As Carolyn Wilkins prepares to vacate one of the most critical positions at the Bank of Canada, she’s actually hoping that the organization won’t much miss her. In fact, she’d take that as a compliment.
“Part of the job as a leader – as senior deputy governor – is to make sure that if something happens to them or when they leave, everything works fine. I take great pride in saying that they’re going to do fine without me,” the bank’s No. 2 official and de facto chief operating officer told The Globe and Mail. “I’m going to miss them, but there’s a very strong team in place.”
Ms. Wilkins sat down for an interview via video conference just days after she had informed the bank’s board that she would step down Dec. 9, five months before the end of her seven-year term – ending a nearly 20-year career at the central bank.
When the year began, most experts had tabbed the 56-year-old economist as the next governor of the bank, to succeed her then-boss, Stephen Poloz, when his own term expired in June. Instead, the job went to Tiff Macklem, a former senior deputy governor who spent the past several years as dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“When you think about the choices that are in front of you, it could have been to seek a second term [as deputy governor] ... or look outside and see what there is outside the bank, and perhaps even outside of government,” said Ms. Wilkins, who has spent her entire 32-year professional career in the public sector.
“When I thought about that over the summer, clearly, to me, there was a chance to explore the next chapter in my career.”
For now, she’s not saying what will come next for one of Canada’s most accomplished and respected voices in economics and finance – and one of its most powerful women.
“You can imagine that, when you’re the senior deputy governor, it is more than a full-time job. Canadians deserve my full attention to that, and that’s what I intend to do until the ninth of December. So I don’t have anything today to tell you about with respect to my future plans.”
The job has been even bigger under Ms. Wilkins than it was for most of her predecessors as senior deputy governor – a position that has traditionally overseen the bulk of the administrative duties for an 1,800-staff operation. While past senior deputies operated very much in the shadows of their governor, Ms. Wilkins was as near to a co-governor as the bank has had.
Mr. Poloz, who brought her to the job in 2014 and worked with her for all but her final few months, entrusted Ms. Wilkins with numerous key files and shared the spotlight with her at the bank’s regular press conferences. Ms. Wilkins became very much a public face of the Bank of Canada – a role that well-suited her personable style, and her ease in clearly communicating the bank’s message in both official languages.
“She’s a true partner in managing the bank,” Mr. Poloz said in a telephone interview last week. “She shared my workload in a very direct way. ... It makes quite a difference when your partner is there to share the stress.”
Her role has been even more vital, and stressful, over the past eight months, as the economy careened into a pandemic-fuelled recession and the central bank launched an array of measures to stabilize foundering financial markets, keep credit flowing, and stimulate the economy.
Ms. Wilkins played a key role in those actions, overseeing the implementation of numerous lending and asset-purchase programs, which she had helped design over the past few years as the bank made sure it was prepared for the next crisis. That included the bank’s weekly purchases of billions of dollars' worth of Government of Canada bonds – the central bank’s first venture into an unconventional and somewhat controversial policy practice known as quantitative easing, or QE.
At the same time, Ms. Wilkins has been the bank’s point person on a major review of its monetary policy mandate, ahead of next year’s renewal of its five-year agreement with the federal government on its 2-per-cent inflation target – which for 25 years has acted as the crucial anchor for Bank of Canada’s interest-rate policy. Under her guidance, the bank has done extensive research into several options to adjust its inflation-based mandate to address the country’s evolving economic realities, and launched public consultations over the summer.
Unlike the inflation-mandate review, which will certainly be completed in the second half of 2021, a wind-up of the QE program is far less certain. The bank recently announced that it would reduce its weekly purchases to $4-billion from $5-billion, but Ms. Wilkins cautioned that her colleagues are still far from talking about ending the program – which the bank considers a key element of its economic stimulus package, and has pledged to continue “until the recovery is well under way.”
“It’s much too early to talk about that,” she said. “I’m not being coy. ... It really does depend on the state of market functioning, on the state of the economy, and what we think is required to get us back to full capacity and inflation sustainably back to target. It’s not just one variable that matters, it’s a lot of them.”
She takes issue with critics who have suggested that by buying large quantities of government debt, the central bank is essentially funding the federal government’s huge deficit spending in the COVID-19 crisis – and in doing so, is blurring the line between fiscal and monetary authorities, and jeopardizing the central bank’s political independence.
“When you look at our actual transactions – buying government bonds – you can see why some people might wonder,” she said. “[But] you can be assured that our actions are aimed completely at our inflation target.”
“We’ll see this with the outcomes,” she said. “We’re not the only ones buying Canadian government debt – there’s a strong appetite, in fact. The government is being financed by many.”
One of Ms. Wilkins’s biggest legacies from her time as senior deputy governor is as a leader for gender equality and diversity in Canada’s financial and economic communities. As the highest-ranking woman in Bank of Canada history, she shattered glass ceilings in a business long dominated by men, inspired a new generation of female financial leaders, and championed a diversity of hiring and of viewpoints within the central bank’s corridors. Under her supervision, the share of women at the managing director level – the upper echelon of bank staff – has increased by 20 per cent.
“Economics is a space that doesn’t have enough women in it. To see a senior woman do such an exceptional and well-regarded job – it puts her in the position of being a role model to an entire generation,” said Camilla Sutton, president and chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets, an advocacy group for gender equality in the financial industry. “We’ve been very lucky to have her as part of the leadership team there.”
The Bank of Canada earlier this month formally launched its search for Ms. Wilkins’s successor, posting an ad for the position with executive search firm Boyden. It’s unlikely a new senior deputy will be in place in time for Ms. Wilkins’s departure; the process typically takes months and requires several steps of approval, with the final thumbs-up resting in the hands of the Prime Minister and Finance Minister. Despite the challenging circumstances, Ms. Wilkins has no doubt that they’ll find a successor who is “more than up for the job.”
“These are amazing jobs. They are highly valued by me and by others, because they’re meaningful – you get to do something for Canadians,” she said.
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