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Talking to Nouriel Roubini

 

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Economist Nouriel Roubini, an Iranian from Jewish descent, born in Istanbul, lived and studied in Italy, Israel and the US, divides his time working and traveling between the Middle East, Europe and US. An entrepreneur, an associate professor at NYU Stern School of Business, a contemporary art collector, party animal and former policy maker, Roubini talks to Janera about the state of the economy, the role of Global Nomads, his heroes and his love life.

Janera. Nouriel, how would you define a Global Nomad?

Nouriel Roubini: You can be sitting still surfing the Internet, and experience other worlds, ideas and societies. But I’ve found that there is nothing better than visiting a different country, even if for three days. What you can hear from exchanging ideas with people gives you a much better sense of what’s happening as opposed to what’s written.

For example, when I was in Istanbul recently, I walked from the modern, European part of town to the old city. Turkey is on two continents, Asia and Europe; being there is like seeing the future of Europe. So, you can’t only be a virtual Global Nomad, with goggles on, in a virtual reality. You have to be there. You have to see it, smell it and live it. You have to see people, travel, and interact.

J: What drives you?

NR: Information. The world is my home, so everything about society and culture —no matter how miniscule —is worth knowing. I am an information junkie and created www.rgemonitor.com to collect information about what’s happening around the world. Now about 20 people work here full time, essentially aggregating information on finance, politics, and economics. It is all part of an obsession.

J: How did you start the site?

NR: I founded it in 1997 as a bunch of links to the Asian financial crisis. I realized time is money and that filtering information takes time. You need to find a trusted source to tell you what the most important news is, since the opportunity cost for everybody is high. We cover stuff 24/7 and have people in London, New York, Los Angeles and Bombay. We’re for people who have horizons longer than five seconds or five minutes, and can read and digest information. Our audience is made up of researchers, portfolio managers, policy makers (national and international), and academics.

J: And do you read everything that goes up on your site yourself?

NR: It’s impossible to read everything. We have a set of editors who filter the information and specialize in particular countries. Formally, I’m the chairman of the company, but you could also call me the chief knowledge officer.

J: Where do you think the global economy is headed?

NR: In the U.S. I’m a bear. I’ve been predicting for a while now that the U.S. is going into recession. Most people believe in a soft landing. I don’t.

People are beginning to see weaknesses increase, and everybody agrees that we’re in a housing recession. The debate is whether this recession is going to affect the rest of the economy—whether it is going to lead to economy-wide recession or not. The housing recession and still high oil prices, which are double what they were four years ago, are going to hit the economy. We’re at the tipping point of a severe economic downturn.

J: Are you bearish for the rest of the world, as well? If you think about the global economy, where do you see opportunities right now?

NR: It’s true that Europe is growing at a slightly faster pace than the U.S. Asia is doing well, the Emerging Markets are too, but there is a “pick-up” hypothesis that says that the rest of the world will pick up from the U.S. slowdown. A number of people have written about it. JP Morgan refers to it as a “a rebalancing the locomotives of global growth.”

My view is that everyone who thinks that the rest of the world is going to pick up from the U.S., lives under the assumption that the U.S. is headed for a soft landing. And it’s true, if U.S. growth is positive, then the rest of world will be fine. But if instead you take these models and assume U.S. growth will be negative 2%, then the effect on the rest of the world will be big, not necessarily a recession, but a bigger slowdown than people expected. If the U.S. gets a cold, the rest of the world gets a really bad cold.

J: What do you think Global Nomads should do in their investment decisions, given the U.S. slowdown you predict? And what are you doing to hedge yourself?

NR: Economic theory says that whether you’re a Global Nomad or not, you should have a diversified portfolio of both domestic and foreign assets. In my case, all my savings go into stocks, not bonds, because in the long run stocks outperform bonds. Half of my portfolio is in US assets, and the other half is in foreign assets. This strategy will do better than other ones.

The rational investor buys indices, minimizes transaction costs and has a diversified portfolio. That’s what Global Nomads should do, what everyone should do.

