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Robert Reich: The Great Crash of 2008

December 2, 2008

If this isn’t a Great Crash I don’t know how to define one. Stocks were down another 7 percent [yesterday]. 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.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). 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. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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