The Great Crash of 2008

If this isn’t a Great Crash I don’t know how to define one. Stocks were down another 7 percent today. Since the peak of last year, major stock indexes have dropped 47 percent. We’re in range of the Great Crash of 1929.

Why is the Great Crash of 2008 happening? First, because investors are beginning to understand the enormity of the bubble economy that began to form in the late 1990s when all constraints were lifted on borrowing in order to buy everything that was assumed to be increasing in value — starting with houses and including securities and shares of stock themselves. So-called “margin requirements,” first instituted in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, were all but abandoned, as big banks and hedge funds found ways around them.

Even more important, investors are starting to fathom the emptiness of American consumers’ wallets. Retail sales last Friday and Saturday — the first days of the Christmas buying season — were disappointing. Had retailers not discounted to the point of taking losses, sales would have been abysmal. In other words, consumers have gone on strike.

Why have they gone on strike? Not because of the difficulty of getting credit. Most consumers can barely afford to pay the interest charges on the debt they’re already carrying. Consumers have gone on strike because their earnings haven’t kept up. The recovery that officially ended December, 2007 (the National Bureau of Economic Research now tells us) was the first on record in which median earnings declined, adjusted for inflation. Since then, many people have also lost their jobs or are working part time when they’d rather be working full time, or else know they’re in danger of losing their jobs.

The speculative bubble still has some air in it; asset values will continue to drop before they hit bottom. That will take at least a year, possibly two. But don’t expect asset values to bounce substantially back, even then. The only way to revive Wall Street is to revive Main Street, and the only way to accomplish this is to get America back on the course of rising median incomes.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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