Women in Economics: Carmen Reinhart

July 17, 2019
Carmen Reinhart | St. Louis Fed

This 17-minute podcast was released July 17, 2019.

“I was born in a different country, and that colored my life experience,” says Carmen Reinhart, the Minos A. Zombanakis professor of the International Financial System at the Harvard Kennedy School. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, senior media relations specialist at the St. Louis Fed, about her childhood move to the U.S. from Cuba and her decision to study international economics. Reinhart discusses the male-dominated field of finance and explains how she approaches economics with a detective’s frame of mind.


Maria Hasenstab: Hello. I’m Maria Hasenstab, and you’re listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I’m talking to Carmen Reinhart. Carmen is the Minos A. Zombanakis professor of the International Financial System at the Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, she was deputy director at the International Monetary Fund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and chief economist at Bear Stearns. Carmen, thank you for being here today.

Carmen Reinhart: Thank you. My pleasure for being here.

Hasenstab: I’d like to as you a few questions about being a woman in the field of economics. You’re ranked as the leading female economist based on publications and citations according to Research Papers in Economics or RePEc.org. How does that feel?

Reinhart: It’s a very good feeling. It’s very flattering. It’s a very good acknowledgement. I, however, would state that my own preference is always to check my standing within both men and women, that is the lists that are compiled both for all economists globally or all economists globally in the last 10 years. But, yes, it’s definitely a very good reference to have the RePEc rankings also for women by fields. I’ve used that recently in a talk that I gave on women in finance.

Hasenstab: You wrote a bestselling book, This Time is Different, with co-author Kenneth Rogoff, a fellow Harvard economist. Tell me about that experience. And, as an economist, did the work on the book change the way you look at economics?

Reinhart: Well, Ken and I really started writing and doing research collaboratively years before the book. We really connected in 2001 when we were both at the IMF, and our joint work dates to that period. So, by the time the book is written, we had been working together for many years.

No, I don’t think the book changed the way I view economics. I think the book helped me understand a lot of puzzles that were in the back of my mind, that helped me answer questions about the realm of crises, the realm of debt, the realm of financial contagion, banking, a number of areas.

But it wasn’t transformative in terms of how I view economics or my work on financial crises. I had been working on financial crises years before that. My work with Graciela Kaminsky, The Twin Crises, and the Contagion work, were antecedents to the book.

Hasenstab: Now I’d like to talk to you about your professional struggles and strengths. What are some of the struggles you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?

Reinhart: Uh, struggles in the career. Well, I think, frankly, it would be amiss to say that the economics profession is not a profession, where there’s a lot of biases and a lot of stereotyping and such. I think that the way I would characterize it is it has not been easy.

It was not easy starting in Wall Street in 1982. Finance is an area, where women are still extremely scarce, few and far between. Especially if you go to the high risk shops, if you go to hedge funds and the like, there are very few women. It is been difficult at institutions like the IMF, and it’s been difficult in academia. There’s a whole slew of documentation that highlights how often is the case that women don’t get the full credit, for example, as co-authors, that male co-authors receive. The issue of glass ceilings. All one has to do is take a look at the fact that few women sit on boards, few women hold very senior positions, in finance, which is, is the area that I am referring to in particular. But that is no reason that that can’t change.

Hasenstab: And in the opposite direction, let’s talk about your strengths. What are you most proud of in your work as an economist?

Reinhart: I think my style is one in which, I approach a problem with a detective’s frame of mind. My big hero is, of course, a fictional character, but it is Sherlock Holmes. One of the things that I like about the way I approach it is that there is a puzzle and there is a way in which one can through broad use of data, cross-country, long history, recurring patterns, throw light on those puzzles.

Hasenstab: Talking about puzzles and Sherlock Holmes that’s a different way to explain economics than a lot of people think of when they first learn about the field. What advice would you give to women, young women, who might be looking to either get into the field of economics or advance their career in the field?

Reinhart: They have to do what any good economist would do. If they’re in academia, they have to publish well. They have to get out there and be visible in conferences. If they’re in policy, they have to understand the role of their institution. If they’re in finance in the private sector, they really stay at par and better than par. I think to really have a strong commitment to what you’re doing is critical. I would say that’s also applies if you were male. But I think that kind of commitment and self-confidence is very important in succeeding in the profession.

Hasenstab: That’s good advice. What have you done to advance the role of women in economics? Do you encourage young women to study economics or pursue a career in the field?

Reinhart: I probably haven’t done enough. But then again, I do think that I am very supportive of whoever shows interest. I don’t really single out women and try to give them special coaching. But I am very encouraging to those that want to pursue a career. I, of course, from time to time have participated in the mentorship programs at CSWEP, the Committee for the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. I’m quite willing to, to spend the time talking to those individuals that are really serious about going into economics as a profession.

Hasenstab: Let’s go into your background a bit. You’re from Cuba and moved to the U.S. at the age of 10. Do you remember what it was like to move from a communist or mostly planned economy to the U.S., where the economy is mostly free? And did that influence your decision to study economics?

Reinhart: You never forget that. It’s, you know, it’s a life changer. This isn’t vacation travel. We arrived here in the United States, my mother and father and myself with three suitcases. I didn’t speak English. I felt like a fish out of water in school at the beginning. It’s something you never forget.

