“It took capitalism half a century to come back from the Great Depression” – Ben Shapiro
Wondering how to make money during an economic depression may have seemed a little paranoid just a few years ago.
Now it seems plausible that the combined impact of the pandemic, multiple lockdowns and the escalating conflict between Russia and the Ukraine could certainly cause a depression.
A quick look at the Great Depression of the 1930s can give you an idea about the catastrophic impact it can have on the economy.
By the end of 1930, unemployment more than doubled to 20 per cent. Public spending was cut and taxes raised, but this depressed the economy and cost even more jobs. Finally in 1931, the pound was devalued by 25 per cent. Wages also dropped by 42%.
To put that in perspective, currently the UK unemployment rate is 4.1% as of February 2022, so a 20% unemployment rate would be absolute carnage.
In this blog, we outline how to make money during a depression and how to protect your livelihood should there ever be a rerun of the 1930s stock market crash.
This blog is aimed at both entrepreneurs and small business owners.
“It’s a recession when your neighbour loses his job, depression is when you lose yours” – Harry S Truman
There is no commonly accepted definition of a depression. However, it is commonly defined as a prolonged downturn.
Essentially, it is an extreme recession lasting three or more years. This is usually followed by a 10% drop in GDP in a given year.
A depression is much more severe than a recession and lasts for many years. During an economic depression, there will often be increased rates of personal and business bankruptcy and deflation. Oil price hikes, reduction in international trade and a widespread loss of consumer confidence often occur during this period.
It is usually characterised by extremely high rates of poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Learning how to make money during a depression can help to shield you from the worst effects of the downturn.
“A recession is when you have to tighten your belt. A depression is when you have no belt to tighten” – Adam Thomson.
Although the words ‘depression’ and ‘recession’ are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same thing.
A recession is a normal part of the business cycle that generally occurs when GDP contracts for at least two quarters. One of the worst recessions was seen in 2008. Countries across the world were affected and unemployment rose to an all-time high.
In the UK, the recession lasted for five successive quarters. It took an additional five years to get back to the size it was before the recession. More than 2.7 million people were unemployed and the quarterly unemployment rate reached 8.4%. It made the 2008 crash one of the deepest UK recessions since the Great Depression.
A depression on the other hand is infinitely worse. It is an extreme fall in economic activity that lasts for years, rather than just several quarters.
Even with unemployment reaching an all-time high of 8.4%, this is still nothing compared to the 1930s, which as mentioned earlier, saw unemployment double to 20%.
In the Great Depression, there were people that offered their labour in exchange for food. Food riots also ensued, and millions of people were suddenly reliant upon food banks and charity.
“If you raise taxes during a recession, you head for depression” – George W Bush
At first glance, another economic depression seems really unlikely. Even in the midst of a global pandemic and rising inflation, unemployment is nowhere near the highs of 2008.
In the UK, GDP increased to 5.7% by the end of 2021, despite the challenges with the pandemic. This is a marked improvement from 2020 which saw GDP contract by 9.9% over the whole year. The year 2021 was even a marked improvement from 2019, which saw GDP rise by only 1.4%.
On the surface this looks good. Significant GDP recovery was seen despite the challenges of the last two years.
However that is only part of the story.
The world is a much more severe place than it was in 2008. The last two years have been plagued with increasing racial tension, global riots, a severe pandemic and lockdowns. Fast forward to 2022, and rising energy prices and the impending threat of war only add to the uncertainty. The World Bank also predicts that GDP will drop this year by two percentage points. A further drop is expected in 2023 and 2024.
All it would take is another major crisis, escalating tensions or a more severe Covid variant to pressure the entire global financial system. When that is coupled with supply chain reductions, the fallout from Brexit and a drop in consumer spending, this places further pressure on the economy.
By 1908, the amount of money in circulation in the UK was matched with the amount of gold in the economy. This was known as the gold standard.
