Philadelphia Salaries 2010: Mark Zandi Profile: The Hardest-Working Man In the Recession

Economic catastrophe may have been tough on your wallet, but for widely quoted West Chester economist Mark Zandi, it’s been a great career boost

“I had a PowerPoint prepared, but after two slides they just started asking,” Zandi says. Lawmakers quizzed him on what will happen with credit, with jobs, and how to tell if the policies they’ve implemented (some on Zandi’s advice) are working. A lot of the lawmakers were making jokes about how grim things seem to be.

“There was dark humor,” he says. Like what? “I don’t really remember,” Zandi admits. He later explains: “I don’t remember jokes, because I don’t really tell them. I don’t think that way. I think more like an academic.”

When he arrives at 30th Street Station from D.C., Zandi takes a taxi to Philadelphia International Airport, where he left his car the day before to fly to Chicago to meet with a credit card company. Then he drives himself to Economy.com’s office in downtown West Chester.

At his desk, the phone keeps ringing. The Washington Post calls. The L.A. Times. Reporters love Zandi because he makes their job easy. He’s generous with data for stories and charts. He’s patient with dumb questions, great on camera. “In television, you have viewers’ attention for a -minute-30,” says CBS News producer Peter Burgess. “He can break down something that economists deal with, in words everybody can understand, in 15 seconds.”

Between calls, Zandi eats a banana. On his desk, an electric shaver recharges next to a calculator. Down the hall is a conference room set up as a mini studio, with broadcast-quality video and audio gear, so he can do TV and radio interviews from West Chester. “On a busy day, he’s in here maybe four times,” says Sara Rodriguez, Zandi’s assistant and the company’s speaking engagements manager.

On Zandi’s bookshelf are copies of his 2008 book, Financial Shock: A 360º Look at the Subprime Mortgage Implosion, and How to Avoid the Next Financial Crisis. It’s a lucid explanation, though he left something out. A lot of people have blamed the meltdown partly on debt-rating agencies, who, like lazy high-school teachers, gave out easy A’s to worthless, sub-prime-backed investments. One of those agencies was Moody’s, which now owns Zandi’s firm. “It’s the missing chapter,” he admits. “I didn’t think people would believe what I said about it.”

One thing he knows about his book: He won’t be starting the next Freakonomics franchise.

“Things like Freakonomics are based on behavior, which is very important and interesting, but it’s just not me,” Zandi admits. “My approach isn’t going to be adopted in pop culture in any way. It’s just too boring. The only reason it’s been brought into the culture at all is because of the environment we’re in. This is a brief time. It’s not going to be this way forever.”

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