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

“Paul was more of the risk-taker,” Zandi recalls. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it, but only if we have a project.’ I was married and had a baby coming.” They got a gig with their first proposal, helping a credit card company target people who might use cash advances.

“We got all the data for seven million cardholders, put it on Penn’s mainframe,” Zandi remembers. “It seems almost quaint now. Now we process all the credit files in the country, every month.”

The company began publishing economic forecasts. Banks, insurers, hedge funds, card companies and governments (every state is a customer) pay from a few hundred dollars per report to several hundred thousand a year for subscriptions, so they can make their own projections. The firm grew steadily, by around 15 percent a year, expanding from local to national, then internationally. In 2000, the firm trendily changed its name from Regional Financial Associates to, but it never went public. It worked out nicely. In 2005, when Moody’s bought the company for $27 million, the founders (who include Zandi’s brother Karl) didn’t have to share the loot with outside investors.

“We were happy,” Zandi says, as low-key as ever. “It hasn’t changed my lifestyle in any significant way. I don’t really have hobbies. I really just work.”

He joined McCain’s brain trust a couple years before the election, after Hassett asked. He never met McCain. He wrote analyses on jobs and the economy that the Senator would read on flights from D.C. to Arizona. But it became clear Zandi’s view of the economy was too dismal for Team McCain. “By the end of the campaign, my voice was not being heard at all,” Zandi says. (It wasn’t Zandi’s intelligence that led McCain to call the fundamentals of the economy strong. “I had no input into those broader statements,” Zandi says diplomatically.)

It’s natural to wonder how a forecaster who foresaw the financial meltdown did with his own money.

“Probably a little bit better than the benchmarks,” he says. “I paid attention to being appropriately diversified. I don’t have the time, really, for stock-picking — I’m more worried about whether I have the right proportion of U.S. equity, global equity, fixed income, municipal bonds, cash, real estate.”

Very sensible, naturally. It’s not as if Zandi threw a chunk of his wealth into Florida real estate. Wait — what?

“I did buy a home. On an island, in Vero Beach,” he says. “My horizon is very long. We’re going to retire in Florida.”

After the Fox interview, Zandi walks 10 minutes to D.C.’s Union Station to take an Acela to Philadelphia. For pretty much the whole train ride, he’s explaining the -economy — in a phone interview with American Banker, a chat with the CFO of a client. Everyone’s asking the same stuff: What’s next? When? And the reason he was in D.C. in the first place was to address something called the Democratic Budget Group. Members of Congress formed the group years ago to conduct closed-door sessions, no media allowed, where they can freely ask dumb questions.