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It's Already Worse Than the Depression

Remember all that talk about whether we were entering another Great Depression? Much of it has subsided since the 30% rally in the S&P 500 and the sprouting of the economy's supposed "green shoots" (or, as skeptics call them, "yellow weeds," "Venus flytraps," or "poison ivy accidentally used as toilet paper").

But you'll still find doomsayers who think the worst is yet to come. (And I mean "doomsayers" in a good way -- there should be a little part of all of us that expects the worst and plans accordingly.)

Whether or not our current less-bad economy -- when most economic metrics are still ugly, just not as ugly as they used to be, sort of like me in college -- is really an indication of "green shoots" or more like the worm-like tongue of the alligator snapping turtle remains to be seen. But I can tell you this: By one metric, it's already worse than the Depression.

According to Ibbotson Associates, of the 74 rolling 10-year periods since 1926 (i.e., 1926-1935, 1927-1936, and so on), U.S. large-cap stocks posted negative returns in just three of them. The first two were 1929-1938 (-0.89% compound annual return) and 1930-1939 (-0.05% compound annual return), and involved the Depression. The third loser decade was the most recent -- and the worst. From 1999-2008, U.S. large-cap stocks "returned" a compound annual average of negative 1.38%.

Who would have thought back in 1999, when we were more worried about Y2K than our 401(k), that in the subsequent decade big-name American stocks would do worse than they did in the 1930s? Not many.

It didn't have to be that bad
It feels like a punch in the gut -- hold on to stocks for 10 long years, and still be underwater.

But wait. Some investors did see their portfolios grow over the past decade. How did they do it? By owning asset classes other than U.S. large-cap stocks.

In my Rule Your Retirement service, I have created model portfolios that contain 10 to 12 asset classes. Let's take a look at how a few fared over the past 10 years using mutual funds (mostly of the index variety) to measure their performance, compared with an investment in the Vanguard 500 (FUND: VFINX  ) , our proxy for U.S. large-cap stocks.



Total 10-Year Return

$100,000 Turned Into ...

100% U.S. large-cap stocks

One fund



100% stocks, of all sizes and countries

10 funds



70% stocks, 30% bonds

11 funds



Source: Morningstar Principia software, May 1, 1999, to April 30, 2009. Portfolios are rebalanced annually.

While those returns won't turn a pauper into Prince (or whatever his name is these days), they're still better than losing money. And investors who had these more-diversified portfolios ended up with almost twice as much money as someone in an S&P 500 index fund.

What makes these portfolios different? They're built with funds that invest all over the world, in stocks of all types and sizes. They still have the big-name American companies -- such as Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) and IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) -- but also small stocks, such as Seagate Technology (Nasdaq: STX  ) and ImmunoGen (Nasdaq: IMGN  ) . And they're not limited to America, either, including funds that invest in stocks like Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) and China Mobile (NYSE: CHL  ) .

And then there's boring old bonds, which made up 30% of the third portfolio. You should own them if you're within a decade of retirement, or just can't stand the volatility and, perhaps most important, uncertainty of an all-stock portfolio. Of the portfolios above, the one with bonds did the best.

Hope for the future
Just as in the 2000s, holding bonds beat an all-stock portfolio in the 1930s. However, it wasn't until the 1970s that bonds once again reduced risk and boosted return over decade-long time frames. In each case, one bad decade for stocks was followed by a multidecade run of good returns. Put another way, since 1926, U.S. large-cap stocks have never posted two consecutive decades of losses. That gives us some hope for the coming decade.

Of course, there's a first time for everything. In 2005, Ben Bernanke, then an advisor to President Bush, said on CNBC, "We've never had a decline in housing prices on a nationwide basis. What I think is more likely is that house prices will slow, maybe stabilize ... I don't think it's going to drive the economy too far from its full-employment path, though." Well, we've since had our nationwide decline in housing prices. (That gnawing sound you hear is Mr. Bernanke eating his words.) Given that history is a useful yet imperfect guide, it's likely -- though not guaranteed -- that stocks will post decent returns over the next decade.

So for those near or in retirement, or for conservative investors of any age, using bonds to balance the risk of stocks makes sense. And every investor should hold stocks of all shapes, styles, sizes, and nationality. (If you'd like to see how I do it, take a 30-day free trial of my Rule Your Retirement service.) It would be grand to know which type of investment will do best over the next decade. But until you've fixed your crystal ball or perfected time travel, a smartly created, well-diversified portfolio should be the foundation of your retirement savings.

