Gita Gopinath joined us as our new chief economist and Research Department director in January 2019. She made her successful debut with the World Economic Outlook Update at the World Economic Forum in January. Heightened economic and financial risks and political uncertainty around the globe signaled the onset of a diffcult time. Her eminent achievement in academia is already known.
Yuko Hashimoto interviews Gita on a personal note. In their conversation, Gita shared childhood memories, turning points in her economics career, and her passion for her work.
YUKO: Thank you very much for your time today. You mentioned in the recent Communications Department interview that you studied pure science in high school. Exactly which area did you study?
GITA: I studied physics, chemistry, math, and biology. I took economics in college because my parents wanted me to join the Indian administrative service, and someone told them that economics was a good subject for this purpose. I signed on to a three-year college in economics without knowing the first thing about it. So basically, I committed to a subject that I had no idea about. In hindsight that was a very risky move, but thankfully it turned out fne.
Y: Chemistry, physics, biology—everything is related to mathematics, which is fundamental for studying economics.
G: Yes. Thankfully I liked math the most. That was helpful. I liked how economics uses math to tackle social questions.
Y: Are those areas related to your dream job when you were young?
G: I don’t think I had a dream job. It was basically the favor of the month. For some time, it was joining the Indian administrative service. A few years before that there was this extremely successful female runner in India, and my father was, like, “Oh maybe you could be an athlete.” I did then run competitively for a couple of years. Basically, I was not one of those who knew early on what I wanted to become. What was always true was that I wanted to do something exciting and important, even if it wasn’t clear to me what it would be.
Y: Were you an energetic girl or you were more of an observer?
G: I was certainly more reserved. My sister was much more social. I was not very social; I was reserved. I grew up in a small town, Mysore. And I had a few very good friends, and we wasted a lot of time together. I have to say that I like small towns because people there tend to be more simple and less complicated.
Y: Then you perhaps enjoyed gardens or flowers outside, and a dog also?
G: Well, gardens and flowers not; I’m not an outdoor person at all. I have spent more time outdoors after I moved to DC than maybe the last 10 years of my life because my apartment here is close to the Fund, and I walk about 30 minutes to get to and from work! My indoor entertainment was Bollywood movies. We also had a small dog.
Y: Did your parents encourage you to read newspaper articles, and some specific readings?
G: Yes. My father tried to make us all very literate. He bought the old Britannica series, and we spent hours going through them. In terms of newspapers there were the local newspapers like the Hindu, the Times of India. I can’t say I was a voracious reader back then. I took to reading more these last few years. At that time, I was primarily into my academic studies and a few very close friends.
Y: I know it sounds like a quite intriguing and very intellectual girl you were.
G: Intriguing…I don’t know. I was certainly thought of as “different” because I fought for equal rights for girls and defed expectations of what girls were expected to do. I refused to accept anybody telling me that, as a girl, you cannot do this, you cannot do that. I was very strong-willed about it.
Y: You had your own views. That’s pretty nice. You started studying economics when there was an IMF program to India. What were your experiences then?
G: The external account crisis of India in 1990–91 was what got me most interested in economics. I think the reason I ended up doing international economics was because of this crisis that I experienced as a college student. That was a time when we were having all these debates about the Indian economy: which policies should be put in place, etc. For India, the 1990s was a transformative decade that cut tariffs, delicensed many industries, and cut regulatory red tape and stimulated private enterprise. I believe these reforms changed India’s growth trajectory in a very important way.
...I worked as a research assistant for Ken Rogoff and Maury Obstfeld writing solutions for their textbook-two predecessors of my current job!
Y: And you continued economics. And then how did it go?
G: I came to the US to do my PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle. One of my professors, Richard Startz, strongly encouraged me to transfer to one of the top five PhD programs, which is how I ended up doing my PhD from Princeton. Startz played a pivotal role in my life, and I am grateful to him. My advisors at Princeton-Ken Rogoff, Ben Bernanke, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas-were all hugely supportive. My first summer at Princeton I worked as a research assistant for Ken Rogoff and Maury Obstfeld writing solutions for their textbook-two predecessors of my current job! Given all the hurdles women face in economics I was lucky that I had three advisors who were very encouraging and supportive.
Y: And now you’ve moved to Washington, DC, to work for a totally different system from academia. How do you balance work and your own time?
G: I confess my “own time” seems almost nonexistent, but I will not complain as I am thoroughly enjoying what I do. I do like watching TV shows-like right now I am watching True Detective on HBO.
Y: Especially in academia, thinking about research and papers, it’s just an ongoing process-weekday, weekend...
G: Exactly. Research is always on your mind, though I think I have gotten slightly better at compartmentalizing things. At Harvard I used to spend long hours working, but they tended to be mainly quiet hours. Here I spend a lot more time meeting people, talking to people, communicating through many platforms. That’s one of the main differences. I have to say that one of the most important events in my life was meeting my wonderful husband, because of whose support and advice I am where I am. I think it’s as simple as that. And I have a son who is 16 years old. He’s quite independent and a lot of fun to talk to and spar with. I also have a little dog, a Maltese named Oreo, who is adorable.
Y: How do you see our research feeding into the operational work of the Fund?
G: The work the research department does is central to the operational work of the Fund. Our research department fagships—the World Economic Outlook and the External Sector Report, the modeling work, multilateral surveillance, our many publications—all directly feed into the operational work of other departments. There’s a lot of important research work being done on market power, international trade and exchange rates, the integrated policy framework, and structural reforms and many more topics that form the basis for policy advice to our members.
Y: Thank you very much for your time.
G: Thank you for doing this.
GITA GOPINATH: INTRO INTERVIEW
Gita Gopinath discusses the work agenda and priorities of the IMF amid rising risks and changes in the global economy.