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  • Writer's pictureWarren H. Lau

Has US Market Peaked? A Brief Study of Historical Bulls and Bears


Has US Market Peaked | Warren H. Lau | INPress International
Has US Market Peaked | Warren H. Lau | INPress International

Market volatility is normal, but some crashes stand out from all others due to their immense economic damage and long-lasting effects. This in-depth analysis examines five of the worst US stock market declines based on magnitude and impact and what we can learn from these historical events.


The Crash of 1929

The largest crash by percentage decline began in late August 1929. Over a three-year period through November 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted a staggering 79%. On a single day known as Black Thursday on October 24, 1929, the Dow lost 11% of its value, wiping out tens of billions in today’s dollars. While panic selling contributed to the decline, core causes included speculation fueled by widespread margin buying on debt and a slowdown in the industrial economy.


As stocks kept falling, people lost vast wealth and confidence in the system. When banks began failing in late 1931 due to debt exposures, this led to a period termed the Great Depression—the worst and longest economic downturn in modern history. National output dropped by nearly 50% over the subsequent decade and unemployment rose to 25%. Poverty and hunger afflicted millions. The crash shattered the public's faith in banks and financial institutions and changed attitudes from optimism to fear and risk aversion. An era of minimal government economic involvement ended with President Roosevelt's New Deal reforms taking hold. The crash's effects permanently altered US society.


The Dot-com Bubble and Financial Crisis

While the tech-heavy NASDAQ index plunged 75% from 2000-2002 during the dot-com stock mania implosion, wiping out over $5 trillion in wealth, the subsequent 2007-2009 financial crisis caused even deeper overall market losses. Rising home prices fueled exponential growth in highly leveraged subprime lending as mortgages were repackaged into complex securities and derivatives that spread risk throughout the global economy in ways not fully understood.

When the Federal Reserve raised interest rates in mid-2007 and housing markets started collapsing, major financial institutions became insolvent from exposures to toxic assets. Lehman Brothers' September 2008 bankruptcy triggered a global sell-off arguably worse than the 1929 crash as stocks fell sharply amid frozen credit. The S&P 500 tumbled 56.8% from peak to trough during this period. Many economists consider this the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as combined Dot-com/financial crash losses amounted to over 54% declines stretching across nearly a decade from February 2000 to March 2009.

The crisis caused grave economic damage worldwide including the worst US recession since WWII with unemployment peaking at 10%. Millions lost homes, jobs, savings and trillions in household wealth vanished overnight. It took years for markets and GDP to recover while sparking the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Regulations tightened but left some vulnerabilities unaddressed.


Inflation and Political Turmoil in the 1970s

A crisis of confidence plagued the US economy in the early 1970s due to issues including the OPEC oil embargo, rising inflation fueled partly by loose monetary policy and large budget deficits, and a sense of national malaise as the long Vietnam War ended messy amid an increasingly disruptive anti-war movement and demonstrations.


Meanwhile, the Watergate scandal led to Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974, further undermining public trust in government and institutions. Against this chaotic political and economic backdrop, the stock market tumbled over 51% from December 1972 to September 1974, contributing to a severe recession from November 1973 to March 1975. Spiraling inflation upended budgets and the Vietnam conflict's end took a psychological toll, though its direct economic impacts were relatively minor.


Periods of market turbulence preceded Nixon's resignation by over a year, showing macro stresses weighed heavily in addition to political turmoil. Investors fled to cash and bonds as price and wage spirals exacerbated uncertainty. Volatility remained high through the 1970s as “stagflation” of high inflation with low growth prevailed—a unique economic challenge that confounded policymakers and a significant shift from the postwar stability and prosperity.


Post-WWI Speculation and Deflation

While the 1910s saw tremendous uncertainty from World War I that limited equity investment, autos and other newly mass-produced items sparked a roaring speculative bubble post-war. But market optimism could not stay ahead of harsh economic realities—the war left Europe in ruins and the US did not escape unscathed from embracing an enormous war debt despite being financially strengthened through Allied lending. Political wrangling also stalled effective policy reforms.


Speculative excesses built during the 1910s could not be sustained indefinitely. From 1911-1920, five separate yearly declines punctured overinflated stocks, with a particularly nasty crash in 1920 causing a short economic depression. For the full period, total market losses amounted to over 51% as the roaring twenties lay ahead but war debts crushed many over-leveraged companies. Political divides and war scars took time healing as well, creating a fragile early 20th century global financial system prone to shocks. Natural deflationary pressures combined with populist trade protectionism worsened the hangover. Lessons showed how geopolitical events and policy choices impact investment conditions.


WWII Shadow and Stubborn Depression

Even as President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked to lift the US economy through public works spending, financial reforms and social welfare programs since taking office in 1933, vestiges of the Depression lingered. The stock market crash of February-March 1937 caused another 50% drop, indicating weakness persisted below bullish surface readings. With a severe six-month recession following, unemployment rose back to 19%. This demonstrated the Depression's stubborn and protracted hold, dashing premature optimism over a full recovery as Europe succumbed to totalitarian regimes.


By early 1940, war again loomed as a dark economic cloud on the horizon. As Axis powers rampaged abroad, the shadow of potential US involvement grew longer despite isolationist sentiment. American factories worked furiously to aid Allies through the Lend-Lease program. Real GDP finally surpassed 1929 levels in late 1941, but it took massive wartime spending by the “Arsenal of Democracy” and manpower mobilization to fully defeat the Depression's grip. Only with post-war reconstruction needs and a massive expansion of the American middle class did lasting prosperity take root. Crashes teach how slowly societies recover from deep collective psychological scars.


While lessons differ across eras, certain commonalities emerge from examining history’s worst crashes. All significantly damaged real lives and livelihoods by destroying vast wealth, jobs and growth more than market figures alone convey. Each disrupted politics and social cohesion in ways taking years unfolding. Their causes spanned speculation, economic imbalances like inflation, leverage risks, and geopolitical instability compounding macro stresses. Forewarned, we can better plan for future volatility periods through periodic analysis of past instability’s origins, propagation, socioeconomic effects and prolonged recoveries needing wartime or large-scale reforms. Ongoing monitoring remains key to navigating ever-changing market conditions amid today’s complex globalized system.

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