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

At 3:30, it’s time for the firm’s regular “Macro” meeting. Zandi has been explaining the economy to people all day, and here comes more. About 35 company economists who prepare reports meet so they can all agree what to tell people. Far from the Beltway, surrounded by fellow wonks who appreciate that it’s all about the data, Zandi loosens up. He cajoles junior people to sit up at the table instead of in chairs lined against the wall. When someone suggests that uncertainty about national health-care policy may be delaying hiring, Zandi asks for evidence: “Do you have data showing that? Is your wife complaining?”

They run through projections for unemployment (rising through summer 2010 to peak at 10.6), housing prices (declining 10 percent, to bottom in Q3), mortgage rates (edging up half a percent). Is he right? Maybe. One thing’s customers know: Zandi is giving the same numbers to lawmakers, and that can influence what happens.

Toward the end of the meeting, someone asks Zandi about mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which the government took over. He unwinds a 10-year scenario. Another colleague asks what the impact on the federal budget will be.

“Wow, you’re really testing my forecasting prowess here,” Zandi says. “I think we’ll make money on Fannie and Freddie.” And then: “It’ll be a 5.68 annualized return.” The roomful of economists cracks up. As if anybody could really put numbers on the future like that.