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WASHINGTON — During a recent appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen faced an awkward question: After nearly two years in the job, why was the signature of her predecessor, Steven T. Mnuchin, still scrawled across the nation’s currency?
The answer, she explained, was a quirk of currency design that required a new treasurer of the United States to be in place before the money could be remade with both of their signatures.
That finally happened on Thursday when the first bank notes bearing the name of America’s first female Treasury secretary were unveiled. The occasion was another crack in the glass ceiling for Ms. Yellen and the notoriously male-dominated field of economics.
The bills will also bear the name of Marilynn Malerba, the first Native American to hold the role of treasurer. The first $1 and $5 notes with their signatures will enter circulation next month.
Ms. Yellen, who has previously served as the Federal Reserve chair and the head of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, said on Thursday that having her name on the currency was more than a personal career achievement.
“Today is not about me or a new signature on our currency,” Ms. Yellen said during a visit to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s about our collective work to create a stronger and more inclusive economy.”
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What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.
What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.
Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains can lead to higher wages and job growth.
Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.
The Treasury secretary noted that things have not always come easily for women in economics. When Ms. Yellen completed her doctorate at Yale in 1971, she recalled, there were no other women in her cohort.
“When I was at the start of my academic career, women made up only 6 percent of faculty in economic departments surveyed by the American Economic Association,” Ms. Yellen said. “And this was back in the early 1970s. Women who came before me — and even more so for those in less-forgiving professions — experienced much worse.”
During her first two years at the Treasury, Ms. Yellen has sought to bring more gender and racial diversity to the department, a move aimed at ensuring that the Biden administration’s economic policies are representative of the population, and more equitable.
From a policy perspective, Ms. Yellen’s tenure has not been without turbulence. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Democrats passed last year helped stoke the most rapid inflation in four decades. After expressing optimism that inflation would cool when pandemic-stricken supply chains became untangled, Ms. Yellen acknowledged this year that she misjudged the trajectory of rising prices.
And while Ms. Yellen notched a major diplomatic win in 2021 by leading more than 130 countries to agree to enact a global minimum tax, Congress has yet to ratify the pact, leaving the international tax overhaul in limbo.
That had helped fuel speculation in Washington that Ms. Yellen might leave her position after the midterm elections. However, she said at a New York Times DealBook conference in November that she is committed to staying on.
“I have no plans to leave,” Ms. Yellen said, adding that she is excited about carrying out President Biden’s agenda.
The job could soon become more challenging. Republicans, who are assuming control of the House of Representatives, have made clear they plan an aggressive array of investigations into the Biden administration’s policies, including its efforts to beef up the Internal Revenue Service.
Ms. Yellen will play a leading role in those efforts, overseeing an $80 billion revamp of the tax agency. Her department will also have to navigate enactment of a climate and energy law that has angered the European Union and contains tax measures that will be devised at the Treasury Department. And Ms. Yellen will face the challenge of holding together an international push to impose crushing sanctions on Russia without causing additional inflationary blowback.
In her remarks, Ms. Yellen noted that while women have appeared on American coinage, there is unfinished work to be done to diversify America’s currency.
“With your hard work, we will be introducing new currency designs in the coming years — including placing Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the $20 bill,” she said.
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The initiative to add Tubman to the $20 bill was first proposed by Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew in 2016 but stalled during the Trump administration under Mr. Mnuchin’s watch. The Biden administration said last year that it was exploring ways to accelerate the release of a redesigned $20 note, but the complexity of developing new anti-counterfeiting technology continues to be an obstacle. The new $20 notes are scheduled to come out in 2030.
The delay in getting Ms. Yellen’s signature on the greenback stemmed from the White House’s slow process for choosing a U.S. treasurer. By tradition, the treasurer must sign the money along with the Treasury secretary. Both signatures are engraved onto plates at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where they are printed and submitted to the Federal Reserve, which determines what currency will be added to circulation.
Mr. Biden finally appointed Ms. Malerba in June. The role, which does not require Senate confirmation, includes overseeing the U.S. Mint, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Fort Knox.
Ms. Malerba, who attended the event in Ft. Worth, said that “this moment is history,” noting that “two women on the currency for the first time is momentous.”
Within the Treasury Department, the rollout of the notes bearing Ms. Yellen’s signature was met with enthusiasm.
“It’s a great — both symbolic — but also an important moment,” Wally Adeyemo, the deputy Treasury secretary, said in an interview this week. “One of the things I’m looking forward to is getting my 5-year-old goddaughter a copy of a bill signed by two women, including Janet Yellen, who is the first woman in more than 200 years to be the secretary of the Treasury.”
The unveiling of the Treasury secretary’s signature on new currency is traditionally a moment of some intrigue and fanfare.
At Mr. Mnuchin’s ceremony in 2017, he posed with a sheet of uncut $1 notes with his wife, Louise Linton. The images went viral, with Mr. Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, drawing comparisons to a Bond villain.
During her conversation with Mr. Colbert, Ms. Yellen recalled that Mr. Lew’s signature appeared to be eight circles that were connected and that the penmanship of his predecessor, Timothy F. Geithner, also proved to be illegible. Both, she said, had to be redone.
On Thursday, Ms. Yellen — who is known to have a penchant for exacting preparation — acknowledged that she spent some “quality time” signing her name clearly before submitting it to the director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
“You would think this would be a straightforward process,” Ms. Yellen said. “But the founding fathers did not account for what seems to be a common attribute for Treasury secretaries: namely, terrible handwriting.”