ARLINGTON, Va.-Call it fate or destiny, but NAFCU Chief Economist Tun Wai was meant to live to serve credit unions. Wai checked out of the Marriott at the World Trade Center September 10. His flight out of LaGuardia Airport was cancelled due to weather but instead of returning to his original hotel, he decided to stay at a different hotel. The next morning, Wai took a cab ride right passed where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were, and where his first hotel, nestled right between them, had once stood. Recognizing the futility of trying to catch a flight back home, Wai and a few other attendees of a National Association of Business Economists conference rented a car and drove back to the Washington-area. The attacks of September 11 have thrown economists’ previous forecasts out the window, but the federal regulators have done a good job of handling the situation, according to Wai. “The Fed has been doing quite a lot in terms of preventing a recession,” he said, noting the Fed stayed in operation throughout the incidents. At the time, he predicted the Fed would also cut rates by more than the expected 25 basis points, which it did before the reopening of the stock markets. Wai said this situation makes the perfect case for maintaining a strong Central Liquidity Facility (CLF) for the “kinds of shocks that we normally do not expect.It’s an insurance policy that credit unions would like to have.” But even before the terrorist attacks on New York City and Arlington, Va., Wai always felt his job was exciting. “I thought my job was pretty interesting before this. You never get a dull moment,” he said. “It’s really interesting in terms of how many different issues come up and how different the answers can be.” Most credit unions are too small to staff their own economists, so they depend on what their trade associations put out to keep them informed. In other words, what Wai tells credit unions could happen in the economy will affect a credit union’s decision on where they place their money. “When you get into the planning session of an institution.I think most managers recognize what economists do is give a forecast with the best information a that point in time,” he explained. Credit union officials are aware economics is not an exact science but that it can tell them what they should be looking out for. “One of the things you’ve go to understand about being a research person in a trade association, is you have to make sure you have accurate and precise information.for leaders to make policy decisions.” However, Wai said, economic forecasts are not the only reason for economists to exist. NAFCU produces its monthly Flash report, which monitors its members’ thoughts and experiences on various subjects, as well as several other studies of what members are doing and thinking. Additionally, Wai meets with the Fed occasionally to make sure the financial `super-regulator’ gets an overview of credit unions and their issues. Wai said that he enjoys working for NAFCU, which he has done for 14 years, because it is small enough to have one-on-one contact with individual credit union CEOs. “The line between the member to the staff is a phone call away. That kind of relationship.is an advantage not only for the member, but also for the staffer,” he explained. He also said that he does not feel intellectually constrained by pressures from above. “The word independence comes to mind. I’m not constrained to doing things because that’s the way it was done before,” he said. Then, there is the added benefit of working for credit unions. “Their philosophy is completely different from what you would find in a bank or other financial institution.You’re always attaching yourself to a higher ideal,” Wai said. He called it a “white hat” industry, as credit unions are often referred to. Before he even started college, Wai knew he did not want to be a pure academic. “I did not want to become a theoretical economist. I wanted to be more practical,” he said. He felt a more diversified degree would help him avoid being purely theoretically, so he first earned a B.A. in management from Georgetown University. He then went on to an M.B.A. in finance at New York University, and back to Georgetown for his Ph.D. in economics. With his background, Wai feels he is better “able to look at the theoretical, understand it, and extract the significant parts so that it will be understood by the practitioner.” NAFCU Communications Director John Zimmerman attested to that fact, saying that Wai had often sat down with him to explain an elementary economic matter when he had to put out a press release. Wai lives in Germantown, Md. with his wife, Jill, who works for the Inter-American Development Bank. You will not catch Wai wearing a wedding ring though, because he said he simply does not wear jewelry other than his watch. Wai admitted that he has learned to enjoy painting around the house, adding that it gives him a sense of accomplishment to work with his hands and pleases his wife. He only recently broke down and bought a computer for his home, which he had been resisting because he said he sits in front of one all day in his office. But when he doesn’t have a paintbrush in his hands, it’s “obviously” a golf club, he said. -firstname.lastname@example.org
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