Having recently lived through the crash of the dot-com stocks, I thought it was a particularly appropriate moment to reread John Kenneth Galbraith's famous history of the stock market crash of 1929 in the United States. Professor Galbraith's final words prove to be prophetic as he suggests that as soon as the lessons of 1929 are forgotten, the speculative excesses that led to that debacle will recur. I am sure that when the dot-bomb experience is forgotten, it will be repeated with some new class of speculation in some future generation.
With the recent experience of seeing a market mania, I came away more impressed with this book than before. Professor Galbraith does a fine job of capturing the psychology that builds into and sustains a mania. He also writes like a novelist rather than like an economist. That talent makes the message easy to grasp and appreciate.
I was also impressed by how our popular perceptions of 1929 are so often wrong. For example, most people believe that many "broken" speculators committed suicide. Although some did, there was no significant rise in the suicide rate compared to a general trend in that direction.
Economists often like to fault the Federal Reserve for the crash. That blame seems somewhat misplaced when you learn that there was very little government debt that the Fed could repurchase to create liquidity. Had the Fed acted differently, the crash might have come a little sooner and not been quite so severe . . . but the fundamentals would probably not have changed too much.
Another misperception is that everyone was speculating. By even the most generous measures, the speculators probably never numbered over a million people.
Although this is a history, Professor Galbraith takes on the economic question of how the crash contributed to the Depression. Although we know very little about the economic details of 1929, I was impressed by the point about how much consumer spending was concentrated in the wealthiest people. As they lost vast sums, both spending for consumer goods and savings for capital were decimated. With the broader income distribution of today, such a cataclysm would not be so harmful (as we saw in the aftermath of the dot-com crash).
There is an excellent parallel discussion of the land boom in Florida earlier in the 1920's that is very rewarding. I was intrigued by the ways that ever increasing ways of extending leverage were created so that both bubbles could climb higher. In Florida, people didn't actually buy the land. They bought options to buy the land, and traded those. In the stock market, holding companies sold stock and then floated new holding companies. These were capitalized with common stock, preferred and debt so that all of the appreciation would accrue to the common holders. Naturally, the opposite occurred on the way down. Many stocks fell by over 99 percent, as a result.
Everyone who is tempted to buy any item primarily because it is thought to represent an opportunity for a quick buck should read this book.
Look for true value in all that you do!