Is 2009 the New 1929? Current Crisis Shows Uncanny Parallels to Great Depression

Is history repeating itself? The current global downturn has many parallels to the Great Depression. And if the current massive bailout packages fail, the effect on the world's economies could be similarly drastic.


The Germans have always had a penchant for looking to America to gain a glimpse into the future.

They marveled at the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. They admired the gray but affordable Commodore personal computer. And they succumbed to the spell of an Internet company with the odd name of Google.

Will the current crisis be as bad as the Great Depression?

Will the current crisis be as bad as the Great Depression?

Now the Germans are looking across the Atlantic once again, but this time they see images that remind them of their own past, images of sad-looking people standing in long lines, hoping for work.

One of them is Michael Sheehan, who worked as an engineer with a large company until February. Not too long ago, Sheehan was the one doing the hiring. Today he is only one of 900 other job-seekers attending a job fair in a depressing hotel ballroom in Philadelphia.

One of the flyers arranged on the tables exhorts the attendees to "Stay Positive." But Sheehan feels more outraged than positive. Someone at the fair asks him for his resume. "I don't have a resume," he says. "I worked at one company for more than 30 years."

Natalie Ingelido, 21, is standing nearby, trying to calm down her bawling two-year-old son, who clearly doesn't like it here. "I'm looking for a job, any job, in a restaurant, a bar, cleaning, whatever," she says.

In the past, says Ingelido, "Help Wanted" signs were plastered on the doors of shops and bars. The past she refers to is last summer, when Natalie and her husband still lived in their own apartment. Now they live with his parents.

Across America, people like Sheehan and Ingelido are standing in lines, waiting and hoping. At one job fair in New York, the line stretched for several city blocks. Many would turn away, embarrassed to be seen there, whenever TV reporters attempted to document their fates.

More than 5 million people in the United States have lost their jobs since the crisis began. As if the country were undergoing fever convulsions, more than 650,000 were catapulted into the streets in the last month alone.

Most experts are now convinced that Germany will follow the United States along this downward trajectory. And those who, like many a politician, had refused to believe it until now were disabused of that notion last week.

Wednesday was a dark day for the leaders of Berlin's grand coalition government, which comprises the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). All their hopes that the skies over Germany could quickly brighten -- just in time for September's national election -- were suddenly dashed when leading economic institutes released their annual forecasts, which turned out to be even gloomier than expected: a 6 percent shrinkage in the German economy this year, followed by another year with no economic growth.

Unemployment will rise sharply. It is expected to exceed 4 million by this fall and hit 5 million by next year. By then, at the latest, the crisis will have become reality for millions of people, as it reaches private households, forces more companies into bankruptcy and pushes countless loans into default, only making things worse for the country's already ailing banks.

Politicians around the world are forced to look on as the economic crisis jumps from one industrial sector to the next and spreads to more and more social groups. They are the witnesses of a reality that repeatedly debunks their worst prognoses as being all too optimistic.

They are approving billions in government spending for economic stimulus programs and bank bailout packages, and pumping more and more money into the economy to rejuvenate the economic cycle. But no one knows whether this medicine actually works -- and if it does, when it will take effect.

Graphic: Parallels between current crisis and Great Depression

Graphic: Parallels between current crisis and Great Depression

Politicians, in their desperation, are clinging to even the tiniest glimmer of hope. At the opening ceremony of the Hanover Trade Fair early last week, where the number of exhibitors had just about remained stable, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the worst appeared to be over.

At an economic summit at the Chancellery a few days later, none of the 31 invited representatives of industry was willing to share this optimism. Instead, the meeting was marked by pessimism and a deep sense of helplessness. The mood reminded one of the attendees of a "funeral wake."

It appears that the German federal government, labor unions and employers have exhausted their options. As a result, the course of the meeting was predictable. The assembled representatives of industry groups used the opportunity to present the government with their familiar demands. The invited economists argued over terminology and forecasts, and the members of the government snubbed those officials who had expressed their opinions somewhat too loudly of late.

The mood at the Chancellery only worsened in response to the grim forecast for growth presented by Hans-Werner Sinn, the president of the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research, who predicted that the worst is yet to come. According to Sinn, German banks will have to make write-downs equivalent to up to 90 percent of their capital, while most businesses hold a pessimistic view of the future. Sinn even believes that deflation is possible, a situation in which demand would continue to decline despite falling prices.

But not all of the economics professors in attendance agreed with the Munich economist's theories. Wolfgang Franz, an economist from the southwestern German city of Mannheim, said that he believed that the economy could fall back into step more quickly than others predicted. Axel Weber, the head of Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, made it clear that he sees possible inflation as a much greater threat. By the end of the economists' presentations, the attendees were no longer sure which danger they were supposed to combat.

Deflation, inflation, mass unemployment -- these are words reminiscent of the darkest chapter in economic history. Thus, it comes as no surprise that experts are mentioning with growing frequency a term that was believed to have been relegated to the history books: Great Depression.


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