SAN FRANCISCO He's not a household name like Ben Bernanke. And he'd easily pass down a city street unrecognized.
But as an economist, John C. Williams holds one of the most prestigious and powerful jobs in the country.
Brainy, amiable and relatively young, Williams presides as president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the biggest and perhaps busiest of the Fed's 12 regional banks.
From his 12th-floor corner office on Market Street, he's got a sweeping view of the Bay Bridge along with a sweeping perspective of the nation's and the world's economies.
And he's well aware of the direct impact that the Fed's decisions on economic policies have on all of us.
"It doesn't matter if you're a Wall Street titan or working a regular job," said the 50-year-old economist. "Even though we're four years past the worst part of the recession, there's still a lot of worry and concern. And it affects us all."
In a recent interview over Peet's coffee in his paneled office, Williams touched on everything from global economics to his Sacramento boyhood. For someone who works in a world of billions and trillions ("You'll never hear the word millions from me," he jokes) and within a heavily fortified building guarded by armed federal officers, he's refreshingly down-to-earth.
Describing his childhood in Sacramento's River Park neighborhood, Williams admits that he was a "math nerd but in a good way." He liked Monopoly, Little League and "Star Wars." As a teen, he invented his own fantasy board games.
Growing up, his family's dinner table conversation often swirled around politics and current events. His dad, Robert Williams, was legislative adviser to four politically diverse governors, from Edmund G. Brown Sr. to George Deukmejian.
His parents, and an older brother who works at Intel, still live in Sacramento.
Looking back, Williams says those family conversations sparked an interest in nonpartisan, public policy work, similar to how he views his role today at the Federal Reserve.
He's a Phi Beta Kappa who powered through three economics degrees at UC Berkeley, the London School of Economics and Stanford University. But his fascination with economics got started in his very first Econ 1 class at Berkeley in 1980.
"By far, the hardest econ class I ever took was at Berkeley," he says, mainly because it forced him and his classmates to wrap their brains around economic concepts of how the world works: incentives, taxation, supply and demand.
While he and many of his fellow students struggled over theory, he says, eventually there was a light-bulb moment.
"It all started to make sense. To me, economics uses a lot of math but it also talks about how human beings behave and interact. Somehow it all clicked in my mind."
Berkeley's current Econ 1 professor, Martha Olney, pays close attention to the Federal Reserve's actions. She's met Williams, heard his speeches and followed his votes on the Federal Reserve's operating committee, which meets eight times a year to adjust U.S. monetary policy.
"The role of the bank presidents is, among other things, to have their finger on what is happening to the economy of their regional district and to convey that to the rest of the board," says Olney. Having watched Williams from afar, she observes, "he seems to be doing a fine job."
Williams' father, the retired state attorney, says his son has a unique ability to relate to people. "One of his greatest strengths is his ability to deal with anybody, to handle people in any circumstance, from any walk of life. He understands the value of other people's work, no matter what their (job) is."
A researcher at heart, the younger Williams has published more than 50 professional papers, some with chewy titles like "Robust Estimation and Monetary Policy With Unobserved Structural Change."
Perhaps fittingly, one of his research specialties is "monetary policy under uncertainty and imperfect information."
It's a perfect academic recipe for unsettled times and one that Williams embraces.
One of the Fed's primary roles is to set policies that achieve two main goals, maximum employment and price stability. But, "How do you make a decision where three Nobel Prize-winning economists come to three completely different conclusions?" Williams asks.
Dealing with economic uncertainties is a constant. "But today, given that we're in uncharted waters, doing policies that we don't have as much experience with, it's even more true."
He says economists have to rely on the best estimates they have to make their decisions, but always be willing to change, adapt or delete policies that no longer work.
For the Federal Reserve, that decision-making takes place largely behind closed doors at its every-six-weeks monetary policy meetings. The 19 participants the 12 bank presidents like Williams, plus the seven-member board of governors chaired by Ben Bernanke come from diverse backgrounds: government, academia, business. Without live cameras, Williams says, there's a free-flowing debate that's candid, polite and nonpartisan.
"I honestly do not know the political affiliations of people in the room. It's not about politics. Some have more conservative or liberal views. But it's startling how narrow our focus is: How's the economy doing and where is it going? How are our policies calibrated to best achieve our objectives: maximum employment and price stability? That has nothing to do with whether you're Republican, independent or Democrat."
In the last few years, the Fed has taken some unconventional steps, such as "quantitative easing." It's now buying up to $85 billion a month in mortgage-backed securities and long-term Treasurys to keep interest rates low and stimulate the economy.
He acknowledges the "difficult trade-offs" to that strategy, namely that savings accounts, CDs and money-market funds earn almost nothing.
