The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.
NEW YORK (
) -- On Sept. 10, 2001, the U.S. economy was in a soft patch, partially due to the dot-com crash. The day after 9/11, it was softer. Ten years later, the U.S. economy is several notches softer again. Could the economy manage the shocks of a second 9/11?
In the soft economy that surrounded 9/11, the fed funds rate reached a low of 1%. Unemployment reached a high of 6.3%. Federal debt was about 56% of GDP. Shortly after the news of 9/11, gold prices skyrocketed 33% to $287 in London trading, and the
New York Stock Exchange
closed -- for four days.
When it reopened on Sept. 17, 2001, the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
plunged 685 points, its largest single-day point drop. In one week, the Dow dropped 14.3%. Consumer confidence had its biggest one-month drop, falling from 114 to 97.6.
9/11 no longer has the record for the largest Dow point drop. That was surpassed twice in 2008. 9/11 no longer has the record for a monthly consumer confidence point drop either. In October 2008, confidence fell from 61 to 38. Four years after the Great Recession officially began, unemployment is still over 9%, federal debt is 100% of GDP, the fed funds rate is 0.25%, gold is over $1,800, and consumer confidence is 59.5. The economy is much weaker today.
Bin Laden chose his targets for maximum effect, including the selection of America, the lone military and economic superpower. His targets were the country's greatest military and economic iconic structures.
Bin Laden, who fought against the Soviet Union during their failed 1979 to 1989 war with Afghanistan, took credit for taking the superpower status from the Soviet Union. If his surprise and savage assault on America went according to plan, the cascading events would take the superpower out of the U.S.
The costs of property damage, and lost wages and business income have been variously estimated between $50 billion to $100 billion. In bin Laden's 2001 residence of Afghanistan, these damages would have been 10 to 25 times GDP and crippled the nation. For the $11 trillion U.S. economy, the dollar losses were minimal. 9/11 included, the 2000 to 2001 recession was mild with a duration two months shorter than average. America's resilience was as strong as ever, but the economy was also much stronger than it is today.
A far greater impact to the economy has come from the spending to support the three enormous 9/11-related responses whose purpose is to secure the nation from future acts of terror. The final Afghanistan and Iraq war-related tallies including rebuilding and aid are expected to be $3 trillion to $5 trillion, of which interest might reach one-third. The 10-year homeland security-related costs are estimated at another trillion.
There is a historical precedent for these American responses. It is the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which also occurred in a soft economy, one where federal debt had tripled since 1931. On Dec. 7, 1941, Americans still had a naïve belief that its oceans provided a protective layer from assault. The U.S. military had about 500,000 active duty personnel, and a few hundred planes. As a percent of GDP, defense consumed about 3%. By 1945 there were over 12 million active duty personnel and 200,000 planes. Defense spending was 38% of GDP and federal debt for the first time exceeded GDP.
Before Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S was committed to neutrality -- to non-military intervention. By 1945, the U.S. was an undisputed military superpower that would soon take on the job of intervening anywhere and everywhere freedom was threatened by Soviet communist advances. By 1945, the painful memories of the Great Depression were being mixed with the current more-pleasant reality of being a global economic superpower.
On 9/11, American freedom was again under assault by a new enemy playing by uncustomary rules of war. Naïveté had again left the nation exposed and unprepared. Ten years later, 40% of global spending on homeland security comes from the U.S and America has the world's largest counter-terrorist organization. The military's counter-terrorist forces have grown 33%, and they include five of the top ten elite forces in the world. Also better prepared are first responders, the FAA, the FDA, intelligence gathering, American businesses, the American people, investors and Wall Street's emergency operational facilities.
The economy is much weaker than after 9/11, and it does not have the momentum of 1945. But how much did 9/11 affect the American economy? The direct economic impact of 9/11 probably exacerbated the 2000 to 2001 recession, but the post analysis is that it was not overwhelmingly so. The economic impact of the expenditures for the three jumbo responses is still to be determined.
If bin Laden's successors or another terrorist group launched a second attack to try to bring economic Armageddon to America, would it succeed? America's homeland security infrastructure is developed and the nation is more familiar with fighting its newest enemy. Fighting terrorists isn't done with an Army, it's done with elite forces, whose numbers and expenses are counted in thousands and billions rather than millions and trillions.
America would undoubtedly need to enhance its security systems and processes to close a gap it had missed. There would be the unquantifiable costs of lost lives and the need to repair damaged property. If enhancements were in the $100 billion range, and property costs about the same as 9/11 -- $50 billion to $100 billion -- the costs would seem like a rounding error, in the whole scheme of fix-it-numbers tossed about today. It might exacerbate the nation's current weakened state but, like 9/11, probability says that it would not be overwhelming.
There is though that debt problem and here events related to WWII offer another historical precedent, minus the nation's rising entitlement expenditures. After WWII the U.S. economy had the giant catalyst of rebuilding war torn nations and consumers ready to spend cash. Today there is also a potential powerful catalyst and it is something the U.S. played a key role in effecting. The fall of the Berlin Wall set in motion cascading events that permitted the creation of a growing global economy that is spawning numerous opportunities for trade. It would be a pity if the spoils of the Cold War were squandered by America's reluctance and relative trading inexperience.
Russia lost both of its superpower titles when its economy tanked and it could not support its debts, of which the military's contribution was significant. An inability for the U.S. to drastically reduce expenses and restore healthy economic growth would have a similarly devastating impact that would make the costs of a second 9/11 really trite. Very tragically, too, al Qaeda would be taking credit. That can never happen.
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