The Society was hosted in the Square Mile by insurer Aviva for a panel focused on the career paths of economists, hosted by Catherine Connolly. Each of the three panellists has followed quite distinct paths through the profession. Janet Henry, Global Chief Economist for HSBC, did not leave university expecting to work in economics. Instead she aspired to be a foreign correspondent, moving to Hong Kong with the Economist Intelligence Unit in the mid-1990s. She joined HSBC in time for the Asian Financial Crisis, being called from a party to receive a landline call and learn of the Thai Baht devaluation. Coverage of the dramatic changes of the era in Asia merited a break, before Janet rejoined HSBC in London. Picking up coverage for European economics in 2007 proved another study in economic upheaval, before she took on her current role as Chief Global Economist in 2015.
Osama Rahman, Chief Analyst and Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Education, was born in Salford and lived in Nigeria for a spell before attending university In the US to study mathematics and computer science. In his last year, he filled his last undergraduate elective slot with a Microeconomics course, and after graduate school in the US he returned to the UK to lecture in microeconomics. After 10 years he took a job as a senior economist at the Civil Aviation Authority. Differences with the then Director General proved a turning point, and Osama decided to join the Department for Constitutional Affairs as Chief Economist. He became Director of Analysis and Chief Scientific Adviser at the Ministry of Justice, before transferring in the same capacity to the DfE.
Alison Cottrell, CEO of the Banking Standards Board, has based her career on applying economics even when not working as an economist. Her A-level in the subject gave her a deep interest, and after a degree in economics and politics she began in investment management. She chose to move to the banking side of the City with the then Midland Bank, where she learned that being right was valuable; but more important was to write in a way which clients wanted to read, and which provoked them to think afresh.
Eventually she opted for government work, joining the Treasury and applying her macro analytical experience to policy - increasingly in a micro capacity. Over time, the roles became less specifically economics-driven, but Cottrell’s approach remained that of an economist, leading teams to analyse key policy issues. The aftermath of the financial crisis, which Cottrell had seen from within the Treasury, led to the creation the Banking Standards Board, tasked with overseeing banks and other financial institutions reforming their cultures. Cottrell took on the CEO role in 2015. The analytical content thereafter became more behavioural, but this shows yet another application of economic thinking.
Economics has changed during the careers of the panellists. Henry recalled that in the late 1990s, simply passing on information globally, with minimal analysis, was a value-added service. Information has been democratised, making distillation of information much more important than sourcing. Longer term themes such as climate change and technology have become far more important then the next quarter’s GDP forecast. Cottrell reflected on the greater opportunity, and need for, cross-disciplinary working - not least the underrated study of history. Henry agreed that increasing focus on data science approaches can be undermined by lack of historical awareness. Rahman observed, though, that true revolutions in economic theory are rare, with the Freshwater School of US economic thinking perhaps the only serious one in 40-50 years.
All careers present choices at some point. Cottrell noted that any choice is a good situation, and that they key to a good choice is to focus on where one will learn more quickly, and which decisions may close off options. Henry remarked that she had tended to be less inclined to make changes, having often found herself deeply engaged in a particular role and with unfinished business which she wanted to see through. Rahman’s choices had often been shaped by where he could make positive changes happen, or where the opportunity seemed particularly interesting. He noted that he has always found ministers interested in his assessments, even if their decision went elsewhere and due to wholly separate considerations.
Reflecting more on learning, Rahman found it important that his managers would allow him the space to make mistakes: he argued that a “s*** happens” culture accelerates learning. Henry felt her move back to London was validated by the accelerating effect a bigger team had on her learning. Cottrell noted that mentors can help with a sense of perspective when interpersonal relations are not working well; often initial discord can then turn into great learning opportunities among diverse thinkers. She advised being unafraid to ask others for 5 minutes of their insight.
Looking to the future of the profession, Cottrell insisted that the goal was to introduce a degree of economic thinking into all areas of change – whether scientific or social. Communication with non-economists is also key. Rahman noted the usefulness of coding in framing economic thinking. Henry anticipated major changes in macroeconomic policymaking, with increasing attention on the interaction of monetary and fiscal policy. There are no formulaic approaches to building a career, but those attending were lucky to receive such candid advice on how to map their own paths.
Sunil Krishnan, SPE Council Member
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