Thirty one years ago today, on Oct. 19,1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6%, its largest one-day percentage-point drop ever.
You may have noticed that the financial media has started to highlight the point drops as opposed to the percentages. To say the Dow lost 500 points makes better news than saying it lost 2%. In percentage terms though this years recent plunges pale in comparison to what “could” happen as we have seen in history.
Here are five of the worst stock market crashes in U.S. history, based on daily percentage losses (source: ajc.com):
Oct. 19, 1987
Percentage change: -22.61 percent
About: Known as “Black Monday,” this devastating crash began in Hong Kong, spread to Europe and then hit the U.S. hard.
Oct. 28, 1929
Percentage change: -12.82 percent
About the crash: The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash or the Stock Market Crash of 1929 started on Oct. 24 and signaled the beginning of the 12-year Great Depression. Black Monday, the fourth and worst day of the crash, saw a drop of 12.82 percent.
Dec. 18, 1899
Percentage change: -11.99 percent
About the crash: During the Panic of 1896, the U.S. experienced an acute economic depression caused by a drop in silver reserves and deflation.
Oct. 29, 1929
Percentage change: -11.73
About the crash: Black Tuesday was the fifth day of the the Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash or the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that started on Oct. 24 and signaled the beginning of the 12-year Great Depression.
Nov. 6, 1929
Percentage change: -9.92
About the crash: Just a week after the height of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, investors saw another dip.
As many often refer to these numbers when speaking about this event the real point of interest should be in what they were saying back then, which not many financial media tend to refer to. Ironically they were saying many of the things they say today.
We looked back at a Nightly News Broadcast of that time in order to gain a better understanding of the mindset of the time. You would be advised to watch the broadcast because in the words of Philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (See The Nightly News Broadcast October 19, 1987 at the bottom of the post)
The 1987 crash lost much more than the crash of 1929, and although (as they said at the time), “Conditions today are much better than they were then," “today’s precipitate decline struck fear in hearts and pocket books of even Wall Street veterans.”
All the same actors showed up as they do today with the same speech tracks. New York Stock Exchange Chairman at the time, John Phalen, tried to be reassuring. “We are extremely fortunate today that the country is in a very strong position.”
The word of the Economists was that they were worried that the market plunge at the time could impact the psychology of even those that didn’t own stocks. They worried the consumer would stop borrowing and spending which could grind the economy to a halt. Compare those worries of the time to today. They are the same. The big difference is that today consumers are already heavily indebted. They are carrying mortgage debts, auto loan debts, student loan debts and credit card debts that are far higher than they were in 1987.
The broadcast pointed out that, “A week ago most economists were saying that the stock market decline was merely a correction.” This is also familiar territory. Of course it is always a correction until it isn’t, however making that judgement before the fact is just a guess. On October 19, 1987, that guess turned out to be very wrong. They went on to say that, “Today’s plunge was so huge, so shocking, that no economist, no Wall Street analyst was willing to predict where it would end.” Irony so thick you could cut it with a knife.
By the end of the day, everyone was looking to Washington for some action that may help stop the carnage. At the time President Ronald Reagan ignored the plunge and continued to “brag” about the Reagan recovery. This doesn’t sound to different to anything we would expect today. Although we can probably assume that no matter what kind of serious drop that the stock market may go through in the future, Trump will be quick to blame the Federal Reserve (however that will not stop him from taking credit it for it if it keeps moving up).
All in all, it is a fascinating 9 minutes to watch. We shouldn’t expect to hear anything different today than we did 31 years ago and that means we should have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the future.