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Dennis serving third term as Federal Reserve branch chairman

You might think it would give a guy a swelled head to be selected chairman of the New Orleans Branch of the Federal Reserve for the third time, which is believed to be a record for any branch of the Federal Reserve. Or to sit at the table with the likes of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, the former and current chairmen of the Federal Reserve.

But while Dave Dennis of Pass Christian has found himself moving in rarified financial circles these days, you won’t find him putting on any airs.

“I have to be careful with my comments or I will put my $200 per month job at risk,” Dennis joked when asked for his comments on the state of the economy in the areas of four Gulf states covered by the New Orleans Branch of the Federal Reserve.

“There have been opportunities to sit at the table with the likes of an Alan Greenspan and a Ben Bernanke and other leaders of the central banks, and to work to maintain the sanctity of the free market system and our economy,” Dennis said. “It is the best gig I’ve ever had. It is fun. It is intriguing. It is rewarding. It is fascinating. It is also work to do it correctly, to be prepared for your meetings and prepared to represent your region as you are sworn to do.”

Dennis said the rewards of the job include having the opportunity to meet with leaders of Fortune 500 companies, and also owners of mom-and-pop businesses. He has observed that, in reality, many of the problems are the same for rank-and-file business people as they are for Fortune 500 companies. The problems are just on a different scope and magnitude.

Dennis often receives questions about how he came to serve on the New Orleans Branch of the Federal Reserve. He isn’t a banker. And he points out he isn’t even a contractor, but a subcontractor. He and his wife, Jane Dennis, are owners of Specialty Contractors & Associates (www.specon.biz) of Gulfport, a company that is an acoustical, partition, industrial noise control and exterior coating specialist that has completed more than 3,000 projects for hotels, industrial facilities, casinos, hospitals, schools, commercial office buildings and churches.

Branches of the Federal Reserve, which is a private organization established by Congress, do check clearing, transfers of cash as needed by member institutions, auditing and regulation activities within the banking system. Board of directors at each branch bank generally deal with monetary policy and give the Federal Reserve reports that give a sense of where the economy currently is, where it needs to be and what needs to be in play to get the economy in a position of sustained employment and growth and low inflation.

“In reality, branch banks are an advisory group to the board of governors,” Dennis said. “They do anecdotal reports that answer questions the Federal Reserve initiates about the sense of the economics of a particular region or industry. Our generalized reports about the economy for the region are forwarded to Atlanta and then to Washington, D.C., with advisory thoughts on whether discount rates should be adjusted or maintained, or how the economy should be tweaked to keep it running down the center line.”

It isn’t unusual for members of the Federal Reserve branches not to be bankers. Dennis said, generally, the chairman is not a banker. That goes back to the days when the Federal Reserve was formed in 1913, in part because of concerns about banking powers being concentrated in too few hands.

“Some of it dealt with J.P. Morgan and some of the ups and downs in the economy of the early 20th century,” Dennis said. “As checks and other financial payments systems began to evolve, there was serious concern in Congress about how banking should be controlled, regulated or maintained to provide a degree of stability.”

Business perspective

Dennis was asked to join the New Orleans Federal Reserve board of directors in 2001 as a representative of the business community. Dennis was recommended for the appointment by a local banker, a representative of the business community in Atlanta and Lucimarian Roberts, the mother of “Good Morning America’s” co-host Robin Roberts. Lucimarian Roberts was chairwoman of New Orleans Federal Reserve in the mid-1990s. Dennis said Roberts, who like Dennis is from Pass Christian, was a very good mentor and tutor to him.

The New Orleans Branch of the Federal Reserve meets once per month, and Dennis also attends regional board meetings in Atlanta. Ben Bernanke will be at the next board meeting in Atlanta.

Dennis has found it very interesting to observe Bernanke and his predecessor up close.

