The Great Stock Market Crash of 1929: Why History Textbooks and the Conventional Wisdom Get It Wrong
By Thomas F. Schwartz
History textbooks tell us that the 1929 stock market crash signaled the beginning of the “Great Depression.” Warning signs of overvaluation and buying on the margin were flashing red lights that a corrective path needed to be taken to avoid Black Monday. But none of this was evident to the leading economists at the time and the stock market crash did not cause the “Great Depression.” Why the market collapsed in October 1929 and did not surpass its pre-Depression value until 1954 continues to lack a consensus among economists. The discipline of economics was still being developed in 1929. Even in hindsight, the evidence is not clear why the market crashed in 1929. The housing market crash in 2007-2008 producing a global credit crisis that reduced housing prices more than during the Great Depression was also unforeseen. Numerous books and even a Hollywood film, The Big Short, attempt to answer the question that Queen Elizabeth asked economists, “Why did nobody notice?” Major economic upheavals are not always evident in real time but only in hindsight—and not even then.
Most stocks were trading at 14 to 19 times earning in September 1929 with profits growing faster than stock prices. Some stocks were indeed overvalued and overpriced as in any market at any time. The Bull Market of the 1920s allowed credit to be extended generously so new investors only needed to purchase stock at twenty-five percent of its value, the other seventy-five percent was borrowed money from a brokerage firm. At the time of the crash, roughly 600,000 margin accounts were held by brokerage firms out of a total national population of 120 million Americans. It has been estimated that three million Americans owned stock of some sort, most of small amounts fully paid. Again, that represented less than 2.5% of the American population. Unlike today with most Americans tied to the stock market directly with retirement accounts or indirectly with managed pension plans, most Americans in the 1929 were not active in the stock market directly or indirectly. The image of vast numbers of investors jumping out of office building windows simply did not occur. In fact, as the business historian, Robert Sobel, noted, “the suicide rate was down during this period.”
At its peak on September 3, 1929, the Dow hit 381.17. The “crash” witnessed losses of 12.8% and 11.7% on Black Monday and Tuesday. The market hit bottom almost two years later at 41.2 marking a decline in value of 89.2%. As one writer described it “In less than 35 months, a dollar invested in stocks shriveled into barely more than a dime.” Surprisingly, no bank failures or major business failures occurred in the immediate aftermath of the crash. While the market crash did not cause the Great Depression, it was a factor in the economic malaise that characterized the period.
Economic downturns hurt the optimistic bullish investors but reward the pessimistic bearish investors. Several individuals who bet against or “shorted” the market became rich or richer. Percy Rockefeller, William Danforth, and Joseph P. Kennedy made millions shorting stocks at this time. They saw opportunity in what most saw as misfortune.