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Illustration of Mark Carney, Bank of Canada Governor and chairman of Financial Stability Board. (Anthony Jenkins for The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins for The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of Mark Carney, Bank of Canada Governor and chairman of Financial Stability Board. (Anthony Jenkins for The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins for The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

Mark Carney: A common touch, an uncommon task Add to ...

The Governor of the Bank of Canada is standing in line at a burger joint just east of downtown Ottawa, a chain that bills itself as gourmet but is as much a haven for families as foodies.

Wearing a pin-striped suit and a widely knotted tie, flanked by an assistant and a reporter, a former Goldman Sachs banker like Mark Carney might seem out of place in a restaurant that counts “The Crappy Tire” and “Not So Thin Lizzy” among its menu offerings. But The Works is a go-to spot for him, a favourite with his wife and four young daughters. He gestures toward an area of picnic-table seating, half-enclosed by a chain-link fence. “Usually, we sit in the cage,” he says.

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Mr. Carney is in a jovial mood this mild December day, ready for his last formal interview of an exhilarating, but exhausting, year. He gained international notice in 2008, after making some gutsy, ahead-of-the-curve moves that would help to minimize Canada’s pain in the worst global recession since the Great Depression. But it was in 2011 that he became an indispensable force in the charge to ensure the mistakes that got the world into such a mess are never repeated.

His choice of eatery is, like so much of what he does during the workweek, calculated. For a man whose life is increasingly lived in airports and foreign hotels, now that he also runs a global organization, the Financial Stability Board, there’s comfort in dining at a place so familiar.

Going for burgers and Diet Coke also fits the improbable everyman image some ascribe to Mr. Carney, at a time when a Goldman résumé arouses suspicion among large segments of the public. At times it seems he is at pains to ensure he doesn’t look like an elitist: The Globe had proposed meeting at a sushi bar, but according to his spokesman, Mr. Carney rejected the idea as “pretentious.”

Like all central bankers, he has been known to pepper his speeches with head-scratching language best understood by fellow Oxford PhDs. But he has also become known for the kind of blunt, street-level comments that technocratic, moneyed men with cufflinks rarely utter, such as when he endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement.

On weekends, when he is not in Basel, Switzerland, at meetings of the FSB, he helps his wife, Diana, shuttle their four girls around to choir, piano practice, hockey and speed-skating. And he does so in his own car, instead of the chauffeured Chrysler 300 he uses for work. He describes it as “one of the joys” of living in a low-key capital like Ottawa. Clearly, he relishes chances to indulge his “ordinary” side, as much as he loves his work.

“It’s much more relaxing to do family stuff,” he says between bites of the “Roughriders Comeback” – an elk burger with bacon and caramelized onions. The health-conscious Mr. Carney is eating with a knife and fork after removing the top of his whole-wheat bun. “Unfortunately, it’s more relaxing because it’s not as usual as it should be,” he continues.

Travel prevents the former backup goalie for Harvard University (and lifelong Edmonton Oilers’ fan) from playing as much hockey as he’d like, but he still plays net in the odd pickup game at a local rink, and in the central bank’s annual tournament. But while Mr. Carney is in many ways a typical, 46-year-old, hockey-playing Canadian dad, he is of course anything but ordinary.

The location of the lunch spot coincidentally illustrates the two sides of Mark Carney – the boy from Fort Smith, NWT, via Edmonton who went on to earn millions rubbing shoulders with banking titans in Tokyo, London and New York, become a top policy maker, and find his name listed among Time’s 100 most influential people.

Ottawa has always been a “see-and-be-seen” kind of town, but the chances of running into a power broker are even higher in the runup to the holidays. As we wait, Mr. Carney runs into Marie-Josée Kravis, the former Conrad Black-era director at Hollinger International and wife of Henry Kravis, who as founder of U.S. private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., just happens to be one of the richest men on the planet.

The two exchange hellos, a reminder that, nowadays, everyone wants a piece of Mr. Carney, the first Canadian to hold a position with such global reach.

Already a relentless critic of the banking industry’s resistance to reforms and a valued adviser in European policy makers’ efforts to solve their region’s debt crisis, Mr. Carney was tapped in November by Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and the rest of the leaders from the world’s 20 most important economies to lead the FSB, putting him in charge of an ambitious drive to toughen the rules of global finance. As chairman, he must bring together officials from around the world to try to ensure the banking system never again sees a near-meltdown like the one triggered by the U.S. subprime-mortgage collapse. And after a trading scandal involving the wife of his No. 2 at the FSB – former Swiss central bank chief Philipp Hildebrand – recently ended his long-time pal’s career, he will be shouldering more of the FSB’s chock-full agenda for 2012, on top of keeping the Canadian economy onside.

