What Was the Great Depression?

The term Great Depression refers to the greatest and longest economic recession in modern world history. The Great Depression ran between 1929 and 1941, which was the same year that the United States entered World War II in 1941. This period was accentuated by a number of economic contractions, including the stock market crash of 1929 and banking panics that occurred in 1930 and 1931.

Economists and historians often cite the Great Depression as one of the largest—if not the most—catastrophic economic events of the 20th century.

Key Takeaways

  • The Great Depression was the greatest and longest economic recession in modern world history that ran between 1929 and 1941.
  • Investing in the speculative market in the 1920s led to the stock market crash in 1929, which wiped out a great deal of nominal wealth.
  • Most historians and economists agree that the stock market crash of 1929 wasn't the only cause of the Great Depression.
  • Other factors including inactivity followed by overaction by the Fed also contributed to the Great Depression.
  • Both Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt tried to mitigate the impact of the depression through government policies.
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What Is an Economic Depression?

The Stock Market Crash

During the short depression that lasted from 1920 to 1921, known as the Forgotten Depression, the U.S. stock market fell by nearly 50%, and corporate profits declined by over 90%. The U.S. economy enjoyed robust growth during the rest of the decade. The Roaring Twenties, as the era came to be known, was a period when the American public discovered the stock market and dove in headfirst.

Speculative frenzies affected both the real estate markets and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Loose money supply and high levels of margin trading by investors helped to fuel an unprecedented increase in asset prices.

The lead-up to October 1929 saw equity prices rise to all-time high multiples of more than 19-times after-tax corporate earnings. This, coupled with the benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Index (DJIA) increasing 500% in just five years, ultimately caused the stock market crash.

The NYSE bubble burst violently on Oct. 24, 1929, a day that came to be known as Black Thursday. A brief rally occurred Friday the 25th and during a half-day session Saturday the 26th. However, the following week brought Black Monday (October 28) and Black Tuesday (October 29). The DJIA fell more than 20% over those two days. The stock market would eventually fall almost 90% from its 1929 peak.

Ripples from the crash spread across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe triggering other financial crises such as the collapse of the Boden-Kredit Anstalt, Austria’s most important bank. In 1931, the economic calamity hit both continents in full force.

The U.S. Economy Tailspin

The 1929 stock market crash wiped out nominal wealth, both corporate and private, sending the U.S. economy into a tailspin. In early 1929, the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.2%. By 1933, it soared over 25%.

Despite unprecedented interventions and government spending by both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, the unemployment rate remained above 18.9% in 1938. Real per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was below 1929 levels by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in late 1941.

While the crash likely triggered the decade-long economic downturn, most historians and economists agree that the crash alone did not cause the Great Depression. Nor does it explain why the slump's depth and persistence were so severe. A variety of specific events and policies contributed to the Great Depression and helped to prolong it during the 1930s.

Mistakes by the Young Federal Reserve

The relatively new Federal Reserve mismanaged the supply of money and credit before and after the crash in 1929. According to monetarists such as Milton Friedman and acknowledged by former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke.

Created in 1913, the Fed remained inactive throughout the first eight years of its existence. After the economy recovered from the 1920 to 1921 depression, the Fed allowed significant monetary expansion. The total money supply grew by $28 billion, a 61.8% increase between 1921 and 1928. Bank deposits increased by 51.1%, savings and loan shares rose by 224.3%, and net life insurance policy reserves jumped 113.8%. All of this occurred after the Federal Reserve cut required reserves to 3% in 1917. Gains in gold reserves via the Treasury and Fed were only $1.16 billion.

By increasing the money supply and keeping the interest rate low during the decade, the Fed instigated the rapid expansion that preceded the collapse. Much of the surplus money supply growth inflated the stock market and real estate bubbles.

After the bubbles burst and the market crashed, the Fed took the opposite course by cutting the money supply by nearly a third. This reduction caused severe liquidity problems for many small banks and choked off hopes for a quick recovery.

Trade routes created during World War II remained open during the Great Depression and helped the market recover.

