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        College, Faculty

        Remembering Harbert Eminent Scholar James R. Barth

        March 1, 2023 By Michael Ares

        All News


        Jim Barth
        James R. Barth 

        Over the course of his lifetime, Jim Barth wore many hats: diligent Ph.D. student, newly minted professor of economics at George Washington University, prolific academic researcher, chief economist and director of the Office of Policy and Economic Research at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, financial industry whistleblower, expert witness before the U.S. Congress, trusted advisor to presidential administrations – the list goes on and on.

        And he did all that before he joined Auburn’s faculty in 1989.

        Throughout the 34 years he spent here on the Plains, Barth was a beacon of light for underserved populations seeking access to critical financial resources and business development capital not readily available to the “unbanked.” His unwavering drive to publish widely cited research on all things financial stands out to anyone who ever had the pleasure of reading his work or collaborating with him on one of his quests to better the world.

        A Legacy of Research

        When he died in January 2023, Barth was the Lowder Eminent Scholar in Finance at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business, a Fellow of the Wharton Financial Institutions Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Senior Finance Fellow at the Milken Institute. He was one of the most respected financial industry authorities in the world, known for his contributions to global economics, his financial industry regulatory oversight expertise, and his diligent support of his students during more than five decades of unwavering public service.

        At last count, Barth had written 21 books and authored or co-authored 458 research papers published in some of the most prestigious scholarly journals in the world. His work has been cited by his peers in their own published research more than 18,300 times over the course of his life, with more than 120 new citations recorded just this year alone. A recent report from the Social Science Research Network, an online research repository working under the auspices of the World Bank, revealed that Barth was among the top 1% of the almost 7 million researchers whose publications were downloaded during the past 12 months.

        A Passion for Change

        His hard-earned reputation for taking on challenging economic issues and helping solve financial regulatory needs defined the mark Barth made on the world of banking. He first rose to national prominence when he and his colleagues working at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) drafted and released a working paper that concluded that the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) – the organization then charged with protecting depositors and which the FHLBB oversaw – was insolvent.

        At the time, Barth’s research didn’t sit well with other economists within the FHLBB agency. Even some members of the Senate Banking Committee disagreed with the findings of his groundbreaking research paper, "Determinants of thrift institution resolution costs," which was published in the Journal of Finance in 1990.

        As the scope of the problems at the FSLIC became more apparent, however, the FHLBB and the insurance fund’s auditor eventually agreed with Barth’s assessment and conceded that the insurance fund was, indeed, insolvent. Thus began a career as an expert witness before Congress on issues ranging from financial services oversight to unbanked populations, predatory payday lenders, and under-regulated Opportunity Zone legislation.

        For Barth, his work has always been all about impact.

        “Every researcher, in every area, wants to influence the world in a positive way,” Barth noted in an interview not long before he died. “If you do research that somehow leads to better regulatory policies, perhaps we will avoid another financial crisis, or if there is one it will be less severe. Everything I do is geared to developing a better understanding and helping promote better-functioning financial systems – that’s the purpose of my research. If I can uncover factors and trends that suggest a better way, not just here but across the world, then I’ve done something important.”

        A Curious Mind

        Against this backdrop of extraordinary accomplishments, two things stand out when his colleagues, students and collaborators remember Jim Barth.

        The first was his constant willingness to explore new areas, new ideas and new ways of approaching the critical challenges facing economic structures and policies in the U.S. and across the globe.

        The other was his “deep care” for others, how he always seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say, how they thought about a given issue, what they were working on. For someone with such a broad and deep understanding of complex, intricate systems and policies himself, that combination of curiosity and care set Barth apart.

        A Sampling of Tributes from his Colleagues

        “Jim’s storied career as an educator, sought-after industry expert witness, and trusted advisor to Congress and presidential administrations is unparalleled. But what those who had the privilege of knowing him will remember most about Jim is the admiration, love, and respect he earned from his colleagues here at Auburn and across the world for his generosity, kindness, and devotion to his students.” 

        - Auburn University President Christopher B. Roberts

        “Jim’s contribution to the world casts a wide net, even to this day. From his extraordinary record of scholarly research to his one-on-one student mentoring, Dr. Barth’s dedication to his academic pursuits was rare, as was his commitment to education. Part of what made Jim such an effective educator was that he always challenged those around him to think differently, to be creative, to adopt new approaches or emerging technologies to positively impact future generations.”