Did that influence my decision to study economics? I don’t really know the answer to that. It certainly did influence my decision to start taking courses in Latin American studies and some of those Latin American studies were in economics. So, you know, whether my background really had an influence on economics per se, I don’t know. But certainly, in the international dimension, because my focus from very early on, my interest from very early on, it was clearly international economics, whether it was finance or macroeconomic issues, to a much lesser degree trade, but it was with an international focus. And I think that was shaped by my native origin.

Hasenstab: You just touched upon it, but you specialize in international economics and finance. Why that field?

Reinhart: The international, as I said, clearly reflects the fact that I was born in a different country, and that colored my life experience, given that it was a very different experience from what I encountered here in the U.S. The finance part, I would say initially, when I started getting more familiarized with specializations within economics, I gravitated more towards macro. I’m more of a macro person. So, I would say that I really started out with macro.

And then, over the course of the years, I’ve gotten more and more interested on the finance dimension, a lot having to do with the fact that my first job when I came out of graduate school—this is, mind you, after I have finished my field extensive before I had done my doctoral dissertations that I worked at Bear Sterns. And I started Bear Sterns at a time in which you had a lot going on in the international finance dimension.

Namely, I started in March of 1982, and Mexico had a sovereign default in August of ’82. And then, you had massive repercussions for U.S. banks, massive international turmoil with other countries going into currency crashes, debt crises, banking problems. All of that, I got to see, really, first-hand at a very early age. And that, I think, really pushed me more and more towards the more finance dimension, but I’m basically a macro person.

Hasenstab: Okay. So, you mentioned Bear Sterns. You were a chief economist there in the 1980s. Tell me what it was like to be a woman in such a position on Wall Street at that time.

Reinhart: A lot like being a fish out of water. I mentioned that even to this day the proportion of women in finance is small compared to other fields. You mentioned RePEc earlier. RePEc has a very interesting tally in which it reports the sheer women by fields. And you will note that the fields of finance are at the very, very bottom, with women being little above 10 percent, 12 percent, very low level of participation. So I felt that I really had to always go extra mile, extra mile to deliver, because I think the odds, especially at that time were not stacked in my favor to put it gently.

Hasenstab: Well, moving on, you’ve held several positions at the International Monetary Fund, including deputy director of the research department. What was that like?

Reinhart: I was at the IMF on two occasions. First, in a more junior position, then as a senior policy advisor and deputy director. The IMF is a fascinating institution. It is right up my alley in terms of the global dimension, the richness of the international experience, you have countries that are quite poor and depend on primary commodities. You have wealthy countries that still, like Greece, have debt crises. The membership is almost anyone and everyone, except for Cuba and North Korea. That institution also, apart from the richness of the membership, has a richness in human capital. It’s a wonderful place.

One of the things that I always have felt is very special about the IMF is that really you can walk down the hall and talk to people who are extremely knowledgeable, share similar interests in international in a way that even the top universities can’t compete with in terms of sheer size. So, there’s a large concentration of very, very good analytics in international macroeconomics.

Hasenstab: Your husband, Vincent Reinhart, is also an economist and you guys have done some research together.

Reinhart: Quite a bit.

Hasenstab: What’s that like? Do you guys just sit around and chat about economics at the dinner table?

Reinhart: Pretty much. Yeah. So we were classmates at Columbia. We’ve been married 38 years, and, have written a lot together, and continue to write together, given the overlap in interests that we have. And to me, he’s been a major support and major help. I feel I also have contributed to him as well, because sitting around and talking about things can be extremely useful, especially when you do it with someone, that you trust, with someone that you’re not really worried about secondary issues. I’d recommend it.

Hasenstab: Yeah, that’s great to have that support system. Now I’d like to talk to you about your education. You earned a bachelor’s in economics from Florida International University. Then you went on to earn your master’s and your Ph.D. at Columbia University. Do you want to talk about that experience?

Reinhart: I had a very positive experience in undergraduate at Florida International University. It was close to home. It helped me prepare for graduate school. I have very fond memories of both Florida International and my years at Columbia University. I had wonderful professors. I had my friend and mentor Guillermo Calvo, whom I am co-authoring papers with him to this day, Robert Mundell, who was my thesis advisor, was wonderful man to work with. He was a great support during my dissertation.

I would say without perhaps my own reflecting, my own bias, that Columbia University was a superb place to study, especially at the time. It was particularly strong in macroeconomics and in international finance. It had the likes, as I said, of Calvo, Taylor, Phelps, Mundell, Obstfeld, you can go down the list. It was very rewarding to be exposed to that talent.

Hasenstab: Carmen, is there anything else about being a woman in the field of economics that you’d like to talk about?

Reinhart: Perseverance. Perseverance is probably a virtue for anyone. Let’s start there. So, this is not unique to women. I think as a motto for career success, it’s probably high up there for anyone. But I think, persevering in a field in which things are still not ideal in terms of representation, in terms of perceptions. Persevering, I think, calls for a consistency that you need to make it through a long career in economics.

Hasenstab: Yeah, that would be great advice to our listeners. Carmen, I want to thank you so much for your time today. It’s been so great to hear your story in your words. To hear more Women in Economics podcasts, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. Thank you, Carmen.

Reinhart: You’re welcome.

This podcast features conversations with women and underrepresented minorities who are making their marks in the field of economics. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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