Friday, October 19, 2012

Making connections: Irving Fisher and the Great Depression

Garett Jones did a podcast on Irving Fisher at Econtalk last week. He talked about the Great Depression and Fisher's debt deflation theory. Jonathan Catalan and Daniel Kuehn also discuss the podcast.

Jones focuses on Fisher's 1933 paper The Debt Deflation Theory of Great Depressions.

Two interesting quotes from Fisher's paper popped out at me:
Those who imagine that Roosevelt's avowed reflation is not the cause of our recovery but that we had "reached the bottom anyway" are very much mistaken. At any rate, they have given no evidence, so far as I have seen, that we had reached the bottom. And if they are right, my analysis must be woefully wrong. According to all the evidence, under that analysis, debt and deflation, which had wrought havoc up to March 4, 1933, were then stronger than ever and, if let alone, would have wreaked greater wreckage than ever, after March 4. Had no "artificial respiration" been applied, we would soon have seen general bankruptcies of the mortgage guarantee companies, savings banks, life insurance companies, railways, municipalities, and states.
It's worth overlaying Fisher's words with the charts of the Great Depression I posted here.

The next quote:
If reflation can now so easily and quickly reverse the deadly down-swing of deflation after nearly four years, when it was gathering increased momentum, it would have been still easier, and at any time, to have stopped it earlier. In fact, under President Hoover, recovery was apparently well started by the Federal Reserve open-market purchases, which revived prices and business from May to September 1932. The efforts were not kept up and recovery was stopped by various circumstances, including the political "campaign of fear."
It would have been still easier to have prevented the depression almost altogether. In fact, in my opinion, this would have been done had Governor Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York lived, or had his policies been embraced by other banks and the Federal Reserve Board and pursued consistently after his death.
The May to September 1932 open market purchases was the first real quantitative easing, or QE-zero. You can read about their ineffectiveness in this post. Fisher says the recovery was well-started from May to September, but the data doesn't show that.

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