Jun. 13--REPORTING FROM NEW YORK -- -- The job: Michael Silva, 49, has been chief of staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for four years. He took the position when Timothy F. Geithner was the bank's president. When Geithner became Treasury secretary in 2009 his successor, William Dudley, asked Silva to stay on. His role is to make sure the bank president has everything he needs: "One reason that the job is very exciting and challenging is that it is undefined," Silva said.
The organization: The most powerful of the 12 regional Fed banks, the New York Fed is responsible for most of the transactions made to implement national monetary policy. The bank is said to have the world's largest accumulation of gold in its basement.
Crisis management: At the height of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, the New York Fed was at the center of negotiations for the giant rescue of American International Group Inc. and the fire-sale takeovers of Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch. Silva was responsible for arranging the key meetings and making sure that Geithner had access to the data and people he needed.
The setting: On the 10th floor of the New York Fed's fortress-like headquarters near Wall Street, Silva's elegant office is decorated with nautical devices and large model boats in a tribute to his days in the Navy. A big flat-screen television is tuned to CNBC. A modest wood door leads to the bank president's office. During the worst of the financial crisis, Silva worked for 42 days straight and often stayed in one of the stone building's three bedrooms.
Dreams of flying: Silva and two brothers were raised by a single father, the son of Mexican immigrants, in a bungalow near Hermosa Beach. At age 7 Silva went to an air show at Point Mugu and his imagination took flight: "The thing I remember most about growing up in Hermosa Beach was the bright blue sky," he said. "I just wanted to be up there."
When Silva told his high school guidance counselor that he wanted to attend a military academy, her skepticism served as an inspiration. "She kind of looked at this scraggly Mexican kid and she tried to direct me to shop class, which was sort of a gift, because it pissed me off," he recalled. "I didn't look like much, but I was a pretty determined little guy." The little guy got into the Naval Academy.
In the Navy: Poor eyesight kept Silva from becoming a fighter pilot, but he won a coveted spot in the crew of an F-14 Tomcat jet -- where he sat in the back seat, he noted, just like the Goose character in the movie "Top Gun." He went on missions to intercept Soviet jets that tried to fly along the Atlantic coast: "I'm 24, the guy in the front seat is 25, and we are turned loose on the world with this $15-million aircraft, including live weapons. That level of responsibility was very energizing."
The law: After the Navy, Silva went to Columbia University's law school and considered working at a law firm but was turned off by the relatively small amount of responsibility given to new corporate lawyers. He opted instead for the New York Fed.
Persistence pays: Days before Silva's scheduled job interview, the Fed imposed a hiring freeze for lawyers and canceled all interviews. Silva said he sent the hiring manager a letter saying, "I know you don't need any more lawyers, but I still think you should talk to me," and had a messenger hand-deliver it. He got the job. That was 1992.
War zone: In 2003, months after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Silva was asked as part of his job to guide Iraq's Central Bank in writing new banking laws. He lived in a trailer in Baghdad's Green Zone. "The resourcefulness and initiative I learned from the Navy really helped out," he said.
Still a beach bum: Silva spends summer weekends at a beach club near his home in New Jersey, where he and his wife raised two daughters. He commutes to and from work in Manhattan via high-speed ferry and calls the time on the water his favorite part of the day. He may miss California but figures New Jersey beats any inland location. "The beach has just turned out to be this very important psychological thing for me in my life," he said. The Jersey shore is "not Hermosa Beach by any means, but it's not bad."
Best advice: When choosing between the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy, Silva was given this counsel: "Mike, do what looks like the most fun." More than two decades later, he said, "That's a piece of advice I've followed several times, and it has worked very well."
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