Early 1980s recession: Wikis


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GDP growth in the United States in the early-1980s. The short recession at the start of the decade, followed by a brief period of growth and the deeper recession in 81–82, have led to this period being characterized as a W-shaped recession.
      Percent Change From Preceding Period in Real Gross Domestic Product (annualized; seasonally adjusted);       Average GDP growth 1947–2009
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

The Early 1980s recession was a severe recession in the United States which began in December of 1980 and ended in November 1982.[1][2] It has been thought that the primary cause of the recession was a contractionary monetary policy established by the Federal Reserve System to control high inflation.[3]

In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis, stagflation began to afflict the economy of the United States. Unemployment had risen from 5.1% in January 1974 to a high of 9.0% in May 1975. Although it had gradually declined to 5.6% by May 1979, unemployment began rising again thereafter. It jumped sharply to 6.9% in April 1980 and to 7.5% in May 1980. A mild recession from January to July 1980 kept unemployment high, but despite economic recovery unemployment remained at historically high levels (about 7.5%) through the end of 1981.[4] Inflation, which had averaged 3.2% annually in the post-war period, had more than doubled after the 1973 oil shock to a 7.7% annual rate. Inflation reached 9.1% in 1975, the highest rate since 1947. Inflation declined to 5.8% the following year, but then edged higher. By 1979, inflation reached a startling 11.3% and in 1980 soared to 13.5%.[1][5]

A brief recession occurred in 1980. Several key industries—including housing, steel manufacturing and automobile production—experienced a downturn from which they did not recover through the end of the next recession. Many of the economic sectors that supplied these basic industries were also hard-hit.[6]

Determined to wring inflation out of the economy, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker slowed the rate of growth of the money supply and raised interest rates. The federal funds rate, which was about 11% in 1979, rose to 20% by June 1981. The prime interest rate, a highly important economic measure, eventually reached 21.5% in June 1982.[2][7]


Financial institutions crises

The recession had a severe effect on financial institutions such as savings and loans and banks.



The recession came at a particularly bad time for banks due to a recent wave of deregulation. The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 (DIDMCA) had phased out a number of restrictions on banks' financial practices, broadened their lending powers, and raised the deposit insurance limit from $40,000 to $100,000 (raising the problem of moral hazard).[8] Banks rushed into real estate lending, speculative lending, and other ventures just as the economy soured.

By mid-1982, the number of bank failures was rising steadily. Bank failures reached a post-depression high of 42 as the recession and high interest rates took their toll.[9] By the end of the year, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) had spent $870 million to purchase bad loans in an effort to keep various banks afloat.[10]

In July 1982, Congress enacted the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 (Garn-St. Germain), which further deregulated banks as well as deregulating savings and loans. The Garn-St. Germain act authorized banks to begin offering money market deposit accounts in an attempt to encourage deposit in-flows, removed additional statutory restrictions in real estate lending, and relaxed loans-to-one-borrower limits. The legislation encouraged a rapid expansion in real estate lending at a time when the real estate market was collapsing, increased the unhealthy competition between banks and savings and loans, and encouraged overbuilding of branches.[8]

The recession affected the banking industry long after the economic downturn technically ended in November 1982. In 1983, another 49 banks failed—easily beating the Great Depression record of 43 failures set in 1940. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) listed another 540 banks as "problem banks" on the verge of failure.[10]

In 1984, the Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company, the nation's seventh-largest bank (with $45 billion in assets), failed. The FDIC had long known of Continental Illinois' problems. The bank had first approached failure in July 1982 when the Penn Square Bank, which had partnered with Continental Illinois in a number of high-risk lending ventures, collapsed. But federal regulators were reassured by Continental Illinois executives that steps were being taken to ensure the bank's financial security. After Continental Illinois' collapse, federal regulators were willing to let the bank fail in order to reduce moral hazard and encourage other banks to rein in some of their more risky lending practices. But members of Congress and the press felt Continental Illinois was "too big to fail." In May 1984, federal banking regulators were forced to offer a $4.5 billion rescue package to Continental Illinois.[8]

Continental Illinois may not have been "too big to fail," but its collapse could have caused the failure of some of the biggest banks in the United States. The American banking system had been significantly weakened by the severe recession and the effects of deregulation. Had other banks been forced to write off loans to Continental Illinois, institutions such as Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Company, Bank of America and perhaps Citicorp would have been insolvent.[11]

The S&L crisis

The recession also significantly worsened a crisis in the savings and loan industry.

