Can We Cut the Crap on Robert Rubin and Deficit Reduction

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Saturday, 16 February 2013 12:01

Robert Rubin is best known as the man who pocketed more than $100 million as a top Citigroup honcho as it played a central role in pumping up the housing bubble that sank the economy. However, because of the incompetence (corruption?) of the Washington media, he is much better known as a great hero of economic policy.

Ezra Klein helps to feed this myth when he tells us of the great virtue of deficit reduction in the Clinton years.

"Back in the 1990s, we knew why we feared deficits. They raised interest rates and “crowded out” private borrowing. This wasn’t an abstract concern. In 1991, the interest rate on 10-year Treasurys was 7.86 percent. That meant the interest rate for private borrowing was, for the most part, much higher, choking off investment and economic growth.

"Enter Clintonomics. The theory was simple: Bring down deficits, and you’d bring down interest rates. Bring down interest rates, and you’d make it easier for the private sector to invest and grow. Make it easier for the private sector to invest and grow, and the economy would boom.

"The theory was correct. By the end of Clinton’s term, the interest rate on 10-year Treasurys had fallen to 5.26 percent — lower than it had been in 30 years. And the economy was, indeed, booming. 'The deficit reduction increased confidence, helped bring interest rates down, and that, in turn, helped generate and sustain the economic recovery, which, in turn, reduced the deficit further,' Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said in 1998."

Okay, fans of intro economics know that it is the real interest -- the difference between the nominal interest rate and the inflation rate -- that matters for investment, not the nominal interest rate. The inflation rate in the first half of 1991 was over 5.0 percent. This means that the real interest rate -- the rate that all economists understand is relevant for growth -- around 2.5 percent.

Is that bad? If we take the last half year of the Clinton administration (and not some cherry picked low-point) the interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds averaged around 5.7 percent. The inflation rate for the second half of 2000 averaged around 3.5 percent. This gives us a a real interest rate of 2.2 percent (5.7 percent minus 3.5 percent equals 2.2 percent).

So we are supposed to believe that the difference between the 2.5 percent real interest rate in the high deficit pre-Clinton years and the 2.2 percent real interest rate at the end of the Clinton years is the difference between the road to hell and the path to prosperity? This is the sort of nonsense that you tell to children. It might past muster with DC pundits, but serious people need not waste their time.

The story of the boom of the Clinton years was an unsustainable stock bubble. This led to a surge in junk investment like Pets.com. It led to an even larger surge in consumption. People spent based on their stock wealth, pushing the saving rate to a then record low of 2.0 percent (compared to an average of 8.0 percent in the pre-bubble decades).

Robert Rubin acolytes may not like it, but the deficit reduction was a minor actor in the growth of the 1990s. The bubble was the real story. That may not be a smart thing to say if you're looking for a job in the Obama administration, but it happens to be the truth. You have to really torture the data to get a different conclusion.