“Green shoots” are appearing everywhere — just read the newspapers and you can be assured that we’ve turned the corner. Bar the latest rise in US unemployment — up 0.3% to 9.7%, after falling 0.1% the previous month — there’s nothing but good news as far as the eye can see.

Unless, that is, you take a look at a wider range of data, as economic historians Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke have been doing in their series “A Tale of Two Depressions“.

They have published three instalments of this study, which collates data from several countries and compares it to the same information in the 1930s  — taking June 1929 as the starting point for the Great Depression and April 2008 as the same for our current Great Recession.

Their latest instalment was published on September 1, and it does indeed show some signs of a turnaround — green shoots perhaps. But their comparison of today with the 1930s still reaches the conclusion that “today’s crisis remains dramatic by the standards of the Great Depression”.

The key improvement they see in the current data over that for the 1930s is an uptick in world industrial production, which has risen by about 2% (compared to peak output in April 2008) in the past four months from its low of 88%. This now puts it substantially above the comparable period in the 1930s, when by this stage industrial output had fallen to 81% of its peak.

However, they express the concern that this turnaround reflects the gigantic government stimuli that have been applied in the last year, and the continuance of a positive trend now relies upon the private sector taking over:

The question now is whether final demand for this increased production will materialise or whether consumer spending, especially in the US, will remain weak, causing the increase in production to go into inventories, leading firms to cut back subsequently, and resulting in a double-dip recession.

There are signs of good news elsewhere too — notably in stock markets and world trade. However, these aren’t as robust as a focus solely on the US indices and Japan’s exports might imply. Though world stock markets have rebounded, they are still slightly below their comparable levels in the 1930s.

The world trade figure is more telling. Neoclassical economists have often pointed at restrictions to world trade as one reason the Great Depression was as bad as it was — citing in particular the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in the United States. In fact this Act was signed into law in June 1930, one year after Eichengreen’s and  O’Rourke’s reference date for the start of the Great Depression. By that time, world trade had already fallen about 8% below its peak level; three months later had fallen a further 2%.

Fifteen months into our modern-day crisis, and with no such protectionist legislation even being contemplated, world trade had fallen 20% below its peak.