Obama's Early Brush With Financial Markets A little-known chapter in Sen. Barack Obama's life is the year he spent writing about financial markets for a New York City firm. The job gave him a crash course in market economics — knowledge that some say is still evident on the campaign trail.
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Obama's Early Brush With Financial Markets

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Obama's Early Brush With Financial Markets

Obama's Early Brush With Financial Markets

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By now it's well-known that Barack Obama started his political career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. But Obama had another job before that. It's less well-known. He was briefly a financial researcher and writer in New York City for a firm that catered to multinational corporations. It was a crash course in market economics. NPR's Scott Horsley has the second of two reports on the overlooked past of the presidential candidates.

SCOTT HORSLEY: When Barack Obama graduated from Columbia in 1983, he had trouble at first finding a job as a community organizer. So instead he went to work for a company called Business International Corporation. Beth Noymer Levine was his office mate.

Ms. BETH NOYMER LEVINE: I like to say that Michelle Obama will be first lady, but I will always be first colleague.

HORSLEY: 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." Levine says even in a company filled with smart people, Obama made an impression.

Ms. LEVINE: I always say he was very smooth and smart and together, and I was 23. I felt like a human train wreck next to him.

HORSLEY: 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 UN, and many of its 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 Dan Armstrong says you quickly learned to speak the language of the financial professionals you were writing for.

Mr. DAN ARMSTRONG: You were thrown in the deep end and you learned a lot, and you know, you had to pretend, I think, to be more of an expert than you were, especially in our area, in finance.

HORSLEY: In his memoir, for example, 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 says 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.

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

HORSLEY: Armstrong says he 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, his former office mate, says she understands that.

Ms. LEVINE: I can see why CNN would skip over it. I mean, a lot of people, you know, 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 kind of like, OK, well, that's not exactly what I want.

HORSLEY: Still, researching and writing about hedges and forwards and currency fluctuations did give Obama at least a passing familiarity with the financial markets that's 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 was a quick study.

Secretary ROBERT RUBIN (Former Treasury Secretary, United States): If he has a thought and you disagree, he wants to make sure he understands the other side of the issue. And my impression, at least, is that he's got a good feel for financial markets and how they might react to what government does. And he's got a good feel for it.

HORSLEY: 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 says it was a good start.

Ms. LEVINE: We definitely learned our ABCs of the financial markets at BI. There's probably no question about that.

HORSLEY: Even though in his 20s Obama turned away from stocks and bonds and the pull of respectability, he didn't leave those ABCs too far behind.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: OK. So we've just heard a little known chapter from Barack Obama's life. We've also been reporting on John McCain's early experiences, and if you want to catch up on that, just go to the elections page at npr.org.

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