International Economics
10 March 2020

Portrait of Robert Koopman, Adjunct Professor of International Economics

Newly arrived at the Institute, Professor Robert Koopman is specialised in trade and also serves as the Chief Economist and Director of the Economic Research and Statistics Division at the World Trade Organization. In this portrait interview he speaks about his research interests and activities, as well as teaching and advice to students. 

When and how did you start working on trade issues?

I first started working on trade in 1985. I was hired by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Economic Research Service (ERS) to help forecast Soviet and East European demand for US agricultural products. In the early 1970s the Soviet Union quietly bought up to one-quarter of the US grain crop when it was experiencing a bad harvest but no one knew. After this the USDA decided it needed to better understand what was happening in this part of the world that was largely isolated from Western markets and information flows. I had written my PhD dissertation on Soviet investment policy reforms and had taken international trade, but not looked at trade in my dissertation. While I had a good grounding in quantitative methods and econometrics, I found that applied agricultural trade work used a lot of mixed econometrics, simulation modelling, and deep quantitative calculations around specific trade policy interventions. It was a fascinating experience, and my work ranged from visiting Soviet agricultural fields, reading Soviet newspapers and journals, to building simulation models of the Soviet agricultural economy (when many of my colleagues argued Western neoclassical economic models were inappropriate), and generating econometric estimates of technological and allocative efficiency in Soviet agricultural production vs. that in the West. When reform and opening up started in the late 1980s I had the opportunity to brief high-level policymakers on the potential impacts, as well as see how useful my models were.  

At about the same time I was starting to work on the agricultural negotiations in the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations and EU Common Agricultural Policy reform. Quite an immersion into trade policy and applied policy analysis. Very exciting times. I ended up shifting my focus to trade during my 12 years at ERS and continued that through my work at the United States International Trade Commission – but with an interesting break for a couple of years coordinating research and education programmes on rural and community development challenges with Land Grant Universities in the US. There I learned that even rich developed countries had substantially different economic development paths and challenges at the subnational level, and that sociologists and political scientists understood the potential social impacts of these challenges much better than economists.

What are your main research interests and how have they evolved over the years?

My main research focus has largely been driven by the needs of policymakers and my interest in rigorous analysis of trade and trade policy effects. From initially focusing on estimating import demand, to quantifying complex policy interventions (how does one economically model EU set-aside programmes and per head animal payments in the context of a changing EU and global trade policy environment?), to estimating the economic effects of US free-trade agreements on the US economy, to understanding the role of trade in the context of broader economic forces that cause economic adjustments similar to trade effects, to quantifying global value chains and understanding the interplay of technology on trade and vice versa, to designing long-run scenarios for the evolution of global trade, which is the main area I am focused on right now. I am elaborating longer-run simulation models that try to capture evolving comparative advantage, changing consumer tastes, and various other forces to provide scenarios of how world trade could change and isolate how these forces drive those changes in the context of other economic forces. I am also spending a lot of time on the intersection of micro trade policy and the macro economy. Our micro-focused models perform pretty well when looking at, say, the current trade conflict, but trade policy folks often overlook macro policy impacts, and how these forces may interact.

Robert B. Koopman
While I have had some success with academic publications, my most satisfying work is helping policymakers make better informed decisions with good data and analysis.
Robert Koopman, Adjunct Professor of International Economics at the Graduate Institute; Chief Economist and Director of the Economic Research and Statistics Division at the WTO

How was the process of expanding from academic research into more policy-oriented work?

I initially brought an academic focus and rigor to the Soviet grain question, but also quickly realised that policymakers had little interest in your estimating equations or structure of your model. They needed to connect your results to the stories they heard and/or saw going on around them. So, I needed to find ways to bring the rigor to the analysis but present the findings in a way that seemed relevant to the policymaker. One clue was, and this was before smart devices, if the policymaker started to look at what was next on their agenda you had lost them and they had already moved on. You needed to connect with them within the first few minutes of the briefing and engage them for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and ideally into a productive question-and-answer session which signalled they were “hooked”. I also discovered that much of what I did that was of interest to policymakers was not of that much interest to academics in regular economics – my background – compared to those academics from an agricultural economics background. I had to be selective about which topics I pursued for policy versus academic audiences. While I have had some success with academic publications, my most satisfying work is helping policymakers make better informed decisions with good data and analysis. I like to say the job of an independent and objective policy researcher is to help policymakers be more aware of the potential opportunity costs of their decisions. Rarely does the analysis drive a policy decision. At best it may influence the views of policymakers in a way that allows them to better understand the impacts of their decision. At worst… it just annoys them that you have given them inconvenient information that goes against what they want to achieve.

How have your teaching experience and style been informed by your research and policy work?

My research has often been on relatively big issues of real-world significance. When presenting my policy work, I usually cannot rely on jargon or abstract models. I have to find the intuition and place it in the context of the policymakers’ world. Academic abstraction and/or complexity, which help very much discipline our thinking, data work, and empirical estimates, have usually been irrelevant to policymakers. Thus, my teaching tends to emphasise what caused the author to deal with this question, what is the intuition driving the theory or empirics, and to identify the model mechanism that captures that intuition. Then I try to put that into the broader context of other forces that could also be driving similar outcomes.

What have you read lately that has marked your research field and that you would highly recommend?

Our own Richard Baldwin’s The Globotics Upheaval, Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything and The Entrepreneurial State, and Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal

What books are currently on your nightstand?

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves and Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence. I rarely read work for pleasure and rarely read for work at night – I get plenty of that during the day! I am a huge fan of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.  I’ve been working my way slowly through them since 2012, but with the events of 2016, Kerr’s setting of the novels largely in Germany with the rise of the National Socialist Party and the aftermath of WWII felt so relevant to the present.

Do you have any special memory from your PhD years that you would like to share?

I went to graduate school with very naïve expectations, and probably not well prepared for what I was about to encounter. My special memory is surviving the first year and figuring out how to thrive. I also choose a path, Soviet Economic and Comparative Systems, that was unique and frowned upon. But I guess I did it my way.

What advice would you give to students in terms of how to approach research?

Try to work on topics that really interest you, not me or other professors. Because if you do the research well it is likely to be frustrating and challenging and you will need to find motivation to keep going. If you get too caught up in demonstrating your technical capabilities (yes that is necessary) and forget what you were trying to learn it will be far more a burden than an intellectual adventure.

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Interview by Guilherme Suedekum, PhD Candidate in International Economics.
Banner image: USSR Post / Public domain.