U.S. Stock Market Crashes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The economic boom of the 1920’s ended in a dramatic crash of the stock market that was partly caused and exacerbated by the practice of buying stock “on margin” (that is, with other people’s money). The crash signaled the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Summary of Event

October 29, 1929, “Black Tuesday,” is remembered as the most devastating day in American stock market history. Stock prices fell in a selling frenzy that began the moment the opening bell sounded. When the trading day was over, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped more than thirty points, with some leading stocks plummeting $30-$60 a share. Billions of dollars of fortunes and the life savings of many small investors were wiped out as the decline of the market, which had begun in September, culminated on Black Tuesday. Few people had foreseen the coming of the Great Crash. The country had been riding on the boom of the 1920’s. [kw]U.S. Stock Market Crashes (Oct. 24-29, 1929) [kw]Stock Market Crashes, U.S. (Oct. 24-29, 1929) [kw]Market Crashes, U.S. Stock (Oct. 24-29, 1929) [kw]Crashes, U.S. Stock Market (Oct. 24-29, 1929) Stock market crash (1929) Great Depression;causes Black Tuesday (stock market crash) [g]United States;Oct. 24-29, 1929: U.S. Stock Market Crashes[07330] [c]Banking and finance;Oct. 24-29, 1929: U.S. Stock Market Crashes[07330] [c]Trade and commerce;Oct. 24-29, 1929: U.S. Stock Market Crashes[07330] [c]Economics;Oct. 24-29, 1929: U.S. Stock Market Crashes[07330] Hoover, Herbert [p]Hoover, Herbert;stock market crash Babson, Roger W. Fisher, Irving Mitchell, Charles E. Lamont, Thomas William Whitney, Richard Merrill, Charles E.

Crowds fill Wall Street after the crash of the stock market.

(NARA)

The decade of the 1920’s is often called the “Roaring Twenties.” Roaring Twenties The American economy remained strong after World War I. Technological advances and mass production brought conveniences and a sense of prosperity to the average American family. With the advent of a new financial arrangement called the “installment plan,” the public could easily buy on credit such luxury items as automobiles, radios, vacuum cleaners, and electric iceboxes, all of which were just coming into widespread use. In his presidential campaign in 1928, Herbert Hoover promised “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage” and won the election in a landslide. Growing optimism and a sense of prosperity were reflected in the stock market.

The 1920’s saw a growth in the participation of ordinary people in the stock market. As the glamorous lives of some successful stock speculators were publicized, many people became infected with the desire to make a quick fortune. Buying stocks was made easy by brokerage firms, which allowed customers to buy stocks “on margin,” paying a fraction of the total value in cash and borrowing the rest from the broker. As long as the stock price rose, this speculation was safe. If the price fell, however, an investor could get a “margin call,” meaning that more cash had to be put up to cover any further losses. If the money was not paid, the broker would sell the stock at the prevailing market price. Because stock prices were rising steadily in the 1920’s, many investors thought that buying stocks on margin was safe speculation. Many ordinary people who had little knowledge about investments became investors in the stock market.

Overall, however, the stock market of the 1920’s was dominated by a few powerful, wealthy investors. Some of them engaged in manipulation of stock prices, often using inside information. They would first artificially inflate the price of a target stock, then, when other unsuspecting investors hopped on the bandwagon, sell the stock at a profit. Michael J. Meehan, Meehan, Michael J. for example, successfully manipulated the stock of Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in March, 1929, making $100 million in a week. In many cases, the surge in stock prices had to do with speculative momentum rather than with company profits. In fact, there were ominous signs in the American economy in 1929. The credit burden on consumers was heavy. Automobile sales were down. Steel production was falling. Few people were worried about these signs amid the increasing optimism, although some were concerned about the nation’s inflated stock investment. Economist Roger W. Babson, for example, predicted the coming of a crash in the stock market.

Stock prices reached a record high on September 3, 1929, following a decade of steady increase. There was no sign of pessimism in the air. Few investors suspected that the day marked the peak of the bull market and that from then on stock prices would steadily decline, collapsing in October. The market began a long slide. Stock prices fell slowly but relatively steadily during the month of September. Tumbles in prices were often followed by small rallies. By the end of the month, the stock index hit its lowest mark for the year up to that point. This decline continued through the month of October. Fear and apprehension began to mount among both large and small investors, amid confusion and uncertainty. As margin calls went out, more and more investors had to scramble to cover their losses, often drawing from their life savings. Sales of stock when margin calls could not be met put further downward pressure on prices. Still, investors were consoled by sporadic upward movements in stock prices. There were some optimistic analysts as well. For example, Irving Fisher, a respected economics professor, dismissed the selling trend of the market as a “shaking out of the lunatic fringe.” He implied that eliminating marginal speculators would bring stability to the market. Stock prices, however, continued to decline.

