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James R. Barth, prolific researcher, renowned scholar and beloved teacher and mentor to thousands of undergraduate and graduate students at Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business for 33 years, has died at the age of 79.
James R. Barth
Barth 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 dedication to his students during more than five decades of unwavering public service.
“It is with deep and profound sadness that I and the entire Auburn Family mark the passing of Jim Barth, one of the most beloved members of Auburn’s faculty since he first arrived on The Plains back in 1989,” said Auburn University President Christopher B. Roberts. “Jim’s storied career as a 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 globe for his generosity, kindness and devotion to his students.”
A legacy of research
At the time of his death, 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. At last count, his work has been cited by his peers in their own published research more than 18,200 times over the course of his career, with more than 50 new citations recorded just this year alone.
A testament to the impact of his work to this day can be found in a recent report from the Social Science Research Network, an online research repository working under the auspices of the World Bank, which revealed that Barth was among the top 1% of the almost 7 million researchers whose publications were downloaded during the past 12 months. Two of his co-authored works, “Bank Regulation and Supervision: What Works Best?” and “Rethinking Bank Regulation: Till Angels Govern” have been cited a combined 5,260 times by his scholarly peers.
Perhaps the most telling accolade bestowed upon Barth came just this past October when his early research on the 1980s savings and loan crisis was cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in their awarding of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and academics Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig.
“Dr. Barth’s dedication to his scholarly pursuits was rarely matched, as was his commitment to mentoring other people, especially his students who benefitted from his vast knowledge and caring demeanor,” said Joe Hanna, Regions Bank professor and Harbert interim dean. “Part of what made Jim such an effective educator was that he always challenged those around him to think differently, be creative, and adopt new approaches or emerging technologies to positively impact future generations.”
Telling it straight
Barth first rose to national prominence for his candid, research-based insight shortly before arriving at Auburn. 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), a now-defunct organization then charged with protecting depositors and which their agency oversaw, was insolvent.
In a recent interview, Barth reminisced that "at the time, I was told the head of FHLBB wasn't happy with a paper from economists within the agency saying the FSLIC was insolvent. Even some members of the Senate Banking Committee disagreed with the findings of the paper."
As the scope of the S&L problem became more apparent, the FHLBB and the insurance fund’s auditor eventually conceded that the insurance fund was indeed insolvent, which vindicated Barth's original assessment. The groundbreaking research paper, "Determinants of thrift institution resolution costs," was published in the Journal of Finance in 1990.
Thus began a career as an expert witness before Congress on issues ranging from financial services regulatory 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 recently. “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, so everything I do is geared to a better understanding and helping promote better-functioning financial systems. That’s the purpose of research. Can we come up with better ways to regulate and supervise our financial systems? If I do things that suggest a better way, not just here but across the world, then I’ve done something important.”
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.
At the time of his death, Barth was also a Fellow of the Wharton Financial Institutions Center, University of Pennsylvania since 2012 and a Senior Finance Fellow at the Milken Institute since 1997.
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.
A reception honoring the life and contributions of Dr. Jim Barth is scheduled for Wednesday, February 1, 2023, in Horton-Hardgrave Hall on the campus of Auburn University beginning at 4:00 PM.