The conventional wisdom has held that economic policy was a great success under Bill Clinton in the 1990s and a failure ever since. Hillary Clinton has made the comparison often, promising to end “the seven year detour” and “attack poverty by making the economy work again.” In January, in response to the president’s State of the Union Address, Barack Obama stated that it was “George Bush’s Washington that let the banks and financial institutions run amok and take our economy down this dangerous road.”
Perhaps this reading of history makes for good politics in an election year, and it is certainly better for the Clintons than for anyone else. The only problem is that the story line is flawed. One could even say that it’s a bit of a fairy tale.
For six of eight years, Bill Clinton governed with Republican majorities in Congress. Not surprisingly, there was much continuity between the Clinton and Bush administrations. Both embraced the so-called Washington Consensus, a policy agenda of fiscal austerity, central-bank autonomy, deregulated markets, liberalized capital flows, free trade, and privatization.
On each of these crucial issues, the most significant differences between Clinton and Bush were differences in timing and degree, not in direction. Both administrations were willfully asleep at the wheel. Clinton was fortunate to preside over the early stages of a bubble economy. Bush has had the misfortune of presiding as a lame duck through the final stages of the same bubble and, thanks to the deregulation of the Clinton years, without a regulatory structure capable of containing today’s speculative fevers.
In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned on the promise of a short-term stimulus package. But soon after being elected, he met privately with Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal Reserve Board, and soon accepted what became known as “the financial markets strategy.” It was a strategy of placating financial markets. The stimulus package was sacrificed, taxes were raised, spending was cut—all in a futile effort to keep long-term interest rates from rising, and all of which helped the Democrats lose their majority in the House. In fact, the defeat of the stimulus package set off a sharp decline in Clinton’s public approval ratings from which his presidency would never recover.
It is easy to forget that Clinton had other alternatives. In 1993, Democrats in Congress were attempting to rein in the Federal Reserve by making it more accountable and transparent. Those efforts were led by the chair of the House Banking Committee, the late Henry B. Gonzalez, who warned that the Fed was creating a giant casino economy, a house of cards, a “monstrous bubble.” But such calls for regulation and transparency fell on deaf ears in the Clinton White House and Treasury.
The pattern was set early. The Federal Reserve became increasingly independent of elected branches and more captive of private financial interests. This was seen as “sound economics” and necessary to keep inflation low. Yet the Federal Reserve’s autonomy left it a captive of a financial constituency it could no longer control or regulate. Instead, the Fed would rely on one very blunt policy instrument, its authority to set short-term interest rates. As a result of such an active monetary policy, the nation’s fiscal policy was constrained, public investment declined, critical infrastructure needs were ignored. Moreover, the Fed’s stop-and-go interest-rate policy encouraged the growth of a bubble economy in housing, credit, and currency markets.
Perhaps the biggest of these bubbles was the inflated U.S. dollar, one of several troubling consequences of the Clinton administration’s free-trade policies. Although Clinton spoke from the left on trade issues, he governed from the right and ignored the need for any minimum floor on labor, human rights, or environmental standards in trade agreements. After pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress on the strength of Republican votes, Clinton paved the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) only a few years after China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
During Clinton’s eight years in office, the U.S. current account deficit, the broadest measure of trade competitiveness, increased fivefold, from $84 billion to $415 billion. The trade deficit increased most dramatically at the end of the Clinton years. In 1999, the U.S. merchandise trade deficit surpassed $338 billion, a 53 percent increase from $220 billion in 1998.
In early March 2000, Greenspan warned that the current account deficit could only be financed by “ever-larger portfolio and direct foreign investments in the United States, an outcome that cannot continue without limit.” The needed capital inflows did continue for nearly eight Bush years. But it was inevitable that the inflows would not be sustained and the dollar would drop. Perhaps the singular success of Bill Clinton was to hand the hot potato to another president before the asset price bubble went bust.
Financial Deregulation under Clinton
No one could drive a car well for very long on roads without traffic lights, stop signs, or speed limits. There is an obvious need for sensible regulation, even “command and control” regulation, to facilitate safety and traffic flow. Likewise with most markets, particularly the financial markets, where some degree of regulation is necessary to prevent fraud and provide order, stability, and coherence to private transactions. Yet the Washington Consensus has denied the need for regulation of the financial marketplace at every level. Jagdish Bhagwati, a prominent free-trade economist, has referred to the “Wall Street-Treasury-IMF complex” to suggest a policy agenda formulated and pushed by powerful financial interests. Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel laureate in economics, has noted the agenda’s many unscientific assumptions and refers to its promoters as “free market fundamentalists.”
At the very local level of finance—consumer credit and housing loans—the analogue to speed limits and traffic-flow regulation would be limits on loan volumes, interest rates, and minimum down payments. For years the federal government had regulated such lending standards to prevent inflation of asset prices in key sectors of the economy, particularly during wartime and boom times. For instance, Federal Reserve Regulation X required minimum down payments and maximum periods of repayment for housing loans. Federal Reserve Regulation W utilized the same devices for consumer credit for the purchase of automobiles, appliances, and other durable goods.
But starting with the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and continuing under Clinton, such regulations were mostly repealed. Known as “selective credit controls,” these policy instruments took a “command and control” approach to regulation. It was an approach that reduced systematic risk by discouraging the development of a subprime mortgage market for borrowers with bad credit. Without such controls, lenders started making a flood of loans without minimum down-payment requirements, and eventually without even requiring documentation of income on many loans. Adjustable interest rates and hidden balloon payments made thes