However, it was abandoned shortly before the start of WW1 in 1914. This is very significant. The Great Depression and the collapse of the world economy followed not too long after the gold standard was abandoned in 1932.
Since then, money has been created from nothing. It is essentially ‘ghost money’. That means its value is based on pure speculation. No longer based on the gold standard, the value of currency is essentially whatever banks say it is. The paper notes we rely upon are promissory notes, which is essentially a paper IOU or promise to pay. This is why modern notes have the following message: “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of…..”
But nowadays, it is even worse than that. Modern money isn’t even backed by paper notes – as the vast majority of it is digital.
Consider the following message from the Bank of England website: “Banks create around 80% of money in the economy as electronic deposits. In comparison, banknotes and coins only make up 3%.”
Cheap money flooding in from the banks, along with unregulated loans, and slashed interest rates only fuel the fire.
After the 2008 recession, quantitative easing was used to mitigate further shortfalls in the economy. Quantitative easing is a type of monetary policy in which a nation’s central bank increases liquidity in its financial system. It typically tries to do this by purchasing predetermined amounts of government bonds or other financial assets.
The aim is to inject money into the economy, or simply print more money. Printing too much money can lead to hyperinflation, which occured in Germany in the 1920s. Essentially, too much money was printed with nothing to back it.
Quantitative easing is the mechanism through which money is printed out of nothing to sustain the economy. When combined with a global crisis and supply chain shortages, this paves the way for a total economic collapse.
The World Bank predicts an economic slowdown in 2022 that will continue through to 2023.
It predicts that global growth will decelerate markedly from 5.5% in 2021 to 4.1% in 2022. It will then tank to 3.2% in 2023.
A major economic slowdown is also expected in the US and China. This will impact other countries across the world, particularly those that use the US dollar or rely upon China.
The World Bank also predicts that the impact of new variants and inflation could impact the economy. When this is combined with financial vulnerabilities and supply chain issues, this will lead to a further slowdown.
While the World Bank doesn’t specifically mention a recession or depression, the outlook looks uncertain for the world economy.
It is therefore prudent to plan ahead and protect your finances in all weathers. One of the ways you can do this is to learn more about how to make money during a depression.
So how do you know when it’s time to worry?
With no unanimous definition of a depression and uncertainty about the future, how do we know when it will happen?
Short of a major announcement, there is no iron-clad way of predicting when the chips will fall. However, there are signs we can look out for that give us clues as to where the economy is heading.
Knowing how to make money during a depression is as much about reading the signs as it is about marketing. So look out for the following:
Like pretty much anything else, employment goes through its peaks and troughs. But when you have a consistent drop in employment that dips below 20%, this is a cause for concern.
Unemployment didn’t even drop that low in the 2008 crisis, so it is a worrying sign if that should occur. If a high number of consumers are jobless, this results in reduced purchasing power which impacts the economy.
Inflation is often seen as a good thing for the economy. It means prices are rising, and businesses are doing well.
In fact, deflation was the problem for many countries during the Great Depression, as prices dropped. As a result, consumers lost their purchasing power.
However, if inflation leads to hyperinflation, then that is a different matter entirely. This happens when prices spin out of control and you end up paying £50 for a loaf of bread.
Hyperinflation was one of the major problems plaguing Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920s. It got so bad that people started to stack paper notes and use them as kindling. The money was worthless. Its currency hit a monthly inflation rate of approximately 29,500% in October 1923. At its peak, prices doubled every few days.
Furthermore, too much inflation will discourage people from spending and squeeze demand.
But you really don’t want prices to tank either. In the Great Depression, deflation occurred as a result of a collapsing financial sector and bank failures. While low prices may be celebrated by many, often prices are lowered because of a decline in demand, too.
At the start of the Great Depression, prices dropped an average of nearly 7% every year.
This was coupled with a drop in output and a drop in prices. One of the most recent periods of deflation was seen in 2008. During this time, there was a drop in commodity prices, and economists worried that deflation would lead to a recession. It also led to a spike in unemployment and placed pressure on the economy.
