The Restless Economist

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Robert Novy-Marx '87 loves the challenge of economic research

From the Fall 2011 Caller

This spring, economist Robert Novy-Marx ’87 testified before a Congressional panel on state and municipal debt. His topic was one he has done extensive research on, and for which he is making a name for himself: the underfunding of pension plans for public employees and the burden that may impose on taxpayers. But take a look at what he’s also known for, and the picture becomes much more complex.
 
He won a prize last year for the best paper on real-estate economics, and an international prize for a paper on a study of operating leverage. Robert, an assistant professor of finance at the Simon Graduate School of Business of the University of Rochester, works on many other topics such as asset pricing and industrial organization. Here’s the thing: he loves the interesting questions, and he loves trying to figure out the answers.“I just pursue what intrigues me,” he says. “Some economists get involved only in questions that turn out to be productive. My method is not very systematic. I’m passionate, but not disciplined enough to work on stuff that doesn’t interest me. It’s a risky strategy. But good research is more art than science.”
 
It was the interesting questions that economics posed that got Robert into the field. He had loved math and science at Catlin Gabel, citing physics teacher Lowell Herr as instrumental in holding his interest. Robert graduated from Swarthmore in physics, and then put his career in academia on hold for seven years as he competed as a professional triathlete. His wife was in graduate school in economics at that time, and her studies engaged him. He decided to switch to economics, and went on to earn a PhD in the field from the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
 
Robert stayed in academia, doing research and teaching at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for seven years. He moved last year to Rochester as a member of the graduate finance faculty. He keeps abreast of developments in economics as a whole by going to talks by researchers and conferences, always keeping a fresh and engaged eye on what he hears. “If I don’t understand something I hear, I try to understand it myself by doing research,” he says.
 
Robert’s three young children are now attending a school like Catlin Gabel (the Harley School), and he’s gratified that they are getting the kind of education that has served him well as a lifer. “Catlin Gabel helped me develop my creativity and willingness to ask questions,” he says. “It’s a thing Catlin Gabel asks a lot, and it’s important in doing good research. Creativity is more important than technical skills. It’s the key.”