Contours of Crisis: Fiction and Reality

by Chris Sturr | April 28, 2009

We have posted the second article in a series by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan. Here are the first few paragraphs:

This is the second in our Contours of Crisis paper series. The first article set the stage for the series. It began by outlining the conventional view that this is a finance-led crisis, that this turmoil was triggered and amplified by “financial excesses”; it then described the domino sequence of collapsing markets—a process that started with the meltdown of the U.S. housing and FIRE sectors (finance, insurance and real estate), expanded to the entire financial market, and eventually pulled down the so-called “real economy”; and, finally, it situated the pattern and magnitude of the current decline in historical context.

The current market collapse is very significant. Even after their last month’s rise, U.S. equity prices, measured in constant dollars, remain 50% below their 1999 peak—a decline comparable to the previous major bear markets of 1905-1920, 1928-1948 and 1968-1981. For many observers, though, the depth of the financial crash also implies that much of it may be over, and that the boom bulls will soon oust the doom bears.

Predicting boom out of doom isn’t far fetched. Equity markets are highly cyclical, and their gyrations are remarkably stylized. As our first article showed, over the past century the United States has experienced several major bear markets with very similar patterns: they all had more or less the same duration, they all shared a similar magnitude, and they all ended in a major bull run. In other words, there seems to be a certain automaticity here, and automaticity gives pundits the confidence to extrapolate the future from the past.

But this automaticity is more apparent than real. Finance, we pointed out, is not an independent mechanism that goes up and down on its own. In this sense, the long-term movements of the equity market are not “technical” swings, but rather reflections and manifestations of deep social transformations that alter the entire structure of power. During the past century, every transition from a major bear market to a bull run was accompanied by a systemic reordering of the political economy: the 1920–1928 upswing marked the transition from robber-baron capitalism to big business and synchronized finance; the 1948–1968 uptrend came with the move from “laissez faire” capitalism to big government and the welfare-warfare state; and the 1981–1999 boom coincided with a return to liberal regulation on the one hand and the explosive growth of capital flows and transnational ownership on the other.

Read the rest of the article.

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