        - Regions Bank Professor Joe Hanna, Harbert interim dean

        “Jim was a giant in the field. I recall one academic observing that Jim’s books ‘were dog-eared on Capitol Hill.’ That’s no exaggeration, he was influential on every level.

        But for me, what made Jim so special was the way he combined his own impact on society with his deep care for others. On one hand, his scholarly activities were so lofty that only the best scholars could even dream of having such a broad reach. On the other hand, he was intensely interested in what I was doing. He always wanted to know more about my own research and academic engagement. It was only later in life that I realized he did this for everyone. He was always curious, always encouraging, always helping me think about what’s next.

        Jim and I shared some common experiences. One of them was speaking to faculty at universities around the world. Each time I ventured out for a talk at some prestigious institution – from Cambridge to Beijing – I would learn that Jim had already been there many times. Jim was the face of Auburn University in immeasurable ways.”

         - Brian Connelly, Professor and Luck Eminent Scholar

        “I first met Jim in 2015 when I arrived at Auburn as a new department chair. We both had a habit of arriving early and getting a cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Lowder. Jim was always there before I was, sometimes sharing his table with other early birds. After seeing him at his usual table for several days, I introduced myself. He invited me to join him and asked who I was. I explained I was a new department chair and my background was information systems.

        Over the course of our conversation that first day, I learned that Jim was an Eminent Scholar in Finance, had a Ph.D. in Economics, had served in the government and was connected to the Milken Institute. I thought I could learn a lot from him.

        Until the pandemic hit in 2020, there was a good chance I could have a 10-to-20-minute visit with Jim in the morning over coffee, where he would quiz me and others there with him on some aspect of finance or economics. Over the months, the questions got harder and on occasion I would need to explain something. I think he enjoyed my reasoning process more than he cared about whether I answered his questions correctly.

        Above all, Jim was still a student, still interested in learning new methods – especially when I would reframe a problem he posed from a different perspective. He never hesitated to ask a younger faculty member to teach him some new concept or method.

        When I think of all the interesting conversations I had with Jim, I also remember his penchant for mischief. Jim would make suggestions with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, so you couldn’t tell if he was being mischievous, or he was simply happy about the idea.”

        - David Paradice, Professor and Harbert Eminent Scholar

        “When I came to Auburn almost six years ago, Jim was one of the first faculty members to welcome me. I recall that he immediately showed a keen interest in my research, even though it was outside the field of finance.

        In our meetings and one-on-one conversations ever since, Jim didn’t talk about his own research as much as he called attention to the research and accomplishments of others – colleagues, students and those outside of academia whose thoughts he felt might warrant my attention. That’s not typical, not by a long shot.

        He always had time to weigh in on almost any topic you could imagine and quickly became a friend. Before the pandemic, we often found each other working in our respective offices at Harbert over the weekends. The talks we had during those times will stay with me forever.

        In short, he was a ‘role model academic,’ a unique individual who blended his academic research and publishing rigor with his dogged leadership in driving public policy in ways very few academics ever could hope to accomplish. Jim’s devotion to his doctoral students and his warm satisfaction in seeing them grow and develop in their own research and careers was always front and center. His genuine concern for those less fortunate and his ability to help others succeed will always be a big part of his legacy and lasting influence."

        - O.C. Ferrell, James T. Pursell, Sr. Eminent Scholar in Ethics; Director, Center for Ethical Organizational Cultures

        “Jim was always one of my very favorite people to visit. Quite frequently, we would end up in the parking lot at the end of the day chatting about some global economic issue in the news. Those chats with Jim were always interesting and sometimes went on for much longer than it would take to simply exchange pleasantries.

        One time late last spring, we talked about economic disruption for almost an hour in the stifling heat and humidity of the Lowder lot. I hadn’t realized how long we’d been talking or how much I was sweating until my phone buzzed. It was my wife, Suzanne, and I was late coming home. When I immediately apologized saying, ‘Sorry Sue, I got Barthed again, I’ll be home shortly,’ I don’t think I had ever seen him smile as big as at that moment.

        He was a brilliant man of great humor. More importantly, he was a true and caring friend to so many, including me. I will miss those sweaty afternoons more than I ever realized.”

        - Glenn Richey, Harbert Eminent Scholar in Supply Chain Management

        “I first met Jim in the coffee shop on the fifth floor of Lowder Hall and during that initial conversation he asked me whether I knew anything about ridge regression and lasso regression. I said I knew the techniques very well, and he got very excited. He said that he wanted me to teach him the techniques and gave me about three hours to prepare.

