One reason the advice of academic economists is held in such low esteem is that our experience seldom includes decision-making in the real world.
I have been a college teacher all my adult life and have tried to expand my knowledge and usefulness through several outside pursuits.
I have had some notable successes. A banker once told me that my advice- on a monthly audiotape service I used to sell to banks-saved him $2 million.
But usually my advice has fallen on deaf ears. I spent 22 years as consulting economist to a 3,000-person Wall Street brokerage firm, where I spoke to clients regularly about the economy and financial markets.
Yet if I told you that clients invested 10 cents in the 22 years based on my suggestions, I would be exaggerating by a dime. Wall Street follows the motto: "If I own the football, I play quarterback." This means that when bonds were making money, the bond people decided where funds should be placed. When stocks were the winners, stock people would rule.
My decade as a board member on a real estate investment trust had similar results. I attended meetings and helped meet the trust's legal requirement for a certain number of outside directors but did little else. When we got into deep trouble, I first learned it from The Wall Street Journal.
The only time I have had real executive decision-making responsibility in my entire life was when this newspaper let me establish contests for the one-day presidency of Schmidlap National Bank. The editors not only allowed me to pick the topics but also let me decide who were the winners.
By a long shot, the most responses came to the topic "should we allow dress-down days at our bank?" More than 25 bankers and consultants responded to that one, a high number of replies for any newspaper contest.
Other topics that led to heavy mail and faxes included "should we cash checks for noncustomers?"; "what are the characteristics of a top performer?"; and "should we ever lend money again to someone who has gone bankrupt?"
But our latest contest, asking, "What are some of the unusual things you have done to serve your community and how have they helped your bank?", has so far prompted only one reply!
Maybe it is because the contest ran the week before Labor Day. Or maybe the public just doesn't care.
As one thrift executive said to me, "We work for our communities and spend a fortune serving them. But if we get into trouble, no one cares; they just move to another bank."
Let's try again.
What is your bank doing that is special, and what value has your community service provided to your bank?
Send your response to me at 14 Friar Tuck Circle, Summit, N.J. 07901 or fax it to (908) 273-7309.
Let me have the chance to make another executive decision on who gets our certificate of presidency, which some feel will be as valuable as Mark McGwire's 62d home run ball.