Money Makes the World Go Round

And as president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fisher helps make the money go round. Meet the Fed’s most unlikely central banker.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

The first thing to know about the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas is that you should get there a little early. Security is tight—the entrance to the parking lot alone employs a series of three gates, plus guards. To enter the building you have to get a visitor’s badge, which allows you and your bag to go through the metal detectors into the lobby, where you can exchange your first badge for another one. This badge allows you to proceed beyond the lobby, although you’re not exactly free to roam. The reason for all the security is that in the basement of the Dallas Fed there’s a vault the size of a five-story building, and sitting in that vault, under heavy protection, is the most staggering concentration of physical wealth in Texas: trolleys full of shrink-wrapped bundles of brand-new bills, piles and piles of old bills, stacks as far as the eye can see. The exact amount fluctuates, but on any given day, there are billions of dollars down there. And all of it’s in cash.

Take the elevator in the other direction and you’ll find floor after floor of the same types of workers you’d find at a commercial bank: managers and analysts and researchers and lawyers. But these men and women (more of the latter than you might expect) are part of the Federal Reserve System, so they have a public role: they produce research about the region, serve as our friendly local central bankers, and, as a group and along with the Fed’s board of governors in Washington, help make decisions about how much money the richest nation in the history of the world should have on hand.

The twelve regional banks of the Federal Reserve System, which was created by Congress in 1913, are actual banks, but since their customers are other banks, as opposed to people or businesses, they tend to be supersized. The Dallas Fed isn’t the biggest of these regional banks—that would be the New York Fed, naturally—but it is unusual, because of geography. It’s the only Fed bank with a district that’s basically just a single state, and since that state is Texas, the Dallas Fed has a long tradition of being a pain in the ass. Historically, the president of the Dallas Fed tends to be one of the more maverick figures in the country’s financial system, given to plain talk and fiscally hawkish views.

And that brings us to the top of the building, where we find the Dallas Fed’s current president and CEO, Richard W. Fisher. He has been running the operation since 2005, and during that time he has emerged as perhaps the most visible in this long line of Dallas Fed dissidents. To begin with, Fisher has more personal power and privilege than most Fed presidents. His reported assets were worth more than $21 million in 2010, according to annual financial disclosures the Federal Reserve released last year. And he is extremely well connected. From the window in his office, you can look down at Dallas’s new Klyde Warren Park, which includes the Nancy Collins Fisher Pavilion, named after his wife, the daughter of longtime Dallas congressman Jim Collins. Fisher’s pal Ray L. Hunt, the former chairman of the Dallas Fed’s board, recruited him for the job, and his golf buddies and friends include Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, and George W. Bush. 

All of that gives Fisher a particular profile, but much of his clout derives from the strength of the economy in his state. Of the many Texans who have taken issue with the economic policies coming out of Washington lately—a certain governor and freshman senator spring to mind—Fisher is probably the most credible. His office actually produces much of the fiscal data that politicians use to brag on Texas, so he has a more complete picture of our economy—and how it stacks up against the national economic performance—than most partisans on either side. Fisher is not elected, he has no direct power over Congress, and he’s not a politician, so he’s insulated from partisanship. In other words, he has no reason to play politics with the numbers. 

This fall marks five years since the Wall Street meltdown that plunged the country into the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. The recession technically started in December 2007, but it wasn’t until September 2008, when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, that everyone snapped to attention. Lehman was, at the time, one of the biggest banks in the country, and its operations were vast, varied, and global. For a bank that size to fail meant that things had gone very awry, not just at Lehman but throughout the American economy.

The collapse came at a critical moment in politics—the end of George W. Bush’s presidency and the final days of the Obama-McCain race—but Republicans and Democrats (mostly) put aside their differences long enough to bail out the banks, as well as the faltering auto industry. Fisher was among the fiscal conservatives who supported those programs as part of the emergency effort to stabilize the economy. Since then, however, he has been a vocal opponent of the “too big to fail” mentality, which strikes him as dangerous, even un-American. And while the prevailing wisdom among Democrats has been that the government should do more to help kick-start the economy, Fisher has maintained that it’s done more than enough.

In arguing this point around the Fed table, Fisher is armed with a key fact: the state of Texas has done hardly anything, and it has a dynamic and growing economy. When I went to see him, on a scorching morning in August, he wanted to show me the latest analysis from Pia Orrenius, one of the economists downstairs. (Full disclosure: Since 2012 I’ve been a  member of the Emerging Leaders Council at the Dallas Fed, a group of young professionals who meet periodically to discuss industry conditions.) Orrenius had put together charts showing job

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