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Understanding the Great Depression: Lessons for Current Policy

  • Stephen G. Cecchetti

Over the four years beginning in the summer of 1929, financial markets, labor markets and goods markets all virtually ceased to function. Throughout this, the government policymaking apparatus seemed helpless. Since the end of the Great Depression, macroeconomists have labored diligently in an effort to understand the circumstances that led to the wholesale collapse of the economy. What lessons can we draw from our study of these events? In this essay, I argue that the Federal Reserve played a key role in nearly every policy failure during this period, and so the major lessons learned from the Great Depression concern the function of the central bank and the financial system. In my view, there is now a broad consensus supporting three conclusions. First, the collapse of the finance system could have been stopped if the central bank had properly understood its function as the lender of last resort. Second, deflation played an extremely important role deepening the Depression. And third, the gold standard, as a method for supporting a fixed exchange rate system, was disastrous.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 6015.

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Date of creation: Apr 1997
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Publication status: published as The Economics of the Great Depression, Wheeler, M., ed., Kalamazoo, Michigan: W.E. Upjon Institute for Employment Research, 1998,pp. 171-194.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6015
Note: ME
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  1. Hamilton, James D, 1992. "Was the Deflation during the Great Depression Anticipated? Evidence from the Commodity Futures Market," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(1), pages 157-78, March.
  2. Robert J. Gordon & James A. Wilcox, 1978. "Monetarist Interpretations of the Great Depression: An Evaluation and Critique," NBER Working Papers 0300, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Meltzer, Allan H., 1976. "Monetary and other explanations of the start of the great depression," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 2(4), pages 455-471, November.
  4. Hamilton, James D., 1987. "Monetary factors in the great depression," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 19(2), pages 145-169, March.
  5. Ben S. Bernanke, 1983. "Non-Monetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression," NBER Working Papers 1054, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Ray C. Fair & Matthew D. Shapiro & Kathryn M. Dominguez, 1986. "Forecasting the Depression: Harvard Versus Yale," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 808, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University.
  7. Christina D. Romer, 1988. "The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression," NBER Working Papers 2639, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Milton Friedman & Anna J. Schwartz, 1963. "A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number frie63-1.
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