Profile

Ellen Zentner

Managing Director, Chief U.S. Economist

To make a good impression, says Morgan Stanley Chief U.S. Economist Ellen Zentner, you need to deliver a strong handshake. That's what her father told her growing up. He, the sole pharmacist and first Mayor in the small east Texas town where they lived, didn't want his daughters to "shake hands softer than a man." He'd practice with Zentner until she got it right.

"He told me to make sure the crook of our thumbs met, and to make sure I clamped down good and tight before looking them in the eye and letting go," she says.

Zentner follows her father's advice to this day. A good economist needs to know how to interpret not just economic data, but body language, too. That's why Zentner prefers to meet with clients in person.

"The client interaction is what I love most about my job," she says. "To really connect with clients, you need to see them and shake their hand. When clients ask me questions, I want to be able to gauge their body language. You can't do that over the phone. There're some things that charts can't explain."

Calm in the Midst of Chaos

Zentner found herself doing lots of explaining in person recently, after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She spent the days after the election answering questions about what a Trump presidency would mean for the economy, the world and markets. She didn't sleep for 42 hours and still managed to give a perfectly coherent presentation in front of 200 clients.

"Uncertainty might be bad for business, but it's great for an economist," she says. "The more volatility there is, the more you need an economist to offer a framework for how we should be thinking about all the possibilities. A good economist is the voice of reason in the room, someone who can provide calm in the midst of chaos."

The 2016 U.S. election was a career-defining moment for Zentner; Brexit was another. During the latter, Zentner stood on Morgan Stanley's trading floor with her colleagues, on an hour's sleep. "It's a thrilling experience to look back on what you went through and to be able to say, 'I was there when that happened.' "

Zentner, who grew up in Austin, Texas, and is an avid fly-fisher, didn’t know what she wanted to study, but knew she loved the outdoors. No one in her family had studied economics, or attended college outside of Texas. Nevertheless, Zentner left her home town for Colorado to study economics. She chose economics because she was excited by the prospect of studying something different every day.

"The economy changes all the time. Each morning I wake up and I'm excited to get to work and see what the day holds," she says. "Some of the best days are when a policymaker or a major world market throws us a curveball. Everyone looks to the economist to explain what just happened."

Explaining Complexity

Packaging economic findings into good stories that even those who haven't studied economics can understand is one of Zentner's secrets to success. Early on, she realized that it was how she could differentiate herself.

"Economists tend to talk in what we Texans call 'highfalutin language,' which not many people can understand," says Zentner. Fortunately, her family is full of teachers and academics who are good at explaining things. "If I can sit down and explain a very complicated economic concept in a way that my mother can understand at the dinner table, then I've done my job."

Economic forecasting is another trick of the trade. "There's no amount of education that can teach you how to anticipate shifts and trends in the market," says Zentner, who has been named to Bloomberg's list of top forecasters of the U.S. economy. "The decisions I make are rooted in experience and from being on the front lines."

Zentner's own experience includes positions with the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ and in government; she worked in the comptroller's office under George W. Bush when he was the governor of Texas, which she says was immensely helpful in anticipating what a Trump administration may mean for the U.S. economy.

At that time, finance wasn't a popular career choice for women. Today, that has changed. Roughly half of the resumes she receives are from women, and Zentner mentors as many young women as she can and tries to guide them toward economics. "I always tell women to work hard, make the right connections, and to be clear with management about their expectations. Twelve years into my career, I stopped waiting for someone to take notice of my worth and took matters into my own hands. Once I did that, my own career was a slingshot."

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