The other commodity that was hit hard during the 1930s was property. As more people lost their jobs, the unemployment rate skyrocketed, making people unable to sell their homes. Another problem was that many people defaulted on their mortgages. Many banks did not have the resources to foreclose on unpaid mortgages as they did not have the funds to do so.
A rapid drop in property sales, with people unable to buy or sell is also sign of declining economic health.
High credit card spending can be a good thing because it is a sign that people have money to spend. However, when credit card debts consistently rise, it indicates people have lost the ability to repay.
Research published by Which? showed that credit card defaults and other debts increased in January 2022. An estimated 2.5 million households defaulted on at least one mortgage, rent, loan, credit card or bill.
This marks a significant increase from December 2021, when 1.7 million households defaulted.
The majority (58%) missed repayments due to increasing inflation, particularly rising food and energy prices.
When GDP drops below 10% year-on-year, then it is time to worry. As we have already discussed, a consistent quarterly drop in two quarters marks a recession. Any drop that spans more than several quarters is probably one of the strongest signs of depression.
Of course, none of the things above taken individually necessarily means that a depression is impending. But when you see a combination of the above occurrences on a consistent basis, then preparation is essential.
At worst, it will be unnecessary. At best, it will give you a lifeline and provide a buffer against an economic storm.
Below, we give more details on the businesses to consider when learning how to make money during a depression.
“Always do your best, what you plant now you will harvest later” – Og Mandino
Knowing what businesses are likely to do well can help you expand your product range and branch out into new areas.
Alternatively, it can inspire you to set up another venture.
Not all businesses and industries feel the same pain during a financial hurricane. This is why it’s important to look at what products and services are most in demand during the tough times.
Generally speaking, businesses that offer cheaper alternatives to luxuries or provide affordable essentials tend to do well. Those types of businesses are evergreen – in that they will always be in demand.
People get sick at all times and this doesn’t change during an economic depression. However, during a depression, even basic healthcare items become unaffordable for some people.
When you consider the recent impact of the pandemic, it’s easy to see why healthcare will continue to flourish. The Great Depression of the 1930s, also followed a pandemic, which was the Spanish flu in 1918. Therefore, healthcare products will never be obsolete.
Specific healthcare products that are likely to do well are over-the-counter items, substitute brands of luxury creams and supplements.
Vitamin sales rose from $32.2 million (£24 million) in 1935 to $82.7 million (£61 million) in 1939. This was right in the midst of the Great Depression. This was also seen in the 2008 recession, which saw a significant spike in supplement sales.
Other healthcare trends that remain strong during a downturn are elderly care, pharmaceuticals and contraceptives. As the economy tightens, people often put plans to start a family on hold and sales of contraceptives increase.
Everyday items such as soaps, toilet paper, toothbrushes and nappies were still in high demand during the Great Depression. There was also demand for inexpensive clothing and home furnishings in the Great Depression.
Large stores started to make an appearance during the depression era and had a much higher output than independent stores. These preceded the supermarket, which started to appear in the 1950s.
Food remained a staple in both the US and the UK during the last Great Depression. In that era, stores sold both meat and dry goods such as flour, oil, and coffee. Beef was also reported to have been a popular staple during the economic depression. Various studies have shown that these early ‘combination’ grocery stores did very well during the Great Depression.
People will always need food. Therefore, any business that sells low-cost, long lasting food products are likely to do well during an economic depression.
As incomes get squeezed during an economic depression or recession, crime shoots up. This fuels the demand for additional security guards or equipment. It is natural for people to want to protect what they have, especially in times of turbulence. So if you are in the security industry, then this is likely to thrive in the recession.
If you want to know how to make money during a depression, then consider a career in finance. Financial services and accounting functions tend to be sturdier during a downturn because more information is needed in challenging times.
