could reach.
So What Was The Problem?
On October 24, 1929, "BLACK THURSDAY," this massive sell-a-thon began. By the late afternoon, wealthy financiers like J.P. Morgan pooled their resources and began to buy stocks in the hopes of reversing the trend.
But the bottom fell out of the market on Tuesday, October 29. A record 16 million shares were exchanged for smaller and smaller values as the day progressed. For some stocks, no buyers could be found at any price. By the end of the day, panic had erupted, and the next few weeks continued the downward spiral. In a matter of ten short weeks the value of the entire market was cut in half. Suicide and despair swept the investing classes of America.