J: If the U.S. is going into recession, are you going to diversify even more in foreign stocks?

NR: No because that means I would know on a market-timing basis when the US market will peak or bottom, and I’m not smart enough to know that.

J: What do you think about globalization? And does cultural globalization mean the whole world is becoming Westernized or Americanized ?

NR: I’m all in favor of globalization. I think in the long-term, the benefits will be greater than the costs. The integration of cultures, economies, societies, people, ideas—this mixing —will make for a more interesting and rich world.

The last fifty years have been a period of increased integration. Countries that have been open to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), business, trade, and the exchange of information, have systematically done better than countries that have remained closed.

As for Americanization, I think globalization actually maintains and fosters various elements of national and cultural identities. I don’t think everything is being homogenized. If anything, your food, your culture, and your ethnicity might become part of the globalized world, and thus absorbed by other countries. It is a bit like the Internet. With its powerful element of democratization, it has allowed every individual to become a publisher, leading to more communication, and more awareness of other people and cultures.

But there are two main issues with globalization. Firstly, in the transition, there will be some losers and some gainers because you have to re-allocate resources. The big divide is between those who have skills, and thrive on globalization, and those who do not have skills. The answer is not reversing globalization, imposing tariffs or closing up, blocking FDI, but providing educational training and skills that will allow people to compete in this global economy.

Secondly, when different cultures mix with each other, it raises the question of cultural and regional identity, of adjusting to modernity. For some societies, it is a struggle to become a part of the contemporary world. These are societies in which there is no clear separation between church and state.

J: What do you think about the influence of religion on economics?

NR: I think one of the many challenges in the next decade is for Islamic countries to undergo a process of economic, social, and political reforms and to make them a part of global society. And there are success stories. For example, fifty years ago people said Confucianism was inconsistent with economic growth, which was why China and Korea were backward. That was silly. Now people are saying Islam might be fundamentally inconsistent with economic growth; that’s also nonsense.

I don’t think there is anything fundamentally inconsistent between Islam and economic success. The difficulty is that there are many changes that need to occur in these societies to make them a part of a modern political democracy and the global economy.

J: Do you think then that it’s good that the French are abolishing the headscarves or the yarmulke?

NR: I’m not in favor of restricting what people wear. It’s counterproductive and creates more separation. The effect of the French policy is that children will attend a religious school and won’t be exposed to the secular education that France offers. They won’t learn the value of western modern secular values.

I was born into a relatively orthodox Jewish family in Iran, lived in Israel and Turkey, and then moved to Italy as a child. By the age of six, instead of going to a yeshiva, I went to a secular Jewish school where I interacted with kids from all sorts of different backgrounds. Had I gone to an Orthodox Jewish school, I would perhaps be orthodox now and may have never become a Global Nomad.

J: How can different cultures and religions be more accepting of one another?

NR: On some level it’s not only about race or religion, but also about socioeconomic segregation. I think that part of what leads to the resentment of Muslim minorities in France, the Netherlands, and even in the UK is that they don’t have the same economic opportunities. Many of these Muslim groups have been segregated into the ghettos, which ensure the same social diseases of certain American cities where African-Americans have not had equal economic opportunities.

We need programs that invest in public services for poor neighborhoods or else economic backwardness will be perpetuated, which then leads to a lot of political and religious resentment and unrest.

Economic success and integration leads to moderation of religious views. This is important. Minority groups are there to stay in Europe, and their numbers are going to increase over time and we have to find better socioeconomic policies and given opportunities and worry less about the outward signs of their identity. Let them wear what they want to wear.

J: Do you think that people are more motivated by economic gain rather than by preserving religious or cultural heritage?

N: It’s a balance. There’s the extreme strict Marxist view that cultural and political structures and ideologies are just superstructures driven only by economics. The other extreme view is that culture and ideology trump economic interests. In reality, on the one hand, economic matters are always important. On the other hand, culture, religion, and ideas are crucial. Sometimes people are willing to sacrifice economic benefits for the sake of maintaining their identity.

