What is Rubinomics?

Rubinomics is a term that describes the fiscal policy followed by the Bill Clinton administration and devised by his economic policy adviser, Robert Rubin. A portmanteau of "Rubin" and "economics,” the term "Rubinomics" describes the administration's focus on the impact of a balanced budget on long-term interest rates.

Rubin served as Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and as the first director of the National Economic Council from 1993 to 1995. He served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1995 to 1999. Rubin's primary focus was balancing the federal budget and the impact this had on inflation and interest rates over the long term.

Key Takeaways

  • Rubinomics describes the fiscal policy carried out by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin under the Bill Clinton administration.
  • Rubinomics consists of balancing the federal budget, or at least reducing deficits, in order to spur economic growth by putting downward pressure on inflation expectations and long-term interest rates. 
  • On its face, the goals of Rubinomics were achieved, but economists still argue whether Rubinomics or other factors were more important to the prosperity of the 1990s.

Understanding Rubinomics

Rubinomics gained traction during the 1990s as long-term interest rates remained high despite the actions of the Federal Reserve to lower the Federal Funds Rate. The Federal Funds Rate is the rate at which banks will lend each other money overnight. When the Fed increases the money supply through open market operations, it puts downward pressure on short-term interest rates, using the Fed Funds Rate as its target to gauge the immediate impact of monetary policy. However, this effect may not always carry over to long-term rates (or may take an unpredictably long time to do so).

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other experts believed the lack of responsiveness of long-term rates to overnight lending rates was due to an inflation premium that was built into long-term bond prices. Rubin proposed the government concentrate on reducing the federal budget deficit instead of spending money on infrastructure, technology, and education. This displeased liberal economic advisers who favored higher government spending, as well as supply-side economists who predicted the tax increases needed to balance the budget would negatively impact the economy. However, Rubin argued that lower long-term rates would spur greater private sector investment in key industries and the development of high-value, long-term projects that would grow jobs regardless of tax increases. 

Thus, Rubinomics essentially argues for balancing the federal budget as an economic growth strategy, an idea that also found some support among more conservative and free-market economists. This was a key component of the neoliberal consensus that emerged in the post-Cold War era of the Clinton administration. Through the 1990s, this consensus united economists and policy makers of the moderate Left and Right behind fiscal conservatism, low interest rates, and the globalization of trade. 

Did Rubinomics Work?

Proponents argue that Rubinomics contributed greatly to the long and pronounced period of economic growth and eventual government budget surpluses that developed over the course of the 1990s. Long-term interest rates trended lower during the Clinton administrationas intended by the policy of Rubinomicswith 10-year U.S. Treasury rates falling from 6.60% in January 1993 to 5.16% in January 2001. Long-term corporate bond rates followed suit, falling from 7.91% to 7.15% over the same period.

At the same time, GDP growth averaged around 4%, inflation maintained a low, stable rate around 2.5%, and the U.S. economy experienced its longest period of continuous expansion in history up to that point. 

So at first glance, the immediate and long-term goals of Rubinomics appear to have been achieved. However, factors other than just Rubinomics were certainly in play, including the ongoing easy monetary policy led by Greenspan, the "Peace Dividend" resulting from military drawdowns, and the opening of global international trade in the form of NAFTA and other multilateral agreements.

Whether Rubinomics or other factors were more important to the prosperity of the 1990s is an ongoing matter of debate among economists still today. It is also worth noting that the U.S. suffered a recession with the bursting of the dotcom bubble immediately following this period, and some economists trace the roots of the Great Recession to financial liberalization that occurred under Rubin’s watch.