The NYSE And The Great Crash

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It is only fair to emphasize that on the worst day the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) ever saw, it was still just a market place, an arena where buyer and seller could transact their business. The brokerage community, composed as it was of professionals, might have been expected to cast a sterner, more skeptical eye on the weakening economic conditions so falsely reflected in the market's soaring prices, but there were few enough, in truth, who smelled danger in the spring air of 1929. Euphoria was endemic. The Exchange was no giddier than its customers.

It is worth recalling briefly some of the events of those turbulent days, for in violent and exaggerated form the crash spelled out the consequences of ignoring the basic principles of sensible investment. This is not to say that only foolish people lost money in 1929. Or even that wise ones could have read all the signs correctly at a time when the mirage of endless prosperity had pixilated much of the nation. Nor should that long-ago nightmare stand as a warning against investment today.

But in its stark outlines can be read many of the hard lessons every investor should know by heart.

The crash, as every economist and social historian who sifted the ashes was quick to tell us, was a classic case of the wish transcending reality. First, of course, came the boom. After a few unsettled years following World War I, the nation had straightened out economically and entered a period of joyful prosperity. The automobile industry, producer of the new era's most glittering symbol, was thriving. This was good news for the vast network of sub-contractors and suppliers of rubber, glass, and steel, of batteries, spark plugs, brake linings, and gasoline. Construction of office buildings, homes, and highways was increasing, and this fattened the producers of lumber, cement, electrical fixtures, and home appliances. Everywhere more power was needed. The icebox was giving way to the electric refrigerator, the washtub to the washing machine. And more and more homes had backyard aerials enabling them to tune in on the wonderful world of radio. The utilities grew, merged, pyramided into enormous holding companies. The movies were springing into full bloom. Everywhere there was money and progress.

The stock market responded vigorously. Beginning in 1924, prices moved steadily upward. Each year was better than the last. An impressive array of important people was being quoted to the effect that it now seemed clear the American people had found the secret of capitalistic perpetual motion. The words varied but the message was the same: a wise providence had seen fit to endow us bountifully with this world's goods. All that was required to achieve an endless prosperity was to have faith in America and keep moving. We were on the glory road.

Looking back, considering the bankers, tycoons, government executives, and assorted wizards who spoke—and the rest of us who listened, eager to believe—it all seems preposterous, vainglorious and naive. But in the 1920s it was hard to be pessimistic, hard even to be realistic. For America was indeed growing rich, and the end appeared to be never.

Actually, as we now know, the signs and portents of trouble ahead showed themselves early and were there for all to see. In 1927 it was well-known that speculation in securities was increasing. Loans to brokers and dealers inched upward, eventually reaching a total of $3.7 billion, a sure indication that much—perhaps too much—trading was being conducted on margin.

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