Today we read that the savings rate in the US has dropped to a negative one percent. It is also mentioned that it hasn’t been this bad since the Great Depression years of 1932 and 1933. The following is an article from way back when, that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, CCV (November 5, 1932), pp. 3-4 titled" What about the Banks." It was written by Frank A. Vanderlip, former president of the National City Bank of New York. Bear in mind that 1932 was three years into the Great Depression. So if we carry forward to today, this would have appeared in the future year 2012. So we are not really where he was at, when he wrote this.
The present economic disturbance has been so severe that it as make even some changes in our language. No longer is it an apt metaphor to say that anything is “as safe as a bank.” The word “securities” has almost become obsolete. An investment that drops in price to a tenth or, perhaps, even to a twentieth of its former range is not a security; it is a jeopardy. The page of stock-and-bond quotations might well be headed Quotations of Risks and Hazards. To call them securities in the light of their fluctuations is ironical.In the Great Depression there was a very good reason for feeling negative about life. The interest only mortgage loan had ruined many banks. If you had any money invested, it was probably gone by then. Age 65 ready to retire, it must have been very depressing to some.
In 1720, a financial debacle added to the English language a phrase which has persisted in common world-wide use for two centuries. A hopelessly exploded financial venture is to this day called a South Sea Bubble.
The South Sea Company in its time was the rival of the Bank of England. It was the ambition of the Tories that it should supplant the Bank of England. When the bubble burst, the extreme decline in the price of the stock was from 1,000 to 135. The company withstood the shock, however and continued in business for eighty years.
Here is an example from out own times: United States Steel and General Motors stocks, the two leading industrials of the country, declined from the high quotations of 1929 to 8 per cent of that price. The decline in the stock of the South Sea Company was only to 13 ½ per cent of its highest quotation. Take another: The stock of what has long been one of the premier banks of the country declined from 585 to 23 ½. That is to say, it fell to 4 percent of its highest quotation. The decline in the market price of this great American banking institution was therefore more than three times as severe as was the fall in the stock of the South Sea Company.
That illustration is by no means a unique one. There were innumerable American bank stocks which made a more distressing record. Between October 1, 1929, and August 31 1932, 4,835 American banks failed. They had deposits aggregating $3,263,049,000. . . . .
The decline in the price of bank stocks was only a minor phase of our debacle. The quoted value of all stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange was, on September 1, 1929 $89,668,276,854. By July 1, 1932, the quoted value of all stocks had fallen to $15,633,479,577.
Stockholders had lost $74,000,000,000. This figure is so large, that not many minds can grasp it. It is $616 for every one of us in America. It is, roughly, three times what we spent in fighting the World War (WWI). . . . . . .
Not only did our investments shrivel in the last three years but we even frequently lost our pocketbooks. Cash in hand, left for safekeeping in a bank, often went the way of our investments, and worse. Almost $3,000,000,000 of our daily-used cash funds were sequestered in the doubtful assets of the 4,835 insolvent banks. Widespread communities were left with only the mattress as a safe depository, and with little to put into it. People became so frightened in regard to the safety of the banks that they locked up in safe-deposit vaults, or secreted elsewhere, more than $1,500,000,000.
This bit of history was full of pain, the players from that era are just memories. The show will play again and we will be the actors upon the stage. The trouble is, we are not willing participants.