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Voodoo economics and the crash of '87

ONE of the untoward developments arising in the wake of the recent stock market crash has been the rash of finger-pointing for its causes. Congress, the news media, economists, and stockbrokers appear to have arrived at a rare consensus: The federal deficit, the nation's trade imbalance with foreign nations, rising interest rates, the falling dollar, and the overall breakdown of the Reagan administration's operating system, as a result of concentrating on the Middle East and the Bork nomination, sparked the biggest economic calamity in American history. And all these, it is argued, must be tackled forthwith. The weakness with this scenario is that these economic problems have been around for some time, and in varying degrees of complication. One, the federal deficit, has even achieved remarkable improvement, falling from $221 billion in fiscal 1986 to $148 billion last Sept. 30. And the current deficit in terms of its relation to the gross national product is nowhere near past record levels. The trade deficit in August improved slightly, its only avenue for rectification. For if the imbalance were improved too quickly, the result could be a greater demand for goods than the available supply, leading to inflation.

As for a falling dollar, there is at least some solace: More-expensive imports provide consumers with a trade-off choice in terms of foreign quality or Made-in-the-USA price.

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The Crash of '87 was more attributable to the stock market itself than to underlying economic problems in the nation. No market in recent decades has gone so far on so little economic tread. To be sure, its gains in the 1982-84 years could be associated with specific improvements in the economy, but not so the upward spiral afterward.

The market went up, in sum, because it was going up, feeding on its own momentum rather than traditional yardsticks such as those related, for example, to pricing. From Jan. 1 to the end of September, the market surged ahead 40 percent, sustained by a historical, Pollyanna assumption that it had nowhere to go but up and capitalizing on what might be called the recent American infatuation with legal lotteries, with the odds of winning seemingly better.

The raging bull muted ordinary critics, let alone doomsday prophets, as evidenced by the paucity of dissent in op-ed pieces and financial journals during the year. What was worse, it put money managers over the age of 50 - more likely to be prudent as a result of having lived through a portion of the Great Depression - into a rock-and-hard-spot situation. On the one hand, bailing out of a market that was clearly overpriced meant the loss of sizable returns for clients; staying in, on the other hand, risked the likelihood of a quick tumble that could devastate portfolios.

The market's fall did not begin on Black Monday, Oct. 19, but earlier in the summer and fall, when it shed about 200 points. And it went down for the same reason it went up: A bandwagon developed about its direction, except that this time it was downward. And if this type of meltdown market, more serious in its one-day plunge than that in 1929, appears new, we should recall that the early 1980s also contributed a new phenomenon - stagflation - that should have paved the way for our thinking about the introduction of more such hybrid economic trends.

Tempting as it is to ascribe the market's decline to the state of the economy and to rush to judgment on that big forest, we would do better to reflect on the one economic tree and its largely unsubstantiated growth and overdue decline.

To be sure, that does not mean that the Crash of '87 will not have some ripple effect on the economy that will need tending. Nor does it mean we should sanction indifference to bettering the record on the deficit and other issues.

It simply means that the stock market should be viewed for what it has been in recent months - a legalized dice game where money and a sense of voodoo economics have prevailed over common sense.

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Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University. His most recent book is ``Made in the U.S.A.: The History of American Business'' (Harper & Row, 1987).

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