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What Caused the Great Deppression Essay

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in 1930 and lasted until the late 1930s or middle 1940s. It was the longest, most widespread, and deepest depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how far the world’s economy can decline. Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by approximately 60%. Facing plummeting demand with few The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in 1930 and lasted until the late 1930s or middle 1940s.

It was the longest, most widespread, and deepest depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how far the world’s economy can decline. Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by approximately 60%. Facing plummeting demand with few alternate sources of jobs, areas dependent on primary sector industries such as cash cropping, mining and logging suffered the most. Some economies started to recover by the mid-1930s. In many countries, the negative effects of the Great Depression lasted until the end of World War II.

Start of the Great Depression

Economic historians usually attribute the start of the Great Depression to the sudden devastating collapse of US stock market prices on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday; some dispute this conclusion, and see the stock crash as a symptom, rather than a cause, of the Great Depression. Even after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, optimism persisted for some time; John D. Rockefeller said that “These are days when many are discouraged. In the 93 years of my life, depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again.” The stock market turned upward in early 1930, returning to early 1929 levels by April. This was still almost 30% below the peak of September 1929. Together, government and business spent more in the first half of 1930 than in the corresponding period of the previous year.

On the other hand, consumers, many of whom had suffered severe losses in the stock market the previous year, cut back their expenditures by ten percent. Likewise, beginning in mid-1930, a severe drought ravaged the agricultural heartland of the US. By mid-1930, interest rates had dropped to low levels, but expected deflation and the continuing reluctance of people to borrow meant that consumer spending and investment were depressed. By May 1930, automobile sales had declined to below the levels of 1928. Prices in general began to decline, although wages held steady in 1930; but then a deflationary spiral started in 1931.

Conditions were worse in farming areas, where commodity prices plunged, and in mining and logging areas, where unemployment was high and there were few other jobs. The decline in the US economy was the factor that pulled down most other countries at first, then internal weaknesses or strengths in each country made conditions worse or better. Frantic attempts to shore up the economies of individual nations through protectionist policies, such as the 1930 U.S. Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act and retaliatory tariffs in other countries, exacerbated the collapse in global trade. By late 1930, a steady decline in the world economy had set in, which did not reach bottom until 1933.

Economic indicators

Change in economic indicators 1929–32


There were multiple causes for the first downturn in 1929. These include the structural weaknesses and specific events that turned it into a major depression and the manner in which the downturn spread from country to country. In relation to the 1929 downturn, historians emphasize structural factors like major bank failures and the stock market crash. In contrast, monetarist economists point to monetary factors such as actions by the US Federal Reserve that contracted the money supply, as well as Britain’s decision to return to the gold standard at pre–World War I parities . Recessions and business cycles are thought to be a normal part of living in a world of inexact balances between supply and demand. What turns a normal recession or ‘ordinary’ business cycle into a depression is a subject of much debate and concern. Scholars have not agreed on the exact causes and their relative importance. The search for causes is closely connected to the issue of avoiding future depressions.

An even larger question is whether the Great Depression was primarily a failure on the part of free markets or a failure of government efforts to regulate interest rates, curtail widespread bank failures, and control the money supply. Current theories may be broadly classified into two main points of view and several heterodox points of view. There are demand-driven theories, most importantly Keynesian economics, but also including those who point to the breakdown of international trade, and Institutional economists who point to underconsumption and over-investment, malfeasance by bankers and industrialists, or incompetence by government officials. The consensus among demand-driven theories is that a large-scale loss of confidence led to a sudden reduction in consumption and investment spending.

Once panic and deflation set in, many people believed they could avoid further losses by keeping clear of the markets. Holding money became profitable as prices dropped lower and a given amount of money bought ever more goods, exacerbating the drop in demand. There are the monetarists, who believe that the Great Depression started as an ordinary recession, but that significant policy mistakes by monetary authorities, caused a shrinking of the money supply which greatly exacerbated the economic situation, causing a recession to descend into the Great Depression. Related to this explanation are those who point to debt deflation causing those who borrow to owe ever more in real terms. There are also various heterodox theories that downplay or reject the explanations of the Keynesians and monetarists. For example, some new classical macroeconomists have argued that various labor market policies imposed at the start caused the length and severity of the Great Depression. The Austrian school of economics focuses on the macroeconomic effects of money supply, and how central banking decisions can lead to over-investment .



