Causes of the Great Depression Industries in Trouble: The superficial prosperity of the late 1920s shrouded weaknesses that would signal the onset of the Great Depression. Key basic industries, such as railroads, textiles, and steel had barely made a profit. Mining and lumbering, which had expanded during wartime, were no longer in high demand. Coal mining was especially hard-hit, in part due to stiff competition from new forms of energy, including hydroelectric power, fuel oil, and natural gas. Even the boom industries of the 1920s – automobiles, construction, and consumer goods – weakened. One important economic indicator that declined during this time was the housing stats – the number of new dwellings being built. When housing starts to fall, so do jobs in related industries, such as furniture and lumbering.
Farmers Need a Lift: Perhaps agriculture suffered the most. During WWI, prices rose and international demand for crops such as wheat and corn soared. Farmers had planted more and taken out loans for land and equipment. However, demand fell after the war, and crop prices declined by 40% or more. Farmers boosted production in the hopes of selling more crops, but this only depressed prices further. Between 1919 and 1921 annual farm income declined from $10 billion to just over $4 billion. Farmers who had gone into debt had difficulty in paying off their loans. Many lost their farms when banks foreclosed and seized the property as payment for the debt. As farmers began to default on their loans, many rural banks began to fail. Congress tried to help farms with a bill that guaranteed the government would buy surplus crops at guaranteed prices to sell on the world market but President Coolidge vetoed the bill twice.
Consumers Have Less Money to Spend: As farmers’ income fell, they bought fewer goods and services, but the problem was larger. By the late 1920s, Americans were buying less – mainly because of rising prices, stagnant wages, unbalanced distribution of income, and overbuying on credit. Although many Americans appeared to be prosperous in the 1920s, they were living beyond their means. They often bought goods on credit – an arrangement in which consumers agreed to buy now and pay later for purchases. This was often in the form of an installment plan (usually monthly payments) that included interest charges. By making credit easily available, businesses encouraged Americans to pile up a large consumer debt. Faced with debt, consumers cut back on spending.
Uneven Distribution of Income: During the 1920s, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Between 1920 and 1929, the income of the wealthiest 1% of the population rose by 75%, compared with a 9% increase for Americans as a whole. More than 70% of the nation’s families earned less than $2500 per year, the considered the minimum amount needed for a decent standard of living. Even families earning twice that much could not afford many household products. Economists estimate that the average man or woman bought a new outfit only once a year.
Dreams of Riches in the Stock Market: By 1929, some economists had warned of weaknesses in the economy, but most Americans maintained the utmost confidence in the nation’s economic health. In increasing numbers, those who could afford to invested in the stock market. The stock market had become the most visible symbol of a prosperous American economy. Then, as now, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was the most widely used barometer of the stock market’s health. The Dow is a measure based on the stock prices of 30 representative large firms trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Through most of the 1920s, stock prices rose steadily. The Dow had reached a high of 381 points, nearly 300 points higher than it had been five years earlier. Americans rushed to buy stocks to take advantage of this market. However, the seeds of trouble were taking too. People were engaging in speculation – that is, they bought stocks and bonds on the chance of a quick profit, while ignoring the risks. Many began buying on margin – paying a small percentage of a stock’s price as a down payment and borrowing the rest. With easy money available to investors, the unrestrained buying and selling fueled the market’s upward spiral. In reality, these rising prices did not reflect companies’ worth. Worse, if the value of stocks declined, people who had bought on margin had no way to pay off the loans.
The Stock Market Crashes: In early September 1929, stock prices peaked and then fell. Confidence in the market started to waver, and some investors quickly sold their stocks. On October 24, the market took a plunge. Panicked investors unloaded their shares. On October 29th, now known as Black Tuesday – the bottom fell out of the market. Shareholders frantically tried to sell before prices plunged even lower. The number of shares dumped that day was a record 16.4 million. People who had bought stocks on credit were stuck with huge debts as the prices plummeted, while others lost most of their savings. By mid-November, investors had lost about $30 billion, an amount equal to how much America spent in WWI. The stock market bubble had finally burst.
Financial Collapse: The stock market crash signaled the beginning of the Great Depression – the period from 1929 to 1940 in which the economy plummeted and unemployment skyrocketed. The crash alone did not cause the Great Depression, but it hastened the collapse of the economy and made the depression more severe.
Bank and Business Failures: After the crash, many people panicked and withdrew their money from the banks. But some couldn’t get their money because the banks had invested it in the stock market. In 1929, 600 banks closed. By 1933, 11,000 of the nation’s 25,000 banks had failed. Because the government did not protect or insure bank accounts, millions of people lost their savings accounts.
The Great Depression hit other businesses too. Between 1929 and 1932, the gross national product – the nation’s total output of goods and services – was cut nearly in half. Approximately 90,000 businesses went bankrupt. As the economy plunged into a tailspin, millions of workers lost their jobs. Unemployment leaped from 3% (1.6 million workers) in 1929 to 25% (13 million workers) in 1933. One out of every four workers was out of a job. Those who kept their jobs faced pay cuts and reduce hours.
Worldwide Shock Waves: The U.S. was not the only country gripped by the Great Depression. The Great Depression compounded post-WWI problems by limiting America’s ability to import European goods which made it difficult to sell American farm and manufactured goods abroad. In 1930s, Congress passed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which established the highest protective tariff in U.S. History. It was designed to protect American farmers and manufacturers from foreign competition. Yet it had the opposite effect. By reducing the flow of goods into the U.S., the tariff prevented other countries from earning American currency to buy American goods. Many countries retaliated by raising their own tariffs. Within a few years, world trade had fallen more than 40%.
Reading Questions –
Please respond in full sentence format (except for # 1) on a separate piece of paper. You do NOT have to copy the questions.
Define the following language of the discipline terms (use your book and/or the reading):