Robert Brokamp tries to cross bridges before he comes to them, and gets balder every day. He owns shares of VFINX and Nokia. This article is adapted from a recent issue of Rule Your Retirement, which is available with a 30-day trial at the low, low price of free. Nokia and Microsoft are Inside Value picks. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (38) | Recommend This Article (222)

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  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2009, at 4:31 PM, NorwayRed wrote:

    As an example of a relatively safe, low risk foreign investment, let's look at the Toronto Stock Exchange. Over the most recent economic cycle, the TSX 60 (ETF symbol XIU) rose from $CDN8.30 on 2002-10-04 to $CDN22.70 on 2008-06-18, a 273% rise. Over the same time period, the $CDN rose from 63 cents to $1.02, a 162% rise. So US investors in Canada get a double whammy return, a 428% increase in $US.

    Just remember to sell your Canadian stocks and return your money to a $US investment when the Canadian dollar starts dropping at the end of the expansion phase!

    If you are invested in the neighbor to the north during an expansion and in the US during a contraction, the returns can be far above US investments alone. Globalization can easily work in your favor. For those of you who think the US will grow less than the rest of the world during the next expansion, the Canadian economy can be a relatively strong and safe investment.

    And the TSX 60 has some symbols Fools may recognize - RIM, POT, Agrium, Cameco, big name oil and gas companies, etc.

  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2009, at 6:58 PM, plange01 wrote:

    how long is the government going to call the depression in the US a recession?how long does the lie continue and at what cost?

  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2009, at 7:16 PM, xetn wrote:

    As for housing price declines you might be interested in:

    And for more realistic economic statistics try:


    These are both scary and should be watched closely. The official government stats keep getting changed (cpi and unemployment) to suit the needs of what ever the current administration wants to show.

  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2009, at 8:50 PM, dah122490 wrote:

    You might be interested in the statistics at this site:

    It's very interesting research done by two economic historians, Barry Eichengreen of the University of California at Berkeley and Kevin O'Rourke of Trinity College, Dublin They give us comparisons between the Great Depression and today's downturn. They continue to update their data from time to time.

    Can you see the correlation?

  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2009, at 8:57 PM, rkperfect wrote:

    There really is little comparison to the recent events that played out in the present stock market/ mortgage crisis and that which occurred in 1929. One only needs to read John Kenneth Galbraiths, The Great Crash, 1929 to realize this. “The singular feature of the great crash of 1929 was that the worst continued to worsen. What looked one day liked the end, proved on the next day to have been only the beginning”. He further states in Cause and Consequence that, “After the crash came the Great Depression which lasted with varying severity, for ten years. In 1933, Gross National Product was nearly a third less than in 1929. Not until 1937 did the physical volume of production recover to the levels of 1929, and then promptly slipped back again.”

    Galbraith lists the contributing factors as:

    1)“The bad distribution of income. In 1929 the rich were indubitably rich. The figures are not entirely satisfactory but it seems certain that the 5 per cent of the population with the highest incomes in that year received approximately one third of all personal income.”

    2)“The bad corporate structure. The most important corporate weakness was inherent in the vast new structure of holding companies and investment trusts.”

    3)“The bad banking structure………. although the bankers were not unusually foolish in 1929, the banking structure was inherently weak. The weakness was implicit in the large numbers of independent units.”

    4)“The dubious state of the foreign balance.”

    5)“The poor state of economic intelligence. In the months and years following the stock market crash, the burden of reputable economic advice was invariably on the side of measures that would make things worse.”

    The only similarity is that something should have been done regarding financial services reform. Yet as in 1929, nothing....... was done. The Clinton Administration / Congress repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall, which separated commercial banks and investment banking / brokerages planted the seed which was to be nutured by the Bush Administration.

    This plus the "easy money" sought and aquired by individuals who had no right borrowing the "easy money" led to the ensuing collapse.

    I defer to Galbraith one final time, "But now, as throughout history, financial capacity and political perspicacity are inversley correlated. Long run salvation by men of business has never been highly regarded if it means disturbance of orderly life and convenience in the present. So inaction will be advocated in the present even though it means deep trouble in the future".

  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2009, at 11:37 PM, ARJTurgot wrote:

    a) You have no clue what you are talking about. People in this country STARVED during the Depression.

    b) The constant pushing of product by this site is pathetic.

  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2009, at 11:59 PM, Quick2learn wrote:

    Sorry, I am with the last chap, this is nothing more than another sales vehicle for MF. When you take the products out of the articles perhaps they will have more weight. I cannot reccommend this article.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 4:04 AM, Floorhead wrote:

    Read John Mauldin's "Outside the Box" article this week to see that for the rest of the world, this is already worse than the Great Depression. It is a free publication upon registering (you should read his free weekly E-letter as well).

