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50 Years Ago: Wall Street slump

Wall Street got the twitch last month and so did London and the Bourses on the Continent. The newspapers rushed out pictures of the panic in 1929 and then had to set their City Editors to work to explain why 1929 cannot after all happen again.

Everybody seemed to have forgotten that just before 1929 the financial experts were assuring us that the crash which was in fact just around the corner could never happen anyway. If this does not make the experts of 1929 look very impressive in retrospect, it must also teach us that the forecasts of all capitalism's economic experts are not worth very much.

Nowadays the experts are fond of pointing out the precautions which (they are confident) would prevent a runaway boom like the one which preceded the 1929 crash and therefore (they reason) would also prevent the crash itself.

This ignores the fact that slumps are not the result of an attack of jitters on the Stock Exchange; rather is it the other way round. Nineteen-twenty-nine was one of capitalism's classic crises and no amount of stock juggling could have averted it.

Nor should we assume that hotheaded speculation is dead. The Observer correspondent in New York reported that the " intellectuals" of Wall Street thought that: " By the end of last year the market had reached heights that brokers now, without blushing, describe as insane." and quoted one New York broker: "The way some of (the big brokers) have been pushing over-priced stocks at naive investors is nothing short of criminal."

Perhaps a repeat of 1929 is not so impossible after all. For some of the experts were mystified by Wall Street's 1962 twitch. The Guardian said: "The continuing retreat is puzzling commentators in that there seems to be no apparent reason for it. Mr. Walter Heller, President Kennedy's economic adviser, said there were no economic grounds for the condition of the market." Does this fill us with confidence that capitalism's economists could not be taken unawares by a repeat of 1929? It does not.

Capitalism could have something up its sleeve, just as it had thirty-three years ago, to surprise the experts and impoverish the rest of us.