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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

Any budding economist would dream of rising on the career ladder to the IMF and consulting different countries’ governments on economic policy. HSE alumnus Vadim Khramov tells Success Builder how to move towards new goals, make an impact on the European economy, and put his teaching experience to use in the world of investment banking.

ВYou are a prime example of an ideal student in the sense that you moved forward progressively on the right path. When did you realise you were doing what’s right for you?

I don’t remember ever having any doubts about what I was studying – I always knew I was doing what’s right for me. After HSE, I went away to get my PhD, which is when a lot of people typically change what they’re doing. Someone who studied microeconomics before starts studying macro, someone who studied macro starts studying micro, demographics, or something else. This happens with 90% of students because everyone wants to cover new areas of knowledge. I always did macroeconomics, but I got lucky to a certain degree. I was asked to work at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before going to Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London. So I stayed in my field, but went from academic and scientific areas to more applied research and investments. At the Bank of America Merrill Lynch I work with investments in the debentures of Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and other Eastern European countries. Emerging markets as a whole comprise a pretty specific sector of the global economy where many models and scientific approaches don’t apply, since because not entirely market mechanisms are at play here, military conflicts are underway, sanctions are being imposed, and a lot of things are happening that makes my work special and a lot more interesting.

The IMF is one of the best organisations for economists to start a career, and they hire around 20 PhD graduates each year, which is how they found me.

Why didn’t you stay to teach at your alma mater?

Good question. During my time at the Higher School of Economics, I worked in the Laboratory for Macroeconomic Analysis under Lev Lubimov and Sergey Pekarski. There was something to do here, everything turned out like it was supposed to, and I liked this. But moving away to get a PhD was the normal, logical, next step, and it was a way to move forward on the academic path. After HSE, my goal was to continue growing because I always felt the desire to work with both analytical and applied issues. And when, after my PhD, I was offered the job of Advisor to the Executive Director at the IMF from Russia, it was hard to turn down. Plus it’s never too late to return to HSE...

Was the IMF the first place you had worked abroad? What did you do there?

I was offered a job at the IMF when I was still finishing up my PhD, so here I was immediately starting in a prestigious position that was of course extremely demanding. The Russian office represents the Russian government in the IMF, carrying out work for the Fund and the government at the same time. The IMF is one of the best organisations for economists to start a career, and they hire around 20 PhD graduates each year, which is how they found me. This is a prestigious job and a good start to a career for anyone connected with the analysis of countries’ economies or investments in state debt and bonds. This is also a good platform when it comes to connections, gaining professional credentials, and getting a general understanding of how the economy works.

Photo by Zhanna Bobrakova

How difficult was it from a psychological standpoint to start working there?

At first, it was difficult and I had to work a lot – any major life change requires a certain psychological and physical effort. I got lucky, though, largely thanks to timing, my boss, and my environment, which helped me adapt.

How did your life change after you got your PhD? After all, this is an important milestone in a person’s professional development...

It already seems like that was all in a former life, but actually, I finished my PhD relatively recently. Everything changed because school in the U.S. differs tremendously from school in Russia, mostly because of student life and how students approach academics. In America, you have to show that you’re active – analyze, search, and make conclusions, rather than just listen. But when I started at the IMF, I entered into a new world. I worked on the board of directors, and the people I met with were very high-level – ministers, central bank representatives, leading international economists. The people who came to meet with the IMF were unique in their status alone, and I had to readjust my style of communication, conduct, and I’d even venture to say self-awareness. This in itself raises you up to a different level of communicating with society.

I have around 10 years’ worth of teaching experience, first in school, then at HSE, the New Economic School, and UCLA. This is a lot of experience, and it was enjoyable and can’t be compared with anything in the world.

You taught at HSE for some time. What practical experience did your teaching give you?

I have around 10 years’ worth of teaching experience, first in school, then at HSE, the New Economic School, and UCLA. This is a lot of experience, and it was enjoyable and can’t be compared with anything in the world. Teaching gives you the incredible ability to prepare information, present data, and put everything into a form that anyone can digest. Even a business’s product sales can be called ‘teaching.’ This is about what I do now – manage assets.

