About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'

2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.

Yury Achkasov decided to study economics because he loved mathematics in school and wanted to apply that discipline to the fullest extent possible. In this interview with Age-Mates, he spoke about his inspiring work at the Central Bank, the animal spirits of market traders, and what would convince him to stop going to the office altogether.

Why did you decide to attend HSE University?

I loved math in school and thought about studying mathematics in college. In the 7th or 8th grade, I told my mom that I wanted to study mathematics. She had graduated with honours from Moscow State University but never worked in her chosen field. But she managed to use the knowledge, skills, and systematic approach she had learned in other areas of activity. She said, ‘You have three possible paths. Studying mathematics in Russia will be interesting and enjoyable for you, but you won’t earn much. You could work as a mathematician abroad where you might earn a lot of money, but you would have to leave Russia. Or else you could find a field in Russia where mathematics will be used to the fullest extent possible’.

We began looking at various possibilities and concluded that economics is one of the sciences that draws heavily on mathematics. What’s more, there is a great demand for economists. So I decided that I should study economics. This was in the 2000s and HSE University was the unchallenged leader in economics education. So that’s why I went there.

Was it easy for me to get in? I suppose so, but that doesn’t mean it took no effort at all. I began preparing in the 9th grade. I attended a university preparatory course and studied economics and mathematics. This helped. I scored well in the national Academic Olympics in economics, and this was my ticket to admission.

Have you retained your love of math?

Yes, despite the fact that there was a lot of it and it was far more difficult than in school, mathematics at HSE University did not scare me away or make me stop loving it. But at the same time, I realise that I am not a mathematician. For me, mathematics is a tool—my favourite tool and a good one, but only one of many.

How did your studies shape your future professional interests? What did you like most?

Mathematical methods that work on real data. It is closely related to mathematics and helps give a picture of what is happening in real life. Instead of just talking about two economic agents that interact either in equilibrium or optimally—or even better, both—I prefer dealing with real numbers, data, people and companies. That’s why I especially liked econometric disicplines during my studies at HSE University. At the time, I believed that they were the only possible future for a young economist. I don’t think that way anymore: I realised that econometrics coupled with statistics are important, necessary, and beloved tools, but that you can’t get by with these alone.

What did you get a master’s degree in?

It was a joint master’s in the HSE University programme Mathematical Methods for Analysing the Economy in cooperation with the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. I spent a year in France. I recall being surprised that foreign students did not know mathematics at the level taught at HSE University. We had to repeat some things along with our foreign classmates.

On the other hand, in France, I liked how the teachers and students loved macroeconomics and financial markets and where the two intersect. For example, at the Sorbonne there were amazing courses on economic crises in which teachers tried to show the nature of economic crises using simple models. You know, there is a saying: ‘To complicate something is easy, but to simplify it is difficult’. It’s great when complex things can be explained in a straightforward way, without having to use indefinite integrals and stochastic mathematics.

Photo by Daniil Prokofiev/ HSE University

After all, economics is one of the sciences that should be accessible and useful not only to a narrow segment of people who have devoted their whole lives to studying it, but to everyone in general. People make economic decisions every day, and those decisions should be well-informed. But you can’t send every last person to the HSE University master’s programme, can you? So, hats off to those people who are working to improve financial literacy among adults, schoolchildren, and college students.

What did you find lacking during your studies?

Free time and sleep. Studying was fun and great, but extremely difficult. There was too little time left for anything outside of HSE University.

What was your first job?

I got my first official job as a first-year student. At Preparatory School No. 1535, I taught basic economics to ninth-graders so that the students would love solving economic problems and have an easier time getting into college. After that, I worked at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy where I did calculations and translated econometrics textbooks from English into Russian. But it was all part-time work.

I began working full-time after returning from Paris. I got a job at the Central Bank. I had been wanting to work there since I was a third- and fourth-year student. I saw that my knowledge could have immediate application to real work there. At the Central Bank, I built econometric models that predicted the short-term development of the economy. The Central Bank lived up to my expectations. I consider this one of the best possible jobs for an economics graduate who specializes in theoretical and empirical economics.

Was it difficult work?

Honestly, no. The job had a lot of responsibility and it was interesting. Well, yes, I stayed late in the evenings. I had to make serious decisions. It happened that I would tell something to the Central Bank deputy chairmen and then see on TV how they retold it all to the Duma. I worked at the Cental Bank for almost five years: from 2015 until the end of 2019. I started out as an entry-level specialist and rose to become the head of a department with a staff of seven. We analysed the current economic situation in Russia. Those five years were great, interesting, and positive—as were my six years at HSE University.

I worked in the monetary policy department. We presented the Central Bank’s board of directors with various options for the key rate to keep inflation at or near 4%. These solutions depend on how the country’s economy will develop in the next 2-3 years. And how it will develop largely depends on the current situation. It is important to understand at which point the economy is located so that, based on this, you can understand where it is headed. Without knowing where you are, you won’t know how to get where you need to go.

Where did the information come from that you analysed?

These were official sources: the Federal State Statistics Service, the Central Bank, and the customs service. At that time, big data was not used as much. Now my former colleagues—outstanding specialists—are doing incredible things related to the use of new data and the creation of new sources of statistics. They actively use large data arrays from, for example, the tax service, that is known to store information about every purchase made. On this basis, it is possible to create a picture of almost the entire white market.

