The numbers game
Economists deal in data and in policies that affect the lives of millions. This puts them in the hot seat, especially in times of economic turbulence. These modern-day oracles move between the world of academics and think tanks and operational and functional positions, steering companies and countries through a complex world. And they face their share of disagreements—through articles in newspapers or on social media.
We spoke to three such professionals, who tell us why they read voraciously, travel frenetically and use a combination of rigorous economic methods and common sense to come up with solutions on matters related to the economy.
Chief economic adviser to the Union government, New Delhi
Professionals have to focus on what they are meant to do. The rest will take care of itself,” says Arvind Subramanian, on the challenges of working in the government. Around 18 months ago, the economist packed his bags and moved from Washington, DC, US, to New Delhi, trading his suit and tie for the Nehru jacket.
For 10 years, he had been a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Centre for Global Development, both Washington-based think tanks. Today he sits in the ministry of finance as the chief economic adviser to the Union government and is the architect of the most important economic analysis document, the annual Economic Survey. He is also the go-to person for all economic matters.
“People always ask me, ‘Isn’t it difficult to work in government coming from the outside?’ I think I was aware of many of the challenges, and so was prepared for them. As an academic, you are unencumbered by what you can say, but it’s different when you are in the public eye. So that is true, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how much one can do and how it’s possible to express oneself completely freely in private interactions and be taken seriously,” he says.
How he got here: Subramanian was on a family holiday in Peru, climbing the famous Machu Picchu in the Andes mountains, when he first learnt he was being considered for the role of chief economic adviser. Checking his phone for routine mails, he found one from a source close to the finance minister, asking him if he would be interested in the job. Subramanian and his eldest son conferred at the base of the mountain.
Taking the job would mean a disruption in their family life. Subramanian’s youngest son, Rohan, was in his final year at high school in the US, and his two older children were also settled in the US. But Subramanian was excited. “To be part of the government and of policymaking is a dream job for an economist,” he says.
A 1979 economics graduate from St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, Subramanian did his master’s in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (1981), and then an MPhil and a DPhil in economics from Oxford University, UK (1981-87). He worked at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 1992-2007, taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government for a year (1999-2000), when he was on a break from the IMF, and at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (2008-10). He then joined the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Centre for Global Development.
A day at work: It’s a short drive from Subramanian’s bungalow in New Moti Bagh to his office in North Block. He gets to work at 8.45am, before most of the office staff. By 10am, people start walking in, either for scheduled meetings or informally.
“I try to keep things informal, creating a kind of academic seminar-type of atmosphere,” says Subramanian, who works closely with different ministries, like the railways, power and environment. Members of his team walk in at regular intervals. Many are young, in their 20s and 30s, members of the Indian Economic Service, or young PhDs from US colleges like Harvard and Princeton.
Occasionally, Subramanian meets the Prime Minister as part of a larger team. “The interactions are a lot more than I expected,” says Subramanian, who sometimes presents reports at these meetings, and discusses issues.
Skills needed: “You have to respect the decision-making process in government. You provide an input, and try and persuade people. You will get your way sometimes, but you’re not going to get it all the time. At such times, you shouldn’t have too much vanity, because decision making is very complex and there are many people at higher levels than you who are going to have a say. This is how governments in a democratic setting work and you have to know that in advance,” he says.
Joys of the job: “The opportunity to be part of something much bigger, to provide inputs for the government and to work on policymaking for government,” says Subramanian.
Irksome part of the job: “Being away from my family, and not having been able to spend enough time with them, especially my youngest son Rohan, who is going off to college this fall,” he says.
Most memorable project: This year’s Economic Survey has been well received as a very good document, says Subramanian, who is happy that his recommendations on increasing public investment were appreciated. “There has been a big increase in public spending over the last budget, almost 20% in real terms.”
Something you would do differently: “I would have started reading a lot earlier than I did. I would have read more, learnt more, remembered more. Reading history or literature, for instance, allows me to approach economics in a more rounded way,” says Subramanian, who is now a voracious reader—he utilizes all his spare time to read.
Money matters: Subramanian says he took an 80-90% cut in salary to take this job—he refuses to divulge figures, but according to estimates, people working in international think tanks earn $150,000-200,000, or Rs.1-1.3 crore, a year. “The compensations of the job far outweigh the cut in remuneration,” says Subramanian.
CEO, Outline India, Gurgaon
The quality of data in the development sector can be really bad. There are no research agencies that specialize in this sector; the regular data collection agencies will collect data on toothpaste, on whether (actor) Kareena Kapoor is more popular, and also on the rate of absenteeism of primary healthcare doctors,” says Prerna Mukharya, who started Outline India, a primary data research agency, to fill that gap.
How she got here: Mukharya graduated in economics from Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College in 2007 and completed her master’s in economics from Boston University, US, in 2009. She had short stints as research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2009), Harvard University (2010) and National Bureau of Economic Research in Delhi (2010), before joining the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in the Capital as research associate in June 2010.