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 6:28 AM, dbbfool63 wrote:

    When referring to people starving during the Depression, I would have to say we have never came out of it.

    There are people dying everyday in this country from malnutrition, especially in the Big cities, we just don't hear about it and the one's who see it just turn their heads because hey, it's not them laying in that cardboard box in the ally, digging through trash cans for food, and keeping trash barrels burning with trash to stay warm in the winter.

    Hey, maybe they should do a blog on " looking closer Inside the Box ". Well, maybe not, because if it's the Government or the Rich who control them as well as the media, if they really see whats there, they might just burn it to hide the evidence of our Depression.

    The sad part of it all is that many of them are Veterans who came back from the Vietnam war and were called names as well as treated like criminals when all they did was follow the orders of their Government Officials.

    Sorry if this is a little off the beaten path to the subject at hand, just following along with the comments.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 1:32 PM, fastman01 wrote:

    Unemployment going higher; new housing starts going down; worldwide government's national debts going higher; productivity going lower; and so it goes.

    Banks crashing all around the globe, and governments are taking them over.

    "Transparency" is a pretty nifty word, if only we could really get some of it.

    Food staples at the stores are down in price because no one is buying in excess.

    Confidence in all governments is very low.

    Obama's approval rating has slipped, which is too bad because he is so darned likeable. He and Bush are 1 and the same on too many issues, and neither of them know anything about economics.

    I have stocked up on ammunition, canned food & water.

    Like many others, I am growing my own food, or at least as much of it as I can.

    Great Depression II is not far off, once the major fiat currencies collapse ( which they will) so be prepared.

    Dow will hit 10,000, or higher, and then fall to 400. That's not a typo folks, I mean four hundred.

    Recovery will start taking place in Q3 of 2013.

    Don't be fooled by all the talking heads.


  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 9:26 PM, kizerman wrote:

    its not going to be as bad as you doomsayers nor as good as you optimists but I will say this - we have the most affluent poor any country has ever seen - hd tv's, a car, a microwave, cable tv and plenty of fat butt producing food on the table. if anyone is going hungry, its because their parents are irresponsible drug addicts more worried about where their next high is coming from vs feeding their kid. there are no poor in the us, go to any thrid world country and take at look at what real poor people are.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2009, at 1:30 PM, intelledgement wrote:

    ARJTurgot wrote:

    > a) You have no clue what you are talking about.

    > People in this country STARVED during the

    > Depression.


    > b) The constant pushing of product by this site is

    > pathetic.

    With respect to point [a], Mr. Brokamp's thesis is that from a stock market ROI point of view, we have arrived at Depression level performance. No one (except possibly dbbfool63) thinks we are there when it comes to 33% unemployment and pervasive bread lines...yet.

    With respect to point [b], I find it hard to get lathered up about someone who offers retirement planning - a sorely needed service in this great land of ours - touting his wares, particularly when it's in the form of a free trial. If a fraction of the folks who indulged in JUMBO mortgage purchasers had instead subscribed to TMF and taken the generally responsible advice offered here, would we all be better or worse off? You personally may do better on your own than by utilizing the advisory services here but I'll bet if you consider it, you'll agree that you know many folks who could benefit by attending to TMF advice, as opposed to mucking around on their own.

    Brad Hessel

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2009, at 5:43 PM, OLDBAMA wrote:

    There's no way this country's economy can turn around. No economy ever survived that bought more than it sold. In 1946 the US manufactured 50% of the world's products. Now it's less than 20% and going down every day. I grew up in the deep South during the Great Depression. People lived on small plots of land and had a garden and a pig pen. Now all they have is a smoking gun and a drive to steal. It soon won't be safe to walk from Wal-Mart to your car. When China cuts us off, we will be walking around naked and barefooted.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 2:32 AM, majordm wrote:


  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 1:53 PM, mark1122 wrote:

    Frog on a hot plate. Place a frog in hot water and he will jump out. Place a frog in cool water and slowly heat it up and he will sit there till he is cooked. We simply do not realize the consequences of our actions until it is nearly too late. Our economy is built on deficit spending. We are finally starting to see the vapor bubbles forming. Next comes the roiling boil.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 4:03 PM, bw1962 wrote:

    I told you chuckle heads we shoulda stayed with England! But nooo We wana be our own country!

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 4:22 PM, StockJacq wrote:

    Try viewing if you can spare the time, and see if you can guess where it is all going...