J: What would you do if you were in charge of the Gates Foundation and had 30 billion dollars at your disposal?

NR: Good question. First of all, the issues that the Gates Foundation, and other organizations that deal with poverty, AIDS, malaria and water sanitation, are pushing for are very important.

But the challenge we face is how to integrate the Muslim world into the global economy. Asia has become part of it, but not Africa or the Middle East.

One could realistically think about a Marshall Plan with respect to this part of the world, to succeed in integrating the Muslim and Arab world into the global economy as we did in Europe after World War II. For example, we’ve wasted hundreds of billions of dollars on the Iraq war. Had we taken a third of this money and invested it into a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, the benefits would have been ten times more than wasting it on a war.

Without externally forcing democracy and to avoid a clash of civilizations, we can induce economic, financial, and social support from within these countries. Forcing political transition before people have fed their stomachs isn’t the right thing to do. We’re trying to force democracy into places like Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon, and we have a bunch of Shiite fanatics in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamaas in Gaza—but this is the wrong order. First you need the economic perestroika and then the political one.

J: Do you think this change of priorities from economic to political is the next best step for the U.S. government?

NR: I think for the next two years no major changes are going to occur—Iraq is lost. We have created a disaster, the focus is how to minimize the mess we’ve created, not how to achieve victory.

J: Who is your role model? Who do you look up to?

NR: One person who has had a great impact on me intellectually was my adviser at Harvard, Jeffrey Sachs. For me he’s the model of a great intellectual. He is both a rigorous academic and very human, involved in big picture issues such as poverty, AIDS, and Africa. He’s someone with a great mind that is also very engaged with the world.

Another intellectual hero is Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard, an amazing intellectual and academic, who is very deeply involved with the policy world. I worked for him for many years in the US Treasury during the Clinton Administration.

These are people I greatly respect, whether I agree with everything they say or not. Nevertheless they are examples of people who are intellectually honest and committed to a better world, and think in global terms.

J: Do you agree with how Sachs is joining with celebrities to fight poverty?

NR: There’s a debate on the effectiveness on getting celebrities involved. I’m pretty neutral on it. Some people are really committed and have made a big difference. Sachs is getting his message out through Bono, which I think is good.

J: As a person who moves around all the time, how do you maintain your relationships?

NR: It has been very difficult to commit to long term, stable relationships. In an average month I fly between continents at least twice, and make day trips for work to for example DC, once or twice a week.

J. Do you believe being a global nomad precludes love?

NR. No, but love may be lots of different places.

J: Does that mean you have a sweetheart at every port?

NR: It is well known I am a Global Nomad when it comes to love, too. Some Global Nomads are better able to manage stable relationships. These things are more personal. Traveling takes a toll on any meaningful relationship.

J. Would you like to have children?

NR. I don’t know. It would be good to have somebody—a stable companion—first. But children are not a primary focus right now, they take much of your energy. Right now, I’d rather have a more stable life.

J: What are your next steps in life professionally, personally?

NR: Professionally I would like to grow www.rgemonitor.com and make it really successful. I would like it to be used by more and more institutions and to become a standard reference for economic and geopolitical information. It’s hard work, but very satisfying.

Personally, I want to have a healthier lifestyle—eat better, exercise. At this age I’m getting worried that I’m pushing myself too much, and need to find more balance.

J: What are you going to cut out to fit the healthy lifestyle in?

NR: Maybe travel less and make decisions on how I want to continue with academia. The problem is, I’ve been trying to do everything, be a full-time businessman, a full-time academic, and a full-time global traveler.

J: And a full time contemporary art collector.

NR: Yeah, this is not yet full-time. One of my goals is to collect more, and sponsor emerging artists.

J: What can we Global Nomads do to make the world better?

NR: Well, through the smallest things, one can improve the world. Everything I’ve done has helped people understand each other and become more open. I even accepted a big pay cut when I moved to the Treasury in the Clinton administration. You can’t be a Global Nomad and just think about yourself.

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