America's people and institutions have a rich history of responding admirably to crises -- after they have begun.
In an age of instant international communications and 24-hour-a-day gold trading by speculators seeking personal advantage from any real or potential human difficulty (a day soon to dawn, if New York's Comex gets its wishes and opens a California trading floor), it could be argued that a quicker response time to critical situations is required.
A. James Meigs, chairman of the Claremont Economics Institute in California, emphasized this point recently in talking about investment strategies for the 1980s.
"The time lags between policy changes, or rumors of policy changes, and their effects on prices and interest rates are getting shorter," he said. "You cannot expect interest rates to move in one direction very long when governments are buffeted by election campaigns and international forces. Nor can you expect to have much time to get out of a losing postion when rates turn. Lots of other people may get the same idea when you do, or a little sooner."
Anniversaries of major events, such as the stock market crash 50 years ago, invariably lead to attempts to draw parallels.
What has happened since 1929?
For one, the federal government has established a broad range of institutions and devices to protect Americans from the sort of losses they suffered after Wall Street's collapse.
By reacting to the earlier crisis, over a period of years the government probably has put in place the machinery to prevent another economic catastrophe like that of a half century ago.
However, recession of sbustantial magnitude or even a depression cannot be ruled out. If it takes place, it just won't be the same. New intervention in the free market may be necessary to deal with problems unrecognized today.
Whereas stock speculation and investment losses were a key to the earlier crash, the focal point of the next economic crisis most likely will be in some other area. For one thing, the stock market is not such an important indication of the country's health, as it was 50 years ago.
". . . It's no longer a reliable barometer of anything but the psychology of portfolio manager, who deal in such tremendous volumes, " says General Motors Corp. Chairman Thomas Murphy. "If they decide to shift, even in heavily traded stocks, it will influence the trend of prices."
If the stock markets are not likely to be at the center of a future economic crisis, what will? Many business people think real estate and commodities speculation, as well as computer fraud, are among the potential problem areas. And they say the real unknown factor is the impact of international developments, which could touch off an economic tailspin at almost any moment.
As before, the government probably will react by asserting new regulatory authority to prevent fraud and protect individuals in the years that follow.
The government even may move far more rapidly this time, because of the reduced time lag between events and reactions.
Of course, the government could establish protective measures now to help ease the pain from potential consequences of current dangers. Edward Cornish, president of the World Future Society, argues that government should start the planning now to minimize human suffering from a "severe" depression in the 1980s. There is only a modest chance the U.S. can escape such a fate, he says.
There is a recent precedent of government action in the early stages of crisis -- passage of the Securities Investor Protection Act in 1970, which strengthened Wall Street's self-regulation and created the Securities Investment companies in a fashion similar to bank account insurance.
SIPC Chairman Hugh Qwens, a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, says establishment of the new body was "positively visionary." He recalls the market environment of a decade ago, as the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted more than 35 percent and a backlog of paperwork jammed brokerage offices: "Hundreds of firms merged, were acquired, or simply went out of business. Some were unable to meet their obligations to customers and went bankrupt." With SIPC in place, an elderly couple in New York found that a broker had pocketed most of their $14,000 life savings. There was full reimbursement when the brokerage went into liquidation whereas previously the investors would have been lucky to get a dollar. "Confidence in the securities industry has been restored," Owens concludes.
It is hard today to imagine the business and investment environment in 1929, when corporations faced few requirements to disclose information to investors or the general public. Wall Street really was a club at that time, condoning even piracy by its inner circle. Stocks could be purchased with a tiny down payment. Money in banks was backed by little but reputation.
After stock prices collapsed, a deflation of all asset values spread throughout the country. Businesses and individuals could not repay loans to banks, many of which had to close their doors because no money was available to pay to depositors. Throughout the farm belts, revolt had started even before stocks plummeted. Farmers were unable to make mortgage payments with reduced income. It was an era of failure, bankruptcies, unemployment and lost fortunes.
With Herbert Hoover still in the White House, the federal government finally began to intrude into the process of crisis-solving during 1932, an election year. The Federal Home Loan Bank system was inauguarated to provide regulation of savings and loan associations and the thrift institutions' key role of home financing. A Reconstruction Finance Corp. was set up, to provide credit to financially troubled corporations.
But it was the experiments and policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administrations that began to confront more broadly the whole range of society's ills, starting within hours of the presients's inauguuration early in 1933.
In quick succession, FDR won approval for emergency banking legislation; an Agricultural Adjustment Act, to begin the process of farm price supports; and the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act and Homeowners Loan Act, to begin government activities in mortgage financing that continue today.
Following these actions came two of the most important pieces of economic legislation in America history -- the GlassSteagall and the Securities acts.
Glass-Steagall separated bank trust departments (which manage investment funds) from the commercial side of banking, preventing all sorts of abuses and manipulation in the marketplace. In addition, this legisation established federal insurance of bank deposits (now a maximum of $40,000 per account), provided interest on checking accounts and provided new powers to the Federal Reserve Board to help manage money and credit through market intervention.
The Securities Act of 1933 required corporations for the first time to disclose information to potential investors.
Government regulation of Wall Street activities was strengthened the following year, in the Securities Exchange Act, which brought all listed companies under disclosure requirements, established controls over trading by company "insiders" and established the SEC to regulate stock exchange practices.
In 1935, Congress approved the Social Security Act, establishing a national retirement system.
Other federal government actions provided supervision for credit unions, initial but modest regulation of commodities trading and new business and labor laws covering a range of activities from mergers to minimum wages.
Should any steps be taken now, to deal with a potential deep recession in the coming decade? For individual business and consumers, the best answer is probably caution. Salomon Brothers economist Henry Frankfurt address last week.
Recent Federal Reserve actions to stem the expansion of credit represent a major effort to turn the U.S. economy in a different direction, one with less inflationary growth, he said. "Uncertainty has been introduced. Caution is being instilled. Expectations are being lowered. The incentive to speculate has been given a hard knock. There was no other choice," he advised.