Vernon Smith: "We're witnessing the second great consumer debt crash"


Fascinating, numbers-rich piece in today's Wall Street Journal by economists Vernon L. Smith and Steven Gjerstad, that begins by trying to figure out why the 2000 dot-com collapse and the 2006 housing bubble implosion affected the economy so differently, and ends with a new theory about the Great Depression (not to mention the Great Whatever It Is We're Experiencing Now): It's the consumer debt, stupid. Fast forward to the conclusion:

The events of the past 10 years have an eerie similarity to the period leading up to the Great Depression. Total mortgage debt outstanding increased from $9.35 billion in 1920 to $29.44 billion in 1929. In 1920, residential mortgage debt was 10.2% of household wealth; by 1929, it was 27.2% of household wealth.

Bank earnings reached a record $729 million in 1929. Yet bank exposures to real estate were substantial; as the decline in real estate prices accelerated, foreclosures wiped out banks by the thousands. Had the mounting difficulties of the banks and the final collapse of the banking system in the "Bank Holiday" in March 1933 been caused by contraction of the money supply, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz argued, then the massive injections of liquidity over the past 18 months should have averted the collapse of the financial market during this current crisis.

The causes of the Great Depression need more study, but the claims that losses on stock-market speculation and a monetary contraction caused the decline of the banking system both seem inadequate. It appears that both the Great Depression and the current crisis had their origins in excessive consumer debt -- especially mortgage debt -- that was transmitted into the financial sector during a sharp downturn. […]

The hypothesis we propose is that a financial crisis that originates in consumer debt, especially consumer debt concentrated at the low end of the wealth and income distribution, can be transmitted quickly and forcefully into the financial system. It appears that we're witnessing the second great consumer debt crash, the end of a massive consumption binge.

Whole thing, chock full o' detail, here. Nick Gillespie and Michael Lynch interviewed Vernon Smith for Reason in 2002.