Treasury Undersecretary Explains Transition to Public Service

Last Monday, Mary John Miller, the U.S. Treasury’s Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, spoke at HBS about her role in the Treasury Department and her transition from the private sector to public service. According to Miller, providing an “opportunity for investors to have a voice in the outcomes [of regulatory policy decisions]” caused her to jump at an offer to serve as the Assistant Treasurer for Financial Markets in 2009.

Prior to her transition, Miller had enjoyed a successful career at T. Rowe Price, a global investment management firm based in Baltimore, MD, where she served as the director of the Fixed Income Division and a member of the firm’s Management Committee.

As a top money manager and a specialist in debt securities, she was regularly invited to Washington to help regulators better understand the subprime crisis and advise on potential regulatory responses. Brian Rogers, T. Rowe’s Chairman, credits her with leading the company’s fixed income team through the trauma of the financial crisis.

Miller said she had envisioned finishing her career at T. Rowe Price and had never contemplated serving in government, so she was surprised when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asked her to join his team.

In her current role as Under Secretary for Domestic Finance, Miller coordinates rule-making among multiple regulators while developing Treasury’s policies and guidance in the areas of financial regulatory reform, housing finance reform, and fiscal issues.

According to Miller, the 2008 financial crisis was a transformative experience for the Treasury Department. The Dodd-Frank Act ushered in two new regulatory bodies, the Office of Financial Research and the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which both had to be integrated into Treasury’s existing organization.

In response to a question posed by an HBS student about how the new regulations and oversight bodies would enable the agency to pre-emptively address threats to the financial market, Miller pointed to a push to change the department’s culture to one that is more aware, informed, and alert. This focus on information gathering will ensure Treasury is well prepared to react to any future financial crises, she said.

As an example, Miller emphasized the success of the Dodd-Frank Act in creating a readiness at Treasury which enabled it to respond more effectively to the collapse of MF Global last fall, thereby ensuring it did not become a ‘domino’ event.

Beyond bank regulation, Miller’s role also involves working to develop and implement Treasury’s programs to rescue and reform the housing finance market.

In her estimation, this is the area of her work where Treasury has received the most outside criticism and she concedes that some of that criticism “is accurate; some is not accurate.” On fiscal policy, she gives a nod to the necessity of restraining the nation’s ever-growing debt, but asserts that the goal is to “secure growth first, then we can swallow our medicine and align spending and revenue.”

There is no doubt that the assignment Miller has before her – implementing reform to create a more resilient financial system – is tremendous. As an outsider to the government machine, the task could seem overwhelming.

When questioned by a joint HKS and HBS student on the transition from the private to the public sector, Miller disagreed with a common belief that operating in government requires a completely different skill-set to business. At the end of the day, she said, good management is good management, and all employees want to be led in a way that ensures they feel fairly treated and enables them to develop professionally.