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Life and Times During the Great Depression

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Life and Times During the Great Depression

Life and Times During the Great Depression

The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.

The economy of the United States was destroyed almost overnight.

More than 5,000 banks collapsed, and there were 12 million people out of work in America as factories, banks, and other shops closed.

Many reasons have been supplied by the different economic camps for the cause of the Great Depression, which we reviewed in the first part of this series.

Regardless of the causes, the combination of deflationary pressures and a collapsing economy created one of the most desperate and miserable eras of American history. The resulting aftermath was so bad, that almost every future Central Bank policy would be designed primarily to combat such deflation.

The Deflationary Spiral

After the stock crash, money and consumer confidence was hard to find. Instead of spending money on new things, people hoarded their cash.

Fewer dollars spent meant more drops in demand and prices, which led to defaults, bankruptcies, and layoffs.

As a result of this spiral, the prices for many food items in the U.S. fell by nearly 50% from their pre-WW1 levels.

The price of butter went from pre-crisis levels of $0.21 to $0.13 per pound in 1932. Wool had a drop from $0.24 to $0.10 per pound, and most other goods followed the same price trajectory.

The Effects

Here’s how “real value” is affected in a deflationary environment:

Money
Real value increases: cash is king and gains in real value.

Assets (stocks, real estate)
Real value decreases as prices fall.

Debt
Debtors owe more in real terms

Interest Rates
Real interest rates (nominal rates minus inflation) can rise as inflation is negative, causing unwanted tightening.

From Bad to Worse

The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939, which was unprecedented in length for modern history.
To this day, economists disagree on why the Depression lasted so long. Here’s some of their explanations:

The New Deal was not enough

Looking back on The Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes believed that monetary policy could only go so far.
The Central Bank could not ultimately push banks to lend, and therefore demand had to be created through fiscal policy. Keynes advocated massive deficit spending to offset markets’ failure to recover.

Keynesians such as Paul Krugman believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic policies through The New Deal were too cautious.

“You can’t push on a string.” – Keynes

The New Deal made things worse

Some economists believe the New Deal had a negative net effect on the recovery.

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) is a primary subject of this criticism. Established in 1933, the goal of the NRA was to lift wages. To do this, it got industry leaders to meet and establish minimum prices and wages for workers.

Cole and Ohanian claim that this essentially created cartels that destroyed economic competition. They calculate that this, along with the aftermath of these policies, accounted for 60% of the weak recovery.

Lastly, one other charge leveled at Roosevelt by his critics is that the sprawling policies from the New Deal ultimately created uncertainty for business leaders, leading to less investment. This lengthened the recovery.

“[The] abandonment of [Roosevelt’s] policies coincided with the strong economic recovery of the 1940s.” – Cole and Ohanian

The Federal Reserve didn’t do enough

Milton Friedman claimed that the Federal Reserve made the wrong policy decision, which extended the length of the Depression.

Between 1929 and 1933, the monetary supply dipped 27%, which decreased aggregate demand and then prices. The Fed’s failure was in not realizing what was happening and not taking corrective action.

“The contraction is…a tragic testimonial to the importance of monetary forces…[D]ifferent and feasible actions by the monetary authorities could have prevented the decline in the stock of money… [This] would have reduced the contraction’s severity and almost as certainly its duration.” – Milton Friedman (and co-author Anna Schwartz)

The Federal Reserve shouldn’t have done anything

Austrian economists believe that the Fed and government both made policy choices that slowed the recovery.
For starters, most agree with Friedman that the Fed’s policy choices at the start of the Depression led to deflation.

They also point to the premature tightening that occurred in 1936 and 1937 as a policy failure. During those two years, the Fed not only hiked interest rates, but it also doubled bank-reserve requirements. These policies coincided with Roosevelt’s tax hikes, and a recession occurred within the Depression from 1937 to 1938.

Critics of these policies say that this delayed the recovery by years.

“I agree with Milton Friedman that once the Crash had occurred, the Federal Reserve System pursued a silly deflationary policy. I am not only against inflation but I am also against deflation. So, once again, a badly programmed monetary policy prolonged the depression.” – Friedrich Hayek

Personal Stories from The Great Depression

“One evening when we went down to check on the bank, there were hundreds of people out front yelling and crying and fighting and beating on the locked doors and windows. They had fires built in the street to keep warm and there were people milling around all over the downtown.” – Vane Scott, Ohio

“A friend I worked with said in the Depression he rode the rails and stopped to eat vegetables out of a garden. The owner said he would shoot him if he didn’t stop. My friend said ‘go ahead,’ as he was that hungry. ” – James Randolph, Ohio

“When neighbors couldn’t get a loan from the bank, they’d come to Dad. He sold farm machinery. He never put his money in a bank. He stored it in a strongbox in the fruit cellar, under the apples. He’d loan the neighbors what they needed and they paid him back when they could. If there was a month—especially the winter months—when they couldn’t pay, they’d slaughter a cow or a pig and give him a portion. In the summer it was vegetables: corn, peas, whatever they had growing.” – Gladys Hoffman, New York

“I thought the Depression was going to go on forever. For six or seven years, it didn’t look as though things were getting better. The people in Washington DC said they were, but ask the man on the road? He was hungry and his clothes were ragged and he didn’t have a job. He didn’t think things were picking up.” – Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson, Arkansas

Conclusion

After the 1937-38 Recession, the United States economy began to recover.

The focus of the American public would eventually shift away from the Great Depression, as events in Europe unfolded after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

About the Money Project

The Money Project aims to use intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.