The stock market began to crash in heavy liquidation beginning on October 23. The price of General Electric stock, for example, fell $20 from the previous day, and Auburn Auto’s stock lost $77. By now, brokers and investors began openly to express their pessimism. Fear and anxiety prevailed. Few had any idea of what the next day, “Black Thursday,” would bring. Prices began to plummet at the opening bell on October 24. Thousands of investors had received margin calls the night before and had no choice but to sell their shares to cover their debts. The stock ticker carrying current stock price information began to run behind as the frenzied selling continued. Furthermore, price quotations printed on the ticker were confusing, as prices were tumbling in the double digits, while the ticker tape showed only one-digit changes. Frustrated brokers scrambled to carry out their clients’ sell orders but were often unable to find buyers.

At lunchtime, Thomas William Lamont, the acting head of J. P. Morgan & Company, called several bankers in an attempt to control the situation. This so-called bankers’ pool met and agreed to pour a large sum of money into the market to support stock prices in an attempt to avoid catastrophe. In the early afternoon, Richard Whitney, the vice president of the New York Stock Exchange, walked onto the exchange floor and in a loud voice began to place buy orders at prices higher than actual selling prices. He and other brokers representing the bankers continued this, going from post to post. The prices of major stocks immediately began to recover. In fact, by the time the market closed, many stocks had recouped some of their earlier losses. RCA stock, for example, closed at 58 ¼, well above the lowest level of the day, recorded at 44 ½. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 6.3 points on a record trading volume of more than twelve million shares. The situation could have been much worse if the bankers had not supported stock prices.

The market remained relatively calm on Friday and Saturday. Some prices rose slightly on Friday, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down only a few points in Saturday morning’s trading. Over the weekend, however, fear and anxiety built again among investors. When the market opened on Monday, October 28, prices began to drop at an accelerating speed. This time, there was no support from the bankers. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 38 points on a trading volume of more than nine million shares. The panic continued the next day, Black Tuesday, when the bottom fell out of the market. The great bull market of the 1920’s had crashed. The crash would continue until mid-November of 1929. For the next two and a half years, stock prices would continue to slide.

Significance

The stock market crash of 1929 was followed by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Investors suffered massive losses. Many businesses and banks that had invested heavily in the stock market failed as a result of losses. The collapse in stock prices was followed by the banking panic of 1931. The crash was a harbinger of economic malaise that lasted through the 1930’s. National output plunged by 30 percent between 1929 and 1933, and the nation’s unemployment rate climbed to more than 24 percent.

Although some have argued that the crash was a prime cause of the Depression, that claim is widely disputed. The Great Crash and the Great Depression may be only tangentially related. It is generally accepted, however, that the crash was caused in part by various abusive practices in the securities markets in the 1920’s, including manipulation of securities prices, extensive speculation made possible by purchases on margin, trading by company officials using inside information, and the selling of risky securities while withholding important information about them.

The crash triggered a series of reforms in securities markets. At first, the Hoover administration was reluctant to add federal regulations to the already existing state rules for the securities exchanges. Some people, particularly in the financial circle, feared that such measures would jeopardize the capitalistic mechanism in the financial markets. President Hoover hoped that Wall Street would reform itself in order to prevent future disasters. Many people argued, however, that strict measures to safeguard investors were necessary.

In late 1931, the Senate voted to begin a major investigation of the securities markets in an attempt to unearth the manipulative practices in securities trading that were believed to have caused the crash. The hearings conducted by the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency lasted for two years and produced thousands of pages of testimony. The inquiry gave an impetus for Congress to pass several legislative measures to regulate the securities market on the federal level. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Emergency Banking Act took office in 1933, he closed the banks in an attempt to restore order in banking. The Emergency Banking Act of March 9, 1933, Emergency Banking Act (1933) declared a bank holiday, and a program to reopen the banks was initiated. As part of the bank holiday, the New York Stock Exchange was closed from March 6 to March 14.

