Monthly Archives: April 2016

The USA’s First ‘Belle Époque’ (1841-1856)

America’s First Great Moderation

By Joseph Davis (NBER) and Marc Weidenmier (Claremont – McKenna University, marc.weidenmier@cmc.edu)

Abstract 

We identify America’s First Great Moderation, a recession-free 16-year period from 1841 until 1856, that represents the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Occurring in the wake of the debt-deleveraging cycle of the late 1830s, this “take-off” period’s high rates of economic growth and relatively-low volatility enabled the U.S. economy to escape downturns despite the absence of a central bank. Using new high frequency data on industrial production, we show that America’s First Great Moderation was primarily driven by a boom in transportation-goods investment, attributable to both the wider adoption of steam railroads and river boats and the high expected returns for massive wooden clipper ships following the discovery of gold in California. We do not find evidence that agriculture (i.e., cotton), domestic textile production, or British economic conditions played any significant role in this moderation. The First Great Moderation ended with a sharp decline in transportation investment and bank credit during the downturn of 1857-8 and the coming American Civil War. Our empirical analyses indicate that the low-volatility states derived for both annual industrial production and monthly stock prices during the First Great Moderation are similar to those estimated for the Second Great Moderation (1984-2007).

URL: https://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/21856.html

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-03-23

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay (University of Warwick)

Those who like to study the causes of business fluctuations are often primarily interested in severe downturns, or sometimes wild upswings. They may be tempted to gloss over periods of relative calm where not much seems to be happening. Yet there is a good case for studying such phenomena: surely a long period of low volatility in output, prices and unemployment combined with relatively high sustained growth would make many policy makers happy. As such they deserve our attention.

The Great Moderation is usually thought of as one such period when, from the 1980s up to 2007, US economic growth became both more sustained and much less volatile. The causes of the Great Moderation are still being debated, and range from better monetary policy to major structural changes such as the development of information technologies to sheer luck (for example, an absence of oil shocks). Less well-known is the fact that the US economy experienced a similar phenomenon more than a century earlier, from the 1840s to the mid-1850s. In their paper, Davis and Weidenmier draw our attention to this period as it was, in their view, America’s First Great Moderation.  While much of the paper is spent demonstrating just that, they also look for its causes, and argue that important structural changes in the transportation industry were probably at the origin of this happy experience.

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Despite being sometimes pointed out as America’s “take-off” period (Rostow, 1971), the idea that this was the US’s First Great Moderation is far from straightforward. This is partly because the period has been commonly known for its relative financial instability, with for instance financial panics in the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In addition, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)’s official business cycle data do not go further back than 1854, which itself results from the fact that most of the extant data on pre-1854 output is qualitative. Thorp’s Business Annals (1926), for example, are primarily based on anecdotal newspaper reports. Thorp identifies a recession in almost every other year, which Davis and Weidenmier think is a gross overestimation.

Instead, the authors use Davis’s (2004) index of industrial production (IP) and defend their choice by pointing out a number of things. First, this is a newer, high-frequency series which despite its industrial focus is much more precise than, for example, Gallman’s trend GDP data. It is based on 43 annual components in the manufacturing and mining industries which were consistently derived from 1790 to World War I. The series does not contain any explicit information on the agricultural sector, which produced more than half of US output in the antebellum era. However, Davis and Weidenmier argue that any large business fluctuations apparent in this sector would also be reflected in the IP index as the demand for industrial goods was very much tied to farm output. Conversely, the demand for say, lumber, could be intimately related to business conditions in the construction and railroad industries.

Simply looking at standard deviations makes clear that the 1841-1856 period was indeed one of especially low volatility and sustained growth in industrial production, with no absolute normal declines in output. From this data it is thus apparent that even the well-known 1837 financial panic was not followed by any protracted recession, thereby confirming Temin’s (1969) earlier suspicion. Testing more rigorously for breaks in the series, their Markov regime-switching model suggests that the probability of a low-volatility state indeed rises the most during this period as compared to the early and late 19th-century periods. Applying the same model up to the recent era, it even appears that the two Great Moderations were similar in magnitude – a remarkable result.