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Personal Finance

Visualizing How the Pandemic is Impacting American Wallets

57% of U.S. consumers’ incomes have taken a hit during the pandemic. How do such financial anxieties affect the ability to pay bills on time?

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A Snapshot of U.S. Personal Finances During the Pandemic

If you’ve felt that you’ve needed to penny-pinch more during the pandemic, you’re not alone.

In the past seven months, 42% of U.S. consumers have missed paying one or more bills, while over a third (39%) believe they will need to skip payments in the future.

This visualization breaks down the state of U.S. consumers’ personal finances during the COVID-19 era, and projects into future concerns around savings.

Pandemic Personal Finances: Key Takeaways

Based on data from the doxoINSIGHTS Bills Pay Impact Report across 1,568 sampled households, three themes emerge:

  • 57% of consumers’ incomes have taken a hit in the past seven months
  • 70% have delayed discretionary spending on big purchases
  • 75% continue to be very worried about their future financial health

How do these anxieties translate into day-to-day consequences?

Pandemic Postpones Bill Payments

Unsurprisingly, worrying about personal finances also means that more Americans are deferring their bill payments during the pandemic. However, these vary depending on the type of bill, total amount, and immediate urgency.

Over a quarter (27%) of U.S. consumers report having missed a bill on their auto loans, followed by 26% for utilities and 25% on cable or internet costs.

The average cost of the above three bill types is $258—but that’s still a fraction of the two most expensive bills, mortgage or rent, which come in at $1,268 and $1,023 respectively.

Bill Type$ Value% Missed
Auto loans$37427%
Utilities$29026%
Cable/ Internet$11025%
Rent$1,02320%
Mobile phone$8819%
Mortgage$1,26817%
Alarm/ Security$7617%
Auto insurance$18115%
Dental insurance$2514%
Life insurance$7613%
Health insurance$9410%

Prioritizing Payments

While 20% of Americans say they’ve missed a rent payment over the past few months, what’s even more alarming is that 28% of U.S. consumers believe they will most likely skip paying rent in the future.

Bill Type% Likely to Skip in Future
Cable/  Internet29%
Utilities28%
Rent28%
Auto loans26%
Mobile phone26%
Mortgage21%
Auto insurance21%
Alarm/ Security19%
Dental insurance16%
Life insurance17%
Health insurance15%

Another clear trend is that many Americans are prioritizing insurance payments, particularly health insurance. This is good news during a global pandemic—only 10% have missed paying this bill type, although 15% expect to skip it in the coming months.

According to the report, some U.S. consumers seem to prioritize the bill types which come with strings attached, from late-payment penalties to accrued interest.

While missing a single payment might seem harmless, a pattern of missed payments over time have the potential to negatively impact your credit score.

Enough Savings To Stay Afloat?

Finally, Americans are wary about how much they have stashed away in the bank to weather the tumultuous months ahead.

While unemployment figures are recovering from historic troughs, the fear of losing one’s job remains prevalent. How many months’ worth of savings do U.S. consumers think they have if this were to happen?

# Months % Responses
7+ months 💰💰💰💰💰💰💰23%
4-6 months 💰💰💰💰💰💰15%
1-3 months 💰💰💰27%
<1 month 💰35%

No one knows how long the COVID-19 chaos will last. In order to adapt to this economic uncertainty, consumer priorities are shifting along with their tightened budgets.

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Gold

The World’s Gold and Silver Coin Production vs. Money Creation

In 2019, the value of global money creation was over 500 times higher than the world’s gold and silver coin production combined.

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World's Gold and Silver Coin Production

Global Gold & Silver Coin Production vs. Money Creation

Note: Data has been updated to correct a previous calculation error pertaining to Japanese Yen money supply.

Both precious metals and cash serve as safe haven assets, intended to limit losses during market turmoil. However, while modern currencies can be printed by central governments, precious metals derive value from their scarcity.

In this infographic from Texas Precious Metals, we compare the value of the world’s gold and silver coin production to global money creation.

Total Production Per Person, 2019

We calculated the value of global currency issuance in 2019 as well as precious metal coins minted, and divided by the global population to get total production per person.

Throughout, global money supply is a proxy based on the 5 largest reserve currencies: the U.S. dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen, Sterling Pound, and Chinese Renminbi.

2019 ProductionOuncesDollar ValueDollar Value Per Person
Global Gold Coins7,204,982$10.9B$1.42
Global Silver Coins97,900,000$1.8B$0.23
Global Money Supply$4.3T$556.33

All numbers are in USD according to exchange rates as of December 31 2019. Gold and silver values are based on the 2019 year close price of $1,510.60 and $17.90 respectively.

The value of new global money supply was 390 times higher than the value of gold coins minted, and 2,400 times higher than silver coins minted.

Put another way, for each ounce of minted gold coin, the global money supply increased by more than $593,000.

Change in Annual Production, 2019 vs. 2010

Compared to the start of the decade, here’s how annual production levels have changed:

 20102019% change
Global Silver Coins (oz)95,900,00097,900,0002.1%
Global Gold Coins (oz)6,298,3317,204,98214.4%
Global Money Supply (USD)$2,936,296,692,440$4,268,993,639,92645.4%

Annual increases to global money supply have increased by half, far outpacing the change in the world’s gold and silver coin production.

Even more recently, how has production changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 Effect

In response to the global pandemic, central banks have enacted numerous measures to help support economies—including issuing new currency.

The global money supply increased by more than $6.8 trillion in the first half of 2020. In fact, the value of printed currency was 930 times higher than the value of minted gold coins over the same timeframe.

Investors may want to consider which asset is more vulnerable to inflation as they look to protect their portfolios.

Want to learn more? See the U.S. version of this graphic.

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