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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 10, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 11
Prof's 'Chief of Staff' Gets Hands-On Lessons in Economics

Currency expert Steven Hanke shares his office, and sometimes authorship on papers, with senior Matt Sekerke.

By Glenn Small

In the past two months, Matt Sekerke has had a timely paper on Iraq monetary policy published by the Cato Institute and seen wealthy magazine publisher Steve Forbes not only quoting his work but agreeing with it.

If he were a junior faculty member, the output would be considered impressive. But Sekerke isn't. He's an undergraduate.

"I think he has more articles published than most assistant professors," said Steve Hanke, the Johns Hopkins professor and currency expert with whom Sekerke has co-authored seven pieces, including the Cato paper on Iraq.

A senior from Philadelphia who is an economics and mathematics double major and a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Sekerke has been doing economics research at a high level, all under the watchful and encouraging eye of Hanke, who calls Sekerke "my chief of staff."

Steven David, professor of political science and the faculty member who directs the Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Program, said Sekerke has done "an extraordinary job" as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. "To have publications and citations in The Wall Street Journal and Forbes is extraordinary for anyone, much less an undergrad. Steve Hanke has worked very diligently with him and worked him very hard, but it's produced results."

Sekerke, a pianist and composer, came to Johns Hopkins to study international relations and to study, practice and compose music at Peabody.

Early in his Hopkins career, Sekerke sought out Hanke and asked if he could work with him. Hanke set up Sekerke with a daunting research task, the kind Sekerke would later learn that Hanke uses to "scare away a person who is not serious."

But Sekerke not only completed his assignment, he did it a second time, when he wasn't satisfied with his first effort. Soon, he was working for Hanke 20 or more hours a week, sitting directly across from the seasoned faculty member, who is frequently quoted and interviewed by the media.

"I started out knowing nothing or, if anything, very little," Sekerke said. Over time, he said, "the quality of my work had improved to the point where I could go beyond providing only background material to producing a draft of a final product."

That's when Hanke decided the two could co-publish. Hanke worked closely with Sekerke to polish the research into something that would pass academic muster. "That first paper required a lot of revision by him, plus a lot of encouragement from him for me to revise it," Sekerke remembered.

Over time, Sekerke's skills have steadily improved. "The time from a draft to something that is publishable is a lot shorter than it used to be," he said.

In May, Sekerke assisted Hanke on an op-ed that was published in The Wall Street Journal. It argued that Mexico should "dollarize" its economy, a currency fix that Hanke and Sekerke frequently advocate.

In September, their Cato Institute paper made the case for either dollarization or a currency board for Iraq — both methods for stabilizing that country's currency and fledgling economy. They were so convincing that Forbes editor in chief Steve Forbes agreed with them, in a column he published on Oct. 27.

"All of this is why," Forbes wrote, "the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] should follow the advice of Steve Hanke and Matt Sekerke and either introduce a currency board — or make the dollar or the euro Iraq's legal tender."

In a currency board arrangement, the Iraqi dinar would be backed by a stable foreign currency, like the dollar or the euro, and would be done at a fixed rate of exchange. Such a mechanism, Hanke and Sekerke argued, has helped stabilize currencies in other war-torn areas, such as Bosnia.

Sekerke said that by working so closely with Hanke he has learned firsthand what it takes to do world-class research, and he adjusted his schedule and priorities to accommodate his growing interest in economic and fiscal policy research. He decided to drop his studies at Peabody, realizing he could not do both things well.

"The real transformation," Sekerke said, "has been in my work ethic. Working with Dr. Hanke has taught me what it means to work at something at a very high level."

The opportunity to work closely with faculty who are actively researching in their field was one thing that attracted him to Hopkins, Sekerke said, adding that he has been pleased with his experience. Next fall, he plans to pursue a doctorate in economics with an eye to one day becoming a professor himself.

Just being around Hanke so much has taught Sekerke much about how the world works, he said. "There are a lot of intangibles that I have picked up from being in his office. You hear or see a lot of things that happen in the policy world that just aren't evident to those on the outside."

In addition to conducting research, Hanke also has been involved in managing funds, an area that Sekerke would like to try his hand at as well. His eye for a good investment — he was advocating buying gold when it was $260 an ounce, and it's now over $400 an ounce — has convinced his friends, he said. "I've developed a lot of trust among friends, who have said, 'When I have a job, I'm going to have you invest my money for me.' "


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