The hope among many is that Mr. Carney’s intellect, charisma and persuasive powers will make it hard for nations’ banks to shirk their commitments. Central to this is a beefed-up campaign to monitor whether and how countries are implementing new rules, and to “name and shame” governments that aren’t doing their bit to rein in the riskiest behaviour.

One of the most high-profile measures the FSB is pushing would see 30 or more of the world’s biggest and most interconnected banks hold more capital in reserve, because the failure of any one of them could devastate the financial system and, as in 2008, the wider economy. Related is a drive to ensure that if reckless decision-making puts one of these behemoths at risk of collapse, taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag through massive government bailouts, as was the case in 2008 – that shareholders absorb the losses instead.

“We’ve made a lot of progress collectively, but ‘too-big-to-fail’ has not been ended,” he says, at the start of one of his most passionate answers in our hour-long lunch.

“I do not meet anybody in the general population who says we should keep too-big-to-fail. I do meet people, from time to time, who have vested interests, who argue effectively for keeping it, but they never would dare say [publicly]that they want to keep it, because everybody knows it doesn’t make sense, it’s wrong, it’s inconsistent with a market system, and it’s inconsistent with a sense of fairness. Trying to finish that and to advance that, that alone was reason to do this [job]”

Mr. Carney has always been good for a pithy quote. In his new role, though, anything he says can be fodder for headlines.

Earlier in his term at the Bank of Canada – a post that started in February, 2008 – he could still occasionally be seen enjoying a post-work pint with friends in downtown watering holes, even ones crawling with journalists. Now, he almost never sits down with a reporter unless his media assistant, Jeremy Harrison, is there. (Today is no exception; Mr. Harrison is taking notes and running a tape recorder right along with me.) Nonetheless, he has made a habit of voicing refreshingly honest, and clear, comments when you least expect.

On the eve of the G20 summit in France, he backed the Greek government’s stunning call for a referendum on whether to accept a bailout plan on offer from its partners in the euro zone, implicitly telling markets that the people who feel the most pain from the austerity measures governments take to satisfy bondholders ought to have a say. A couple of weeks earlier, he raised eyebrows when he called the Occupy Wall Street movement an “entirely constructive” response to rising inequality in U.S. society.

“It’s very important [that]people understand the broader economic forces, and what realistic time frames there are for these forces to play out,” he tells me. “Unfortunately, in some countries, the range of policy options they have, given those broader forces and given their starting position, are pretty limited, and it’s a question of choosing the least bad option in the end. But that should take place in as informed a way as possible.”

His strong belief that the public must understand and support steps that their elected leaders take to right the global economy, combined with a steadily growing public profile, have provoked whispers in Ottawa that the next logical realm for Mr. Carney’s career might be politics.

There is no indication he entertains thoughts of a political career down the road and, even if he did, he couldn’t say so. The role of central banker is independent from the political process but, especially in times like these, people need to be sure the Governor and the government he serves are on the same page. Still, some commentators have hailed him as a rare truth-teller in Ottawa, unafraid to speak in unvarnished terms during an era dominated by spin and message control.

Yet, on questions about his long-term ambitions, he has mastered the art – crucial to the job – of keeping certain cards close to his chest. For policy, that means being clear about economic conditions and trends, but refusing to spell out exactly where interest rates are headed. Personally, that means insisting that Mark Carney, whose first terms at both the central bank and the FSB end about three years from now, is just too busy to think about what might come next.

“I don’t have a lot of time to think about anything else, other than doing what I’m doing,” he says. When I press him again on why it was so important for an already stretched man to take on the FSB post, he gives a response that sounds as genuine as it does political, repeating his strong belief that policy can make a difference, that the changes he is seeking are right and have public support, and that there’s a limited window to achieve them.

“There is a limit, obviously, to what any one individual can do,” he says. “But if you care about this stuff, and you have an opportunity to influence things, you’d be crazy not to. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to try my best.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

BEGINNINGS

Born in 1965 in Fort Smith, NWT; grew up in Edmonton.

Earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard and a doctorate in economics at Oxford.

HOME LIFE

Lives in Ottawa's tony Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood.

Married to Diana, a British-born economist.

Has four daughters (aged 5, 7, 9 and 11)

PASSIONS

Running, tennis, hockey. (Played backup net at Harvard; plays pickup when he can.)

Describes his musical tastes as “eclectic.” Latest favourite is Canadian rap-rock group Down With Webster, who he caught “by accident” after seeing another band at a concert venue.

CAREER

Thirteen years with investment bank Goldman Sachs & Co., in London, Tokyo, New York and Toronto.

Started his public service career in 2003 as one of five deputy governors at the Bank of Canada, under former Governor David Dodge.

From 2004-2007 was the Finance Department's point man at meetings of the Group of Seven club of rich economies.

Appointed Bank of Canada Governor in 2008.

Named chairman of the Financial Stability Board in 2011.

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