Our clients include some of the largest investment funds in the world, and really, I use all the skills I gained from teaching at HSE every day at work when I tell people about what’s happening on the market or about the best way to invest money. It’s the same kind of teaching practice, but at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, we work not with students, but with professional investors.

Can I assume that a psychological approach is important in your field of work? At the end of the day, your work is still in ‘personal sales’ it would seem.

Absolutely. A large part of success depends on personal qualities and communication, especially on the sell-side. It’s important to be able to maintain a good relationship with the client. This is the person you go on business trips with, meet the government with, and overall spend a lot of time with. You also have to be a brilliant analyst and the best in the world at what you do. Personal interaction and communication experience are what’s most important in the world of investment banking, and I believe that there’s no other way to accomplish anything in this sector.

Photo by Zhanna Bobrakova

Are your current analytic and research activities also a product that you ‘sell?’

I carry out applied research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and we have a lot of clients who use this research to invest capital in various countries. This the first thing I do, but I also work with the governments and central banks of different countries to relay how we at Bank of America Merrill Lynch view world markets and how we compare our view with their opinion. These are not recommendations on how they should change their economies or on how to draw up policies; it is an expert assessment of the situation as a whole. We also work in Russia, organizing meetings between investors/corporations and the government. In this respect, our role cannot be reduced to simply placing bonds since we carry out large brokerage and organizational activities as well. Governments oftentimes use our recommendations to improve their monetary or fiscal policies and carry out the right structural reforms, which improves their investment grade. A company or government is forced to adapt to the market in a timely fashion, understanding that if they don’t carry out the correct policy, the markets will punish them with added pressure on their currencies, a drop in investments, increased interest rates, etc.

So the market is punishing us now?

This is a difficult and delicate issue. Markets usually punish for macroeconomic mistakes and external shocks. For example, sanctions were imposed against Russia, which is an external shock, and the political situation is complicated due to the fact that there is a specific price for these actions for both sides. You can’t talk about whether things were mistakes or not – these are political decision. I should add that only when oil prices are high did currency face intense pressure. The markets started worrying that there would be an insufficient amount of forex revenues to cover payments on Russia’s corporate and government debt. Though Russia has some ‘rescue’ reserves in the National Welfare Fund and the Reserve Fund, the markets were afraid that this might not be enough if oil prices fall dramatically. If oil prices are around $30 per barrel, for example, Russia would see problems arise with foreign payments within a year. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. It’s clear that the economy will face a recession this year – interest rate are still extremely high and inflation will also be high – but the overall dynamic of the situation is clearly positive. The country has lost its investment rating, but Russia’s bonds and shares have grown considerably and are trading at a level appealing to investors.

It’s important to be able to maintain a good relationship with the client. This is the person you go on business trips with, meet the government with, and overall spend a lot of time with.

I always thought that with the kind of knowledge you have, it would be easier to work for yourself. Why did you decide to work for others?

Actually, I created my own company in the U.S., so I do already have a little knowledge of how to run a business. I also work in the private sector at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where I put my business skills to use with private companies and clients.

I created the startup when I was still a post-graduate student in California. My partner and I developed and patented the Economic Performance Index, which explains the general macro-economic performance of a nation, state, or region in a methodologically simple and intuitive way that professionals and laypeople alike are able to understand. Our assistants are now collecting data and finishing up the layout for the site, while my business partner and I are finishing up our book, The 5-Minute Economist, about the index. Our business model is a subscription model, where the client pays for full access to information on the index. This is still more of an expense project than a profitable one, but the idea is solid. In the future, this project will work for average businesspeople and for those interested in understanding what’s going on in the economy without a specialised education in economics. We have adapted the index for 50 countries, but our first working market is the American market.

Have you met a lot of people from HSE in the professional arena abroad?

I still continue to work actively with the university and communicate with its graduates. I’ve crossed paths with a lot of people from HSE in the U.S. and London, and there is a particularly large number of people from the International College of Economics and Finance (ICEF) in London. Just last weekend I met two of my former students, and they might even come to my birthday party [laughs].