British economist John Maynard Keynes argued in General Theory of Employment Interest and Money that lower aggregate expenditures in the economy contributed to a massive decline in income and to employment that was well below the average. In such a situation, the economy reached equilibrium at low levels of economic activity and high unemployment. Keynes’ basic idea was simple: to keep people fully employed, governments have to run deficits when the economy is slowing, as the private sector would not invest enough to keep production at the normal level and bring the economy out of recession. Keynesian economists called on governments during times of economic crisis to pick up the slack by increasing government spending and/or cutting taxes. As the Depression wore on, Franklin D. Roosevelt tried public works, farm subsidies, and other devices to restart the US economy, but never completely gave up trying to balance the budget. According to the Keynesians, this improved the economy, but Roosevelt never spent enough to bring the economy out of recession until the start of World War II.

Breakdown of international trade

Many economists have argued that the sharp decline in international trade after 1930 helped to worsen the depression, especially for countries significantly dependent on foreign trade. Most historians and economists partly blame the American Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act for worsening the depression by seriously reducing international trade and causing retaliatory tariffs in other countries. While foreign trade was a small part of overall economic activity in the U.S. and was concentrated in a few businesses like farming, it was a much larger factor in many other countries. The average ad valorem rate of duties on dutiable imports for 1921–1925 was 25.9% but under the new tariff it jumped to 50% in 1931–1935.

In dollar terms, American exports declined from about $5.2 billion in 1929 to $1.7 billion in 1933; but prices also fell, so the physical volume of exports only fell by half. Hardest hit were farm commodities such as wheat, cotton, tobacco, and lumber. According to this theory, the collapse of farm exports caused many American farmers to default on their loans, leading to the bank runs on small rural banks that characterized the early years of the Great Depression.

Debt deflation

Irving Fisher argued that the predominant factor leading to the Great Depression was over-indebtedness and deflation. Fisher tied loose credit to over-indebtedness, which fueled speculation and asset bubbles. He then outlined 9 factors interacting with one another under conditions of debt and deflation to create the mechanics of boom to bust. The chain of events proceeded as follows:

# Debt liquidation and distress selling
# Contraction of the money supply as bank loans are paid off
# A fall in the level of asset prices
# A still greater fall in the net worths of business, precipitating bankruptcies
# A fall in profits
# A reduction in output, in trade and in employment.
# Pessimism and loss of confidence
# Hoarding of money
# A fall in nominal interest rates and a rise in deflation adjusted interest rates. Brokerage firms, in other words, would lend $9 for every $1 an investor had deposited. When the market fell, brokers called in these loans, which could not be paid back. Banks began to fail as debtors defaulted on debt and depositors attempted to withdraw their deposits en masse, triggering multiple bank runs. Government guarantees and Federal Reserve banking regulations to prevent such panics were ineffective or not used. Bank failures led to the loss of billions of dollars in assets. Bank failures snowballed as desperate bankers called in loans which the borrowers did not have time or money to repay. With future profits looking poor, capital investment and construction slowed or completely ceased. In the face of bad loans and worsening future prospects, the surviving banks became even more conservative in their lending.


Monetarists, including Milton Friedman, argue that the Great Depression was mainly caused by monetary contraction, the consequence of poor policy-making by the American Federal Reserve System and continued crisis in the banking system. In this view, the Federal Reserve, by not acting, allowed the money supply as measured by the M2 to shrink by one-third from 1929–1933, thereby transforming a normal recession into the Great Depression. Friedman argued that the downward turn in the economy, starting with the stock market crash, would have been just another recession. The Federal Reserve allowed some large public bank failures – particularly that of the New York Bank of the United States – which produced panic and widespread runs on local banks, and the Federal Reserve sat idly by while banks collapsed.

He claimed that, if the Fed had provided emergency lending to these key banks, or simply bought government bonds on the open market to provide liquidity and increase the quantity of money after the key banks fell, all the rest of the banks would not have fallen after the large ones did, and the money supply would not have fallen as far and as fast as it did. With significantly less money to go around, businessmen could not get new loans and could not even get their old loans renewed, forcing many to stop investing. This interpretation blames the Federal Reserve for inaction, especially the New York branch. One reason why the Federal Reserve did not act to limit the decline of the money supply was regulation. At that time, the amount of credit the Federal Reserve could issue was limited by the Federal Reserve Act, which required 40% gold backing of Federal Reserve Notes issued.

By the late 1920s, the Federal Reserve had almost hit the limit of allowable credit that could be backed by the gold in its possession. This credit was in the form of Federal Reserve demand notes. A “promise of gold” is not as good as “gold in the hand”, particularly when they only had enough gold to cover 40% of the Federal Reserve Notes outstanding. During the bank panics a portion of those demand notes were redeemed for Federal Reserve gold. Since the Federal Reserve had hit its limit on allowable credit, any reduction in gold in its vaults had to be accompanied by a greater reduction in credit.

