If John Worth worked at the United Nations, he might be helping delegates understand a language that is quite different from their native tongues.

Instead, he spends his days translating something equally impenetrable to most people, economic data.

Worth, who joined the NCUA as chief economist in September 2010, sees his role as helping examiners and rule writers understand how economic trends impact the operation of credit unions and the behavior of consumers.

“Part of what I do is to provide tools to examiners so they understand what is happening in the economy and its impact on the performance of credit unions. Because credit unions are often concentrated in a specific area and tied to an industry, this makes them susceptible to certain trends in a way that other financial institutions aren’t,” he said in an interview with Credit Union Times.

The federal government isn’t lacking for people who analyze the economy. It employs about 4,100 economists, according to the Labor Department. The Treasury Department has 473 and the FDIC has 61.

Worth said his three-member office (which will grow to its fully staffed level of five next year) provides data analyses that aren’t produced elsewhere. 

“When there are credit unions in an area with rising unemployment and falling home prices, we point out risks to their balance sheet. This helps examiners work to see to it that credit union managers understand certain safeguards they need to take,” he said.

His office provides a weekly economic report to all agency personnel. The analysis is based both on data compiled by the agency and information from other government and private sources. The agency has allocated $1.1 million for the office out of agency’s $236.8 million for next year.

The position had been vacant since the 1990s, when NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz decided to fill it last year in light of the economic crisis.

Former NCUA Chairman Dennis Dollar said when he ran the agency, “we got our economic data primarily from the Fed and therefore having our own economist on board at NCUA was not a budget priority.” The NCUA board included it in the agency’s budget for his last year as chairman, 2004, but the post wasn’t filled until last year.

Worth said another key part of his job is to provide economic analyses to agency employees during the rulemaking process. He declined to give a specific example in which his office influenced the content of a final rule, saying that “the decision-making process is proprietary.” However, when pressed he did say that he often has the chance to point out potential economic implications of a policy that hadn’t occurred to others.

CUNA Chief Economist Bill Hampel said,  “While I don’t know for certain, I have a strong suspicion that [Worth] had an influence on the agency’s legacy asset plans for the corporates, and his input made it stronger.” 

NAFCU Chief Economist Tun Wai said having a chief economist “can only help the agency have more data to work with to do a better job of regulating credit unions.”

Before joining the NCUA, Worth was manager for policy research at the Federal Housing Finance Agency and prior to that was an economist at the Treasury Department for almost 10 years. He headed the department’s Office of Macroeconomic Analysis and was acting deputy assistant secretary for microeconomics.

Worth is 42 and grew up in New Jersey. He earned his doctorate from the University of Southern California and wrote his dissertation on the relationship between work and crime among juveniles.

“It was a fascinating subject, and I enjoyed doing it. But I joined the Treasury Department and never looked at it again,” he quipped.

Worth said the biggest challenge he faces is helping the agency navigate the uncertain economic conditions that are likely to prevail for some time.

He expects the unemployment situation will improve slightly next year, but there will be uncertainty about interest rates for the near future. In addition, consumer uncertainty will continue to result in diminished demand for big-ticket items, which will reduce the demand for loans at credit unions.