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The nation's central bank comes under new management today. Ben Bernanke hands over the reins of the Federal Reserve to Janet Yellen. It's a position that many call the second most powerful in the country. Yellen will be the first woman ever to chair the Fed. NPR's John Ydstie reports on how she's likely to lead.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: The world of central banking is largely a man's world. But Janet Yellen has been undeterred by such barriers since she was in high school in Brooklyn. Charlie Saydah, a former classmate, says she was probably the smartest kid in the class.

CHARLIE SAYDAH: Clearly smart and she was smart among a lot of smart kids.

YDSTIE: But she couldn't attend Stuyvesant, the competitive public school for Brooklyn's best and brightest.

SAYDAH: She didn't go because, you know, she was a girl.

YDSTIE: And back then, in the early 1960s, Stuyvesant only admitted boys. Saydah, a retired journalist, said that meant girls dominated the regular public schools, like Fort Hamilton High in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn.

SAYDAH: I graduated 26th out of the class. Everybody ahead of me was a girl.

YDSTIE: Janet Yellen graduated first.

SAYDAH: I would have expected her to not only succeed but excel in anything she did.

YDSTIE: Yellen studied economics at Brown University and got her doctorate at Yale. She was deeply influenced by Professor James Tobin, who had lived through the Depression and impressed upon her the toll inflicted by unemployment and the government's responsibility to fight it. Yellen voiced that concern during a speech before the AFL-CIO about a year ago.

JANET YELLEN: These are not just statistics to me. We know that long-term unemployment is devastating to workers and their families.

YDSTIE: Yellen certainly knows her way around the Fed. After teaching at Harvard, she went to the Fed as a staff economist back in 1977. She met her husband, Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof, in the Fed cafeteria. After another stint in academia at UC Berkeley, Bill Clinton named Yellen a Federal Reserve Board governor.

Brookings economist Alice Rivlin was a vice chair of the Fed during that period.

ALICE RIVLIN: She was an extraordinarily effective board member and she's been chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. She's been the president of the San Francisco Fed. And for the last several years, she's been vice chair at the Fed.

YDSTIE: Another former Fed vice chair, Alan Blinder, now an economist at Princeton, says even Ben Bernanke didn't have a better resume than Yellen. And, Blinder says, she understood the threat of the housing bust early on.

ALAN BLINDER: Seeing much earlier than most - I think even a bit earlier than Ben Bernanke - that what was happening in the mortgage market was posing a grave peril to the economy.

YDSTIE: But there are those who are concerned that Yellen is a dove on inflation. That is, willing to tolerate more inflation to get the unemployment rate down. Harvard economist Ken Rogoff thinks that's true.

KEN ROGOFF: I think it is a fair assessment that she's perhaps even more dovish than Ben Bernanke, more concerned about unemployment, more willing to take some risks on inflation.

YDSTIE: Rogoff thinks that's the right position under the current circumstances when inflation is historically low and unemployment is high. But Laurence Meyer, another former Fed governor, says he witnessed Yellen's commitment to keeping inflation low when they were both Fed governors back in the mid-1990s on the Greenspan Fed. Meyer says both he and Yellen were concerned that with the economy strong and the unemployment rate low, there was a growing threat of inflation and that the Fed should raise interest rates to head it off.

LAURENCE MEYER: We went to the chairman with that concern. Of course, I'll say that the response was, nice to see you. Have a good day. But the important point was that, at that point, like myself, Janet was concerned about inflation and perhaps more concerned than most other members on the committee.

YDSTIE: Right now, with unemployment still high and U.S. growth still slower than desired, Yellen is likely to continue to keep interest rates low for some time. She suggested that at her confirmation hearing late last year.

YELLEN: We've made good progress, but we have further to go to regain the ground lost in the crisis and the recession.

YDSTIE: Given that Yellen worked with Bernanke to develop the Fed's current policies, it's widely expected the transition will be smooth. As the Fed vice chair, Yellen takes over operationally when Bernanke leaves today. She will be officially sworn in as the new Fed leader on Monday morning. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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