The World’s Most Famous Case of Deflation (Part 1 of 2)
The Great Depression was the most severe economic depression ever experienced by the Western world.
It was during this troubled time that the world’s most famous case of deflation also happened. The resulting aftermath was so bad that economic policy since has been chiefly designed to prevent deflation at all costs.
Setting the Stage
The transition from wartime to peacetime created a bumpy economic road after World War I.
Growth has hard to come by in the first years after the war, and by 1920-21 the economy fell into a brief deflationary depression. Prices dropped -18%, and unemployment jumped up to 11.7% in 1921.
However, the troubles wouldn’t last. During the “Roaring Twenties”, economic growth picked up as the new technologies like the automobile, household appliances, and other mass-produced products led to a vibrant consumer culture and growth in the economy.
More than half of the automobiles in the nation were sold on credit by the end of the 1920s. Consumer debt more than doubled during the decade.
While GDP growth during this period was extremely strong, the Roaring Twenties also had a dark side. Income inequality during this era was the highest in American history. By 1929, the income of the top 1% had increased by 75%. Income for the rest of people (99%) increased by only 9%.
The Roaring Twenties ended with a bang. On Black Thursday (Oct 24, 1929), the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 11% at the open in very heavy volume, precipitating the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Cause of the Great Depression
Economists continue to debate to this day on the cause of the Great Depression. Here’s perspectives from three different economic schools:
John Maynard Keynes saw the causes of the Great Depression hinge upon a lack of aggregate demand. This later became the subject of his most influential work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, which was published in 1936.
Keynes argued that the solution was to stimulate the economy through some combination of two approaches:
1. A reduction in interest rates (monetary policy), and
2. Government investment in infrastructure (fiscal policy).
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” – John Maynard Keynes
Monetarists such as Milton Friedman viewed the cause of the Great Depression as a fall in the money supply.
Friedman and Schwartz argue that people wanted to hold more money than the Federal Reserve was supplying. As a result, people hoarded money by consuming less. This caused a contraction in employment and production since prices were not flexible enough to immediately fall.
“The Great Depression, like most other periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government mismanagement rather than by any inherent instability of the private economy.” ― Milton Friedman
Austrian economists argue that the Great Depression was the inevitable outcome of the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve during the 1920s.
In their opinion, the central bank’s policy was an “easy credit policy” which led to an unsustainable credit-driven boom.
“Any increase in the relative size of government in the economy, therefore, shifts the societal consumption-investment ratio in favor of consumption, and prolongs the depression.” – Murray Rothbard
The Great Depression and Deflation
Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide GDP fell by an estimated 15%.
Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices plunged. International trade fell by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25% and in some countries rose as high as 33%.
These statistics were only the tip of the iceberg. Learn about the full effects, the stories, and the recovery from the Great Depression in Part 2.
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.
Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices
Lumber prices in the U.S. continue to break records as pressure from both the supply and demand sides of the market collide.
Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices
Lumber is an important commodity used in construction, and refers to wood that has been processed into beams or planks.
Fluctuations in its price, which is typically quoted in USD/1,000 board feet (bd ft), can significantly affect the housing industry and in turn, influence the broader U.S. economy.
To understand the impact that lumber prices can have, we’ve visualized the number of homes that can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber, one year apart.
A Story of Supply and Demand
Before discussing the infographic above, it’s important to understand the market’s current environment.
In just one year, the price of lumber has increased 377%—reaching a record high of $1,635 per 1,000 bd ft. For context, lumber has historically fluctuated between $200 to $400.
To understand what’s driving lumber prices to new heights, let’s look at two economic elements: supply and demand.
U.S. lumber supplies came under pressure in April 2017, when the Trump administration raised tariffs on Canadian lumber. Since then, lumber imports have fallen and prices have experienced significant volatility.
After a brief stint above $600 in April 2018, lumber quickly tumbled down to sub $250 levels, causing a number of sawmills to shut down. The resulting decreases in production capacity (supply) were estimated to be around 3 billion board feet.
Once COVID-19 emerged, labor shortages cut production even further, making the lumber market incredibly sensitive to demand shocks. The U.S. government has since reduced its tariffs on Canadian lumber, but these measures appear to be an example of too little, too late.
Against expectations, COVID-19 has led to a significant boom in housing markets, greatly increasing the need for lumber.
Lockdowns in early 2020 delayed many home purchases until later in the year, while increased savings rates during the pandemic meant Americans had more cash on hand. The demand for homes was further amplified by record-low mortgage rates across the country.
