Economist Mark Zandi: The Recession's Hot Wonk

When economist Mark Zandi talks, Washington listens. A propeller-head's rise

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Evelyn Hockstein / Polaris for TIME

Zandi, between appointments in Washington, says a recovery will begin by the fall of 2010

Mark Zandi, the chief economist and co-founder of Moody's was in the midst of a whirlwind day that included two speeches, a panel discussion, a television interview and a visit to the Congressional Budget Office — but he still found time for a little extracurricular research.

In a taxi on the way to the Park Hyatt hotel in Washington, where he was making a presentation to a bank-industry group, Zandi turned to the driver. "How's business?" he asked.

"It's slow," the driver said.

"Is it getting any worse?" Zandi asked.

"No," the driver said. "It's just slow."

Most people would forget that exchange before they got out of the cab. But Zandi, 49, stores conversations like these for future use in congressional briefings and spots on CNBC. As the public face of — an economic-forecasting company that he started with his brother Karl and a third partner in 1990 and sold to Moody's in 2005 for $27 million — Zandi has the job of predicting the economic future and explaining the tumultuous present to clients that range from Wall Street investors and sovereign wealth funds to staffers from the Commerce and Treasury departments. He's the recession's ascendant wonk and most improbable celebrity, as likely to pop up in the newspaper or on television as behind Nancy Pelosi during a press conference — sort of a post-housing-bubble Zelig. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

He does it all with an almost unnerving sense of calm. He can explain collateralized debt obligations, the obscure minutiae of the housing market and big-picture economic forces in a way that's clear and practically idiot-proof, and he's very good at concealing his political agenda, if he has one. Those last two qualities have made him an especially useful figure in Washington, where he's consulted and quoted by Democrats and Republicans alike. "What he says, people listen to," says GOP Senator Bob Corker, who cited Zandi's testimony on the second auto bailout as particularly helpful. Zandi worked as an economic adviser to John McCain during his presidential campaign. His book Financial Shock, published in July 2008, could be seen tucked under the arm of Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank during the height of the banking meltdown last fall. "He really has the ability to put aside any pre-existing agenda and just talk facts to almost everybody," Frank says. When asked whether he and Zandi disagree about anything, Frank replies, "Not really."

For what it's worth, Zandi says he is a registered Democrat. But he has an instinctive ability to avoid offending anyone, which happens to be a smart business strategy: politicians can cherry-pick from his research to bolster their own agendas; they then invite him to testify on Capitol Hill (he has done so half a dozen times in the past year), which leads to more TV interviews, which boosts business for On a recent Thursday in Washington, Zandi spent the first part of the morning presenting his outlook for the U.S. economy to a crowd of Moody's clients. Standing at a lectern under fluorescent lights, blinking behind his oval spectacles, he said the bank-bailout plan introduced by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to encourage private investors to buy banks' toxic mortgage assets is a "reasonably good idea" that he thought would work. (Zandi says he would have preferred that the government buy the toxic debt so taxpayers could realize all the upside once the economy recovers.) He believes in aggressive government stimulus as a way to address economic crises, and he likes the package passed by the Obama Administration, although he would have included a payroll-tax holiday and an expansion of the housing tax credit.

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