In 1980, there were approximately 4,590 state- and federally-chartered savings and loan institutions (S&Ls) with total assets of $616 billion. Beginning in 1979, S&Ls began losing money due to spiraling interest rates. Net S&L income, which totaled $781 million in 1980, fell to a loss of $4.6 billion in 1981 and a loss of $4.1 billion in 1982. Tangible net worth for the entire S&L industry was virtually zero.[8]

The Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) regulated and inspected S&Ls, and administered the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), which insured deposits at S&Ls. But the FHLBB's enforcement practices were significantly weaker than those of other federal banking agencies. Until the 1980s, savings and loans had limited lending powers. The FHLBB was, therefore, a relatively small agency overseeing a quiet, stable industry. Accordingly, the FHLBB's procedures and staff were inadequate to supervise S&Ls after deregulation gave the financial institutions a broad array of new lending powers. Additionally, the FHLBB was unable to add to its staff because of stringent limits on the number of personnel it could hire and the level of compensation it could offer. These limitations were placed on the agency by the Office of Management and Budget, and were routinely subject to the political whims of that agency and political appointees in the Executive Office of the President.[8][12] In financial circles, the FHLBB and FSLIC were called "the doormats of financial regulation."[13]

Because of its weak enforcement powers, the FHLBB and FSLIC rarely forced S&Ls to correct poor financial practices. The FHLBB relied heavily on its persuasive powers and the states to enforce banking regulations. With only five enforcement lawyers, the FHLBB was in a poor position to enforce the law even had it wanted to.[8]

One consequence of the FHLBB's lack of enforcement abilities was the promotion of deregulation and aggressive, expanded lending to forestall insolvency. In November 1980, the FHLBB lowered net worth requirements for federally-insured S&Ls from 5% of deposits to 4%. The FHLBB further lowered net worth requirements to 3% in January 1982. Additionally, the agency only required S&Ls to meet these requirements over a 20-year period. This phase-in rule meant that S&Ls less than 20 years old had practically no capital reserve requirements. This encouraged extensive chartering of new S&Ls, because a $2 million investment could be leveraged into $1.3 billion in lending.[8][12]

Congressional deregulation worsened the S&L crisis. The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 encouraged a boom in commercial real estate building projects. The passage of DIDMCA and the Garn-St. Germain act expanded the authority of federally-chartered S&Ls to make acquisition, development, and construction real estate loans and eliminated the statutory limit on loan-to-value ratios. These changes allowed S&Ls to make high-risk loans to developers. Beginning in 1982, many S&Ls rapidly shifted away from traditional home mortgage financing and into new, high-risk investment activities such as casinos, fast-food franchises, ski resorts, junk bonds, arbitrage schemes, and derivative instruments.[8]

Federal deregulation also encouraged state legislatures to deregulate state-chartered S&Ls. Unfortunately, many of the states which deregulated S&Ls were also soft on supervision and enforcement. In some cases, state-chartered S&Ls had close political ties to elected officials and state regulators, which further weakened oversight.[8][14][15][16]

As the risk exposure of S&Ls expanded, the economy slid into the recession. Soon, hundreds of S&Ls were insolvent. Between 1980 and 1983, 118 S&Ls with $43 billion in assets failed. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), the federal agency which insured the deposits of S&Ls, spent $3.5 billion to make depositors whole again.[17] The FSLIC pushed mergers as a way to avoid insolvency. From 1980 to 1982, there were 493 voluntary mergers and 259 forced mergers of savings and loans overseen by the agency. Despite these failures and mergers, there were still 415 S&Ls at the end of 1982 that were insolvent.[8][12][15][16][18]

Federal inaction worsened the industry's problems. Responsibility for handling the S&L crisis lay with the Cabinet Council on Economic Affairs (CCEA), an intergovernmental council located within the Executive Office of the President. At the time, the CCEA was chaired by Treasury Secretary Donald Regan. The CCEA pushed the FHLBB to refrain from re-regulating the S&L industry, and adamantly opposed any governmental expenditures to resolve the S&L problem. Furthermore, the Reagan administration did not want to alarm the public by closing a large number of S&Ls. These actions significantly worsened the S&L crisis.[8]

The S&L crisis triggered by the recession lasted well beyond the end of the economic downturn. The crisis was finally quelled by passage of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989. The estimated total cost of resolving the S&L crisis was more than $160 billion.[19]

