In the Crash of 1929, his businesses were sufficiently diverse and his banks adequately capitalized that he stayed afloat financially. But he was deeply shaken when his assumption that the economy would quickly return to normal was, as we know, proved incorrect. "Men I respected assured me that the economic crisis was only temporary," he wrote, "and that soon all the things that had pulled the country out of previous depressions would operate to that same end once again. But weeks turned to months. The months turned to a year or more. Instead of easing, the economic crisis worsened." He himself had come to realize by late 1930 that something was profoundly wrong, not just with the economy but with his own understanding of it. "I awoke to find myself at the bottom of a pit without any known means of scaling its sheer sides. . . . I saw for the first time that though I'd been active in the world of finance and production for seventeen years and knew its techniques, I knew less than nothing about its economic and social effects." Everyone who relied on him—family, friends, business associates, the communities that depended on the businesses he ran—expected him to find a way out of the pit. "Yet all I could find within myself was despair."
When Eccles's anxious bank depositors began demanding their money, he called in loans and reduced credit in order to shore up the banks' reserves. But the reduced lending caused further economic harm. Small businesses couldn't get the loans they needed to stay alive. In spite of his actions, Eccles had nagging concerns that by tightening credit instead of easing it, he and other bankers were saving their banks at the expense of community—in "seeking individual salvation, we were contributing to collective ruin."
Economists and the leaders of business and Wall Street—including financier Bernard Baruch; W. W. Atterbury, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad; and Myron Taylor, chairman of the United States Steel Corporation—sought to reassure the country that the market would correct itself automatically, and that the government's only responsibility was to balance the federal budget. Lower prices and interest rates, they said, would inevitably "lure 'natural new investments' by men who still had money and credit and whose revived activity would produce an upswing in the economy." Entrepreneurs would put their money into new technologies that would lead the way to prosperity. But Eccles wondered why anyone would invest when the economy was so severely disabled. Such investments, he reasoned, "take place in a climate of high prosperity, when the purchasing power of the masses increases their demands for a higher standard of living and enables them to purchase more than their bare wants. In the America of the thirties what hope was there for developments on the technological frontier when millions of our people hadn't enough purchasing power for even their barest needs?"