On April 5, 1933, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102 making the private ownership of gold certificates, coins and bullion illegal, reducing the pressure on Federal Reserve gold. decomposes the economic decline into a decline in the labor force, capital stock, and the productivity with which these inputs are used. This study suggests that theories of the Great Depression have to explain an initial severe decline but rapid recovery in productivity, relatively little change in the capital stock, and a prolonged depression in the labor force. This analysis rejects theories that focus on the role of savings and posit a decline in the capital stock.

Austrian School

Another explanation comes from the Austrian School of economics. Theorists of the “Austrian School” who wrote about the Depression include Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and American economist Murray Rothbard, who wrote America’s Great Depression . In their view and like the monetarists, the Federal Reserve, which was created in 1913, shoulders much of the blame; but in opposition to the monetarists, they argue that the key cause of the Depression was the expansion of the money supply in the 1920s that led to an unsustainable credit-driven boom. In the Austrian view it was this inflation of the money supply that led to an unsustainable boom in both asset prices and capital goods. By the time the Fed belatedly tightened in 1928, it was far too late and, in the Austrian view, a significant economic contraction was inevitable. However, Hayek, unlike Rothbard, also believed, along with the monetarists, that the Federal Reserve further contributed to the problems of the Depression by permitting the money supply to shrink during the earliest years of the Depression.


Karl Marx saw recession and depression as unavoidable under free-market capitalism as there are no restrictions on accumulations of capital other than the market itself. In the Marxist view, capitalism tends to create unbalanced accumulations of wealth, leading to over-accumulations of capital which inevitably lead to a crisis. This especially sharp bust is a regular feature of the boom and bust pattern of what Marxists term “chaotic” capitalist development. It is a tenet of many Marxist groupings that such crises are inevitable and will be increasingly severe until the contradictions inherent in the mismatch between the mode of production and the development of productive forces reach the final point of failure. At which point, the crisis period encourages intensified class conflict and forces societal change.


Two economists of the 1920s, Waddill Catchings and William Trufant Foster, popularized a theory that influenced many policy makers, including Herbert Hoover, Henry A. Wallace, Paul Douglas, and Marriner Eccles. It held the economy produced more than it consumed, because the consumers did not have enough income. Thus the unequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920s caused the Great Depression. According to this view, the root cause of the Great Depression was a global over-investment in heavy industry capacity compared to wages and earnings from independent businesses, such as farms. The solution was the government must pump money into consumers’ pockets. That is, it must redistribute purchasing power, maintain the industrial base, but re-inflate prices and wages to force as much of the inflationary increase in purchasing power into consumer spending. The economy was overbuilt, and new factories were not needed. Foster and Catchings recommended federal and state governments start large construction projects, a program followed by Hoover and Roosevelt.

Productivity shock

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the trends we are describing are long-time trends and were thoroughly evident prior to 1929. These trends are in nowise the result of the present depression, nor are they the result of the World War. On the contrary, the present depression is a collapse resulting from these long-term trends.” M. King Hubbert

The first three decades of the 20th century saw economic output surge with electrification, mass production and motorized farm machinery, and because of the rapid growth in productivity there was a lot of excess production capacity and the work week was being reduced. The dramatic rise in productivity of major industries in the U. S. and the effects of productivity on output, wages and the work week are discussed by Spurgeon Bell in his book Productivity, Wages, and National Income .

Turning point and recovery

In most countries of the world, recovery from the Great Depression began in 1933. It was the rollback of those same reflationary policies that led to the interrupting recession of 1937. One contributing policy that reversed reflation was the Banking Act of 1935, which effectively raised reserve requirements, causing a monetary contraction that helped to thwart the recovery. GDP returned to its upward slope in 1938. According to Christina Romer, the money supply growth caused by huge international gold inflows was a crucial source of the recovery of the United States economy, and that the economy showed little sign of self-correction.

The gold inflows were partly due to devaluation of the U.S. dollar and partly due to deterioration of the political situation in Europe. In their book, A Monetary History of the United States, Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz also attributed the recovery to monetary factors, and contended that it was much slowed by poor management of money by the Federal Reserve System. Current Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke agrees that monetary factors played important roles both in the worldwide economic decline and eventual recovery. Bernanke, also sees a strong role for institutional factors, particularly the rebuilding and restructuring of the financial system, and points out that the Depression needs to be examined in international perspective.

Gold standard

Some economic studies have indicated that just as the downturn was spread worldwide by the rigidities of the Gold Standard, it was suspending gold convertibility that did the most to make recovery possible. On the other hand, economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Murray Rothbard point out that the 19th century panics each had a shorter duration while also having occurred under the international gold standard, and that policies countries followed after casting off the gold standard, and what results followed, varied widely. Every major currency left the gold standard during the Great Depression. Great Britain was the first to do so. Facing speculative attacks on the pound and depleting gold reserves, in September 1931 the Bank of England ceased exchanging pound notes for gold and the pound was floated on foreign exchange markets. Great Britain, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries left the gold standard in 1931.