Mukharya left the CPR in 2012 to start Outline India. The firm conducts qualitative and quantitative research for academics, think tanks, philanthropic organizations and companies. Currently, her company has 12 employees as well as a research-based team that is brought in on a project basis, and works primarily in the areas of health, education, water and sanitation.
A day at work: “My workdays are varied. In Delhi, I could be meeting with someone senior working at the World Bank or at Unicef and, 24 hours later, I’m in the field, researching, speaking to schoolgirls about toilets in their schools, or to a block development officer to inform him/her that my team will be working in a particular area,” says Mukharya, who travels extensively in states like Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as well as the North-East.
Skills needed: “You need to have people skills and be a good communicator. Also, to be good with numbers, with math and statistics, to know how to work with data-processing platforms,” she says.
Joys of the job:“I love the fieldwork. I also love the fact that our research work feeds into reports that help design better schemes,” she says.
Irksome part of the job: “When I started Outline India, in the first six months I did a lot of work for free. Today we don’t do that. I have learnt to never work for free, because people will not respect you or value your effort,” she says.
Most memorable project: Outline India worked in the remote mica-mining areas of Koderma district in Jharkhand last year, collecting data from 5,500 households on child labour. The study was for Impaq International, a US-based research agency, as part of a larger study funded by the US department of labor. “In our interactions, we realized that we can actually bring about change by collecting information that could help shape policies aimed at improving the lives of people,” says Mukharya.
Something you would do differently: “It’s hard to say. Maybe do a PhD, like so many colleagues at CPR. Today, when someone calls me an economist, I feel surprised because I haven’t done my PhD,” she says.
Money matters: Starting salaries for freshers at Outline India are Rs.3-4 lakh per annum, and for those with two-three years of experience, Rs.5-6 lakh a year.
Chief economist and executive director, JP Morgan Chase India, Mumbai
I was 18 years old when India experienced its balance of payments crisis and, suddenly, economic policy went from being page 7 to page 1,” says Sajjid Chinoy, who left Mumbai a year later to study mathematics and computer science at Richmond College, US. The year 1992 was also the year of the US election, and there were debates everywhere, many on economic policy. “Bill Clinton’s campaign was predicated on the phrase, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’” says Chinoy, who took one economics class in college as a compulsory part of his graduation programme, and ended up falling in love with the subject.
How he got here: After completing a degree in math, computer science and economics from the University of Richmond (1996), Chinoy went on to do a master’s and PhD in economics at Stanford University (1997-2001). He then worked at management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. in New York (2001-04) and at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, DC (2004-05), before joining the financial services firm of JP Morgan Chase in Mumbai in 2010.
A day at work: The morning starts at 8am with calls from clients, for markets in Asia open early in the day. “The questions are often the same—‘What is the outlook for inflation?’ ‘Where are the output gaps?’ ‘What are the key global or domestic risks?’” says Chinoy, who reads extensively and monitors economic indices, like the Index of Industrial Production, Consumer Price Index and Wholesale Price Index, oil prices, etc., to be able to answer these questions.
Apart from calls and meetings with corporate clients, Chinoy tries to spend 3-4 hours every day on research. “I often lock myself up in my room, at the end of the day when markets are closed, and try and study the data in great detail, as understanding patterns in the data is the key to this job,” he says.
There’s a lot of travel as well, to Singapore, London and New York, to meet clients or attend conferences.
Skills needed: “It helps to do a PhD. It will only add value to your skills as an economist, giving you an academic rigour and understanding. You need to keep yourself updated by being open to different perspectives, and really understand data,” he says.
Joys of the job: “The balance between data analysis, research, writing and meeting relevant stakeholders,” says Chinoy, who enjoys the fact that his job exposes him to all facets of the economy.
Irksome part of the job: “I am sometimes unable to spend enough time with my six-year-old daughter, Zaraa, my wife, my brother, who has had a head injury, or my parents. That’s my only regret,” he says.
Most memorable project: “At Stanford, my PhD guide was Anne Krueger, who had worked as chief economist at the World Bank. I used to help her organize the annual Stanford conference on Indian economic policy reform. Those conferences used to be attended by senior policymakers from India, at a time of great structural reform. As a young student, it left a real impression on me. And based on the 2001 conference and policy papers, I co-edited a book with Anne Krueger (Reforming India’s External, Financial And Fiscal Policies),” says Chinoy.
Something you would do differently: “My time at the IMF was too short. I had to leave to come back to India for personal reasons. In retrospect, I think that spending a few years more there and working on different economies with different challenges would have been valuable,” he says.
Money matters: Chinoy and JP Morgan Chase declined to give any numbers. Industry estimates for a chief economist at an investment bank put compensation upwards of Rs.1.25 crore a year, bonuses extra.
Every month, we explore a profession through the lives of three professionals at different stages in their careers. Tell us which profession you want to know more about at firstname.lastname@example.org