By Duncan Agnew | [email protected]
When David Wilcox took his seat in an intermediate economics class as a sophomore at Williams College, he never thought the lecture would set him on a path to one of the most powerful federal agencies in the country.
The first thing that struck Wilcox, who years later would help navigate the country through financial crisis at the Federal Reserve, was that Williams undergraduate economics professor Carl van Duyne could hardly contain his excitement as he handed out new textbooks to his students.
“I remember Carl sitting on the front of the desk – it was a small classroom of 25 or 30 students – and you could tell that there was a focus and energy and vitality about Carl when he said that he couldn’t begin to describe how excited he was that we had the benefit of using a brand new macroeconomics textbook just on the market and just barely arrived in time for use with this class,” Wilcox said.
One of the authors of that textbook, Stanley Fischer, would become Wilcox’s economics Ph.D. dissertation advisor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Decades later, Fischer served as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve under the Obama and Trump administrations before stepping down in October 2017.
“He’s a figure that was incredibly important later on to me, but as a student who was practically brand new to economics, I had no idea what an important role Stan was going to play in my life,” Wilcox said.
During his senior year at Williams, Wilcox made the trip to D.C. while he was on the hunt for a job, and he stopped by the Federal Reserve to visit a friend who worked there. This led to an unlikely job offer to join the Federal Reserve Board as a research assistant.
After accepting that offer and working in research for two years, Wilcox went back to school to earn a doctorate from MIT, which he received in 1987. From there, he returned to the Federal Reserve as an economist within the Board of Governors.
“It was the privilege and benefit of working with people I found very inspiring, very brilliant, very dedicated, very focused on the public mission here at the Federal Reserve Board who clarified my thinking about what I wanted to do for my career,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox, now chief economist for the Fed, has spent 30 years with the country’s central banking system. He announced this summer that he will retire at the end of the year. Wilcox is well known for serving as the deputy director of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors during the financial crisis in 2008. In that role, he worked alongside many world-renowned economists that the Fed turned to in order to save the United States from financial ruin.
“That was an extraordinarily intense period of time,” Wilcox said. “It was a time when the staff here at the Federal Reserve, in collaboration with other government agencies, many other individuals, came together as never before and never since in my time because of the urgency of the
One of the most challenging aspects of fighting the recession for Wilcox was the day-to-day uncertainty that employees at the Fed faced. No one knew where the breaking point was or how close the country’s financial system would come to a full-scale collapse. Wilcox credits his colleagues for preventing a bad situation from becoming a complete disaster.
“As bad as it was, I really do believe that it was the courage and creativity and brilliance of a lot of individuals I was privileged to work with that prevented it from being even worse,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox said the scholastic background of Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman during the recession, proved vital to successfully navigating the minefield of the Great Recession. Bernanke’s status as one of the foremost scholars of the causes and recovery strategies of the Great Depression made him better equipped to serve during a national emergency than anyone else on the planet, Wilcox said.
“We were all enormously fortunate that Ben [Bernanke] was serving as chair at that time and in a position to be able to make the difference that he did working in collaboration with some very courageous individuals at the treasury department and other agencies as well,” Wilcox said.
On the heels of the recession, Wilcox was promoted to his current post as director of the Division of Research and Statistics for the Federal Reserve Board. In that position, he oversees 350 employees focused on economic analysis and forecasting.
While he took over at a time of instability, Wilcox said his early work as director centered on stabilizing the work environment at the Federal Reserve Board in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Karen Dynan, a professor in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, first met Wilcox as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board before earning a Ph.D. herself. She returned to the board after graduate school, spending 17 years as a researcher and forecaster before leaving to join the Brookings Institution.
Dynan said a large part of Wilcox’s success as a leading economist stems from his dedication to public service.
“[Wilcox] has spent his career working tirelessly to improve economic policy,” Dynan said in an email. “I think he is motivated to do so not just because he wants the American economy as a whole to be stronger, but because he really cares about making people’s lives better.”
