A 28-Year-Old With No Degree Becomes a Must-Read on the Economy

Nathan Tankus, 28, hasn’t finished his bachelor’s degree at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has, however, mastered enough knowledge of economics and finance to become a widely followed commentator on the Federal Reserve. A newsletter he launched this year has followers at the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Department of the Treasury. He’s also followed on Twitter by journalists, economic think-tankers, and Wall Street economists.

Tankus built an online following slowly since around 2015, but it’s only in the past year that he’s broadened his audience with deep dives into monetary mechanics. In September he diagnosed the dislocations in the secured lending market that forced the Fed to resume buying Treasury bonds on a massive scale.  This year he wrote a series of detailed posts called Notes on the Crises, which explained the Fed’s emergency actions to combat the Covid-19 recession. He made extensive use of T-accounts, a tool of accountants that places assets on the left and liabilities on the right.

“He has really good knowledge of the plumbing of the monetary system,” says David Beckworth, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University.

Tankus’s diploma-free rise is interesting in part for what it says about the economic and finance debates taking place on the internet. Establishment credentials matter there less than ever. Tankus has taken full advantage of the lack of gatekeepers on the web, where a sharp and quickly delivered argument on the topic du jour—whatever that may be—can have more impact than a peer-reviewed article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, say, or the American Economic Review.

Nobody is more surprised by his newfound fame than Tankus himself, who can finally afford to move out of the family apartment in Manhattan where he grew up. “It’s been a completely amazing, strange experience,” Tankus says. The newsletter, with 450 subscribers, is netting him $45,000 a year, and he thinks he can earn an additional $20,000 from other speaking and writing engagements. “This has turned into a comfortably full-paying career,” he says. “And there’s a lot of room to grow.”

Tankus was attending the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in Manhattan in 2008 and 2009 when his teachers made the financial crisis into a teachable moment. During his summer vacation in 2009 he tackled A Monetary History of the United States, a magisterial work by the conservative economists Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz. Soon after, he picked up The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by the liberal John Maynard Keynes. “I kept reading it again and again until I had a handle on it,” he says. He was still in high school when he was exposed to the financial instability hypothesis of Hyman Minsky and to Modern Monetary Theory, which was just getting going as a movement.

Earning a college degree didn’t come as easily. He spent his freshman year at Wells College in upstate New York, then transferred to the University of Ottawa to study with a pair of post-Keynesian economists, Marc Lavoie and Marco Seccareccia. He says he had “financial aid issues that prevented me from being successful there,” so he returned to New York and studied at John Jay, part of the City University of New York, with the leftist economist J.W. Mason.

But he hasn’t yet gotten his diploma—which he needs before he can do what he wants to do next, namely study for a Ph.D. in law at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Why law? “I got to a certain point where I realized these debates about the origins of money and so on couldn’t be settled within economics. There are legal and historical questions.”

Tankus understands his niche in the ecosystem of economics. Akin to journalism, it’s about writing the first draft of history. “I’m writing a lot when other people aren’t necessarily putting things out there,” he says. “You can be a great academic, but if you’re not writing all the time you’re not necessarily in people’s minds as someone they would want to ask a question to. I write so much that there’s always something for people to pick up.”

After the Fed began announcing a series of extraordinary measures to rescue the U.S. economy, Tankus wrote 21 long pieces in 31 days. “Sometimes that meant staying up until 5 or 6 a.m.,” he says. “It was unbelievable breakneck speed.”

His posts earned the attention not only of people who share his liberal views, but of ones who just wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of what the Fed was doing. His Twitter followers include reporters from Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times; Peter Orszag, a former Obama administration official who’s the chief executive officer of financial advisory at the investment bank Lazard; and Alan Cole, a senior economist to Republicans on Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.

“We speak a common language, maybe come to different conclusions,” says Beckworth, the George Mason economist, who describes his own politics as right of center. “He will always give you a smart, informed answer.”

At a time when a lot of social media has become an echo chamber where people go to hear from people they already agree with, it’s encouraging that there are still places where disagreements can be thrashed out—and credentialism is pushed aside. Says Tankus: “We’ve kind of stretched the space for gatekeepers in economics.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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