The Next Great Depression

The Daily Reckoning: Weekend Edition
April 22-23, 2006
Baltimore, Maryland
By Kate “Short Fuse” Incontrera


We asked you this week, dear reader: What will the next Great Depression bring? How will Americans survive in our day-to-day lives?

The responses to this not-so-hypothetical query continue to clog up our inbox, which doesn’t surprise us. What does surprise us, however, is how united our readers are on this subject. Not one message lamented on how strong our economy is right now, and how we are fools for even bringing up the possibility of another Great Depression. Each e-mail portrayed how real this idea is to Americans – that something this bad could be right around the corner.

“A Great Depression signals a swerve in global direction, a massive transformation of the world society and economy,” says

“One great system perishes. The Great Depression marked a critical stage in a transformation of the global economy that began around 1900. That’s when the Industrial Economy of the 19th century slowly and fitfully began to morph into the 20th century’s Consumer Economy. To tame the almost naked continent of 1845, the Industrial Economy required immense savings. To save and invest became the 11th Commandment. Imagine. Americans saved up to 40 percent of their income!”

Apparently, we learned nothing from the events that occurred over seventy years ago. The U.S. savings rate has fallen into the negative level for the first time since the Great Depression. Debt, consumer and national, is skyrocketing. We continue to see people dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, with no regard for preparing for the future.

“Having parents who lived through the First Depression (during the late 1920s-1930s), and having a father-in-law who was the proverbial ‘packrat’ (among other things, 7 washing machines, 15 vacuum cleaners, etc., when we cleaned out his house) they all had the mentality that nothing was wasted; everything had value; and that what they had was of good quality,” writes one DR reader.

“Today we have very little of this. We do not know how to fix anything, build anything, or save anything of quality (because what little we have is made to expire and be thrown away).

“I personally can not imagine what it will be like when our dollar is worthless, and the shelves at the stores display a few dented cans of beans that are selling for whatever the price of an ounce of silver (or gold for that matter) is worth.

“Who among us will be able to keep the lights on, the water running, and our cars tuned?! What jobs will pay the best? For that matter, what jobs will be available for any of us? And what about our children? How will we care, feed, and educate them?

“I am half-empty kinda of person, but what I see ahead for the USA scares me very much (especially since it will stretch into my elder years of life). It is going to be a very hand-to-mouth existence, with a lot of sadness, anger, and senseless violence (over simple everyday commodities).”

Short Fuse
The Daily Reckoning

P.S. We didn’t bring up this idea to be “gloom and doomers.” The possibility of another Great Depression is a very real one, and we just wish for our readers to be prepared. Take common sense precautions – don’t be frivolous with your money. Get out of debt, or don’t dig yourself further into a hole you don’t think you’ll be able to get out of. Save. Make wise investments.

To that end, our good friend, and renowned economist, Dr. Kurt Richebächer has found five investments that can help you protect your finances from whatever may be around the corner.

— Daily Reckoning Book Of The Week —

Lessons From The Great Depression
by Peter Temin

Do events of the 1930s carry a message for the present day? Lessons from the Great Depression provides an integrated view of the depression, covering the experience in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. It describes the causes of the depression, why it was so widespread and prolonged, and what brought about eventual recovery.

Peter Temin also finds parallels in recent history, in the relentless deflationary course followed by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board and the British government in the early 1980s, and in the dogged adherence by the Reagan administration to policies generated by a discredited economic theory – supply-side economics.

THIS WEEK in THE DAILY RECKONING: People don’t always get what they expect, but they do get what they deserve. Bill Bonner explains in “A Thousand Clowns,” below…

A Thousand Clowns      04/21/06
by Bill Bonner

“In this DR Classique, first published in April of 2005, Bill Bonner advises his readers to employ this strategy when trying to decipher what our world leaders are really trying to save the world from.”

The Last Great American Energy Boom    04/20/06
by Dan Denning

“To see why a modest lump of coal plays such an important role in the future, you need to understand how coal made the modern world.”

An Evasive Recovery      04/19/06
by Dr. Kurt Richebächer

“The government and Federal Reserve have supported this recovery with unprecedented fiscal and monetary lavishness. Tax cuts reduced government revenue by $870 billion.”

Bond Market Bozos      04/17/06
by The Mogambo Guru

“These bond-buying morons are losing money and yet, are still intent on locking their money up for up to 30 years by buying long bonds so that they can get tiny, less-than-inflation yields! What kind of stupidity is that?”