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 4:55 PM, hansentech wrote:

    I've never seen such a blind correlation based on a single fact that has so little to do with being in a depression or not. Call me when the national unemployment figures breech 20% and then we can talk Great Depression.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 5:35 PM, madamebutterfly1 wrote:

    ExxonMobil has a compounded return for the period 1999-2008 of 10.5% per year.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 5:39 PM, madamebutterfly1 wrote:

    ExxonMobil has had a coompounded rate of return for shareholders for the period 1999-2008 of 10.5% per year.

    All of this despite the fact that we have gone through a 9/11 incident that sent the market into a tailspin, and once we were coming out of this market debacle, we got hit with the financial meltdown due to the stupidity of our politicians.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 5:51 PM, Strnj1 wrote:

    QSII and MDRX have been climbing since October...

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 6:38 PM, Martyvan wrote:

    For those that accidentally used poison ivy as toilet paper - go get Action Wipes ( They'll cool that itch right off!

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 6:53 PM, majordm wrote:

    ExxonMobil has had a coompounded rate of return for shareholders for the period 1999-2008 of 10.5% per year.

    All of this despite the fact that we have gone through a 9/11 incident that sent the market into a tailspin, and once we were coming out of this market debacle, we got hit with the financial meltdown due to the stupidity of our politicians.


    how many fund managers are there in congress?

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 7:29 PM, TimothyVR wrote:

    The performance of the financial markets may rival the Great Depression, and the crash in housing prices is worse.

    But the comparison ends there. The suffering of that time is not comparable to today. Period.

    There is always a certain amount of hyperbole in the titles used for the articles on this site, and the tabloid style of the titles is part of the place. I have learned a lot here and I don't usually complain about minor things.

    But this headline here is an insult to the people who went through the Depression, including many of our ancestors. I grew up with my grandparents telling me about NYC in the Depression. There is no comparison.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 7:29 PM, TorvaldVoldtekt wrote:

    It is going to get much, much worse. We won't see the bottom of this Depression for several years. It has been worsening since March, 2000, and will continue to worsen. The Alarmists, Ragnarokers, and Doomsdaytrippers that warned about Y2K were right on the money!

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2009, at 10:43 PM, bmialone wrote:

    Yes, our politicians have been stupid and sell-outs. Yes, Wall Street, banks, credit card companies, and the insurance industry have been ruthlessly greedy.

    No, individual consumers are not responsible for what has happened to them because our entire system has been set up allowing marketers to define our values, what is a "need," what is desirable, what is acceptable, using highly paid psychologists and behavioral psychology research to design their marketing strategies. Almost all effort by consumer protection groups to slow down the train were rebuffed by elected officials lobbied by those who made profit from it.

    Consumers did not know when they used credit cards that our government officials and a conservative court allowed credit card companies the privileges of actual banks, to move to Delaware (on paper) so they would not have to respect the state consumer protections where accounts were opened; and to change so-called contracts to implement outrageously predatory and unethical practices that would drive them into poor credit so then they had to pay more for everything and eventually face bankruptcy. (It did not happen to me, but only because I was better informed than most citizens).

    The same is true for the insurance industry, which is nothing more than a shakedown artist industry now. Insurance companies may as well be the mob now.

    Having said that, however, ours is representative democracy and we elected into office the same people who allowed these industries to crash our economy, stealing consumers blind. Too many did not understand how the system works and what was being done to them, and those who did understand didn't care as they were getting theirs.

    The duping of an unsophisticated, uneducated public continues in order to protect the same interests as usual, ignoring what builds a truly strong nation, our infrastructure and the needs of our people. Until we all wake up and hold our elected officials accountable, we will continue down this path and end up a second rate nation on the international stage.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2009, at 12:48 AM, dreamerdomain wrote:

    I don't think it is correct to compare 10-years periods in 1926 and 1999.

    The period of 1922-1933 will be more correct choise for comparison with the current decade. If you choose this period and see the returns immediately after market crash, the returns will be much worse.

    Otherwise it is more like speculation on the data. You can't just choose arbitrary period and make arbitrary correlation claims.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2009, at 1:18 AM, BikeSeymour wrote:

    John Mauldin beat you to the punch on this article. Still a strong signal when you see two respected sites writing about the same ideas. Check out John's comments at

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2009, at 10:21 AM, reedjjjr wrote:

    I have an old ledger from my grandfather's drug store which covers the first years of the Depression. Gross sales, cash and credit, were $54,000 for 1928. For 1932 gross sales were $18,000. Also, I assume that his success in collecting for credit sales worsened.

    I know that sales continued to decline well into the mid-30s.

