Obama's Early Brush With Financial Markets

This is the second of two reports.

By now, it's well known that Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama started his political career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.

It's less well-known what Obama did before that: He was a financial researcher and writer in New York City, for a firm that catered to multinational corporations.

He wasn't there long — only about a year. But the job at Business International Corporation provided a crash course in market economics.

"We definitely learned our ABCs of the financial markets," said Beth Noymer Levine. She was hired shortly before Obama and reported to the same boss. "I like to say Michelle Obama will be first lady, but I will always be first colleague."

Levine and Obama worked on a variety of newsletters for companies doing business overseas. The newsletters were aimed at senior executives and had arcane titles like "Financing Foreign Operations" or "Investing, Licensing, and Trading Conditions Abroad." Even in a company filled with smart people, Obama made an impression.

"I always say, he was very smooth and smart and together, and I was 23," Levine joked. "I felt like a human train wreck next to him."

Obama was even younger. But colleagues say he was mature beyond his years. True to its name, Business International had a global flavor. It was located near the United Nations, and many of the staffers, like Obama, had degrees in international relations rather than MBAs. It was the kind of place where a young person could take on a lot of responsibility, and you quickly learned to speak the language of the financial professionals for whom you were writing.

"You were thrown in the deep end, and you learned a lot, and you had to pretend to be more of an expert than you were," said Dan Armstrong, who supervised one of the newsletters.

Obama's Own Take On His First Job

In his memoir, Obama recalls writing an article about interest-rate swaps — financial contracts in which parties agree to swap fixed and floating interest rates. His time at Business International rates only a few pages in the memoir, mostly as an example of the road not taken, when Obama opted for community organizing instead of what he called "stocks and bonds and the pull of respectability."

Armstrong said Obama's book exaggerates just how respectable Business International was, with its description of suits and ties and meetings with German bond traders. There was no dress code, Armstrong said. And there was nothing corporate about it.

"It was a company full of low-paid, hard-working, fun-loving young people," Armstrong said. "It wasn't part of a high-powered consulting or finance world. It was a little sweatshop."

Armstrong was shocked when Obama quit after a year, without even having another job lined up. Most news accounts of Obama's career omit the New York chapter altogether. Levine says she understands that.

"I can see why CNN would skip over it," Levine said. "I mean, a lot of people had stops along the way in their careers that don't exactly fit the rest of the story. And maybe it was enough of an exposure for him to the corporate world to be like, 'OK, that's not exactly what I want.' "

What Working In the Financial Industry Taught Obama

Still, researching and writing about hedges and forwards and currency fluctuations did give Obama at least a passing familiarity with the financial markets — and that knowledge is still evident today. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was surprised to learn that Obama had worked for Business International, which is now part of The Economist Group. But he wasn't surprised that Obama is a quick study.

"My impression, at least, is that he's got a good feel for financial markets and how they might react to what government does," Rubin said.

Financial markets have grown much more complex since Obama was writing about them in the 1980s. And maybe he would have developed that same feel for the markets even without the job at Business International. But first colleague Levine thinks it was a good start.

"We were sort of thrown in. But when I reflect on it, we were all smart enough, and we had to learn by the seat of our pants," she said.

On Tuesday, NPR looked at Arizona Sen. John McCain's only experience running something bigger than a Senate office or a presidential campaign: a military command in Vietnam.

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