Wall Street Crash of 1929
1929 The Crash
Crowd gathering on Wall Street after the 1929 crash
The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as Black Tuesday or the Stock Market Crash of 1929, began in late October 1929 and was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, when taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its fallout. The crash signaled the beginning of the 10-year Great Depression that affected all Western industrialized countries.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average, 1928–1930
The Roaring Twenties, the decade that followed World War I and led to the Crash, was a time of wealth and excess. Building on post-war optimism, many rural Americans migrated to the cities in vast numbers throughout the decade with the hopes of finding a more prosperous life in the ever growing expansion of America’s industrial sector. While the American cities prospered, the vast migration from rural areas and continued neglect of the US agriculture industry would create widespread financial despair among American farmers throughout the decade and would later be blamed as one of the key factors that led to the 1929 stock market crash.
Despite the dangers of speculation, many believed that the stock market would continue to rise indefinitely. On March 25, 1929, however, a mini crash occurred after investors started to sell stocks at a rapid pace, exposing the market’s shaky foundation. Two days later, banker Charles E. Mitchell announced his company the National City Bank would provide $25 million in credit to stop the market’s slide. Mitchell’s move brought a temporary halt to the financial crisis and call money declined from 20 to eight percent. However, the American economy was now showing ominous signs of trouble. Steel production was declining, construction was sluggish, car sales were down, and consumers were building up high debts because of easy credit.
The market had been on a nine-year run that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average increase in value tenfold, peaking at 381.17 on September 3, 1929. Shortly before the crash, economist Irving Fisher famously proclaimed, “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” The optimism and financial gains of the great bull market were shaken on September 18, 1929, when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) abruptly fell.
On September 20, the London Stock Exchange (LSE) officially crashed when top British investor Clarence Hatry and many of his associates were jailed for fraud and forgery. The LSE’s crash greatly weakened the optimism of American investment in markets overseas. In the days leading up to the crash, the market was severely unstable. Periods of selling and high volumes of trading were interspersed with brief periods of rising prices and recovery. Economist and author Jude Wanniski later correlated these swings with the prospects for passage of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act, which was then being debated in Congress.
On October 24 (“Black Thursday”), the market lost 11% of its value at the opening bell on very heavy trading. Several leading Wall Street bankers met to find a solution to the panic and chaos on the trading floor. The meeting included Thomas W. Lamont, acting head of Morgan Bank; Albert Wiggin, head of the Chase National Bank; and Charles E. Mitchell, president of the National City Bank of New York. They chose Richard Whitney, vice president of the Exchange, to act on their behalf.
With the bankers’ financial resources behind him, Whitney placed a bid to purchase a large block of shares in U.S. Steel at a price well above the current market. As traders watched, Whitney then placed similar bids on other “blue chip” stocks. This tactic was similar to one that ended the Panic of 1907. It succeeded in halting the slide. The Dow Jones Industrial Average recovered, closing with it down only 6.38 points for the day; however, unlike 1907, the respite was only temporary.
Over the weekend, the events were covered by the newspapers across the United States. On October 28, “Black Monday,” more investors decided to get out of the market, and the slide continued with a record loss in the Dow for the day of 38.33 points, or 13%.
The next day, “Black Tuesday”, October 29, 1929, about sixteen million shares were traded, and the Dow lost an additional 30 points, or 12%, amid rumors that U.S. President Herbert Hoover would not veto the pending Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act. The volume of stocks traded on October 29, 1929 was a record that was not broken for nearly 40 years.
On October 29, William C. Durant joined with members of the Rockefeller family and other financial giants to buy large quantities of stocks in order to demonstrate to the public their confidence in the market, but their efforts failed to stop the large decline in prices. Due to the massive volume of stocks traded that day, the ticker did not stop running until about 7:45 p.m. that evening. The market had lost over $30 billion in the space of two days which included $14 billion on October 29 alone.
