By Jonnelle Marte
Susan Collins, who made history in July when she became the first Black woman to lead a regional Federal Reserve bank, was a kid spending summers with family in Jamaica when she got some introductory lessons in topics that would reappear through her professional career: inequality, foreign-exchange crises and the real-life effects of monetary policy.
Watching Jamaicans struggle after the country introduced a new currency in 1969, and recognizing that even those with means still had to cope with power outages and water shutoffs, she started to understand that intelligence and resources aren’t always enough to help people overcome circumstances beyond their control. “Seeing the impact that that had on families, on communities, the impact that had on the economy,” said the Boston Fed president about the currency overhaul during an interview with Bloomberg News in November. “That was something that I had a lot of questions about growing up because of that experience.”
Collins said that she’s drawn to the Fed’s “vibrant” mission of establishing a stable economy that benefits all workers—a message she regularly stresses in public remarks and meetings with stakeholders in her district.
“I like to say our mission is not an economy that works for some people,” she told a group of business leaders during a daylong visit to Providence in November. “It really is an economy that works for all.”
Collins, 63, joined the ranks of Fed policymakers at a time when the US central bank is engaged in its most aggressive monetary-tightening push in decades. Aimed at taming the worst inflation in a generation, the campaign has raised concerns about whether a recession may be looming and about reversals in a job market that’s long left minorities and disadvantaged groups behind.
Just weeks into her new job, she cast her first vote at the Fed, backing a 75 basis-point increase in the target range for the benchmark interest rate. Collins has supported three more rate hikes since then, all unanimous votes.
Although she won’t sit on the committee that sets rates in 2023, she will take part in policy discussions, where differences in perspective may become clearer as the Fed approaches the expected end to its tightening drive.
Collins said it’s on her mind that marginalized workers, including Black and Hispanic people—often the last to benefit from an economic expansion—could face the brunt of the economic pain. “That’s something that I absolutely take seriously,” she told reporters during a recent conference held at the Boston Fed. Collins shares Chair Jerome Powell’s view that it’s still possible the Fed will achieve its goal of bringing down inflation while minimizing job losses.
It was during her first economics classes as an undergraduate at Harvard University that Collins came to view the field as one that combined her knack for math with her interest in social issues. She worked as a research assistant to Richard Freeman, an economics professor who was studying labor issues, including unions and racial inequality in the workforce and in education. Collins showed early on the tendencies of an academic who lets the numbers speak for themselves, Freeman says. “She was always evidence-driven.”
In part because of her early exposure to different cultures and countries—she was born in Scotland, raised in Manhattan and frequently visited Jamaica, her parents’ home country—Collins gravitated toward international economics while in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The expertise she developed helped her grasp the complex forces behind the situations she observed during her childhood trips to the Caribbean island. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on currency crises and exchange-rate management, a project that helped deepen her understanding of monetary policy.
Collins credits her late father, who had a doctorate in social anthropology and worked for the United Nations, with sparking some of her initial curiosity in economics. She remembers times he came home complaining about how hard it was to win arguments against the economists.
“I said, ‘I want to win the arguments,’” Collins recalled during a Cleveland Fed event focused on women in economics. Her mother, a university librarian, instilled in her a love of books, and both parents were firm believers in education, pushing her and her brother to be ambitious.
After graduation, Collins served on the faculties of Harvard and Georgetown universities and worked as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Her research has explored a range of domestic and international topics, including the drivers of economic growth in Asia, how the US economy emerged from the Great Recession and the lack of diversity in the economics profession. She also worked as a senior staff economist on the White House’s Council for Economic Advisers under President George H.W. Bush.
Collins was most recently provost of the University of Michigan and prior to that spent a decade as dean of its Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, where she developed a reputation as a leader who seeks input from stakeholders before making major decisions. A self-described data nerd, she would often seek answers in numbers and valued pairing data with real-life examples, colleagues say.
“Susan always made sure that she talked to a large number of people, got multiple perspectives,” says Paula Lantz, who was an associate dean at the Ford School. “She’s not a unilateral decision-maker.”
Paul Courant, a former provost of the University of Michigan, says Collins also had no problem sharing her own perspective. “She tells you what she thinks.”
Collins was well known in the Fed community long before arriving in Boston. She’s been a regular attendee over the past two decades at the Kansas City Fed’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a premier gathering of central bankers. Between her roles at the conference and the university, she’s moderated discussions with Powell, as well as former Fed Chairs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke. And she was on the board of the Chicago Fed for nine years.
She’s now one of several new policymakers changing the face of the world’s most powerful central bank. Lisa Cook last year became the first Black woman on the Fed board and, along with Philip Jefferson, is one of two Black governors.
With Fed leadership now the most diverse it’s ever been—though the absence of a high-level official who is Latino remains a point of tension—Collins says she hopes her appointment lays the groundwork for more inclusive policy. “We do need the range of perspectives around the table, and we need to understand what’s working and what’s not in the economy,” she said during the interview in November. “And the only way to do that is by hearing voices that can really share those perspectives.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.