In that same vein, Wilcox spent the past five years becoming a pioneer in promoting diversity and inclusion within the field of economics. He said one of his primary goals has been to foster a supportive, productive work environment that pushes all employees to offer valuable contributions to the organization.
“Diversity means making sure that we are hiring as broadly representative a set of individuals as we possibly can, bringing that set
of individuals in the door to welcome them as employees of the Federal Reserve,” Wilcox said. “Inclusion has to do with what they experience once they’re on our staff, making sure that we’re presenting them with a professional environment in which they feel challenged.”
Historically, men have obtained 70 percent of all economics degrees at both the undergraduate and doctoral program levels, Wilcox noted. In addition to a lack of female representation, African Americans and Hispanics are also widely underrepresented in the field.
Wilcox said he has pursued both an internal agenda to change the culture inside of the Federal Reserve Board itself and an external agenda to combat the homogeneity of economics programs at institutions around the country.
While he admitted that the results have been mixed, some signs of progress are beginning to appear. This past spring, for instance, women made up 40 percent of economics graduates from Williams College, which Wilcox called “a step in the right direction.”
“In order to create a staff here at the Federal Reserve that has all the characteristics that we aspire to, we’ve recognized that we need to move aggressively on changing things inside,” Wilcox said. “But we also need to do nothing less than help the economics profession itself change more broadly on the outside.”
Still, Wilcox stressed that the Federal Reserve and other prominent employers have a long way to go to fully ensure that minority groups are properly represented across the board. Wilcox said awareness is the first step on a long road toward positive change.
“No longer is it widely regarded that issues of representation – diversity and inclusion – are the responsibility of women or of minorities to correct and address, but that the ownership of those problems falls on the shoulders of every person who participates in the economics enterprise,” Wilcox said.
Now, as he enters the final stage of his career at the Federal Reserve Board, Wilcox is grateful for the rare opportunity he’s had to leave a lasting, positive impact on a powerful federal organization.
When asked about his proudest accomplishments, Wilcox focused on the simple ways in which he’s been able to help people over the course of his career.
“I would like my legacy to be that I helped work with my colleagues here at the Federal Reserve Board to provide world class advice to policy makers, to create an environment in which individuals of every description could come in and know that they would be challenged to contribute at the highest level of their capability, and to create an environment in which innovation is rewarded,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox’s colleagues at the Fed have talked publicly about his commitment to the organization and to economics itself. After his retirement announcement, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell praised Wilcox’s invaluable contributions to the organization and the entire field of economics.
“We will miss his prowess as an economist, his leadership in promoting diversity and inclusion in the field of economics, as well as his incomparable wit and good humor,” Powell said in a Federal Reserve Board press release.
And while Wilcox is best known for the contributions he made to economics
throughout his professional career, his wife Melynda Wilcox knows him as a kind, loving person who will stop at nothing to care for others.
David Wilcox married Melynda Wilcox in 1989, not long after graduating from MIT and returning to the Fed. They settled in Alexandria in 1995 and had twin daughters in 1998. The family never left the city, and daughters
Amanda and Laura graduated from T.C. Williams High School in 2016.
Wilcox was an Eagle Scout and worked as a camp counselor as a teenager, which left a lasting impression. A few years before his daughters graduated, for example, the couple were watching them compete at a T.C. Williams swim meet. When Wilcox noticed that one of the swimmers was unconscious in the pool, he was the first to act.
“He immediately jumped in – fully clothed – to rescue her,” Melynda Wilcox said in an email. “It turned out that she had had a seizure, and after being checked out thoroughly at the hospital, she was fine, thank goodness.
The only casualty was David’s Fed-issued Blackberry.”
As Wilcox moves into retirement at the end of the year, he said he’d like to undertake his own research projects to learn more about economic stratification. Among other questions that he wants to answer for himself, he particularly grapples with the problem of why the country’s economy is so successful for some people while an utter failure for others.
Economics aside, though, he plans to remain active.
“I have no specific plans for the future,” Wilcox said. “Other than a good deal of clarity that the rocking chair doesn’t figure prominently in my near-term plans.”