The risks of gambling in speculative frenzies and depending on serial asset bubbles continuing forever are easily observable, yet few act to reduce these risks.
Longtime correspondent Ishabaka recently shared key takeaways from a classic on-the-ground account of The Great Depression in the U.S.:, The Great Depression, a Diary.
Another reader reminded me that The Great Depression was global, and occurred earlier that 1929 in other nations and had equally (or even more) calamitous consequences elsewhere. That said, humans are running Wetware 1.0 everywhere, so it’s likely that many of these lessons are applicable to the collapse of speculative asset bubbles in other economies and eras–for instance, the global economy’s Everything Bubble of 2023.
Here are Ishabaka’s key takeaways from the book:
Mr. Roth was a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio – a steel mill town, and near Weirton, West Virginia where I worked for two years. He kept a diary from 1929 through the entire Depression. He seems an intelligent guy who sort of drove himself crazy trying to figure out economics and investment timing. Some of the lessons are timeless:
1. Diversify – in the USA, people who held stocks and real estate were wiped out, while people who held Treasury bonds did great. In Germany, people who held government bonds were wiped out, while people who held real estate did great – especially if they had a mortgage. He relates the story of one American client who owned a piece of property in Germany with a $5,000 mortgage, which he was able to pay off with US $18 when hyperinflation hit Germany.
2. Have some cash – the biggest problem in general was lack of actual money – nobody had any, for anything. Over and over Roth laments having no cash to buy stock or real estate bargains in ’32 and ’33.
3. People never learn – In 1936, the Depression seems to be over and the stock market is booming. The same people who were wiped out in the crash of ’29 are investing like crazy again – the US stock market crashed 50% the next year, 1937.
4. Timing the market is one of the best ways to go broke. Despite being a student of markets, and intelligent, Roth again and again is wrong in his market and US economy predictions.
5. Professions fared badly – there were weeks he made no money as a lawyer. People stopped seeing the dentist for anything but abscessed teeth that needed pulling. They couldn’t pay the doctor – he relates that one week a doctor friend of his made a grand total of one dollar. My paternal grandfather was a livestock veterinarian during the Depression. He told me a grim fact – he was better off as a vet than an MD. If a child got sick and died and the parents couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit it was sad, but the family survived. If their cow got sick and died the whole family might starve – so he got paid.
6. Herd mentality is a thing. The runs on banks REALLY made the lack of cash situation worse. A lot of it was driven by irrational fear. Banks that would have survived if their clients had remained calm went under, wiping the banks and the clients out. Makes you glad we have the FDIC.
7. The “preppers” have a point – he relates that local violent crime, including murders, reached unprecedented levels, and Youngstown isn’t a particularly violent place.
Most salient take-home points for me are: 1. diversify 2. nobody is good at predicting the market – doesn’t stop anyone and his uncle from trying though 3. avoid margin – that’s what really ruined people in 1929 – a lot of people were investing in stocks using 25% margin i.e they borrowed 75% of their investment….