The Fed's Tight Fist

As Bernanke noted in a November 2002 address, before the Fed existed, bank panics were typically resolved within weeks. Large private financial institutions would loan money to the strongest smaller institutions to maintain system integrity. That sort of scenario had occurred two decades earlier, during the Panic of 1907.

When frenzied selling sent the NYSE spiraling downward and led to a bank run, investment banker J.P. Morgan stepped in to rally Wall Street denizens to move significant amounts of capital to banks lacking funds. Ironically, it was that panic that led the government to create the Federal Reserve to cut its reliance on individual financiers such as Morgan.

After Black Thursday, the heads of several New York banks had tried to instill confidence by prominently purchasing large blocks of blue-chip stocks at above-market prices. While these actions caused a brief rally Friday, the panicked sell-offs resumed Monday. In the decades since 1907, the stock market grew beyond the ability of such individual efforts. Now, only the Fed was big enough to prop up the U.S. financial system.

The Fed failed to do so with a cash injection between 1929 and 1932. Instead, it watched the money supply collapse and let thousands of banks fail. At the time, banking laws made it very difficult for institutions to grow and diversify enough to survive a massive withdrawal of deposits or run on the bank.

While difficult to understand, the Fed's harsh reaction may have been the result of its fear that bailing out careless banks would only encourage fiscal irresponsibility in the future. Some historians argue that the Fed created the conditions that caused the economy to overheat and then exacerbated an already dire economic situation.

Hoover's Propped-Up Prices

Herbert Hoover took action after the crash occurred even though he's often characterized as a "do-nothing" president.

Between 1930 and 1932, he implemented:

  • An increase to federal spending by 42%, which engaged in massive public works programs such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC)
  • Taxes to pay for new programs
  • A ban on immigration in 1930 to keep low-skilled workers from flooding the labor market

Hoover was mainly concerned with the fact that wages would be cut following the economic downturn. He reasoned that prices needed to stay high to ensure high paychecks in all industries. To keep prices high, consumers would need to pay more.

But the public was burned badly in the crash, leaving many people without the resources to spend lavishly on goods and services. Nor could companies count on overseas trade, as foreign nations were not willing to buy overpriced American goods any more than Americans were.

Many of his and Congress' other post-crash interventions, such as wage, labor, trade, and price controls, damaged the economy's ability to adjust and reallocate resources.

U.S. Protectionism

This bleak reality forced Hoover to use legislation to prop up prices and hence wages by choking out cheaper foreign competition. Following the tradition of protectionists, and against the protests of more than 1,000 of the nation's economists, Hoover signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.

The act was initially a way to protect agriculture but swelled into a multi-industry tariff, imposing huge duties on more than 880 foreign products. Nearly three dozen countries retaliated, and imports fell from $7 billion in 1929 to just $2.5 billion in 1932. By 1934, international trade had declined by 66%. Not surprisingly, economic conditions worsened worldwide.

Hoover's desire to maintain jobs and individual and corporate income levels was understandable. However, he encouraged businesses to raise wages, avoid layoffs, and keep prices high at a time when they naturally should have fallen. With previous cycles of recession/depression, the United States suffered one to three years of low wages and unemployment before dropping prices led to a recovery. Unable to sustain these artificial levels, and with global trade effectively cut off, the U.S. economy deteriorated from a recession to a depression.

The Controversial New Deal

President Franklin Roosevelt promised massive change when he was voted-in in 1933. The New Deal he initiated was an innovative, unprecedented series of domestic programs and acts designed to bolster American business, reduce unemployment, and protect the public.

Loosely based on Keynesian economics, it was based on the fact that the government could and should stimulate the economy. The New Deal set lofty goals to create and maintain the national infrastructure, full employment, and healthy wages. The government set about achieving these goals through price, wage, and even production controls.

Some economists claim that Roosevelt continued many of Hoover's interventions, just on a larger scale. He kept in place a rigid focus on price supports and minimum wages and removed the country from the gold standard, forbidding individuals to hoard gold coins and bullion. He banned monopolistic business practices and instituted dozens of new public works programs and other job-creation agencies.

