AIER guides financial decisions large and small
Director of education Natalia Smirnova in front of AIER headquarters with John Barry, president of AIS, and David St. Peter, AIS director of institutional services.
Photo by Megan Haley
Two stone pillars on Division Street, away from the bustle of Great Barrington, reveal little about what goes on beyond the entrance. The only visible indicator is the lettering “AIER.” American Institute for Economic Research. The driveway leads to a Cotswold cottage–style mansion built in the late 1920s that is now home to this economic think tank and investment-advisory firm of 37 individuals.
Founded in 1933 by Col. E.C. Harwood, whose motto was “for integrity, there is no substitute,” AIER’s mission has been to produce unbiased economic research that could help the common man navigate the economic landscape. Harwood believed if people understood how to take care of their finances, society would benefit and hopefully be protected from economic disasters.
Think tanks are public-policy research organizations that offer advice. They range from autonomous and independent, like AIER, to government-, political party– or corporate-affiliated. For its research, AIER employs the scientific method of inquiry, a process by which a problem is observed, a hypothesis created and tested, and a conclusion made. Harwood believed he could empower the individual by providing unbiased reports, not swayed by politics or politicians.
Alice Maggio, Local Currency Program director at Schumacher Center for a New Economics, another Berkshire think tank, observes that on a nice day, the folks at AIER can see the Schumacher Center across the valley. It’s a potent reminder that they both exist and are guided by similar principles. “What’s interesting is that, while the approaches of our two organizations are very different, our work is inspired by similar economic traditions,” says Maggio. “Colonel Harwood was interested in many of the same questions that we are still exploring in our work with Berkshares—who should issue currency, and for what purposes?—and with the Community Land Trust—how should we organize land tenure and access to natural resources? The analysis of the problems is similar but the solutions we work toward are often different.”
Since AIER’s inception, the institute has sold millions of copies of its research and attracted thousands of members and many individual contributors. Much like the famed Kiplinger newsletter, AIER’s research attracts people who want to educate themselves to become informed investors and better managers of their finances. One recent AIER study, titled “Defying Expectations, Older Workers Find New Careers,” was profiled in Money Magazine.
The investment-counseling arm, American Investment Services (AIS) offers two services that dovetail with AIER’s research: a monthly investment guide available by subscription and individual asset management. John Barry, president and CEO of AIS, and David St. Peter, AIS vice president and director of institutional services, are both Berkshire natives who, after careers teaching economics at the Air Force Academy (Barry), and working at Goldman Sachs (St. Peter), stumbled upon what they both called a “gem hidden in plain sight in the Berkshires.” Their “sleep-well” tactic to investment management was validated after the financial collapse in 2008, when their successful guidance gained them more clients. AIS currently manages close the three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Education is the cornerstone of AIER and AIS, and many of their initiatives are directly impacting the local economy. Director of education Natalia Smirnova, who hails from a tenured professorship at Mount Saint Vincent College in Riverdale, New York, where she taught economics and finance, was born and raised in St.Petersberg, Russia. Her infectious passion for economics is evident in the two programs that she spearheaded, Teach the Teachers and Money School. “These programs fit with the mission of AIER to provide economic and financial theory to the general public,” Smirnova proclaims. “I want to help the community have opportunities.”
Teach the Teachers educates high school teachers across an array of economic disciplines such as money and inflation, business cycles and unemployment, and government and the economy. Smirnova recalled a Spanish-language teacher who was excited to incorporate an economics lesson into her language class because it made learning more relevant for students. The program is offered in collaboration with several Federal Reserve Banks across the country.
Money School, designed for women in domestic-violence shelters, is a collaboration between the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Pittsfield and Rosie’s Place in Boston, the first women’s shelter (founded in 1974) in the country. Smirnova has recruited people throughout the Berkshires to volunteer and offer financial coaching and education. In its three years of existence, Money School has impacted over 80 women.