Other countries, such as Italy and the U.S., remained on the gold standard into 1932 or 1933, while a few countries in the so-called “gold bloc”, led by France and including Poland, Belgium and Switzerland, stayed on the standard until 1935–1936. According to later analysis, the earliness with which a country left the gold standard reliably predicted its economic recovery. For example, Great Britain and Scandinavia, which left the gold standard in 1931, recovered much earlier than France and Belgium, which remained on gold much longer. Countries such as China, which had a silver standard, almost avoided the depression entirely. The connection between leaving the gold standard as a strong predictor of that country’s severity of its depression and the length of time of its recovery has been shown to be consistent for dozens of countries, including developing countries. This partly explains why the experience and length of the depression differed between national economies.

World War II and recovery

The common view among economic historians is that the Great Depression ended with the advent of World War II. Many economists believe that government spending on the war caused or at least accelerated recovery from the Great Depression, though some consider that it did not play a very large role in the recovery. It did help in reducing unemployment. The rearmament policies leading up to World War II helped stimulate the economies of Europe in 1937–39. By 1937, unemployment in Britain had fallen to 1.5 million. The mobilisation of manpower following the outbreak of war in 1939 ended unemployment. The US’ entry into the war in 1941 finally eliminated the last effects from the Great Depression and brought the U.S. unemployment rate down below 10%. In the U.S., massive war spending doubled economic growth rates, either masking the effects of the Depression or essentially ending the Depression. Businessmen ignored the mounting national debt and heavy new taxes, redoubling their efforts for greater output to take advantage of generous government contracts.


The majority of countries set up relief programs, and most underwent some sort of political upheaval, pushing them to the left or right. In some states, the desperate citizens turned toward nationalist demagoguery — the most infamous example being Adolf Hitler — setting the stage for World War II in 1939.


Australia’s dependence on agricultural and industrial exports meant it was one of the hardest-hit countries in the Western world. Falling export demand and commodity prices placed massive downward pressures on wages. Further, unemployment reached a record high of 29% in 1932, with incidents of civil unrest becoming common. After 1932, an increase in wool and meat prices led to a gradual recovery.


Harshly affected by both the global economic downturn and the Dust Bowl, Canadian industrial production had fallen to only 58% of the 1929 level by 1932, the second lowest level in the world after the United States, and well behind nations such as Britain, which saw it fall only to 83% of the 1929 level. Total national income fell to 56% of the 1929 level, again worse than any nation apart from the United States. Unemployment reached 27% at the depth of the Depression in 1933.


The League of Nations labeled Chile the country hardest hit by the Great Depression because 80% of government revenue came from exports of copper and nitrates, which were in low demand. Chile initially felt the impact of the Great Depression in 1930, when GDP dropped 14%, mining income declined 27%, and export earnings fell 28%. By 1932, GDP had shrunk to less than half of what it had been in 1929, exacting a terrible toll in unemployment and business failures. Influenced profoundly by the Great Depression, many national leaders promoted the development of local industry in an effort to insulate the economy from future external shocks.

After six years of government austerity measures, which succeeded in reestablishing Chile’s creditworthiness, Chileans elected to office during the 1938–58 period a succession of center and left-of-center governments interested in promoting economic growth by means of government intervention. Prompted in part by the devastating 1939 Chillán earthquake, the Popular Front government of Pedro Aguirre Cerda created the Production Development Corporation to encourage with subsidies and direct investments an ambitious program of import substitution industrialization. Consequently, as in other Latin American countries, protectionism became an entrenched aspect of the Chilean economy.


The Depression began to affect France around 1931. France’s relatively high degree of self-sufficiency meant the damage was considerably less than in nations like Germany. Hardship and unemployment were high enough to lead to rioting and the rise of the socialist Popular Front. Ultra-nationalist groups also saw increased popularity, although democracy prevailed into World War II.


Germany’s Weimar Republic was hit hard by the depression, as American loans to help rebuild the German economy now stopped. Unemployment soared, especially in larger cities, and the political system veered toward extremism. The unemployment rate reached nearly 30% in 1932, bolstering support for the Nazi and Communist parties, which both rose in the years following the crash to altogether possess a Reichstag majority following the general election in July 1932. Repayments of the war reparations due by Germany were suspended in 1932 following the Lausanne Conference of 1932. By that time, Germany had repaid one eighth of the reparations. Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in January 1933, establishing a totalitarian single-party state within months and initiating the path towards World War II, the most devastating conflict in world history.

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