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But what could explain this apparently unique phenomenon? To answer this question, Davis and Weidenmier first decompose industrial production into several sectors such as metal products, transportation machinery, lumber, food, textiles, printing, chemicals and leather. They then find that the probability of faster growth and lower volatility during the First Great Moderation is significantly higher for the transportation-goods industry. This corresponds to the general idea that the “transportation revolution” (especially in railroads and ships) was an important aspect of America’s take-off. However, increased production in transportation goods could be a result of increased demand in the economy as a whole. The authors then refute this possibility by showing that transportation production preceded all other industrial sector increases in this period, which would tend to confirm the importance of transportation investment spillover effects into other sectors.

Davis and Weidenmier therefore make a convincing case that the Great Moderation should in fact be called the Second Great Moderation, since a first one is clearly apparent from the 1840s to the mid-1850s. Interestingly, they emphasize that in both cases deep structural changes in the economy seem to have been at work, especially in the realm of general purpose technologies, with significant spillovers (transportation in one case, IT in the other).

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An important question left to answer is the extent to which an era of the “Great Moderation” type is to be desired, and on what grounds. Although aiming at a quiet yet prosperous era seems legitimate, it is important to remind ourselves that the 1850s ended with a severe financial and economic crisis which some argue had its roots in financial speculation and overindebtedness in preceding years. Likewise, we all know how the 2000s sadly ended. The “Second” Great Moderation also saw significant increases in inequality. Davis and Weidenmier acknowledge not being able to account for financial and banking developments during this era; perhaps this needs to be investigated further (or at least pondered upon). One may ask, indeed, whether such periods of prosperity may not bear in themselves the seeds of their own demise.

 

References

Davis, Joseph. (2004). “An Annual Index of US Industrial Production, 1790-1915.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 119:4, pp. 1177-1215.

Gallman, Robert. (1966). “Gross National Product in the United States, 1834-1909” in Dorothy S. Brady (ed.) Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States after 1800. New York, Columbia University Press.

Rostow, W. (1990). The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Temin, Peter. (1969). The Jacksonian Economy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Thorp, William. (1926). Business Annals. NBER.

 

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Don’t Panic!! War, Money and Stability, 1914-45

Confidence, Fear and a Propensity to Gamble: The Puzzle of War and Economics in an Age of Catastrophe 1914-45

by Roger L. Ransom (roger.ransom@ucr.edu) (University of California at Riverside)

This paper uses the notion of animal spirits introduced by John Maynard Keynes in the General Theory and more recently employed by George Akerloff and Robert Shiller in their book Animal Spirits, to explain the speculative bubbles and decisions for war from 1914 to 1945. Animal spirits are “a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction” that produces decisions which are not bounded by “rational” calculations. My analysis shows how confidence, fear, and a propensity to gamble can encourage aggressive behavior that leads to speculative “bubbles” in financial markets and military or political crises. Elements of prospect theory are added to demonstrate how the presence of risk in crises tend to produce a very strong bias towards taking gambles to avoid economic or military loses. A basic premise of the paper is that war and economics were inexorably joined together by 1914 to a point where economic strength was as important as military might in determining the outcome of a war. The final section of the paper deals with the problem of measuring military and economic strength by using the composite index of national capability [CINC] created by the Correlates of War Project to evaluate the riskiness of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 and the changes in military capability of major powers between 1914-1919

URL http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/ucrwpaper/201603.htm

Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2016-03-17

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper surveys the impact of war on economic stability, and the role that confidence and fear plays in the nature of the economy and economic development.   It provides an interesting addition to the historiography, especially since numerous similar studies have concentrated on the social ramifications of war, most notably the correlation between armed conflict and social change first identified by Arthur Marwick in the 1970s.

