The phrase ‘celebrity economist’ might seem like an oxymoron, but Dr. Sherry Cooper has accepted the title much as she moves through life – in stride and with grace. Cooper strives to connect with audiences and help make the world of economics more accessible, and one of the things that makes her proud is when people approach her and say they understood everything.
“The whole idea is to be understandable and to be able to communicate what is very complex and often volatile that none of us can truly predict, to give people the fundamentals and make them think that they've learned something, but they also have been entertained,” she says.
Cooper has an MA and PhD in economics from the University of Pittsburgh. She began her career at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, DC, and subsequently joined Fannie Mae as director of financial economics. She joined BMO Financial Group in 1994 when it acquired Burns Fry, where she had served as chief economist, co-head of fixed income and the first female director of a Bay Street investment firm. For the past five years, Cooper has served as the chief economist of Dominion Lending Centres, and her experience there has differed greatly from her previous role as chief economist and executive vice president at BMO.
“It’s a much smaller company – it’s a lot more entrepreneurial, far less bureaucratic, very grassroots-oriented and with a very flat management structure,” she says. “I get to talk directly to the brokers, both in terms of my written work as well as meeting them, speaking to large and small groups, and engaging with them and what the issues are that matter most to their customer base.”
In doing so, Cooper has developed a keen understanding of the questions Canadians have around homeownership – questions that differ somewhat from those homeowners have in the United States, where Cooper spent the first part of her career.
One difference, she notes, is the strong history of industry innovation south of the border. By the time she came to Canada in 1983, the mortgage-backed securities market in the United States was highly developed. That wasn’t the case in Canada, particularly with private mortgage-backed securities, which continues to be a very thin market (although she adds that it’s “a double-edged sword” following the financial crisis).
Perhaps the most interesting difference, however, is that regulation in Canada is principles-based, not rules-based.
“In the US, because its rules-based, a lot of very smart people – investment bankers and lawyers –devote their lives to finding loopholes, whereas that’s not the case in Canada because it’s based on a principle, not just the actual stated rule,” she says. “And I think that is that's a good thing.”
Connecting with consumers
Throughout her career, Cooper has always enjoyed working with consumers. She accepts plenty of speaking engagements and consultative work with governments, corporations and other institutions, but working with people at DLC who service homeowners is exciting, she says.
“Housing has always been a passion of mine because it is the most interest-sensitive of all sectors, and that means it’s the most economically sensitive of all sectors,” she says. “It’s always been a very important part of the work that I do as a financial economist, and it’s particularly interesting in the last five years, of course, because we went from a booming housing market where virtually [all] forms of media were talking about housing bubbles, to a series of never-ending steps by all levels of government and the regulators to slow the housing market.”
Today, plenty of factors continue to keep interest rates low, and although Cooper says there’s obviously a limit to how low rates can go, she admits they’ve been saying the same thing for years, and the low rate environment has persisted. Any upward pressure on rates, she adds, will likely be muted for the foreseeable future.
In her current role at DLC, Cooper’s analysis helps brokers navigate the current economic environment and plan for that foreseeable future. The priority for today’s brokers, she says, is to stay on top of financial and digital innovations and to focus on customer service.
“Let’s face it – customer service is the name of the game because the very reason that anyone would talk to a broker is because they need advice,” she says. “Mortgages are not a do-it-yourself endeavour.”
Speaking with students and young people has also been a highlight of Cooper’s career. Most people don’t learn economic fundamentals in school, and many don’t know what monetary and fiscal policy does, how it varies from region to region, and how systems work differently across the US/Canadian border. But everyone is impacted by these dynamics, and to a certain extent, Cooper takes it upon herself to act as an interpreter of that information.
“What I like about economics is that it's very rigorous,” she says. “It’s certainly mathematical and complex, but it’s also a social science and heavily impacted by psychology. As a woman, we tend to shy away from mathematics and finance – at least my generation.”
She adds that at even at the earliest ages, girls can back away from numbers and gravitate to the language arts instead, but “everyone needs to be financially literate. I really feel sorry for people who are clueless because they can be taken advantage of. No one can rely on another individual for their financial well-being. We all need to be cognizant of how it works.”
Despite the sheer number of presentations Cooper has done over the years, she still delights in explaining and fighting misinformation in all its forms, continuing to find satisfaction in connecting with people over economics – or despite it. Economic data can be boring and dry, but presentation matters – and when it’s engaging, it surprises a lot of people, Cooper says.
“I love it,” she says. “I find it very energizing because it stretches me. I like being engaged.”