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Column: Historic economic markers show progress

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September marks the beginning of autumn — and the anniversary of the 2008 benchmark bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Following the investment house’s failure came what’s commonly called “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” — the global financial crash and resulting severe recession.

But we continue to see confirmation the two economic eras remain different. Last year, the Dow Jones industrial average reached 13,000 for the first time since 2008. This year, it surpassed 15,000. Nevertheless, unemployment remains high, reflected in the Federal Reserve’s generally unexpected announcement to keep interest rates low.


The 1929 stock market collapse that ushered in the Great Depression was much more sudden and steep. The stock market, which peaked at 381.17 that Sept. 3, lost 25 percent of its value during a tumultuous two days, and then drifted down to the historic low of 41.22 in July 1932.

During the height of the selling frenzy, stocks were traded in volumes not reached again until the late 1960s.

Stocks did not return to their 1929 peak until 1954, in great contrast to our more recent rebound. Great public suspicion as well as hostility toward bankers defined American political life for years.

In the recent crash, many banks failed and others were saved only by enormous infusions of emergency federal funds. The Federal

Deposit Insurance Corp., established during the New Deal, has been up to the task of protecting individual depositors.

The principal catalyst of the recent crash was the enormous volume of high-risk debt centered on real estate, originating in the United States but unfolding worldwide. Both funds and fears today can quickly move globally.

Financial markets have been slowly recovering. The Group

of 20 industrial and emerging-

market countries now engages in coordinating national policies. The controversy over Larry Summers’ candidacy to succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman — and Summers’ withdrawal from consideration — reflects the post’s global importance.

Banks are now more regulated again, with capital requirements raised along with their rescue. In 2010, the comprehensive Dodd-Frank Act became law, including the important initiative of former Fed chief Paul Volcker to separate commercial from investment banking funds.

However, the ultimate fate of the “Volcker rule” remains uncertain. Banking lobbyists have tried ferociously to frustrate this return to regulation. U.S. officials are publicly optimistic but implementation has been notably slow.

During the Great Depression, American humorist Will Rogers became enormously popular. His homespun rural style provided a self-conscious contrast with the East Coast big-city financiers blamed for the nation’s economic problems.

Inspired by Rogers, here are three down-to-earth points:

First, as a worker, take pride. The United States has the world’s largest and most productive economy, thanks to people like you and me. Our estimated gross national product now totals more than

$15 trillion.

Second, as a citizen, be active and alert. Government reforms have directly reflected strong public pressures and fear. There must be serious, sustained public oversight of financial activities.

Third, as an investor, do your homework. A good guide is “Security Analysis,” by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, first published in 1934 during the Great Depression, revised and republished regularly since. You can even read the book while the TV and Internet are on.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in

Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.” Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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