Diana Farrell, President and CEO, JP Morgan Chase Institute

Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women
By Nina Easton
May 21, 2015

Diana Farrell has long been one of the sharpest minds on the economics front, sharing her insights everywhere from the White House to our own Fortune MPW summits. Now she’s poised to upend how we as a nation analyze economic trends—as CEO of the newly launched JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Farrell, who was director of the McKinsey Global Institute before becoming an economic adviser to President Obama, is hoping to use her new post as chief collector and distributor of JPMorgan’s big data to give policymakers desperately needed tools to jump-start a still struggling economy and better the lives of millions of Americans. But in a post-Snowden era, mining the big bank’s treasure trove of customer data, even in anonymous form, also carries the potential for new public relations headaches for JPMorgan (JPM).

Right now, data from sometimes clunky government and academic surveys guide everything from congressional debates to Federal Reserve decisions. Farrell’s institute draws on internal information on 30 million U.S. bank account holders, often allowing for faster and more nimble conclusions, she says. “We have a window into 135 million daily transactions,” notes Farrell.

Case in point: The institute’s debut report, released today, reveals enormous income and consumption volatility among U.S. households. This pattern, which crosses income levels, could hold a key to the reason the economy continues to have trouble recovering from the Great Recession. “No wonder it is so difficult to manage finances,” she told a D.C. audience gathered for a panel discussion on the report that was released Thursday.

On top of that, said Farrell, “the typical household does not have a sufficient financial cushion to weather adverse income and consumption volatility.” (Think of consumption volatility in the form of unexpected medical bills or car repairs—not that extra Hermes handbag.)

“The volatility that you’re seeing may be the tip of the iceberg,” noted event panelist Zoe Baird, CEO of the Markle Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to using technology to tackle intractable public problems. “We’ve moved away from the days where most people worked most of their lifetimes for a Fortune 500 company.”

Urging Farrell to create opportunities for small businesses to deploy the JPMorgan data to guide their decisions, Baird stressed the institute’s potential: “You can become a powerful force in driving the economy, not just observing it.”

Unlike slow-moving government surveys, the JPMorgan data keeps up with a fast-paced economy, giving us an ability to gauge the fallout from natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy or the economic impact of states raising the minimum wage. “We can zoom in and see the impact,” Farrell noted.

But for all the good Farrell wants to achieve with the think tank dreamed up by her boss, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, the public must be won over. And that won’t be easy, given the nation’s privacy concerns and mistrust of big banks. It won’t help that JPMorgan’s public relations headaches continued this week, with a guilty plea to criminal charges over currency manipulation.

“People have to believe that the data is being used appropriately,” said Brookings’ David Wessel, who moderated the session.

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