The Roosevelt administration paid farmers and ranchers to stop or cut back on production. One of the most heartbreaking conundrums of the period was the destruction of excess crops, despite the need for thousands of Americans to access affordable food.

Federal taxes tripled between 1933 and 1940 to pay for these initiatives as well as new programs such as Social Security. These increases included hikes in excise taxes, personal income taxes, inheritance taxes, corporate income taxes, and an excess profits tax.

New Deal Success and Failure

The New Deal led to measurable results, such as financial system reform and stabilization, boosting public confidence. Roosevelt declared a bank holiday for an entire week in March 1933 to prevent institutional collapse due to panicked withdrawals. This was followed by a construction program for a network of dams, bridges, tunnels, and roads. These projects opened up federal work programs, employing thousands of people.

Although the economy showed some recovery, the rebound was far too weak for the New Deal's policies to be unequivocally deemed successful in pulling America out of the Great Depression. Historians and economists disagree on the reason:

  • Keynesians blame a lack of federal spending, saying that Roosevelt did not go far enough in his government-centric recovery plans
  • others claim that by trying to spark immediate improvement instead of letting the economic/business cycle follow its usual two-year course of hitting bottom and then rebounding, Roosevelt may have prolonged the depression, just like Hoover did before him

A study by two economists at the University of California, Los Angeles estimated that the New Deal extended the Great Depression by at least seven years. But it is possible that the relatively quick recovery, which was characteristic of other post-depression recoveries, may not have occurred as rapidly post-1929. That's because it was the first time the general public (not just the Wall Street elite) lost large amounts in the stock market.

American economic historian Robert Higgs argued that Roosevelt's new rules and regulations came so fast and were so revolutionary that businesses became afraid to hire or invest. Philip Harvey, a professor of law and economics at Rutgers University, suggested that Roosevelt was more interested in addressing social welfare concerns than creating a Keynesian-style macroeconomic stimulus package.

Social Security policies enacted by the New Deal created programs for unemployment, disability insurance, old-age, and widows' benefits.

The Impact of World War II

The Great Depression appeared to end suddenly around 1941 to 1942. That's if we look at employment and GDP figures. This was just around the time that the United States entered World War II. The unemployment rate fell from eight million in 1940 to just over one million in 1943. However, more than 16 million Americans were conscripted to fight in the Armed Services. In the private sector, the real unemployment rate grew during the war.

The standard of living declined due to wartime shortages caused by rationing, and taxes rose dramatically to fund the war effort. Private investment dropped from $17.9 billion in 1940 to $5.7 billion in 1943, and total private-sector production fell by nearly 50%.

Although the notion that the war ended the Great Depression is a broken window fallacy, the conflict did put the United States on the road to recovery. The war opened international trading channels and reversed price and wage controls. Government demand opened up for inexpensive products, and the demand created a massive fiscal stimulus.

In the first 12 months after the war ended, private investments rose from $10.6 billion to $30.6 billion. The stock market broke into a bull run in a few short years.

The Bottom Line

The Great Depression was the result of an unlucky combination of factors, including a flip-flopping Fed, protectionist tariffs, and inconsistently applied government interventionist efforts. This period could have been shortened or even avoided by a change in any one of these factors.

While the debate continues as to whether the interventions were appropriate, many of the reforms from the New Deal, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and agricultural subsidies, exist to this day. The assumption that the federal government should act in times of national economic crisis is now strongly supported. This legacy is one of the reasons the Great Depression is considered one of the seminal events in modern American history.

What Really Caused the Great Depression?

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what specific factor caused the Great Depression. But economists and historians generally agree that there were several mitigating factors that led to this period of downturn. These include the stock market crash of 1929, the gold standard, a drop in lending and tariffs, as well as banking panics, and contracted monetary policies by the Fed.

When Did the Great Depression Start?

The Great Depression started following the stock market crash of 1929, which wiped out both private and corporate nominal wealth. This sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin and eventually trickled out beyond the U.S. border to Europe.

When Did the Great Depression End?

The Great Depression ended in 1941. This was around the same time that the United States entered World War II. Most economists cite this as the end date, as this was the time that unemployment dropped and GDP increased.