When recession becomes depression: a case of déjà vu?

The global economic mood is darkening. Levels of consumer and producer confidence have declined and forecasts of economic growth are being downgraded. Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, stated that “this is the most serious financial crisis we’ve seen, at least since the 1930s, if not ever” (see).

So will slow recovery turn into a second recession (a double-dip)? And will recession turn into depression – the persistence of low or negative growth over a number of years? The following articles consider this frightening prospect and whether there are similarities with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But let’s not be too downhearted. If we all are, the world could end up talking itself into depression. Consumers would seek to claw down their debts and cut back spending; producers would invest less as their confidence wanes; banks would be unwilling to lend. So is there any cause to be cheerful? Well, at least world leaders are increasingly aware of the possibility of world depression and minds are increasingly being focused on how to avoid the situation. The EU summit on 23 October and the G20 summit in Cannes on 3/4 November have EU sovereign debt problems and the global crisis at the centre of their agenda.

But if they do decide to act, what should they do? Is the answer a Keynesian stimulus to aggregate demand through fiscal policy and through further quantitative easing? Or is the approach to act more decisively to reduce sovereign debt and convince markets that governments are serious about tackling the problem – a policy response much more in accordance with new classical thinking and the type of policy that would be recommended by Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims, winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics?

Thinking outside the 1930s box BBC News blogs, Paul Mason (7/10/11)
Britain faces slowest recovery in a century Guardian, Katie Allen (12/10/11)
The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good New York Times, Sunday Review, David Leonhardt (8/10/11)
Recovery has ‘stalled’, say leading economists Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (11/10/11)
Nobel prize in economics Republica, Opinion (Nepal), Sukhdev Shah (11/10/11)


  1. In what ways is the current global economic situation similar to that in the early 1930s?
  2. In what ways is it different? Do these differences provide more or less cause for hope for avoiding a global depression?
  3. Explain the following quote from the first article above: “I think that we face the quite real prospect that the market is removed as the determining mechanism for setting the price of capital within the eurozone at the sovereign level.This would put internal credit creation back under the control of the state.”
  4. How is the supply side of the economy relevant to (a) the short-run prospects for economic growth; (b) the long-run prospects?
  5. If technological progess slows down, what will be the implications for employment and unemployment? Explain.
  6. How is policy credibility relevant to the success of the decisions made at G20 and EU summits? (See last aricle above.) How would a Keynesian respond to the analysis of Sargent and Sims?