For example, accountants are needed to retrieve the data used for decision making and for fulfilling important functions. Research published by the University of Alabama, showed that accounting and auditing services spiked sharply during the 2008 crisis.
The interesting thing is that marketing spend dropped significantly during the Great Depression. For example, the advertising industry faced severe cutbacks and financial challenges.
So it may seem strange or even a little self-serving to include it on this list. However, it was actually the perfect time to invest in advertising – precisely because very few other businesses did.
There was less competition and businesses who advertised stood out more than those that did not. Moreover, businesses who advertised were more likely to be remembered than those that only started up again after the recession.
It is also important to note that back in the 1920s, marketing technology was nowhere near what it is today. For example, social media was not around then. Most marketing back in the day consisted of what we call ‘traditional advertising’. This included fliers, newspaper ads, television ads, billboards and magazines.
Fast forward to the technological age of 2022, and social media can get your message out within nanoseconds. PPC costs a fraction of what newspaper advertising did back in the day. This is great news for small and independent businesses because digital marketing costs are more affordable than ever before. This means that even in tough economic times, more businesses will see the benefit – and necessity – of advertising.
If you want to know how to make money during a depression using content marketing, check out our blog.
Despite ten years of economic depression, tech innovation still paved the way for some groundbreaking discoveries. These discoveries helped to bolster an ailing manufacturing industry and inspired generations of inventors.
According to a report published by the Harvard Business School, between 1930 and 1933, R&D began to increase shortly after. The report stated that US companies founded at least 73 in-house R&D labs each year from 1929 to 1936.
Indeed, it seems that the companies that gained the most from the depression were the ones that advertised and innovated. They were the ones that continued as they believed in the light at the end of the tunnel. Every business venture involves an element of risk, particularly in challenging times. Successful enterprises trimmed back expenses when needed, but essentially continued to innovate.
“In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity” – Albert Einstein
So how do you prepare for an economic depression? The key is to start now. Trying to figure out how to make money during a depression is unlikely to help you much.
At that point, desperation will kick in and about a million people will be trying to do the same thing.
So now is the time to start putting things in place to shield yourself from a future economic crash. But how do you do it? Try following some of the steps below:
This seems obvious but in a severe financial downturn, it is time to be frugal. It also applies whether you are an individual or a country. If you are an individual, it is time to draw up a budget and cut back anything that is unnecessary.
Companies should do an internal audit of their overheads and outgoings and cut back before financial disaster hits. If you wait until a major disaster hits, you will be in a more weakened condition. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of staff. It does mean identifying weak spots before it becomes problematic.
Now is the time to get rid of debts before the economy implodes and bailiffs are sent out en masse. If you have any credit card debts, loans, or other debts, then increase repayments to clear them if you can. Clearing your debts allows you to start from a clean slate. It also means that any additional money you make will be yours and yours alone.
Save cash to buy stocks when they are cheap. The common mistake investors make is they panic and bail out of stocks at just the wrong time. As a result, the rate of returns typically is worse than that of the market itself.
It is better to buy a wide range of recession-proof stocks and hold until the time is right. Recession-proof stocks are those that will always be needed.
But if you are an investor that felt the pinch of buying stocks in 2008, then consider the following. Start building a cash cushion today so you can invest that amount once the market starts plunging. Then once the market starts to recover by a certain degree, it’s time to sell.
You can also mitigate any losses by setting up a stop loss. This means you automatically move to cash if the market goes down by a percentage. In other words, you determine the point at which you are unwilling to suffer losses and remove the risk.
If there was an economic depression, the competition for jobs will be fiercer than it’s ever been. So think ahead of the curve and learn new skills now while the economy is booming. This means that when the economy goes bust, you will have a much deeper advantage over others that do not have your skills.
Revisit our section on what industries are likely to do well in an economic depression. This will give you some ideas on where you should focus your skills.
