The Most Prepared Woman in Washington
Fortune India|April 2021
TRAILBLAZING TREASURY SECRETARY JANETYE YELLEN IS RENOWNED AMONG PEERS FOR HER ME TICULOUS RESE ARCH AND RELENTLESS FOCUS. AS THE B IDEN ADMINISTR ATION ’S ECONOMIC POINT PERSON, THE FORMER FEDER AL RESERVE CHAIR IS NOW CHARGED WITH STABIL IS ING AND STIMUL ATING AN ECONOMY R AVAGED BY THE PANDEMIC. AND THAT’S JUST THE BEGINNING OF HER AMBITIOUS AGENDA .
NICOLE GOOD KIND

Janet Yellen is an icon waiting to happen. With her signature silver bob, single-strand pearl necklace, and seemingly infinite supply of jewel-toned jackets (collar popped, always), it’s easy to imagine the new Treasury secretary’s image emblazoned on T-shirts and her silhouette outlined on inspirational Instagram posts. She’s a natural fit as an emblem of the #Girlboss movement that has so finely boiled down modern feminism into a shallow yet marketable vestige of unadulterated capitalism—a conceit used to describe the relentless rise-and-grind schedules of business leaders like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, and to help sell “Notorious RBG” merch to young women. Yellen’s Q score with Gen Y should soon be on the rise.

On Wall Street, meanwhile, Yellen is seen as a known quantity. The former Fed chair is someone who doesn’t make surprise decisions—who says what she’s going to do and then does just that. Big Finance is optimistic that she’ll be a business-oriented leader at Treasury and a friend to markets. That confidence is only bolstered by the fact that Yellen collected more than $7 million in speaking fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs and hedge fund Citadel since leaving the Fed two years ago—a revelation that stirred a bit of controversy among Democrats.

Progressives like to think of Yellen as an advocate for underrepresented Americans. They see her as someone who will push for a higher minimum wage, more regulation of shadow banking, and new legislation in the mode of DoddFrank to protect consumers. To liberals, Yellen is someone who will at last put the guardrails on Wall Street.

But no matter what persona is projected onto Yellen— feminist hero, Wall Street saviour, progressive darling—the magnitude of her new day job dwarfs all of them in consequence. As Treasury secretary, she is running point for the Biden administration’s efforts to stabilise a teetering U.S. economy that has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her decisions over the next few months will have a profound impact on how quickly the economy can rebound.

The challenges facing Yellen and the rest of President Joe Biden’s economic team are daunting. Though the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen from its COVID peak of 14.7% last April, it plateaued at 6.7% in the final months of 2020, nearly twice as high as a year earlier. The Federal Reserve has already taken rates down to near zero. Thousands of small businesses have closed for good during the pandemic, which continues to ravage the country. And there is rising concern in Washington about continued borrowing to stimulate the economy. The U.S. national debt grew by a stunning $7.8 trillion over the past four years under the Trump administration, driven in part by Trump’s signature 2017 tax cuts and the $3 trillion in stimulus funding Trump signed into law last year. Some Republicans are now using the spectre of further debt to push back against President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, dubbed the “American Rescue Plan”.

Yellen is also taking the reins at a Treasury Department that has been greatly reduced in size and capacity under her predecessor, Steven Mnuchin. Between 2016 and 2019, the Treasury’s main offices, including domestic finance, economic policy, and international affairs, saw staffing drop by about 25% as budgets fell. Those departments control responses to the economic recovery, financial policy, and grant programmes. Mnuchin operated without a deputy for two years and left the division of domestic finance without an official leader. Yellen will have to bring in a number of people, and quickly, to fill empty positions.

But it’s hard to imagine a leader with more sparkling credentials—or a better demeanour—for the work at hand than the 74-year-old Yellen. Each career peak on her résumé has been seemingly followed by another, higher summit—a mountain range of firsts. Yellen was the only woman in her class to earn an economics Ph.D. at Yale University, and she was then (for quite some time) the sole female economics professor at Harvard University. She served under President Bill Clinton as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (a rare non-first moment; she was the second woman to serve in that role). In 2014, she was confirmed as the first female chair of the Federal Reserve, under Barack Obama. Now, under President Biden, she’s achieved yet another title: the first woman secretary of the Treasury.

Her new job also makes Yellen the first person—of any gender—to complete the holy trinity of the U.S. finance circuit: Council of Economic Advisers chair, Fed chair, and Treasury secretary.

Yellen has hit the ground running, working with Biden to get his COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress quickly. In a conversation with Fortune, she underscores the new administration’s top priorities: a successful distribution of at least 100 million doses of vaccine within 100 days; reopening schools; making sure Americans are able to remain in their homes without fear of eviction; and providing a $1,400 stimulus cheque to a majority of Americans and emergency funding for state and local governments. “It’s a priority to help get us through the pandemic, to get our economy functioning again,” she says of the stimulus legislation.

The new Treasury secretary also echoes President Biden’s calls for both parties to dial back politics in the interest of problem-solving. “I hope very much that we can work in a bipartisan way, Democrats and Republicans, to get beyond this sort of stalemate that has been around for a number of years now,” says Yellen. “I think that many people agree on both sides of the aisle. We need to invest in our people and our infrastructure. We need to solve our competitiveness.”