Political fallout

The recession was nearly a year old before President Ronald Reagan stated on October 18, 1981, that the economy was in a "slight recession".[20]

The "Reagan recession,"[21][22][23]coupled with budget cuts (which were enacted in 1981 but began to take effect in 1982), led many voters to believe that Reagan was insensitive to the needs of average citizens. [24][25][26] In January 1983, Reagan's popularity rating fell to 35%—approaching levels experienced by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter at their most unpopular.[27][28][29] Although his approval rating did not fall as low as Nixon's during the Watergate scandal, Reagan's reelection seemed unlikely.[30][31][32][33][34]

Pressured to counteract the increased deficit caused by the recession, Reagan agreed to a corporate tax increase in 1982. However, he refused to raise income taxes or cut defense spending. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 instituted a three-year, $100 billion tax hike—the largest tax increase since World War II.[35]

The 1982 mid-term Congressional elections were largely viewed as a referendum on Reagan and his economic policies. The election results proved to be a setback for Reagan and the Republicans. The Democrats gained 26 House seats, which at the time was the most for the party in any election since the "Watergate year" of 1974.[36][37][38][39][40][41] However, the net balance of power in the Senate was unchanged.


The mid-term Congressional elections proved to be the low point of the Reagan presidency.

According to Keynesian economists, a combination of deficit spending and the lowering of interest rates slowly led to economic recovery. From a high of 10.8% in December 1982, unemployment gradually improved until it fell to 7.2% on Election Day in 1984.[4] Nearly two million people left the unemployment rolls.[42] Inflation fell from 10.3% in 1981 to 3.2% in 1983.[1][43] Corporate earnings rose by 29% in the July-September quarter of 1983, compared with the same period in 1982. Some of the most dramatic improvements came in industries hardest hit by the recession, such as paper and forest products, rubber, airlines, and the auto industry.[42]