If there was an economic depression and the dollar failed, many other currencies are likely to go down with it. Indeed, governments across the world are already considering other options. For example, the Bank of England has floated Britcoin as a possible crypto or some other central bank digital currency. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has adopted the digital Yuan as part of its crypto drive. Some South American countries, such as El Salvador have even adopted Bitcoin as its national currency.
The point is, that digital currencies such as crypto are here to stay. They are becoming more widely accepted by banks, governments and businesses. This will only fuel the rise of crypto such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.
If hyperinflation occurs during a depression, any fiat currency saved is likely to be useless. Alternatively, governments may just decide to opt for a bail-in. This is where the savings of the public are seized to prop up failing banks. This is exactly what happened in Cyprus in 2013, where banks seized 30% of customer savings. Withdrawals were also limited to €60 (£49) a day. Greek banks also made plans to do the same.
For anyone who thinks the same can’t happen in the UK – bail-in laws were introduced in 2014. This means your bank savings are unlikely to be safe during an economic depression.
If you want to know how to make money during a depression, creating a business is probably your best bet. And now is the time to do it. There’s no use waiting until your money has been drained before attempting to create a business. Set the process in motion while the going is good.
Now you are familiar with the industries that do well in a depression, consider creating a business in those industries.
Let’s be clear. There is no business that is guaranteed to do well in any condition. However, it is prudent to familiarise yourself with products or services that are unlikely to go out of fashion. Start by researching the products that have always stood the test of time.
These tend to be the essentials people need. It can also be things that people are addicted to such as coffee, cigarettes, sugar and chocolate. These things will be difficult for people to get hold of or afford. Therefore, businesses selling these for an affordable rate are likely to be popular.
You should also look at your business model and consider the ways you can make it sustainable.
Invest in Precious Metals
Precious metals have always been valuable, since the beginning of time. During the Great Depression, gold was extremely difficult to get hold of. Some governments (such as the US government) seized gold from citizens. Others only made it available to approved users. The price of gold remained relatively stable during the depression.
Therefore, gold can be used as a store of value. But you might want to buy it now. If you wait until an economic depression is under way, it may even be illegal to buy it. At least if you have gold and other precious metals already, you can trade it before it is seized.
Learning how to make money during a depression isn’t just about getting jobs. Investing in precious metals and knowing how to preserve your money is a vital part of the equation
“Stopping advertising to save money is like stopping your watch to save time” – Henry Ford
So now you know how to make money during a depression, how do you promote products in tough times?
Following some of the established marketing principles below will help you stay ahead of the curve in a downturn. These ideas will work for you regardless of whether you already have a business or are thinking of starting one.
Preparation is key to making anything work. This is why you should have a contingency plan which details the steps you will take during a depression. Trying to organise your staff and your resources during an economic meltdown will only overwhelm you and stretch your budget.
It makes more sense to put a budget aside in advance and have a well-developed survival marketing plan. Your plan should factor in possible staff changes, greatly reduced budgets and pressure from the shareholders. Knowing what to do when your back is against the wall will help you come out on top.
So why wait for the inevitable? Start putting aside plans now.
Build a bond with your prospective customers by retaining a strong, motivational message. It is important to do this in a way that is sensitive to the public mood to avoid resentment.
Consider the following analysis by the World Advertising Research Center. It revealed that advertising campaigns that focused on emotional engagement were more profitable than typical marketing campaigns.
Empathetic marketing must be supported with messages highlighting that your company is on the side of customers. This is why you should not raise prices, without a significant increase in quality. You can also increase trust and loyalty by offering small incentives and discounts to customers that purchase from you often. Educating customers on how to save money when they buy from stores is another way of providing value to customers.
In a financial downturn, it’s unsurprising that people want to reduce spending. This is a time when people cut back on product purchases and focus on essentials only.
Therefore, if you do not sell items that fit in the ‘essentials’ category, focus on affordability and value for money.
The way to stand out from the crowd is to offer the highest value for the lowest price.
It is also important to note that different customer segments react to a downturn in different ways.
