With the domestic and world markets struggling, and with new bad news on the economy arriving by the day, it's no wonder that 60% of Americans believe a depression is "likely."
We put that question to a panel of Fool analysts: Are we headed toward another Great Depression? Here's what they had to say.
Robert Brokamp: No one can say for sure, but there are several reasons to think not. There are more safeguards in place, such as FDIC and SIPC insurance, than were around in the 1920s and 1930s. Plus, the stock market is less vulnerable to fraud and manipulation (one of the contributors to the Great Depression), thanks to the Securities Acts of 1933, 1934, and 1940. Government plays a much bigger role in the economy, which has its drawbacks, but in times such as these, it can be a stabilizing force.
Bill Barker: No.
But I get to define "Great Depression" my own way, right? Because it can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
As bizarrely unregulated as the credit default swaps that are important to all this are, we have a much better-regulated market today than we had then. Despite the current tumult, the lessons learned then (and by Japan's 15-year-long recession) have been applied to today's circumstances and will help us. The economy won't grow the rest of this year, and next year isn't going to be pretty, either, but I'd certainly be a believer in our economy 18 months from now. That won't be a fun 18 months, but that's a lot different from a Depression, great or otherwise.
(If you need to understand credit default swaps, listen to This American Life's "Another Frightening Hour About the Economy" -- that and TAL's "The Global Pool of Money" should be required listening for all Americans these days.)
James Early: Nobody knows for sure, but we've got a much more robust financial system in place today, so I'd say it's unlikely. We were over-levered before and living high off the hog, so we needed a good, clear wake-up call. But I'm hopeful that we've got enough real value in the economy, and that developing countries' thirst for modernization will pull the world through.
Tim Hanson: No, but this won't feel good for a while, given the credit crisis. The good news is that there is a lot of cash waiting on the sidelines right now for the all-clear. In other words, unlike in the Depression, capital is out there to spur growth.
Andy Cross: I hope not, and I'm guessing not. That's not to diminish the seriousness of the financial mess we put ourselves in (and each of us, in some way, is to blame partly for this crisis), but the biggest difference is that the central banks and governments around the world are much more willing to step in to help out than they were in the 1930s. The problem is that there is zero confidence in the banking system, which means there is zero credit flowing through the economy, and confidence and credit are the oil of the financial engine. My guess is that we'll see some other banks fail and a higher unemployment rate over the next few months, but it's just so difficult to tell when it will bottom and turn around. And if investors stay on the sidelines to jump back in at the bottom, chances are very good that they will miss it.
For continuing coverage and analysis on all the market turmoil:
- Roundtable: Panic, Sell, or Panic-Sell?
- Panic 2008
- How Bad Will It Get?
- Fool Poll: How Low Will the Dow Go?
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