Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Wall Street Crash of 1929

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 (October 1929), also known as the Great Crash, and the Stock Market Crash of 1929, was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its fallout. The crash signaled the beginning of the 10-year Great Depression that affected all Western industrialized countries and did not end in the United States until 1947.

The Roaring Twenties, the decade that led up to the Crash, was a time of wealth and excess. Despite the dangers of speculation, many believed that the stock market would continue to rise indefinitely. The market had been on a six-year run that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average increase in value fivefold, peaking at 381.17 on September 3, 1929. Shortly before the crash, economist Irving Fisher famously proclaimed, "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." The optimism and financial gains of the great bull market were shaken on "Black Thursday", October 24, 1929, when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) abruptly fell.

In the days leading up to the crash, the market was severely unstable. Periods of selling and high volumes of trading were interspersed with brief periods of rising prices and recovery. Economist and author Jude Wanniski later correlated these swings with the prospects for passage of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act, which was then being debated in Congress.

On October 24 ("Black Thursday"), the market lost 11% of its value at the opening bell on very heavy trading. Several leading Wall Street bankers met to find a solution to the panic and chaos on the trading floor. The meeting included Thomas W. Lamont, acting head of Morgan Bank; Albert Wiggin, head of the Chase National Bank; and Charles E. Mitchell, president of the National City Bank of New York. They chose Richard Whitney, vice president of the Exchange, to act on their behalf.

With the bankers' financial resources behind him, Whitney placed a bid to purchase a large block of shares in U.S. Steel at a price well above the current market. As traders watched, Whitney then placed similar bids on other "blue chip" stocks. This tactic was similar to one that ended the Panic of 1907. It succeeded in halting the slide. The Dow Jones Industrial Average recovered, closing with it down only 6.38 points for the day; however, unlike 1907, the respite was only temporary.
The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1930, just six months after the crash of 1929

Over the weekend, the events were covered by the newspapers across the United States. On October 28, "Black Monday", more investors decided to get out of the market, and the slide continued with a record loss in the Dow for the day of 38 points, or 13%. The next day, "Black Tuesday", October 29, 1929, about 16 million shares were traded, and the Dow lost an additional 30 points, or 12%. The volume of stocks traded on October 29, 1929 was a record that was not broken for nearly 40 years.

Author Richard M. Salsman wrote that "on October 29—amid rumors that U.S. President Herbert Hoover would not veto the pending Hawley-Smoot Tariff bill—stock prices crashed even further". William C. Durant joined with members of the Rockefeller family and other financial giants to buy large quantities of stocks in order to demonstrate to the public their confidence in the market, but their efforts failed to stop the large decline in prices. The ticker did not stop running until about 7:45 that evening. The market had lost over $30 billion in the space of two days.

Dow Jones Industrial Average
Date Change % Change Close
October 28, 1929 −38.33 −12.82 260.64
October 29, 1929 −30.57 −11.73 230.07

The market continued to fall, arriving at an interim bottom on November 13, 1929, with the Dow closing at 198.60. The market recovered for several months, reaching a secondary closing peak (i.e., bear market rally) of 294.07 on April 17, 1930, before embarking on another, much longer, slide from April 1931 to July 1932 when the Dow closed at 41.22—its lowest level of the 20th century. It would not return to the peak of September 1929 until November 1954

he crash followed a speculative boom that had taken hold in the late 1920s, which had led hundreds of thousands of Americans to invest heavily in the stock market. A significant number of them were borrowing money to buy more stocks. By August 1929, brokers were routinely lending small investors more than two-thirds of the face value of the stocks they were buying. Over $8.5 billion was out on loan, more than the entire amount of currency circulating in the U.S. at the time.

The rising share prices encouraged more people to invest; people hoped the share prices would rise further. Speculation thus fueled further rises and created an economic bubble. Because of margin buying, investors stood to lose large sums of money if the market turned down—or even failed to advance quickly enough. The average P/E (price to earnings) ratio of S&P Composite stocks was 32.6 in September 1929, clearly above historical norms. On October 24, 1929, with the Dow just past its September 3 peak of 381.17, the market finally turned down, and panic selling started.

In 1932, the Pecora Commission was established by the U.S. Senate to study the causes of the crash. The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the Glass–Steagall Act mandating a separation between commercial banks, which take deposits and extend loans, and investment banks, which underwrite, issue, and distribute stocks, bonds, and other securities.

After the experience of the 1929 crash, stock markets around the world instituted measures to suspend trading in the event of rapid declines, claiming that the measures would prevent such panic sales. However, the one-day crash of Black Monday, October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 22.6%, was worse in percentage terms than any single day of the 1929 crash.

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