«People think that we scientists have all the answers»

Nir Jaimovich, Professor of Economics, wants to understand how the world works. In attempting to do so, he sometimes has to leave his comfort zone. His goal, which is both simple and daunting, is to answer one of the biggest questions in macroeconomics: What drives business cycles?

Nir Jaimovich still remembers well his first encounter with the real-life implications of economics. At the age of eight, he was sitting with his grandparents in a small restaurant in Argentina. Suddenly, the owner of the restaurant appeared, grabbed the menu, and added a zero to all the prices. This was his first encounter with hyperinflation, a macroeconomic phenomenon that plagued Argentina at the time, and the unusual experience left a lasting impression on him.
 

Discovering the world
Jaimovich’s desire to understand how the world works – especially the world of economics – continues to this day. Raised in Jerusalem as the son of Argentine immigrants, he traveled extensively throughout Argentina, Europe, and Israel. «It was this unusual way of growing up between the Israeli and Argentinean cultures that shaped my personality», he says. From an early age, he learned from his parents to adopt an international mindset, and he was encouraged to get out of his comfort zone and explore the world. 

This hunger for new adventures led him first to the USA, where he obtained a Ph.D. in economics and worked as a professor at various universities, and finally to Switzerland three years ago. «I never thought I would end up in the academic world. But I had so many questions!», the 47-year-old laughs. With a wink, he reveals that his original goal was to obtain a bachelor's degree in economics to find answers to all his questions and then earn a lot of money. «Unfortunately it didn't work out because I had more questions than before!» It is this insatiable curiosity that still motivates him today: «I’m constantly trying to understand the world and what happens. In fact, I still have the feeling that I don’t understand economics...» 
 

Nir Jaimovich

Finding answers in data
In his research, Jaimovich often explores different topics, thus resisting the traditional trend of establishing oneself as an expert in a single narrow field or subgenre. «My problem is that I get bored so easily. When I have the feeling of more or less understanding a topic, I immediately want to explore and understand something new. Life is too short to do the same things over and over again.» Only one driving ambition runs like a red thread through his life: He wants to tackle current and important questions and not to sit locked away in an ivory tower. For example, he is currently researching topics such as the impact of automation and globalization on the labor market and the effects of the introduction of a universal basic income, and he recently received an SNF Grant to support his research of these issues. «My goal is to use data and theory to provide decision-makers with tools to make better decisions, because while scientists can have endless discussions, at some point policy-makers have to actually make decisions.»

Currently he is exploring the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the labor market. In one project he is researching short-time work regulations and their trade-offs, and in another project, he is investigating the effects of granting financing to companies during the lockdown. «In macroeconomics, we work with data, theory, and quantitative analysis. This is not always easy, especially when immediate answers are expected, because this process takes time. Many people believe that we know all the answers. But uncertainty affects everyone, including us scientists. Especially in the social sciences, where there is no such thing as 0 or 1 answers.» 
 

The biggest question(s) in economics
When asked what big question Jaimovich hopes to find an answer to one day, he says with a laugh: «Is Messi going to win the next World Cup? No, joking aside, I want to understand one of the biggest questions in macroeconomics: What drives business cycles?» Understanding this process is one of the topics that concerns him most. «Why on earth are we experiencing these ups and downs? I probably won’t be able to answer that question. But I would like to at least try.»