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Opinion: Did you see what they said after the stock market crash in 1929?

The economy is sending mixed signals, but consumer credit card debt is climbing, and that’s a bad thing

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Pedestrians are pictured outside the New York Stock Exchange.

Pedestrians pass the New York Stock Exchange on July 14, 2022, in New York. The U.S. economy is caught in an awkward, painful place. A confusing one, too. Growth appears to be sputtering, home sales are tumbling and economists warn of a potential recession ahead. But consumers keep spending, businesses keep posting profits and the economy keeps adding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

Readers of The New York Times must have felt relieved on the morning of Nov. 15, 1929, barely two weeks after an historic stock market crash, to read a summary of the Department of Labor’s latest monthly employment report.

“American industry is fundamentally sound and undisturbed by the recent financial upheaval,” it said. “The stock market break has not caused reduction in employment … (and) it might bring more money into industrial development.”

The market had crashed Oct. 28-29. That was just the beginning. By 1932 it would have lost 89% of its pre-crash value. It would be 12 years before the economy picked up again, as the nation united to fight World War II. The market wouldn’t reach its pre-crash peak again until November of 1954. Nothing about the economy in late 1929 was “sound and undisturbed.”

The assessment of pundits and government officials aren’t always reliable. 

Today’s Americans have not experienced an earth-shattering stock market collapse. It has been more like a constant trickle, kind of the way the Mississippi River begins as a trickle out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. 

At the end of June, the S&P 500 index had lost 20.6% for the year, while the Nasdaq lost almost 30% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average nearly 15%.

All of them have rebounded a bit since then, but all are still well below their January levels.

And yet, the economy is sending mixed signals. As The Associated Press reported recently, it is “caught in an awkward, painful place. A confusing one, too.”

Hindsight is always much easier than trying to guess what will happen next. If officials in the late ’20s missed the coming tsunami of misery, today’s observers are merely confused. But for consumers, confusion should be a reason for caution and prudence. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be happening.

A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data found that Americans increased their credit card balances by a cumulative 13% year over year in the second quarter. Credit card debt rose by $46 billion in that quarter alone, which is one of the highest increases since 1999, according to Fortune

For those under 25, credit card balances rose by 30%, and it went up by 25% for people with low credit scores, Fortune said.

If you’re interested, Utah has the 18th highest credit card debt in the nation, according to the personal finance website WalletHub, with a median debt of $2,225.

Experts say inflation is to blame. People are covering higher prices for gas, food and other items with their plastic wands. Perhaps, but poor financial habits may be a more likely culprit. 

For now, anyway, this strategy is working. Morningconsult.com says our balance sheets are looking good. Figures from the Federal Reserve show “that net wealth as a share of disposable income is near a record high, and household debt as a share of total assets is at its lowest level in nearly five decades.”

But that may just be another aspect of today’s economic confusion. The nation just recorded its second straight quarter of negative economic growth, which is one benchmark of a recession. However, the Labor Department said July was a banner month for employment, with companies adding 528,000 new jobs. Still, many tech industry companies are laying off workers, as are retailers such as Walmart

Inflation is higher than it has been in 40 years, which has led the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. And every increase in interest rates makes it that much harder to pay off credit cards or to buy a house.

And yet, consumer spending remains strong. 

“Today we are seeing consumers resort to credit cards to help cover expenses in the face of higher prices in consumer staples such as food, gasoline and housing,” Vaneesha Boney Dutra, associate professor of finance at the University of Denver, told Wallethub. “I expect this trend to continue until inflationary pressures ease.”

Or until the payments get too high or the jobs disappear.

It’s nice to have the luxury of 90 years of history with which to view a single, horribly wrong prediction about the economy at the start of the Great Depression. We don’t have that with today’s economy. No one knows for sure what’s coming, just that this isn’t a good time to rack up credit card debt.