Existing homeowners needed lumber too, as many Americans suddenly found themselves requiring upgrades and renovations to accommodate their new stay-at-home lifestyles.
How Many Homes Can You Build With $50K of Lumber?
To see how burgeoning lumber prices are impacting the U.S. housing market, we’ve calculated the number of single family homes that could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. First, we established the following parameters:
- Lumber requirements: 6.3 board feet (bd ft) per square foot (sq ft)
- Median single family house size: 2,301 sq ft
- Total lumber required per single family house: 14,496 bd ft
Based on these parameters, here’s how many single family homes can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber:
|Date*||Lumber Price||Total Lumber Purchased||Total Homes Built|
|2021-05-05||$1,635 per 1,000 bd ft||30,581 bd ft||2.11|
|2020-05-04||$343 per 1,000 bd ft||145,773 bd ft||10.05|
|2015-05-01||$234 per 1,000 bd ft||213,675 bd ft||14.74|
|2010-05-01||$270 per 1,000 bd ft||185,185 bd ft||12.77|
*Exact matching dates were not available for past years.
As lumber prices continue to set record highs, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has reported that the cost to build a single family home has increased by $36,000. Most of this cost can be passed down to the consumer, but extremely tight supplies mean homebuilders are unable to start more projects.
The Clock is Ticking
Despite their best efforts to increase output, it’s likely that sawmills across the U.S. will continue playing catch-up in 2021.
“There was a great fear among sawmills to prepare for a downturn. When home buying surged, they could not open up capacity quickly enough.”
– Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors
Analysts are now warning that lumber prices could reach a flashpoint, where affordability becomes so limited that demand suddenly falls off. This has led the NAHB to ask the Biden administration for a temporary pause on Canadian lumber tariffs, which currently sit at 9%.
U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber were first introduced in 1982, and represent one of the longest lasting trade wars between the two nations. The U.S. is currently appealing a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that states its 2017 tariff hike was a breach of global trading rules.
Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America
Compared to January 2020, 34% of small businesses are currently closed. This map looks at the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas.
Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America
In the business news cycle, headlines are often dominated by large corporations, macroeconomic news, or government action.
While mom and pop might not always be in focus, collectively small businesses are a powerful and influential piece of the economy. In fact, 99.9% of all businesses in the U.S. qualify as small businesses, collectively employing almost half (47.3%) of the nation’s private workforce.
Unfortunately, they’ve also been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy amid the pandemic. From the CARES Act to the new budget proposal, billions of dollars have been allocated towards helping small businesses to get back on their feet.
Small Business Recovery in 50 Metro Areas
During the pandemic, many small businesses have either swiftly pivoted to survive, or struggled to stay afloat. This map pulls data from Opportunity Insights to examine the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas across America.
So, has the situation improved since the last time we examined this data? The short answer is no—on a national scale, 34% of small businesses are closed compared to January 2020.
San Francisco is one of the most affected metro areas, with a 48% closure rate of small businesses. New York City has spiralled the most since the end of September 2020.
|U.S. Metro Area||% Change in # of|
Small Businesses Open
(As of Sep 25, 2020)
|% Change in # of|
Small Businesses Open
(As of Apr 23, 2021)
|7-month change (p.p.)|
|New York City||-21%||-42%||-21|
|Salt Lake City||-18%||-23%||-5|
Data as of Apr 23, 2021 and indexed to Jan 4-31, 2020.
On the flip side, Honolulu has seen the most improvement. As travel and tourism numbers into Hawaii have steadily risen up with lifted nationwide restrictions, there has been a 16 p.p. increase in open businesses compared to September 2020.
Road to a K-Shaped Recovery
As of April 25, 2021, nearly 42% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, even with this rapid vaccine rollout, various segments of the economy aren’t recovering at the same pace.
Take for instance the stark difference between professional services and the leisure and hospitality sector. Though small business revenues in both segments have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, the latter has much more catching up to do:
This uneven phenomena is known as a K-shaped recovery, where some industries see more improvement compared to others that stagnate in the aftermath of a recession.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit Endures
Despite these continued hardships, it appears that many Americans have not been deterred from starting their own businesses.
Many small businesses require an Employer Identification Number (EIN) which makes EIN applications a good proxy for business formation activity. Despite an initial dip in the early months of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic spike in EIN business applications.
Even in the face of a global pandemic, the perseverance of such metrics prove that the innovative American spirit is unwavering, and spells better days to come for small business recovery.
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