        Only now can I confess that I was not at all familiar with either ridge or lasso regression. But I felt I couldn’t say that in front of him because I was a junior faculty member at the time – it was my first week at Auburn and here I was speaking with a world-renowned eminent scholar in finance.

        I had no option but to use all my power to first teach myself and then write a short, tutorial-type manuscript. While I explained the techniques to Jim, he looked like he loved every single word I said. When the lesson was over, we became best friends and have remained so ever since. He was my mentor and father figure.

        His absence today has me asking myself what the meaning of life is. Once again, I have to confess that ‘I don’t know, Jim,’ and I hope you will give me more than three hours to prepare my answer this time around. I am confident that, when we meet again, you will be excited about every single word I have to say – just like the first time.”

        - Kang-Bok Lee, EBSCO Associate Professor of Business Analytics

        “The news that Jim had died was a real punch in the gut for me. I had just been on a zoom with him the week before. I only knew Jim for a little less than four years, but in that short time he became not only a source of indispensable insight, expertise and counsel, but a true friend, as well.

        I wasn’t a faculty colleague in the Harbert College of Business or one of his students, just a graduate from Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and newly named head of one of the country’s largest minority-owned banks. When I was asked to collaborate with Jim on an article outlining the need to expand recently enacted Opportunity Zone legislation to include minority-owned banks – otherwise known as Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs) and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI’s) – I jumped at the chance.

        Little did I know that the article we wrote together and published in a major business publication back in October 2019 would contribute to almost $9 billion in federal funding being passed by Congress to better capitalize MDIs and CDFI’s. Looking back, that article was synergistic, as I was invited by Congress to testify October 2019 and Jim was invited to testify a few months later before the House Financial Services Committee of the 116th Congress under Representative Maxine Waters’ bipartisan leadership.

        Now, there were only two bills that got passed through that full committee – each unanimously, by the way – and both of those bills were based largely on Jim’s research and our testimony.

        I recently had the chance to speak before the first ever summit on MDIs held by the American Bankers Association to report on how the distribution of the funds allocated by those two bills is beginning to directly impact underserved and underbanked communities. It is no coincidence that the journey Jim and I embarked on three years ago is coming to fruition at this time. I only wish he was there in person to see it all pay off.”

        - Kenneth Kelly, Chairman & CEO at First Independence Bank

        A personal note

        Over the past six years, I’ve had the honor to write close to a dozen articles on Jim’s behalf – all based, of course, on his latest research and keen insight on topics ranging from the Securities and Exchange Commission to inflation to the fate of cryptocurrencies. Much like the piece I collaborated with Kenneth and Jim on in 2019, our most recent article on the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX again prompted requests for testimony from Congress. We were discussing a possible follow-on to that piece in the weeks before he died.

        And I, too, experienced those morning doses of wisdom Jim doled out. After meeting him for the first time, I ran into Jim very early one morning as each of us were taking our morning walks across campus. As we strolled, we talked about whatever was happening in the world of finance at the time, and I was enthralled to hear what he had to say whenever we’d meet. And like Glenn, I, too, have been “Barthed” many times. I call them “NPR moments,” when you are so enthralled by a story on the local NPR station that you’d sit in the car in your driveway after getting home to hear the end. He was just that interesting and I didn’t want to miss a single word.

        Most important, he always made me feel like I belonged in the conversation, that he was genuinely interested in what I had to say. Over my 40-year career working closely with successful Silicon Valley start-up founders, CEOs of multi-billion-dollar global companies, and even a couple of national presidential candidates, I have never met a smarter, more accomplished or truly thoughtful and kind individual.

        I consider myself so very fortunate to have known him and call him my friend.


        James R. Barth received a bachelor’s degree from California State University at Sacramento in 1965, a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1967 and a Ph.D. in 1972 from Ohio State University. He went on to join George Washington University as an assistant professor of economics in 1972. He rose to the position of professor, and then in 1987 departed the university to become the chief economist and director of the Office of Policy and Economic Research, Federal Home Loan Bank Board. Subsequently, he then served as chief economist, Office of Thrift Supervision, U.S. Department of the Treasury until he joined Auburn’s faculty in 1989.

        He is survived by his wife Mary Barth, daughter Rachel Barth and her husband Sam Votsis, his grandchildren Lily (13), Thomas (11) and his siblings Linda Matthews, Carol Evans, and Robert Barth.

        To honor Professor Barth's memory, the Harbert College of Business established the James R. Barth Memorial Endowed Fund for Excellence.