By November 1984, voter anger at the recession evaporated and Reagan's re-election was not in doubt.[33][34][41] Reagan was subsequently re-elected by a landslide electoral and popular vote margin in the 1984 presidential election.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Krugman, "Did the Federal Reserve Cause the Recession?", New York Times, April 1, 1991; National Bureau of Economic Research, "US Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions," no date.
  2. ^ a b Rattner, Steven (January 5, 1981). "Federal Reserve Sees Little Growth in '81 With Continued High Rates". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/01/05/world/federal-reserve-sees-little-growth-in-81-with-continued-high-rates.html.  
  3. ^ "The downturn was precipitated by a rise in interest rates to levels that exceeded the record rates recorded a year earlier." Congressional Budget Office, "The Prospects for Economic Recovery," February 1982.
  4. ^ a b Table 34, U.S. Federal Reserve Board, Monetary Policy Report to the Congress, February 14, 2007.
  5. ^ Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index, All Urban Consumers-(CPI-U), U.S. City Average, All Items, April 17, 2007.
  6. ^ Urquhart, and Hewson, "Unemployment Continued to Rise in 1982 as Recession Deepened," Monthly Labor Report, February 1983.
  7. ^ Cowan, Edward (May 5, 1981). "Bank Lending Rate Set at Record 14% By Federal Reserve". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/05/business/bank-lending-rate-set-at-record-14-by-federal-reserve.html.  
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, History of the Eighties - Lessons for the Future, Vol. 1. December 1997.
  9. ^ Rowe, "Regulators See Bank Failures Rising Steadily," Washington Post, October 20, 1982.
  10. ^ a b Taylor, Alexander L.; Munro, Ross H. (August 29, 1983). "Why So Many Banks Go Belly Up". Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,949786,00.html.  
  11. ^ Eisenbeis and Horvitz, "The Role of Forbearance and Its Costs in Handling Troubled and Failed Depository Institutions," in Reforming Financial Institutions in the United States, 1993.
  12. ^ a b c Adams, Big Fix: Inside the S&L Scandal...", 1990.
  13. ^ Adams, Big Fix: Inside the S&L Scandal...", 1990, p. 40.
  14. ^ White, The S&L Debacle: Public Policy Lessons for Bank and Thrift Regulation, 1991.
  15. ^ a b Strunk and Case, Where Deregulation Went Wrong..., 1988.
  16. ^ a b National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement, Origin and Causes of the S&L Debacle: A Blueprint for Reform..., 1993.
  17. ^ In comparison, only 143 S&Ls with $4.5 billion in assets had failed in the previous 45 years, costing the FSLIC $306 million. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, History of the Eighties - Lessons for the Future, December 1997.
  18. ^ Lowy, High Rollers: Inside the Savings and Loan Debacle, 1991.
  19. ^ U.S. General Accounting Office, Financial Audit: Resolution Trust Corporation's 1995 and 1994 Financial Statements. 1996.
  20. ^ Fuerbringer, Jonathan (October 20, 1981). "Reagan's 'Slight Recession'". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/10/20/business/reagan-s-slight-recession-news-analysis.html.  
  21. ^ David S. Meyer, A winter of discontent: the nuclear freeze and American politics. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990, p.59. ISBN 0275933067
  22. ^ Martin Gilens, Why Americans hate welfare: race, media, and the politics of antipoverty policy. University of Chicago Press, 2000, p.125. ISBN 0226293653
  23. ^ Lynn Turgeon, Bastard Keynesianism: the evolution of economic thinking and policymaking since World War II. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997, p.135. ISBN 0275960153
  24. ^ Gil Troy, Morning in America: how Ronald Reagan invented the 1980s. Princeton University Press, 2005, p.40.
  25. ^ Gilens, 2000, p. 125ff.
  26. ^ Donald Bruce Heider, Class and news. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, p.50ff.
  27. ^ Presidential Popularity Over Time
  28. ^ Presidential Popularity Over Time
  29. ^ Presidential Popularity Over Time
  30. ^ Pfiffner, "The Reagan Budget Juggernaut: The Fiscal 1982 Budget Campaign," in The President and Economic Policy, 1986
  31. ^ Weisman, Steven R. (January 21, 1983). "Reagan Term at Midpoint". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1983/01/21/us/reagan-term-at-midpoint-news-analysis.html.  
  32. ^ McGrory (December 29, 1983). "Reagan Clings to Cloud Hanging Over His Reelection Chances". Washington Post.  
  33. ^ a b Lipset; Schneider (Spring 1987). "The Confidence Gap during the Reagan Years, 1981-1987". Political Science Quarterly.  
  34. ^ a b King; Schudson (September 1988). "Reagan's Mythical Popularity". Psychology Today.  
  35. ^ Green, "Reagan's Liberal Legacy," Washington Monthly," January/February 2003.
  36. ^ Smith, Hedrick (January 10, 1982). "The Struggle to Win Control of Congress in November". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/01/10/us/struggle-win-control-congress-november-republicans-may-keep-senate-but-economic.html.  
  37. ^ Herbers, John (September 1, 1982). "G.O.P. Coalition of '80 Threatens to Unravel in Congress Elections". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/09/01/us/gop-coalition-80-threatens-unravel-congress-elections-campaign-outlook-first.html.  
  38. ^ Clymer, Adam (October 3, 1982). "Democrats Shaping Election as Referendum on Economy". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/03/us/democrats-shaping-election-as-referendum-on-economy.html.  
  39. ^ Jacobson; Kernell (Summer 1982). "Strategy and Choice in the 1982 Congressional Elections". PS.  
  40. ^ Johannes; McAdams (November 1984). "The Voter in the 1982 House Elections". American Journal of Political Science.  
  41. ^ a b Abramson, Aldrich and Rhode, Change and Continuity in the 1984 Elections, rev. ed., 1987.
  42. ^ a b Alexander, Charles P. (November 28, 1983). "A Lusty, Lopsided Recovery". Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,926382,00.html.  
  43. ^ Friedman, Thomas L. (September 17, 1981). "Fed's Policy of Tight Money". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/09/17/business/issue-and-debate-fed-s-policy-of-tight-money.html.  