    In our community a large cotton mill was built in 1928, which continued to operate for the next sixty years. There was other agricultural industry in the area, cotton gins and a cottonseed oil mill. Otherwise, the local economy would have been much worse.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2009, at 12:39 AM, MGA11 wrote:

    This recession should not be thought of as a standard recession - it will most likely be far deeper and last much longer people expect. There is still a tremendous amount of unsupportable debt that needs to clear out.

    I would throw all of your old investing ideas out of the window for the next couple years. I would expect the market in nominal terms to go *down* for the next couple years - the market lost 90% top to bottom in the great depression.

    The difference between this downturn and the 30's is that the fed no longer has the gold standard as a restraint so we may see a lot of inflation. It's still a little early, but a lot of people are expecting this to happen. The inflation also may behave in strange ways in which we see asset prices continue to decline, but commodity prices rise.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2009, at 12:48 AM, HS09 wrote:





    TIME. JUST IMAGINE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2009, at 12:12 PM, otd365 wrote:

    Market annalists, market investors and finanical advisor all seem to have the same method of describing A forest. It is generally felt by these bright but unenlighted sages that the best method is to count the number of trees add the total and that somehow this is the correct answer. Debt is one tree, money supply is another and on and on it goes, counting one tree after another until the market has direction and coherence. Debt is one tree, the market is just a group of trees and both are residents in the forest of humanity and they are there only as the most efficient means yet devised to serve the greater needs of the forest. We must not forget the needs of people are what make a market and our effort to profit from these needs should always concider how best we all can profit

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2009, at 2:21 PM, plange01 wrote:

    15 months of recession and now 6 more in a depression things are slowly getting worse in the US and the government not even admitting the current condition of the country is not helping.we are in a depression its a scary thought but thats what it is...

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2009, at 3:17 PM, ikkyu2 wrote:

    That turtle reminds me of Goldman Sachs.

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2009, at 7:54 AM, brwn8484 wrote:

    High Taxes + Excessive govt regulation + Massive Criminal Behavior + Statist leadership = Third World Economy + Massive Economic Collapse (Depression II)

    Obamunism 101

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2009, at 8:15 AM, brwn8484 wrote:

    That turtle just got run over by a truck...

    Missed the $11 million turtle tunnel paid for by the American Taxpayers. Guess he couldnt read the little turtle signs?

    Welcome to the largest Ponzi scheme ever conceived!

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2009, at 10:18 AM, rightofleft wrote:

    The turtle tunnel was $3.4 million (not 11), which works out to 37cents per vehicle per year. I'm happy to chip in 37 cents to save a life (human or otherwise). By the way, the project actually consists of three 150 foot tunnels and 2 miles of barrier walls - a far cry from the "13 foot tunnel" portrayed by Coburn and Fox News. Read more at

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2009, at 1:31 PM, brwn8484 wrote:

    Like I said... the greatest Ponzi scheme ever conceived!

    "Loot hundreds of billions through AIG, Fed backstops and liquidity injections, game the share market, re-capitalize through sharking small investors drunk on hope, and then magnanimously pay back a few bil in TARP money so your CEO can re-decorate the summer house in the Hamptons with the $20,000 Italian toilet and $100,000 Persian rug without some know it all screaming about abuse of public money. You have to admire the sheer chutzpa of the Wall St pigmen, if stealing was an art form they'd be Michelangelo." And now were building multi-million dollar turtle tunnels while claiming that were saving lives.

    "Since the onset of the financial crisis nine months ago, the government has become the nation’s biggest mortgage lender, guaranteed nearly $3 trillion in money-market mutual-fund assets, commandeered and restructured two car companies, taken equity stakes in nearly 600 banks, lent more than $300 billion to blue-chip companies, supported the life-insurance industry and become a credit source for buyers of cars, tractors and even weapons for hunting.

    The effects are rippling into nooks of the economy far beyond Wall Street and Detroit’s troubled car industry. The massive intervention has shifted the way companies do business in a host of ways — not all of them intended by the government. Increasingly, companies big and small are competing on the basis of their ability to tap government money. A divide is opening between gets and get-nots."

    Indeed, the party in power may well become the biggest "pay for play" extortionist in the history of the world. And I fear the middle class is already dead as we speak. We can all be sure of one thing... Our lives, our country, our freedoms are being taken away one at a time while the vast majority of politicians sit silently on the sidelines or trumpets the standard party line that wall street and bankers were the sole criminal conspiritors in this deepening and sad financial mess.

    Follow the pied piper.......

    "The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens."

    John Maynard Keynes

    It's not the finacial crooks I'm concerned about. Read the quote from CS Lewis and you'll know why!

    "I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of "Admin." The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern."

    CS Lewis

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