Some customers will react by looking for cheaper substitutes, while others will look for bargains.
The diagram below by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) highlights the reaction of different customer segments during a downturn.
The next screenshot demonstrates the marketing tactics that you should use for different customer segments.
Marketing products to a loyal customer base will help you significantly during an economic depression.
It will be easier to advertise to existing customers then it will be to score new customers during a depression. Further findings published by the HBR showed that refocusing efforts on existing customers can increase profitability by 5-25 times.
It is also important to allocate for the long term and retain consistency. This refers to consistency in your branding, the target market you serve, and your messaging. For example, if your brand is a B2B that caters to white collar CEOs, then that should continue.
Trying to move down the market in response to financial pressures could potentially alienate or confuse your loyal customers. It may also promote stiff resistance from competitors and leave you in a weaker position long-term.
To ensure your communications and positioning remain consistent, develop a monthly plan of marketing strategies.
It is tempting to cut back on R&D and innovation during a financial meltdown. But research suggests this may not always be the best strategy. Of course, it is important to run an audit of your spending during tough times. On the other hand, innovation can also position brands for recovery. Research published by Newcastle University suggested that investing in R&D during a downturn can benefit firms after a crisis. An economic downturn presents equally as much a business opportunity as a threat. Businesses with enough resources to increase R&D during a downturn may stand out from the crowd when the economy recovers.
A/B testing of your marketing campaigns is essential if you want to survive an economic depression. Try out variations of everything from the copy, headlines, ad placements, channels and more. This will help you to improve your advertising and connect with a wider audience when you need it the most.
Knowing how to measure success against your objectives is important in times of turbulence. Your KPIs can help you determine which campaigns are yielding the best results. This enables you to prioritise the campaigns with a high ROI and deactivate the ones that aren’t working.
After all, it’s one thing knowing how to make money during a depression, but knowing if you are making money is also important.
In a depression, you may need to adjust some of your marketing goals and KPIs to reflect the current environment.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” – Billy Ocean
Earlier we mentioned that marketing during a depression keeps your products firmly embedded in the minds of your target audience. It also helps you stand out from the crowd.
However, that is not the only reason.
Another great reason to keep promoting your products is that the cost of advertising tends to drop during economic downturns. This creates a ‘buyer’s market’ which gives you more opportunities to promote your brand.
You should also be aware that businesses that cut ad spend typically lose their ‘share of mind’ among consumers. The consequences of losing customer attention means that you potentially lose out on current and future sales. The attention economy has always been competitive, so it doesn’t make sense to drop the ball when the competition fades.
When analysing how to make money during a depression, it is natural to ask: ‘have any brands succeeded in marketing during such a time?’
The case study below shows that many brands in fact, did succeed during the Great Depression.
“As sure as spring will follow winter, prosperity and economic growth will follow recession” – Bo Bennett
Knowing how to make money during a depression and preparing in advance will help you ride the storm. However, let’s be clear. The truth is that there is no guarantee. We can only make our best guesses based upon what seemed to work in the last Great Depression.
While there have been many severe downturns since then, nothing has really come close to a ten year economic depression. At least not yet.
So all you can do is to prepare as much as you can. While this isn’t a guarantee that you’ll come out on top, doing nothing is a guaranteed losing strategy.
Research shows increasing ad spend by 48% during a downturn helps you gain double the ROI of those who decrease spending.
In other words, staying ahead of the curve dramatically increases the chances of success. The key is to start now, so that you are not caught in the headlights when the party stops.
Our business thrived in the 2008 recession precisely because we used the principles outlined above to grow our business and help our clients. Since then, we have represented clients across a spectrum of different industries. As a result, we have accumulated a vast reservoir of industry knowledge and best practice that we use to assist clients in good times and in bad. We don’t just teach you how to make money during a depression – we also ensure that you reach your goals.
We do this by writing content that gets results. If you would like to know more about how we can help you build your business now and in the future, then our team would love to hear from you.