The Securities Act of 1933 Securities Act (1933) was based on the idea that the securities markets needed to be regulated by the federal government in order to protect investors. Underwriters of various securities were required to register new issues with the Federal Trade Commission before they could be offered to the public. The Banking Act of 1933, Banking Act (1933) also called the Glass-Steagall Act, Glass-Steagall Act (1933)[Glass Steagall Act (1933)] gave more power to the Federal Reserve in controlling member banks’ speculative activities. Furthermore, the act mandated that commercial banks separate themselves from investment functions in order to prevent them from using depositors’ funds for speculation. As a result, commercial banks were detached from the stock market by the mid-1930’s. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was established to safeguard depositors and to avoid widespread bank failures.

In 1934, Congress went one step further to regulate the securities markets. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 Securities Exchange Act (1934) established a federal agency called the Securities and Exchange Commission Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to oversee the securities markets and to enforce provisions designed to guard against manipulations and fraud. This legislation was much broader in scope than was the Securities Act of 1933, in that the Securities and Exchange Act regulated securities trading at any time, even after initial distribution, whereas the Securities Act dealt only with stocks and bonds at their initial offering stages. Every aspect of securities trading was addressed. The SEC began to enforce the margin rules set by the Federal Reserve in order to regulate the buying of securities on credit. Broad provisions were established for the collection and transmission of information and for investigation of securities. Penalties for violators were also established.

These new legislative measures brought sweeping changes in Wall Street practices, ensuring better market safeguards and procedures. Regulations prohibited stock manipulation using pool operations, or the combined powers of two or more operators. More stringent requirements were established for buying stock on margin. Underwriters of securities were obliged to disclose all important information about their issues. Limits were placed on the amount of speculation allowed by insiders in the stocks and bonds of their own companies. These and other measures helped the securities markets to recover in the years to come. Stock market crash (1929) Great Depression;causes Black Tuesday (stock market crash)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beaudreau, Bernard. Mass Production, the Stock Market Crash, and the Great Depression: The Macroeconomics of Electrification. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Deals with the unintended consequences of electrification, arguing that the Great Crash and the Great Depression were two of them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bierman, Harold, Jr. The Causes of the 1929 Stock Market Crash: A Speculative Orgy or a New Era? Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Reconsiders the causes and effects of the Great Crash, arguing that it marked the advent of a new kind of investing. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eichengreen, Barry. Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Although primarily concerned with the role of the gold standard in causing the international recessions that started in 1928, the author also asserts that Federal Reserve policy caused abrupt changes in purchases of commodities that would have been reflected on Wall Street.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Milton, and Anna J. Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. A seminal work that identifies Federal Reserve Board mistakes as causing both the stock market crash and the banking crisis of 1930-1933.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galbraith, John K. The Great Crash, 1929. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955. An engaging book that interprets the stock market crash as resulting from speculation, market flaws, and criminal behavior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiebert, Ray, and Roselyn Hiebert. The Stock Market Crash, 1929: Panic on Wall Street Ends the Jazz Age. New York: Franklin Watts, 1970. This book recounts events of September through November, 1929, in and around the New York Stock Exchange. Accessible to a general audience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, Robert T. The Great Boom and Panic, 1921-1929. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1965. This book describes various aspects of the boom of the 1920’s and the stock market collapse. Human aspects of the crash and the Great Depression are also discussed. Accessible to a general audience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Eugene N. The Regulation and Reform of the American Banking System, 1900-1929. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Significant sections on banks and their securities affliates. Shows that those banks involved in stock market lending were less likely to fail than banks not involved in such activities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “When the Ticker Ran Late: The Stock Market Boom and Crash of 1929.” In Crashes and Panics: The Lessons from History. Homewood, Ill.: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990. Relates the bull market to the expectation that companies would continue paying high dividends; asserts, therefore, that the stock market crash was related to changing expectations, not to Federal Reserve Board policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wigmore, Barrie A. The Crash and Its Aftermath: A History of Securities Markets in the United States, 1929-1933. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A detailed history of the stock and bond markets between 1929 and 1933. Political and economic influences on the securities markets are analyzed. Accessible to a general audience.

Coolidge Is Elected U.S. President

Great Depression

Canada Enacts Depression-Era Relief Legislation

Bank of United States Fails

Reconstruction Finance Corporation Is Created

Banking Act of 1935 Centralizes U.S. Monetary Control

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