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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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Mapping Global Income Support During COVID-19

The need for income support during COVID-19 has been vast. This map visualizes different levels of income support around the world.

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income support during COVID-19

Mapping Global Income Support During COVID-19

Income loss has impacted many during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, reduced hours, office closures, and business shutdowns have prompted the need for mass income support.

Globally, income from work fell $3.5 trillion in the first nine months of 2020, a change of -10.7% compared to the same period in 2019.

In the above map, Our World in Data reveals the different levels of income support provided by governments across the globe.

Income support, in this case, is defined as governments broadly covering lost salaries, or providing universal basic income or direct payments to people who have lost their jobs or cannot work. Levels of income support are changing over time.

Small Government

Many world governments have provided no support when it comes to a universally applicable scheme to cover lost income in their countries.

Examples: (as of January 25th, 2021)

  • 🇻🇪 Venezuela
  • 🇸🇾 Syria
  • 🇧🇾 Belarus
  • 🇧🇩 Bangladesh
  • 🇰🇭 Cambodia

The majority of the governments providing no support are in low to lower-middle income countries. Based on a recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO), lower-middle income countries have also seen the highest income losses, reaching 15.1% since 2019.

Developing countries tend to experience a significant fiscal stimulus gap, in which they do not have the capacity to cushion lost income or lost jobs. In fact, it’s estimated by the ILO that low and lower-middle income countries would need to inject an additional $982 billion into their economies to reach the same level of fiscal stimulus as high income countries.

A Helping Hand

There are other governments that are giving out some help on a wide-scale basis, providing citizens less than 50% of their lost salaries:

Examples: (as of January 25th, 2021)

  • 🇿🇦 South Africa
  • 🇨🇳 China
  • 🇷🇺 Russia
  • 🇹🇭 Thailand
  • 🇦🇺 Australia

South Africa’s unemployment rate was the highest in the world at 37.0% in 2020, an increase from 28.7% in 2019. Despite having one of the strictest lockdowns, the country has not been able to slow rising case counts or job losses. Now, South Africa is facing another threat, as a new strain of the novel coronavirus has taken hold in the nation.

The Most Supportive Governments

Finally, many world governments have offered higher amounts of income support, providing citizens with more than 50% of lost income:

Examples: (as of January 25th, 2021)

  • 🇨🇦 Canada
  • 🇺🇸 United States
  • 🇬🇧 United Kingdom
  • 🇪🇸 Spain
  • 🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia

Regionally, it’s the Americas that have been hit the hardest, according to the ILO. The region experienced a 12.1% drop in labor income in 2020 compared to 2019, revealing the need for broad-based income support.

U.S. unemployment went from 3.7% to 8.9% between 2019 and 2020. While the American government initially provided support in the form of the CARES Act, the policy response was recently extended through the more recent $900 billion relief deal.

Income Support Post COVID-19

While some countries have not been in extreme need of income support, others have been and haven’t received it. When looking at demographics, the hardest hit workers have been temporary workers, migrant workers, care workers, and self-employed vendors who have no labor contracts or employment insurance.

As a result, some critics have used this as an opportunity to call for universal basic income (UBI). A three-year study is already being implemented in Germany, for example, to test out how effective this kind of income support would be in the post-pandemic period.

Today, however, income is not a guarantee, and while in 2021 things may be returning to ‘normal,’ that does not mean that income levels will go back to normal.

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Which risks are top of mind in 2021? We visualize the World Economic Forum’s risk assessment for top global risks by impact and livelihood.

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.

Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.

Which risks are top of mind in 2021?

The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact

According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:

  • 🔵 Economic
  • 🟢 Environmental
  • 🟠 Geopolitical
  • 🔴 Societal
  • 🟣 Technological

It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.

That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.

Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.

RankTop Risks by LikelihoodTop Risks by Impact
#1🟢Extreme weather🔴Infectious diseases
#2🟢Climate action failure🟢Climate action failure
#3🟢Human environmental damage🟠Weapons of mass destruction
#4🔴Infectious diseases🟢Biodiversity loss
#5🟢Biodiversity loss🟢Natural resource crises
#6🟣Digital power concentration🟢Human environmental damage
#7🟣Digital inequality🔴Livelihood crises
#8🟠Interstate relations fracture🟢Extreme weather
#9🟣Cybersecurity failure🔵Debt crises
#10🔴Livelihood crises🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown

As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.

New Risks in 2021

While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.

Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:

Societal Risks

COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.

At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.

Economic Risks

As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.

With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.

Technological Risks

Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.

Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.

Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon

Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.

In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.

RankRisk%Time Horizon
#1🟠Weapons of mass destruction62.7Long-term (5-10 years)
#2🔴Infectious diseases58Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#3🔴Livelihood crises55.1Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#4🔵Asset bubble burst53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#5🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#6🔵Price instability52.9Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#7🟢Extreme weather events52.7Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#8🔵Commodity shocks52.7Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#9🔵Debt crises52.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#10🟠State collapse51.8Long-term (5-10 years)

Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.

It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.

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