“Chairman Greenspan came from a background of having a private financial exposure, and not just experience in the public arena,” Dennis said. “Chairman Greenspan would ultimately make his decisions from a very instinctive and intuitive basis of experience. Chairman Bernanke, who is imminently qualified to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, came into the position from a slightly different educational and experience background. He had served as one of board of governors of the Federal Reserve and as chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors prior to rejoining the Federal Reserve Board as its chairman. His experience has been predominantly academic, institutional and within the Federal Reserve and government systems. But he has come to the plate ready to play ball, and is very knowledgeable and also instinctive as he tries to anticipate the fluctuations in the U.S. and global economy.”

The advice of the regional Federal Reserve branches is taken into consideration when the Federal Reserve board makes decisions.

“Our anecdotal position is certainly taken into account because I’ve read some of my comments in the Beige Book, which is a federal book that gives the sense of the economy in each region,” Dennis said. “It is a privilege to serve on the Federal Reserve board. I will assure you that. Our comments are taken very seriously, and they are an integral part of the formulation of the monetary policy for the country. And to that end I appreciate the opportunity of serving, and am grateful to those who had the confidence to recommend me for the position in 2001.”

Speaking locally

Federal Reserve Branch chairmen like Dennis generally don’t have permission to suggest where the economy is moving or what type of monetary policy the Fed may be looking at in terms of adjusting the economy in any manner. They can talk about the local economy and what is happening there.

“Most are people cognizant we are in an evolving and ever-changing economy with the dynamics of energy costs, healthcare costs and many other factors that come into play,” Dennis said. “With information so readily available to people, the economy moves on a dime these days. The wrong comment by the wrong person can rapidly skew markets in either direction. And although I don’t feel I’m at a level to make that happen, I still need to respectfully defer to the Federal Reserve for their official comments.”

Dennis said there are major issues in the region’s economy that have to be dealt with particularly on the Mississippi Gulf Coast pertaining to insurance affordability and availability.

“Until the insurance issue is truly resolved, we have some major concerns on jump starting the broad-based economy on the Gulf Coast,” Dennis said. “Insurance is the linchpin to facilitate a recovery. It is affecting the entire country, not just the Gulf Coast, as evidenced by a bill currently in front of Congress on a multi-peril insurance backstop.”

Take a look at Dennis’ resume and you might wonder how he has time to breathe, let alone run a business. He volunteers with numerous community, civic and industry organizations. He is currently chairman of Leadership Mississippi, on the Mississippi Economic Council’s executive committee and the Knight Foundation Community board. He has recently served as chairman of the Coast Chamber, president of the Gulf Coast Economic Council, chairman of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, state chairman of BIPEC (Business and Political Industry Education Coalition) and president pro-tem of the Coast Coliseum Commission. He is a member of the state Wind Pool board.

Dennis, who lost his retirement home on the Back Bay of Biloxi and had heavy damage to his home on the beach in Pass Christian due to Hurricane Katrina, also served on the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal as chairman of Historic Preservation, Cultural Preservation and Museums and was recognized as the Boy Scouts of America’s Distinguished Citizen of the Year for 2006.

Dennis, a graduate of Auburn University, was on the founding executive committee of the Gulf Coast Business Council, and currently serves as state chairman of tourism for Momentum Mississippi.

How does he find time to do so much volunteer work?

“It is a challenge to maintain the profitability and viability of a relatively small business and still maintain a sense of community and civic involvement,” he said. “It involves often times doing my Specialty Contractor’s work at night. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it is very, very hard to say ‘no’ because every organization, every non profit that you ordinarily will deal with in some type of ancillary manner, is hurting not only financially, but for a sense of direction on how to get its ship righted and moving forward again.”

Dennis said there are literally dozens of other people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast doing exactly what he is doing with different non profit organizations. The volunteers help maintain a sense of community often by volunteering in the day, and then doubling back and maintaining the solvency of their business in an after hours environment.

Dennis and his wife are living in their home in Pass Christian while finishing hurricane repairs. And he says their business is in good shape.

“Our business got beat up a little bit,” he said. “We lost four or five trucks to rising water. But, by and large, we were back in the saddle very quickly following Katrina, and are in good shape.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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