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Trading Through the 2008 Crash From the Perspective of a Financial Historian

By Morgan Housel - Apr 25, 2013 at 8:00AM

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David Cowen on financial history.

The 2008 financial crisis will have a place in the history books and be talked about for centuries. If you invested through it, congratulations.

We all remember what it felt like to see the Dow Jones (^DJI 0.03%) fall 50%. I sure do, anyway.

But what was it like from the perspective of a financial historian? I asked David Cowen, CEO of the Museum of American Finance. Here's what he had to say (transcript follows):

Morgan Housel: During 2008, did you respond with less of a shock than others? Do you think knowing that this has happened before -- we've had crash after crash after crash -- whereas to Main Street, it sort of felt like this is a one-in-a-century event?

David Cowen: You know, that's interesting because you're asking me personally, and I was actually trading at that time and had to live through that moment, and so I wasn't thinking with my financial historian's hat, but when you're in the moment, just trying to survive and do the right things in that context. So no, I didn't have my financial historian's hat on the way I do at other times. But then once you get through that moment, you start to contextualize it. You know that in 1792, at the beginnings of our nation, we had a financial panic; 1819 we had a panic -- 1837, 1857, 1870, 1873, 1890s, et cetera, et cetera. 1907, another famous panic. 1929, as I keep going on and on. So yeah, when you step back from it, but on those days and those moments you're in the fight.

But what I would say is when there's a central regulating monetary authority like the Federal Reserve -- and in our periods of history, the first bank in the United States, 1791 to 1811; second bank in the United States, 1816 to '36 -- that it's much more mitigated. There are much less of these type of panics when there is a central regulating monetary authority to check the activity to the best extent they can and then be lender of last resort to assist in times of need.

Morgan Housel: If we have fewer crises within the central-bank model, are they deeper and more severe when they happen? There have been people who have made that argument.

David Cowen: I don't necessarily think so, because let's take a look at the 1987 crash. We quickly rebound from that, right? The Fed, Greenspan injects a lot of liquidity so there are times they can stem what might have been exasperating or exasperating circumstances. So no, I don't think so, though we're in a very difficult one right now. Ben Bernanke's a great student of the Depression, but most economists, I think, would say if they didn't take the actions they did in 2008, we would have had a much more severe downturn than we actually did.

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