A Chat with Floyd Norris

At the CFE, we try to pair the teaching of textbook tools with a large dose of the wisdom and common sense it takes to apply those tools astutely in real situations. We are, therefore, particularly excited about the fact that Floyd Norris has joined us, and will be teaching undergraduate classes, attending Economics Department seminars and offering his accumulated insights to our students.

For the youngsters of our readership, Floyd Norris was the lead financial markets columnist for the New York Times, 1988-2014. Many of us on Wall Street judged his columns to be among the best essays on finance and the real economy that print media had to offer.

Bob: Floyd, let me formally welcome you to JHU.

Floyd: Thanks. It is a wonderful place to be.

Bob: So as you arrive on campus, and find yourself surrounded by young aspiring professionals, can you recall your sense of self as an undergraduate? And of how did that person wound his way from schooling to journalism to the world of finance?

Floyd: I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but first I wrote about politics and government — including a couple of years in Alabama talking to and writing about the governor, George Wallace.

Eventually, I got a job as a business journalist in New York, for the Associated Press, and loved it. I wanted to know more, and I was able to get what is now called the Knight-Bagehot fellowship at Columbia University, where I earned an MBA.

I went to Barron’s, the Dow Jones weekly publication, in 1983 and quickly became a columnist when somebody quit in anger over not getting a promotion. The Times was impressed by my work on the 1987 stock market crash, and had just had a business columnist die. They hired me to replace him.

I got to watch and write about an amazing series of financial events while I was at The Times, including the Dot-Com bubble, the Enron collapse, Sarbanes-Oxley and finally the housing boom and financial bust. Along the way, I occasionally did columns on Donald Trump. I found it amazing that those who invested with him always lost, but that he always seemed to find new sources of financing.

Bob: Can you sketch out a rough outline of the course you are currently teaching?

Floyd: It’s about the 2008 financial crisis, why it happened and why most economic models did not see it coming. To me, that crisis seems like it was just yesterday, but I have to remember that these students were in grammar school when it happened, and don’t remember the shock we felt when Lehman failed and the financial System seemed in danger of collapsing. It’s a lot of fun trying to explain what happened, and why. One student told me it was the closest to reality of any class he was taking. I took that as a compliment.

Bob: And so you should! I can tell you that other faculty genuinely enjoy the perspective you bring to our semi-weekly reality round table lunches. Does anything surprise you about the opinions, or variety of opinions that you have listened to at these lunches?

Floyd: I’m impressed by the international perspective some of the students bring, and by the way you, Jon Faust, and the other faculty manage to tie in what is happening in markets to economic theory. It’s one of the most enjoyable things about being here.

Teaching Hopkins undergraduates is also great. Some of them are just getting started in finance—Yesterday, I had to stop and explain how preferred stock works—but they are smart and extremely hard working. I’ve had journalist friends who taught at other places and were disappointed to find that some students wanted to do just enough work to get by. That’s nothing like my experience here.

Bob: Anything you miss about journalism?

Floyd: I miss the excitement of learning about something and then trying to explain it in print. I hope to do some of that here. I’ve been studying the recent employment figures, and plan to write about them soon for the CFE website.

Bob:We look forward to seeing what you come up with. Thanks for taking the time to do this. And much more importantly, thanks for joining the CFE team.

Editors note: We’ll have Floyd’s take on the unemployment data up after the employment report comes out tomorrow morning.