Dow Jones Industrial Average on Black Monday and Black Tuesday
|October 28, 1929||−38.33||−12.82||260.64|
|October 29, 1929||−30.57||−11.73||230.07|
After a one-day recovery on October 30, where the Dow regained an additional 28.40 points, or 12%, to close at 258.47, the market continued to fall, arriving at an interim bottom on November 13, 1929, with the Dow closing at 198.60. The market then recovered for several months, starting on November 14, with the Dow gaining 18.59 points to close at 217.28, and reaching a secondary closing peak (i.e., bear market rally) of 294.07 on April 17, 1930. After the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act was enacted in mid-June, the Dow dropped again, stabilizing above 200. The following year, the Dow embarked on another, much longer, steady slide from April 1931 to July 8, 1932 when it closed at 41.22—its lowest level of the 20th century, concluding an 89% loss rate for all of the market’s stocks. For most of the 1930s, the Dow began slowly to regain the ground it lost during the 1929 crash and the three years following it, beginning on March 15, 1933, with the largest percentage increase of 15.34%, with the Dow Jones closing at 62.10, with a 8.26 point increase. The largest percentage increases of the Dow Jones occurred during the early and mid-1930s, but it would not return to the peak closing of September 3, 1929 until November 23, 1954.
The crash followed a speculative boom that had taken hold in the late 1920’s. During the later half of the 1920s, steel production, building construction, retail turnover, automobiles registered, even railway receipts advanced from record to record. The combined net profits of 536 manufacturing and trading companies showed an increase, in fact for the first six months of 1929, of 36.6% over 1928, itself a record half-year. Iron and steel led the way with doubled gains. Such figures set up a crescendo of stock-exchange speculation which had led hundreds of thousands of Americans to invest heavily in the stock market. A significant number of them were borrowing money to buy more stocks. By August 1929, brokers were routinely lending small investors more than two-thirds of the face value of the stocks they were buying. Over $8.5 billion was out on loan, more than the entire amount of currency circulating in the U.S. at the time.
The rising share prices encouraged more people to invest; people hoped the share prices would rise further. Speculation thus fueled further rises and created an economic bubble. Because of margin buying, investors stood to lose large sums of money if the market turned down—or even failed to advance quickly enough. The average P/E (price to earnings) ratio of S&P Composite stocks was 32.6 in September 1929, clearly above historical norms.
Good harvests had built up a mass of 250,000,000 bushels of wheat to be ‘carried over’ when 1929 opened. By May there was also a winter-wheat crop of 560,000,000 bushels ready for harvest in the Mississippi Valley. This oversupply caused a drop in wheat prices so heavy that the net incomes of the farming population from wheat were threatened with extinction. Stock markets are always sensitive to the future state of commodity markets and the slump in Wall-street predicted for May by Sir George Paish, arrived on time. In June 1929 the position was saved by a severe drought in the Dakotas and the Canadian West, plus unfavorable seed times in Argentina and Eastern Australia. The oversupply would now be wanted to fill the big gaps in the 1929 world wheat production. From 97c per bushel in May wheat rose to $1.49 in July. When it was seen that at this figure the American farmers would get rather more for their smaller crop than for that of 1928, up went stocks again and from far and wide orders came to buy shares for the profits to come.
Then in August the wheat price fell when France and Italy were bragging of a magnificent harvest and the situation in Australia improved. This sent a shiver through Wall Street and stock prices quickly dropped, but word of cheap stocks brought a fresh rush of ‘stags,’ amateur speculators and investors. Congress had also voted for a 100 million dollar relief package for the farmers, hoping to stabilize wheat prices. By October though, the price had fallen to $1.31 per bushel. The falling commodity markets in other countries told upon even American self-confidence, and the stock market started to falter.
On October 24, 1929, with the Dow just past its September 3 peak of 381.17, the market finally turned down, and panic selling started.
The president of the Chase National Bank said at the time “We are reaping the natural fruit of the orgy of speculation in which millions of people have indulged. It was inevitable, because of the tremendous increase in the number of stockholders in recent years, that the number of sellers would be greater than ever when the boom ended and selling took the place of buying.”
In 1932, the Pecora Commission was established by the U.S. Senate to study the causes of the crash. The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the Glass–Steagall Act mandating a separation between commercial banks, which take deposits and extend loans, and investment banks, which underwrite, issue, and distribute stocks, bonds, and other securities.
After the experience of the 1929 crash, stock markets around the world instituted measures to suspend trading in the event of rapid declines, claiming that the measures would prevent such panic sales. However, the one-day crash of Black Monday, October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 22.6%, was worse in percentage terms than any single day of the 1929 crash.