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John Maynard Keynes is still regarded by many as the architect of modern economics in war and peace

Using the framework of ‘animal spirits’, first advanced by John Maynard Keynes in his classical General Theory study of 1936, Ransom shows how emotion and rationality have governed many of the economic cycles that ensued as a result of war and peace. He shows that decisions based on instinct were often the driver of many deep-rooted changes that would impact on long-term economic stability.  With the perception among policymakers that interwar years (i.e. the period after the First World War) would lead to a period of significant economic instability, he shows how major world leaders often took gambles – some of which paid off, but some of which had deep consequences that not only changed the course of war, but also affected long-term economic performance.

In identifying the limitations of economic history analyses in this area, Ransom argues that the uncertainties caused by war and the transition to a peacetime economy leads to several difficulties. For economists, no real models exist for the predictions of uncertainty or volatility, whereas outcomes can, to a certain degree of accuracy, be predicted. Furthermore, he claims that in countries where the economy was growing and the war effort was achieving positive aims, leaders were thus operating in a ‘confidence bubble.’ Yet while this progress could be regarded as positive for the nation, the implications for the economy were not always fruitful, especially since the impact of emotion on leaders’ psyche meant that despite these developments, leaders and planners did not always act rationally. In explaining this phenomenon, Ransom draws on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverskey’s 1979 ‘Prospect theory’ in which they argue that many leaders have focused on the results they think are really possible while also seeking to avoid large losses. This, in turn, has served to cloud judgement with regard to the possibilities open to make significant gains.

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Hoovervilles in the USA became a common sight of the Great Depression of the 1920s

In the final part of the paper, Ransom shows how historians have used the Composite Index of National Capability in order to assess a nation’s capability to wage a war.  The test, comprising six areas includes: military personnel; military expenditure; total population; urban population; primary energy consumption; and iron and steel consumption.  This approach looks at these aspects and divides each nation by the overall global variable.   While not totally reliable, it can offer possibilities to explain why leaders, in preparation for, and in prosecution of, war have changed strategies according to national needs.  Using the Battle of the Marne during the First World War as an example, Ransom shows how this acted as a ‘tipping point’ in the German prosecution of the war effort – the failure of which saw confidence turn into fear and the widely-regarded failure of General Schlieffen to discharge Germany’s military capability in the most effective way. Thus the idea that economics formed the foundation a nation’s military capability after the First World War has now received greater attention.

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General Schlieffen’s economic decisions during the First World War have now been seen as a possible reason for German’s failures.

Critique

This paper is fascinating for the way that it shows the impact of emotion and human rationality on economics.  In terms of economic policymaking, little attention has been dedicated to the role of emotion and human behaviour on the economic decisions taken that, in turn, had a fundamental impact on the trajectory of war.

The interesting aspect of this paper lies in the way that Ransom uses case studies to show how wars, and the pressures placed on leaders, could have influenced their state of mind concerning their economic decisions.  The approach is geo-political.  This is particularly useful, since the importance of international relations would have impacted severely on a nation’s economic capability.  However, what could also be of interest is a consideration of the response on the home front to the challenges brought about by war and peace, and how the opinions of ordinary citizens may or may not have influenced those in positions of power.  For example, in the British case, the Ministry of Information during the Second World War commissioned surveys of the home front to ascertain people’s opinions on a wide range of topics, of which the condition of the economy featured heavily.  The social research organisation, Mass Observation, also conducted similar surveys so as to inform the government of the home front’s condition, and how it could be maintained to ensure solidarity for the war effort.  At the core of many citizens’ grievances was the nature of the economy, especially rising food prices.  While ascertaining this information in a transnational study such as this may not be easy, perhaps a little more focus on citizens’ opinions of economy and the prosecution of the war effort would provide a wider framework in which to understand the influences on world leaders when making decisions controlling the trajectory of their nation’s economies in war and peace.

 

References

Jefferys, Kevin (ed.), War and Reform: British Politics during the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).

Marwick, Arthur, War and social change in the twentieth century: a comparative study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States (London: Macmillan, 1974).

Milward, Alan S., War, Economy and Society, 1939-45 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987).

Minns, Raynes, Bombers and Mash: The Domestic Front, 1939-45 (London: Virago, 1980).