A new Great Depression? It's different this time

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Dysfunctional capital markets, frantic central banks, stressed-out consumers, fear and uncertainty -- all are alarming echoes of the global economic cataclysm of the 1930s.

Which raises the inevitable question: Could another Great Depression be lurking over the horizon?

TV news programs show grainy footage of Depression-era bankers as reporters tick off grim economic statistics. The Federal Reserve invokes powers it hasn't used since the 1930s. Critics of President Bush's economic policies are emboldened to use the H-word: "Hoover."

On the surface, there are disquieting parallels between economic conditions in the early 1930s and those of today. There is the popping of enormous asset bubbles -- stocks then, housing now.

And, as in the Great Depression, the financial system is in disarray. It was symbolized back then by the failure of thousands of banks, mostly small, local outfits -- 2,300 in 1931 alone.The parallel today is the crippling of onetime giants such as Bear Stearns Cos., Countrywide Financial Corp. and Ameriquest Mortgage Co.

Many economists believe that the U.S. will find it almost impossible to avert a recession, if one has not started already. Housing remains mired in a deep slump,with some analysts projecting that Southern California home values could plunge 40% from their peaks last year.The Commerce Department reported this week that new residential building permits nationwide plummeted 36.5% in February from a year earlier.

Then, like now, stock prices were highly volatile. The S&P 500 index, which fell more than 56% from 1928 through 1940, nevertheless recorded four up years in that span, including a 46.5% gain in 1933.

The shadow of the '30s looms over every economic downturn or crisis, no matter how modest. Pundits were quick to invoke the Depression as a cautionary model during the stock market crash of 1987, the bailout of the giant hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 and the dot-com meltdown of 2000 and 2001.

But there are vast differences between the 1930s and today. U.S. unemployment reached 25% during the Depression; last month it was reported at 4.8%. The international industrial economy was a shambles in the '30s. Today it is coming off a global boom....

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