The 1929 Parallel - John Kenneth Galbraith (Atlantic Magazine, January 1987)

The 1929 Parallel - John Kenneth Galbraith (Atlantic Magazine, January 1987)

In March of 1929 Paul M. Warburg, a founding parent of the Federal Reserve System and an immensely prestigious banker in his time, called attention to the current orgy, as he said, of "unrestrained speculation" in the stock market and added that were it not brought to an end, there would be a disastrous collapse. His warning was badly received. It was made clear that he did not appreciate the new era in economic well-being that the market was so admirably reflecting; he was said by one exceptionally articulate critic to be "sandbagging American prosperity." Less eloquent commentators voiced the thought that he was probably short in the market.

There was a decidedly more sympathetic response somewhat later that year to the still remembered observation of Professor Irving Fisher, of Yale, one of the most diversely innovative scholars of his time. Fisher said, "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." Fisher was, in fact, long in the market and by some estimates lost between eight and ten million dollars in the almost immediately ensuing crash.

There is here a lesson about the larger constant as regards financial aberration and its consequences. There is a compelling vested interest in euphoria, even, or perhaps especially, when it verges, as in 1929, on insanity. Anyone who speaks or writes on current tendencies in financial markets should feel duly warned. There are, however, some controlling rules in these matters, which are ignored at no slight cost. Among those suffering most will be those who regard all current warnings with the greatest contempt.

Read More