Comparisons between the current downturn and the Great Contraction of 1929-33 have multiplied as commentators and investors have tried to forecast the recession’s likely depth and duration. But as the U.S. economy shows signs of stabilising and attention switches to future inflation the more useful comparison is actually with the 1940s.
The massive build up of highly liquid assets (cash and bank balances) during the Second World War is the closest parallel to the current escalation of bank reserves as a result of quantitative easing programmes in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The relatively modest pick up in consumer prices after the war ended may hold lessons for the outlook for inflation over the next five years.
There is a risk the commodity markets may have over-estimated the speed with which excess liquidity will be transformed into higher inflation and higher prices.
The outbreak of war was accompanied by an unprecedented build up of liquidity in the U.S. financial system. Deficit-financed spending on armaments and the war effort finally eliminated the persistent under-employment of the previous decade and ensured strong growth in corporate revenues and household incomes.