HEADLINE, NEWS And INSIGHT: With crude oil hitting record highs, many people are wondering about America’s energy reserves. Dan Denning explores in “Solid Oxide Fuel,” below…

A Delegate’s Concern
by D. Price

“Not one state office candidate that I talked with were interested to hear about peak oil. None of them knew what it was and most were too busy to discuss it further.”

Solid Oxide Fuel
by Dan Denning

“A solid oxide fuel cell, for example, puts out an enormous amount of heat and can potentially power itself from the natural gas surrounding the shale bed.”

Fistfuls of Dollars
by Paul Mampilly

“However, after screaming about the dollar and imbalances (the twin deficits) and interest rate conundrums, critics of the dollar and US finances have grown subdued. This has emboldened the dollar’s apologists to make their case.”


FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: DR reader Darren Tulk took our question of what everyday life would be like for an average American in the face of the next Great Depression a few steps further than others. Read on…

A Day in a Life
by DR reader Darren Tulk

The alarm clock stirs us to life once again. As one of the “lucky few” still employed, I must get ready for work.

I make my way downstairs, nodding to the sister-in-law and her husband emerging from another bedroom. Having recently lost their jobs they were in a tight spot after paying out their credit card debts. Younger than us and nice company, we invited them to live with us till they get work. They make a good deterrent to the smash and grab crowd, seeking unoccupied houses to break into. Dodgy pawnbrokers are doing a brisk trade.

Flipping the TV on, I note the talking head discussing the ‘core’ unemployment rate. Said to be approaching double digits, it pales against bloggers estimates of over 25%.

Breakfast is as usual, while I sort the junk mail from overnight. Garage sales, cheap cars for sale by desperate families, offers to mow lawns, wash cars, trim edges … all at dirt cheap rates. But our boarders agreed to do household chores as part rental payment for living with us, which is fine by me. It means I have more spare time.

Breakfast over, I walk to the station to ride the train to work. As usual, there are plenty of spare seats. Quite a change from the usual peak hour crush we used to endure.

The day passes; news rolls in like the tide. Our government jobs might be secure, but we face changing conditions. Our enterprise bargain is being renewed and we are being offered 5% pay reductions each year for the next three years. We can take it or face involuntary redundancies, as departmental budgets are being slashed. Government revenues are down and the IMF is recommending indebted western governments institute voluntary budgetary cutbacks on spending. After the destruction of the US dollar through hyperinflation, we really have little choice.

The day’s work over, I retrace my steps. Dinner awaits. Tonight we are having steak as a rare treat, as most of the time it isn’t available at any price; most of our local beef is shipped to Asian countries to satisfy their increased buying power; our weak domestic demand means we eat more rice, beans and cheap imported mince.

We are fortunate though as our investments in gold and silver have preserved our purchasing power. Despite the windfall profits tax on all precious metals investments, we own our home, run a car on $100 a barrel oil and eat fairly well. Of course, we have an extended family we help out. It’s the right thing to do after the government defaulted on pension payments and the bond market; our aging parents need our help, and they aren’t really well enough to work minimum wage jobs.

Most people over 70 have had to look for this kind of work just to afford to eat. Retirement? It just doesn’t happen at the moment. Most people have to work until they drop, as billions of dollars in superannuation has been lost by ignorant financial planners with no knowledge of history.

News headlines are a mix of the unsurprising and the unexpected; birth rates are down again, serious crime rates have also subsided, but petty crime is on the rise. The incidence of fraud and minor theft has tripled in the last year, as many security guards overlook people stealing food from stores, bins behind grocers and transport hubs.

I indulge in momentary contemplation about our hundred-bagger investments; what would they be worth without the windfall profits tax? It’s a temporary distraction; we’re happy enough as it is, having structured our redemptions over financial years to minimise tax payable and maintain a discreetly comfortable standard of living.

The gold and silver reality show is back on TV at 6:30. Tonight we’re watching the assay results of four couples competing to get the best results from ‘their’ mines. “The Biggest Looser” compares grams for tonne loosed from the mines operated by twelve couples, with the winners getting to work their mine for a year afterwards.

The rest of the new is fairly predictable, though gold has fallen back under $10,000 an ounce. Silver is also experiencing a weak patch of trading, which the talking heads attribute to the end of the traditional Indian wedding season. At the moment it changes hands at around $2,500 an ounce. The end of the finance section news concludes with a brief society page review; as rich metals company CEO’s are the new celebrities, they often feature on TV at fund-raising dinners or mass apprenticeship sign-ons.

