NEW YORK (AP) — He was an architect of one of the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history. He spent much of his career after politics using borrowed money to take over companies. He targeted the riskiest ones that most investors shunned — car-parts makers, textile mills.
That is one image of David Stockman, the former White House budget director who, after resigning in protest over deficit spending, made a fortune in corporate buyouts.
But spend time with him and you discover this former wunderkind of the Reagan revolution is many other things now — an advocate for higher taxes, a critic of the work that made him rich and a scared investor who doesn’t own a single stock for fear of another financial crisis.
Stockman suggests you’d be a fool to hold anything but cash now, and maybe a few bars of gold. He thinks the Federal Reserve’s efforts to ease the pain from the collapse of our “national leveraged buyout” — his term for decades of reckless, debt-fueled spending by government, families and companies — is pumping stock and bond markets to dangerous heights.
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Known for his grasp of budgetary minutiae, first as a Michigan congressman and then as Reagan’s budget director, Stockman still dazzles with his command of numbers. Ask him about jobs, and he’ll spit out government estimates for non-farm payrolls down to the tenth of a decimal point. Prod him again and, as from a grim pinata, more figures spill out: personal consumption expenditures, credit market debt and the clunky sounding but all-important non-residential fixed investment.
Stockman may seem as exciting as an insurance actuary, but he knows how to tell a good story. And the punch line to this one is gripping. He says the numbers for the U.S. don’t add up to anything but a painful, slow-growing future.
Now 65 and gray, but still wearing his trademark owlish glasses, Stockman took time from writing his book about the financial collapse, “The Triumph of Crony Capitalism,” to talk to The Associated Press at his book-lined home in Greenwich, Conn.
Within reach was Dickens’ “Hard Times” — two copies.
Below are excerpts, edited for clarity.
Q: Why are you so down on the U.S. economy?
A: It’s become super-saturated with debt.
Typically the private and public sectors would borrow $1.50 or $1.60 each year for every $1 of GDP growth. That was the golden constant. It had been at that ratio for 100 years save for some minor squiggles during the bottom of the Depression. By the time we got to the mid-’90s, we were borrowing $3 for every $1 of GDP growth. And by the time we got to the peak in 2006 or 2007, we were actually taking on $6 of new debt to grind out $1 of new GDP.
People were taking $25,000, $50,000 out of their home for the fourth refinancing. That’s what was keeping the economy going, creating jobs in restaurants, creating jobs in retail, creating jobs as gardeners, creating jobs as Pilates instructors that were not supportable with organic earnings and income.
It wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t real consumption or real income. It was bubble economics.
So even the 1.6% (annual GDP growth in the past decade) is overstating what’s really going on in our economy.
Q: How fast can the U.S. economy grow?
A: People would say the standard is 3, 3.5%. I don’t even know if we could grow at 1 or 2%. When you have to stop borrowing at these tremendous rates, the rate of GDP expansion stops as well.
Q: But the unemployment rate is falling and companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 are making more money than ever.
A: That’s very short-term. Look at the data that really counts. The 131.7 million (jobs in November) was first achieved in February 2000. That number has gone nowhere for 12 years.
Another measure is the rate of investment in new plant and equipment. There is no sustained net investment in our economy. The rate of growth since 2000 (in what the Commerce Department calls non-residential fixed investment) has been 0.8% — hardly measurable.
(Non-residential fixed investment is the money put into office buildings, factories, software and other equipment.)
We’re stalled, stuck.
Q: What will 10-year Treasurys yield in a year or five years?
A: I have no guess, but I do know where it is now (a yield of about 2%) is totally artificial. It’s the result of massive purchases by not only the Fed but all of the other central banks of the world.
Q: What’s wrong with that?
A: It doesn’t come out of savings. It’s made up money. It’s printing press money. When the Fed buys $5 billion worth of bonds this morning, which it’s doing periodically, it simply deposits $5 billion in the bank accounts of the eight dealers they buy the bonds from.
Q: And what are the consequences of that?
A: The consequences are horrendous. If you could make the world rich by having all the central banks print unlimited money, then we have been making a mistake for the last several thousand years of human history.
Q: How does it end?
A: At some point confidence is lost, and people don’t want to own the (Treasury) paper. I mean why in the world, when the inflation rate has been 2.5% for the last 15 years, would you want to own a 5-year note today at 80 basis points (0.8%)?
If the central banks ever stop buying, or actually begin to reduce their totally bloated, abnormal, freakishly large balance sheets, all of these speculators are going to sell their bonds in a heartbeat.