Have your predictions ever been wrong?

Naturally. Any forecaster almost always makes some mistakes. It is pure luck to be 100% correct.

Anyone who can make accurate predictions won’t work for the Central Bank. He’ll make money on the stock exchange and stay out of the public eye. For a forecaster working in the public sphere, the main thing is that his forecasts are logical

They should present a set of macroeconomic variables that don’t contradict each other and that add up to a complete picture. Every forecast is a story in itself.

Yes, I was off—sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Sometimes I got lucky and hit the mark. But the main thing is that the story I told did not turn out to be completely ridiculous. It’s just that the prerequisites I used often changed or there were factors that we did not take into account.

For example?

We live in a time when something is always changing: the means of production, forms of consumption. For example, Internet commerce is developing so rapidly that it is no longer possible to ignore. The same with private traders on the stock exchange. Only a handful of Russians were doing this in 2000-2010. Now, everyone has a bank app on their phone with which they can buy and sell shares and bonds independently. Such activity by retail investors grew significantly right up until the start of 2022.

It’s always like this with the economy: new phenomena appear that seem negligible at first, but that then grow so much that they are impossible to ignore. And somewhere between these two points, you need to understand that the time has come to take these phenomena into account in forecasts. If you’re late doing this, you might be wrong. This is always a critical step for an economist, expert, or analyst. At such times, the help of senior colleagues is important, when they say: we must take into account that this is joint responsibility. Or vice versa: it’s not time yet.

So why didn’t you go work in the stock exchange?

As I’ve said, I don’t always guess the movement of variables accurately. So, working on the stock exchange could be costly for me. But the main thing is that I’m not very interested in it. Back when I was an HSE University student, I realised that the stock exchange was not my thing. Yes, it shares trends and interconnections with other sectors of the economy, and many understandable and predictable economic phenomena affect the price of financial assets. But at the same time, there is a lot of noise generated by the news and the interaction of millions of people led by what Keynes once called the ‘animal spirits’. I probably don’t have that instinct.

Photo by Daniil Prokofiev/ HSE University

Why did you decide to leave the Central Bank?

I left because I reached a certain ceiling, but wanted to go further. At that time, I didn’t have enough experience to advance further within the Central Bank. So I chose ‘horizontal growth’ and changed companies. Now I am the deputy head of the DOM.RF analytical centre. I supervise the work of a team of analysts studying the housing sector in Russia. We analyse the mortgage market, mortgage-backed securities, construction, project financing, and the best practices of state housing policy.

My job profile has changed a little: there, I was a macroeconomist, but here, I look at individual markets that are connected with the housing sector in one way or another. And now I have more managerial functions. I am trying to help my own manager organise the work of the whole analytical centre is such a way that it solves tasks faster, better, and more efficiently, with less re-working of problems.

What is the most interesting part of your job?

As before, forming a picture of the world. Looking at the numbers, seeing the story in them, understanding the dynamics, which factors influenced them, how they will develop in the future, and how this or that variable will move. The result is that I create a story from a set of numbers. I paint a picture, sometimes with broad strokes, and sometimes with a lot of detail. It seems to me that this is the most interesting thing an economist can do. From a simple table of numbers, you paint a picture, a story, a narrative.

Have you ever wanted a job that doesn’t require an office and a suit?

Yes. I think that the best job of all time would be to have a travel show. I really love to travel and am constantly going somewhere. I just returned from hiking in the Urals and a trip to the Volgograd region. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll say, ‘Enough about the economy. I’m headed for adventures and travel’. Although a more practical, but less romantic option would be to go deal with the economy in some far-away tropical country. I’ll probably do that someday.

Are your college classmates dutifully working with the economy?

No, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We did not take an oath of allegiance to the economy. One of my classmates worked office jobs in the investment field for a long time, and then she realised that she didn’t like the dress code, the office clothes made for women. So she opened her own company designing and making women’s office clothes. And that’s no less cool than working for five years in the Central Bank. HSE University teaches not only academic disciplines; it also shapes minds. And with such a mind, you can go work in any field.

How would you characterise the typical HSE University person?

If to put a name on it, then for me it would be Yaroslav Kuzminov. He was the rector when I entered HSE University and he was the rector when I graduated. What I also liked was that, when he reached a certain age and level of accomplishment, he, as befits HSE University, stepped down from his post saying that he had done his job and would now do research.

As for qualities, I would name three. First, HSE people want to learn new things all the time, and not because they have to, but because they are interested. If they don’t learn anything new, they can’t sleep at night. Their head hits the pillow, but their brain continues working, asking ‘Why this?’ or ‘Why that?’ They won’t fall asleep until they find an answer. The second quality is the ability to debate, discuss, listen to points of view different from their own—and to respect those views, even if they don’t agree with them. The ability to take a critical approach to an alternative point of view, as well as one’s own, taking into account the arguments of your opponent. I constantly encountered this during the course of my studies: students were debating with professors, professors were debating with students, and students were debating with each other—and it was all done in a very academic way, even if words became heated or zealous at times. HSE University people are very passionate and enthusiastic. This is their third quality.

What would you wish HSE University for its 30th anniversary?

I wish HSE Univesity to remain just as everyone now knows it to be. The situation now is challenging, as is the internal political environment. But if the university continues to move in the right, HSE direction, everything will be great.