School leavers are being encouraged to do trades again; university courses are being denounced as the fraudulent time-wasters they have been for a long time.

After the reality TV show was over, we stayed tuned in to watch a documentary on the economy. Just when we thought that the economy might be getting better, it looks as though one of our major banks closing had worse effects than first thought. The effects had been hard to see early on, but predictable in hindsight. The bank had played heavily with derivatives to hedge its risk, ignoring Warren Buffet’s warning about them being “weapons of mass financial destruction.” Much of the sub-prime mortgage portfolio had been sold off overseas, with the result that many ‘home-owners’ were now tenants of large offshore multinationals.

Many middle class people are now broke and scraping along by selling their assets for whatever they can get for them. Their meager savings are gone and as creditors they are down the bottom of the list of people owed money. Bankruptcy professionals and foreclosures firms have been doing excellent trade, but at great cost; many people have been forced into default on their mortgages and reduced to renting the homes they had been paying off and could have owned, had they been better prepared.

Of course, mere descriptions do no justice to how it feels to be living amongst such hard times. The so-called generation Y, who expected jobs to be falling out of the sky as the baby boomers retired, have found themselves competing for work alongside desperate people of all ages. Having lost the jobs that paid for their travel, iPods and designer clothes, they now work for minimum wages just to stay alive. Their passports, crammed with stamps from countries around the world, gather dust.

People often ask me, why did all this happen? And when I try to explain fiat currencies, the impact of debt, savings ratios and Austrian economics, they just go all blank. “I don’t understand,” they whine. “We used to get along just fine.” they all say.

Still, not all is lost. There are more people at church these days, although the soup kitchen probably attracts a few. We’re rostered on to help out this weekend. And Sunday nights we’re having an open forum on precious metals, managing your money, budgeting and investing for hard times. So there is interest, and hope.

We’re considering moving house though. Our formerly comfortable neighborhood is looking a little rougher each day. As more people lose their jobs, the increasing incidence of petty theft is a bit of a concern. Just the other day, we had to turn down more people at the door asking for work around the house … any work. When we told them we couldn’t really offer anything, they went through our rubbish bin on the way out, looking for food scraps.

Food is expensive after the government slapped higher tariffs on all imported goods, in an attempt to preserve local jobs. Learning nothing from the Smoot-Hawley disaster, we now suffer the predictable results with higher food prices, another slap in the face for the unemployed and the low wage earners.

Even though we can afford to travel around by car, driving is not as pleasant as it used to be. We’ve thought about trading the family car for a four-wheel drive, to cope with deteriorating roads. Local councils that refuse to admit their budgeting problems are not fixing roads any more and have yet to consider selling the roads to the highest bidders. In the meantime, the road conditions worsen and we take to driving less.

Our kids were always schooled at home and this hasn’t changed. In the last few years, there’s been a lot we’ve been able to teach them from the daily news. They’re good kids, inquisitive, curious and fairly clued in about their world. But I still don’t like all the time they spend on the PlayStation.

We’re in hard times alright; last week the wife was asked to take leave without pay from her part-time job. We’ll do O.K. without her income; since starting a family she had only ever worked part time jobs so she could retain her skills and home-school our children a few days a week. When we were a full-time two income couple, it was very tempting to upgrade the house. But we’re glad we avoided even more debt; now that values have plummeted 75% most people our age are underwater on their loans.

It’s not all roses though; even though we live simply, we do get a few snide comments about running a car, still having a job, and eating out. We do get asked for money, and sometimes we do help out. The wife is probably a bit more compassionate then I on this front, particularly with older people. Having been initiated into the workforce by the inflation and redundancies of the 1970’s, then seasoned by the 80’s and 90’s, I can be a bit reluctant to help those who should have learned from their past experiences, as I have. Maybe I am being a bit hard on them, what with the deceptive media coverage and all . . .

Now it’s getting late and its time for bed. The house is quiet, with the gentle sound of sleep from numerous rooms. I carefully step over the creaking floorboard. And I hope that the libertarian candidate wins the next election. We saw this disaster coming and made preparations, but millions of others did not. People need to re-learn how to save, how to spend and how to look after their finances. I’m just one person, and there’s only so many people I can teach. But tomorrow’s another day.

The Daily Reckoning