Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Robert Barro: Stock Market Crashes Are Bad

So get this: stock market crashes are bad. Don't believe me? Well don't take my word for it - listen to Harvard professor Robert Barro, who recently studied the correlation between stock market crashes and depressions (defined as at least a 10% drop in GDP or consumption). Barro's conclusion:
In the end, we learned two things. Periods without stock-market crashes are very safe, in the sense that depressions are extremely unlikely. However, periods experiencing stock-market crashes, such as 2008-09 in U.S., represent a serious threat.
I'm glad Robert Barro is here to tell us these things. Really, I am. But here's a tip: his study might actually be meaningful if he included debt levels as a variable. Debt deflation - a d-process - is the real culprit when it comes to depressions. As Irving Fisher described, when assets used as collateral for loans undergo price deflation, economies can fall into a downward spiral of deleveraging, leading to further falls in asset prices, and then even more deleveraging, as the two processes feed on each other in a negative feedback loop. I suspect if Barro redid his study and considered debt levels as well that the odds of today's crisis spiraling down into a depression would be significantly higher than the 20% figure he gave. I doubt he would compare our current situation to the crashes in 1974 and 2001. What does it say about the state of academic economics that "stock market crashes are bad" passes for insight from a professor at our nation's top university? Dark Ages, indeed.

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