The business world may be comfortable with Yellen, but she’s no businessperson herself. Unlike Hank Paulson or John Snow , Wall Street execs turned Treasury heads, Yellen is a career economist. And the direction of the stock market is not her North Star. Yellen’s perspective, says Ben Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chair and now distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution, isn’t to please any particular interest group. Rather, it’s “how do we get the economy going, and how do we make sure the benefits are spread as widely as possible?”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM FORTUNE INDIAView All

COMMUNITY, CONTENT, AND COMMERCE

FACEBOOK EARNED ITS CHOPS BY CONNECTING PEOPLE, SOMETHING THAT ONCE AGAIN CAME TO THE FORE DURING THE PANDEMIC. ITS NEXT BIG BETS ARE ON CONTENT CREATORS AND SMALL BUSINESSES. AIDING IT IN THIS MISSION ARE INSTAGRAM AND WHATSAPP.

10+ mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

ARADHANA GALGOTIA

The Galgotias Charming Scion

5 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

Exiting the Terminal

The Airports Authority of India’s planned exit from four metro airports and its privatisation drive has raised concerns about ‘private monopoly’. But the government is clear: monetise operating public infrastructure assets to finance new ones.

5 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

The Art of Building a Sports Car Portfolio

Angel Broking founder Dinesh Thakkar explains why track record matters when buying exotics.

6 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

The Conversation - AKSHAY NAHETA

U.A.E.-based Akshay Naheta, 39, is the youngest executive 1 to report directly to SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son (“Masa”). As CEO of SB Management and senior vice president, investments, SoftBank, he leads the conglomerate’s investments into publicly traded stocks and other securities. Naheta, an equestrian buff, 2 decodes his stint at the investment giant.

10 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

THE DOCTOR COMES CALLING

WITH MANIPAL HOSPITALS WRAPPING UP A DEAL TO BUY COLUMBIA ASIA HOSPITALS, RANJAN PAI HAS CHALKED OFF A MAJOR ITEM ON HIS BUCKET LIST: BUILDING A PAN-INDIA HOSPITAL CHAIN. BUT THE SAVVY ENTREPRENEUR IS FAR FROM DONE AND IS GUNNING FOR THE NO.1 POSITION.

8 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

THE SOUND OF STREAMING

Two years after its entry into the Indian market, streaming giant Spotify is already among the top three players in the growing audio OTT industry. Key to its success has been its localisation and diversified offer strategy.

7 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

VACCINE WARRIORS

BHARAT BIOTECH HAS BEEN AT THE FOREFRONT OF MAKING VACCINES FOR SWINE FLU, POLIO, AND OTHER VIRAL DISEASES FOR A QUARTER OF A CENTURY. YET IT TOOK A GLOBAL PANDEMIC FOR THE SPOTLIGHT TO SHINE ON THE COMPANY CO-FOUNDED BY KRISHNA M. ELLA AND HIS WIFE SUCHITRA M. ELLA.

10 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

Cool Outfits For A Hot Summer

While fashion took a back seat in 2020, with the world slowly opening up, fashion is back. We look at five trends for the summer.

3 mins read
Fortune India
May 2021

Big Hospitals Vs. Big Pharma

As talk of healthcare reform grows, the two titans are gearing up for an epic clash over wh ’s most to blame for soaring costs. Will it lead to truly radical change?

10+ mins read
Fortune India
May 2021
RELATED STORIES

‘BRITCOIN' DIGITAL CURRENCY BEING CONSIDERED BY UK

British authorities are exploring the possibility of creating a new digital currency that Treasury chief Rishi Sunak touted as “Britcoin.”

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #495 *Special Edition

Go Big or Go Home

Joe Biden tackled Covid and an economic crisis in his first 100 days. It won’t get easier from herea

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
April 26 - May 03, 2021 (Double Issue)

Stopping the Race to the Bottom on Taxes

The U.S. is energizing a global effort to put a floor under corporate tax rates

8 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
April 19, 2021

The New Market Next Exit

Investors are struggling to work out what a recovery from the pandemic means

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
March 15, 2021

Federal Debt: A Heavy Load

The debt continues to grow, but record-low interest rates could ease the long-term damage.

3 mins read
Kiplinger's Personal Finance
February 2021

HOW BAD IS THE HACK THAT TARGETED US AGENCIES?

Governments and major corporations worldwide are scrambling to see if they, too, were victims of a global cyberespionage campaign that penetrated multiple U.S. government agencies and involved a common software product used by thousands of organizations.

4 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #477

Golden Present

Memories of Gold Dollars for the Holidays

9 mins read
COINage Magazine
December 2020 - January 2021

US LAYOFFS REMAIN ELEVATED AS 898,000 SEEK JOBLESS AID

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose last week to 898,000, a historically high number and evidence that layoffs remain a hindrance to the economy’s recovery from the pandemic recession that erupted seven months ago.

4 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #468

American Winner

TREASURY SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN EMBODIES THE PLUTOCRATIC PRINCIPLE THAT A CRISIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE

9 mins read
New York magazine
April 27 - May 10, 2020

MAJOR AIRLINES INE UP TO SPLIT $25 BILLION IN PAYROLL AID

The Treasury Department said this week that the nation’s major airlines have tentatively agreed to terms for $25 billion in federal aid to pay workers and keep them employed through September.

3 mins read
Techlife News
April 18, 2020