But the overall goal is to "speed the economy back to normal. If we weren't lowering interest rates as aggressively as we are now, my worry is the economy wouldn't get enough momentum to get us back to normal."
He and his wife, Audrey Lyndon, a UC San Francisco nursing school professor, live with their two teenage sons in the Bay Area. For security reasons, he declines to say exactly where he lives.
He says the Federal Reserve, where he started his working career as a research economist in 1994, is a complex structure that's hard for anyone to grasp. But he credits Bernanke for making a greater effort at communicating "who the Fed is and what we do."
Williams promotes the Fed's consumer outreach efforts, which include teacher training, bank tours and social media. "I don't tweet, but the bank does."
While federal tax cut extensions earlier this month averted a leap off the fiscal cliff, it only "kicked the can a couple months down the road," says Williams, who says the tough decisions still lie ahead with Congress and the president.
"It's striking that every single economist whether in the congressional budget office, in academia or elsewhere all agree that federal fiscal policies are unsustainable over the next 10 to 20 years. They need to change taxes and spending. Until we have a long-term fiscal solution the uncertainty is going to weigh on people."
Despite his insider seat at the U.S. economy's decision-making table, the third-generation kid from Sacramento seems remarkably unaffected by his stature.
As his father notes: "You'd never know what he does for a living. When people ask, he just tells them: 'I'm an economist.' "
JOHN C. WILLIAMS
Job: President and CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
Education: Sacramento native and Encina High School graduate. Has three economics degrees: undergraduate from UC Berkeley, master's from London School of Economics, Ph.D. from Stanford
Boyhood highlight: As a Sacramento Bee newspaper carrier, he won a national contest in 1978 for selling newspaper subscriptions. His prize: a trip to England and Ireland, sponsored by Parade magazine.
Career: Started in 1994 as research economist at Federal Reserve's board of governors in Washington, D.C., moving to Fed's San Francisco bank in 2002 as a research adviser. Named president in 2011, serving five-year term.
Personal: Married with two teenage sons in Bay Area
Favorite sports teams: S.F. Giants and 49ers
Currently reading: "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail and Some Don't" by political forecaster Nate Silver and "1Q84" by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami
THE FEDERAL RESERVE
What it does: Acts as the nation's central banking system, overseeing financial institutions, setting monetary policy (i.e. interest rates) and ensuring overall financial stability. Its primary policy goals: maximum employment and low inflation.
How it's set up: The Federal Reserve is run by a board of governors, whose seven members are appointed by U.S. presidents to staggered, 14-year terms. The current chairman is Ben Bernanke.
In addition, there are 12 Federal Reserve district banks, from Atlanta to San Francisco, that supervise financial activities of banks in their regions.
The board members, together with the 12 regional bank presidents, meet every six weeks in Washington, D.C., to debate and determine U.S. monetary policies.
History: Since the late 1770s, when states created a hodgepodge of conflicting currencies, the idea of a central, national banking system has been debated. In the 1800s, several national banks were started and dissolved, amid controversy over how much control they should exert. After a series of financial panics, notably a 1907 banking crisis that led to the country's then-worst depression, Congress created the Federal Reserve System in 1913 to provide long-term stability. Its 100th anniversary is Dec. 23.
FEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF SAN FRANCISCO
Headquarters: 101 Market St.
Territory: Largest of the Fed's 12 regions, it covers nine Western states, including Alaska and Hawaii.
Who it supervises: Hundreds of diverse banks, from small community banks to global financial conglomerates.
What it does: Processes paper check and electronic payments; stores and distributes billions in currency and coins so banks can meet customer demands. Also acts as U.S. government's banker, processing Social Security and federal payroll payments.
In 2011, the 12th district processed 17.3 billion pieces of currency. Its high-speed, computer-controlled machines detect counterfeit bills and instantly destroy "unfit," worn-out paper bills.
For consumers: The San Francisco bank hosts "Dr. Econ," an online Q&A where questions are answered by staff economists. The website, www.frbsf.org, also has info on credit reports, credit cards, home foreclosures and other topics, as well as how to file a complaint against your bank.
Money museum: Want a peek at a 1776 paper bill engraved on Ben Franklin's printing press? The bank's museum is home to what it calls the country's most complete collection of U.S. currency. One of its rarest: an 1890 $1,000 bill, known as a "Grand Watermelon" for its overly-rounded, striped zeroes.
The lobby features a floating bank safe, a comical piggy bank collection and a larger-than-life tilting chair that illustrate financial concepts. There's also a counterfeit display, showing how U.S. paper money is imbedded with holograms, watermarks, colored inks and security threads.
Free tours: For security reasons, the bank no longer offers individual tours. Group tours are Monday through Thursday, by reservation only, with priority given to high school and college classes. For details: Call (415) 974-3252 or go to frbsf.org and click on "How do I book a tour?"