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

And that’s how Mark Zandi got his tie caught in the political sausage machine. “I’m just saying what Mark Zandi from Moody’s, an adviser to John McCain, is saying,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the media last February after the stimulus passed, as if holding him responsible for the liberal agenda. Zandi has been to the Obama White House four times, including for last February’s Fiscal Responsibility Summit, where Joe Biden introduced him as opening speaker to an audience that included the President. As for opinions on the other side of the aisle, a website called recently put aside its burning hostility toward Princeton lefty Paul Krugman to name Zandi America’s “Worst Economist.”

Among his peers, though, Zandi commands plenty of respect. Kevin Hassett of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a friend of Zandi’s who persuaded him to join McCain’s crew, has his own forecast: “Mark is on a trajectory similar to that of Alan Greenspan at a similar age,” Hassett says. “We shouldn’t be surprised if ultimately he’s running the Federal Reserve, or is a top official in some White House, maybe even the Obama White House in the second round. He’s steps ahead of everyone else because he’s worked harder.”

Zandi was born in Atlanta while his father, Iraj Zandi, was getting a PhD in engineering at Georgia Tech. When Mark was a baby, Iraj moved the family to his native Iran and worked in the oil industry for a couple years. They returned to the U.S. when Iraj began teaching at the University of Delaware in 1962; later, he would teach at Penn. Mark and his four siblings grew up in Gulph Mills. He went to Upper Merion High, where he played in the band, ran track and played football. But he was hooked on economics early. “I can remember in maybe fourth or fifth grade, I did a project to determine why Detroit had become the global center for the auto industry,” he says. “I didn’t know it was economics at the time. But my interests and proclivity were in that direction from the beginning.”

Zandi went to Wharton undergrad and earned a PhD in economics at Penn. He may have been at Wharton at the same time as Comcast CEO Brain Roberts. “Probably,” Zandi says. “I don’t recall him being there. Well, I don’t recall very many people, to tell you the truth.” He became enthralled with econometrics — running economic data through mathematical equations, using past causes and effects to forecast the future. Zandi and his friend Paul Getman were working at a local firm after graduation when, in 1990, they hatched a scheme to start their own business.