World War II
The American mobilization for World War II at the end of 1941 moved approximately ten million people out of the civilian labor force and into the war. World War II had a dramatic effect on many parts of the economy, and may have hastened the end of the Great Depression in the United States. Government-financed capital spending accounted for only 5 percent of the annual U.S. investment in industrial capital in 1940; by 1943, the government accounted for 67 percent of U.S. capital investment.
Effects and Academic Debate – Causes of the Great Depression
Crowd at New York’s American Union Bank during a bank run early in the Great Depression
Together, the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression formed the largest financial crisis of the 20th century. The panic of October 1929 has come to serve as a symbol of the economic contraction that gripped the world during the next decade. The falls in share prices on October 24 and 29, 1929 were practically instantaneous in all financial markets, except Japan.
The Wall Street Crash had a major impact on the U.S. and world economy, and it has been the source of intense academic debate—historical, economic and political—from its aftermath until the present day. Some people believed that abuses by utility holding companies contributed to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed. Many people blamed the crash on commercial banks that were too eager to put deposits at risk on the stock market.
The 1929 crash brought the Roaring Twenties to a shuddering halt. As tentatively expressed by economic historian Charles Kindleberger, in 1929 there was no lender of last resort effectively present, which, if it had existed and were properly exercised, would have been key in shortening the business slowdown[s] that normally follows financial crises. The crash marked the beginning of widespread and long-lasting consequences for the United States. Historians still debate the question: did the 1929 Crash spark The Depression, or did it merely coincide with the bursting of a loose credit-inspired economic bubble? Only 16% of American households were invested in the stock market within the United States during the period leading up to the depression, suggesting that the crash carried somewhat less of a weight in causing the depression.
However, the psychological effects of the crash reverberated across the nation as business became aware of the difficulties in securing capital markets investments for new projects and expansions. Business uncertainty naturally affects job security for employees, and as the American worker (the consumer) faced uncertainty with regards to income, naturally the propensity to consume declined. The decline in stock prices caused bankruptcies and severe macroeconomic difficulties including contraction of credit, business closures, firing of workers, bank failures, decline of the money supply, and other economic depressing events.
The resultant rise of mass unemployment is seen as a result of the crash, although the crash is by no means the sole event that contributed to the depression. The Wall Street Crash is usually seen as having the greatest impact on the events that followed and therefore is widely regarded as signaling the downward economic slide that initiated the Great Depression. True or not, the consequences were dire for almost everybody. Most academic experts agree on one aspect of the crash: It wiped out billions of dollars of wealth in one day, and this immediately depressed consumer buying.
The failure set off a worldwide run on US gold deposits (i.e., the dollar), and forced the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates into the slump. Some 4,000 banks and other lenders ultimately failed. Also, the uptick rule, which allowed short selling only when the last tick in a stock’s price was positive, was implemented after the 1929 market crash to prevent short sellers from driving the price of a stock down in a bear raid.
Economists and historians disagree as to what role the crash played in subsequent economic, social, and political events. The Economist argued in a 1998 article that the Depression did not start with the stock market crash. Nor was it clear at the time of the crash that a depression was starting. They asked, “Can a very serious Stock Exchange collapse produce a serious setback to industry when industrial production is for the most part in a healthy and balanced condition?” They argued that there must be some setback, but there was not yet sufficient evidence to prove that it will be long or that it need go to the length of producing a general industrial depression.
But The Economist also cautioned that some bank failures are also to be expected and some banks may not have any reserves left for financing commercial and industrial enterprises. They concluded that the position of the banks is the key to the situation, but what was going to happen could not have been foreseen.”
Academics see the Wall Street Crash of 1929 as part of a historical process that was a part of the new theories of boom and bust. According to economists such as Joseph Schumpeter and Nikolai Kondratiev and Charles E. Mitchell the crash was merely a historical event in the continuing process known as economic cycles. The impact of the crash was merely to increase the speed at which the cycle proceeded to its next level.
Milton Friedman‘s A Monetary History of the United States, co-written with Anna Schwartz, advances the argument that what made the “great contraction” so severe was not the downturn in the business cycle, protectionism, or the 1929 stock market crash in themselves – but instead, according to Friedman, what plunged the country into a deep depression was the collapse of the banking system during three waves of panics over the 1930–33 period.