  • Abramson, Paul R.; Aldrich, John H.; and Rohde, David W. Change and Continuity in the 1984 Elections. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1987. ISBN 0871874172
  • Adams, James R. Big Fix: Inside the S&L Scandal: How an Unholy Alliance of Politics and Money Destroyed America's Banking System. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 1990. ISBN 0471515353
  • Alexander, Charles P. "A Lusty, Lopsided Recovery." Time. November 28, 1983.
  • Brunner, Karl. "The Recession of 1981/1982 in the Context of Postwar Recessions." Policy Statement and Position Papers. Rochester, N.Y.: Bradley Policy Research Center, William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Rochester. March 1983.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Price Index, All Urban Consumers-(CPI-U), U.S. City Average, All Items. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor. Washington, D.C.: April 17, 2007. Accessed May 5, 2007.
  • Congressional Budget Office. "The Prospects for Economic Recovery." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 1982.
  • Cowan, Edward. "Bank Lending Rate Set at Record 14% By Federal Reserve." New York Times. May 5, 1981.
  • Clymer, Adam. "Democrats Shaping Election as Referendum on Economy." New York Times. October 3, 1982.
  • Day, Kathleen. S&L Hell: How Politics Created a Trillion Dollar Debacle. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1993. ISBN 0393029824
  • Eisenbeis, Robert A. and Horvitz, Paul M. "The Role of Forbearance and Its Costs in Handling Troubled and Failed Depository Institutions." In Reforming Financial Institutions in the United States. George G. Kaufman, ed. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1993. ISBN 079239383X
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. History of the Eighties - Lessons for the Future. Vol. 1. Division of Research and Statistics. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Washington, D.C.: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, December 1997. Accessed May 5, 2007.
  • Friedman, Thomas L. "Fed's Policy of Tight Money." New York Times. September 17, 1981.
  • Fuerbringer, Jonathan. "Reagan's 'Slight Recession.'" New York Times. October 20, 1981.
  • Green, Joshua. "Reagan's Liberal Legacy." Washington Monthly." January/February 2003.
  • Guell, Robert C. Issues in Economics Today. New York: McGraw Hill Professional, 2004. ISBN 0072871873
  • Herbers, John. "G.O.P. Coalition of '80 Threatens to Unravel in Congress Elections." New York Times. September 1, 1982.
  • Jacobson, Gary C. and Kernell, Samuel. "Strategy and Choice in the 1982 Congressional Elections." PS. 15:3 (Summer 1982).
  • Johannes, John R. and McAdams, J. "The Voter in the 1982 House Elections." American Journal of Political Science. 28 (November 1984).
  • King, Elliott and Schudson, Michael. "Reagan's Mythical Popularity." Psychology Today. September 1988.
  • Krugman, Paul. "Did the Federal Reserve Cause the Recession?" New York Times. April 1, 1991.
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin and Schneider, William. "The Confidence Gap during the Reagan Years, 1981-1987." Political Science Quarterly. 102:1 (Spring 1987).
  • Lowy, Martin E. High Rollers: Inside the Savings and Loan Debacle. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1991. ISBN 027593988X
  • McGrory, Mary. "Reagan Clings to Cloud Hanging Over His Reelection Chances." Washington Post. December 29, 1983.
  • National Bureau of Economic Research. "US Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions." Public Information Office. National Bureau of Economic Research. Cambridge, Mass., no date. Accessed May 5, 2007.
  • National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement. Origin and Causes of the S&L Debacle: A Blueprint for Reform: A Report to the President and Congress of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.
  • Pfiffner, James. "The Reagan Budget Juggernaut: The Fiscal 1982 Budget Campaign." In The President and Economic Policy. James Pfiffner, ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Institute for Human Issues Press, 1986. ISBN 0897270649
  • Rattner, Steven. "Federal Reserve Sees Little Growth in '81 With Continued High Rates." New York Times. January 5, 1981.
  • Rowe, Jr., James L. "Regulators See Bank Failures Rising Steadily." Washington Post. October 20, 1982.
  • Smith, Hedrick. "The Struggle to Win Control of Congress in November." New York Times. January 10, 1982.
  • Strunk, Norman and Case, Fred. Where Deregulation Went Wrong: A Look at the Causes behind Savings and Loan Failures in the 1980s. Washington, D.C.: Savings & Community Bankers of America, 1988. ISBN 0929097327
  • Taylor III, Alexander L. "Why So Many Banks Go Belly Up." Time. August 29, 1983.
  • Urquhart, Michael A. and Hewson, Marillyn A. "Unemployment Continued to Rise in 1982 as Recession Deepened." Monthly Labor Report. 106:2 (February 1983)
  • U.S. Federal Reserve Board. Monetary Policy Report to the Congress. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 14, 2007. Accessed May 5, 2007.
  • U.S. General Accounting Office. Financial Audit: Resolution Trust Corporation's 1995 and 1994 Financial Statements. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.
  • Weisman, Steven R. "Reagan Term at Midpoint." New York Times. January 21, 1983.
  • White, Lawrence J. The S&L Debacle: Public Policy Lessons for Bank and Thrift Regulation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0195067339


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