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Q&A with Matteo Benetton, the first CEPR-TFI prizewinner

Posted on August 21, 2018

Each time he moves to another country, his dear mamma joins him from Italy, leaving only after she’s filled his freezer with her food. But however youthful our first prizewinner seems, he’s far from a lightweight. Meet Matteo Benetton, Assistant Professor at Berkeley as of today.

TFI: “Congratulations on your new position, Matteo. The Household Finance Best Student Paper Award, on your mantelpiece since May 2017, seems to have landed you a rather fine job! Assistant Professor of Finance at the renowned Walter A. Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley California… It’s quite a title.”

MB: “It’s an amazing title indeed, a dream come true! Look, I loved being a PhD researcher at the London School of Economics, but this is something else. And yes, the CEPR-TFI Prize certainly boosted my visibility. As an assistant professor I now get acknowledged more by both institutions and universities. I will travel even more, with Berkeley as my home base, and I’ll be having more interactions with people all over the world."

"It’s so great to be able to study different cultures from close by, like I do. I focus on a topic that almost everyone is excited about. I mean, you either have a house or you dream of one. I study people like you – and like myself. Living in London or Berkeley isn’t cheap, to say the least.”

TFI: "You’ve been a consultant at the Bank of England since 2015, and have been associated with the Bank of Italy since 2013. You were 25 when you were asked by a central bank to check out its database. That’s pretty awesome. What exactly did you do at those powerful institutions?"

MB: "Datasets on the British and the Italian housing market are fantastic to work with. I use micro techniques on this type of big data, in order to test my theories. I am lucky to have powerful policymakers amongst my audience. They demand of me to be critical, and even to provoke them. I study their policies, discovering unintended consequences, and play out alternative scenarios to compare with the actual ones."

I’m a pragmatic dreamer. As a researcher, I aim to succeed in making impact.

TFI: "How are you going to make an impact?"

MB: "Like you at TFI, I’m a pragmatic dreamer. As a researcher, I happen to be at an ideal place in time to succeed in making impact. We have reached a point in our evolution where we can combine very big data with very good user technology, and it’s almost a duty to aim for serious research with big goals. I think that understanding the role of competition in lending markets – and the implications of different loans contracts – is fundamental to shape policy and design credit products for the benefit of many people."

"Yes, we will fail over and over again; trial, error, error, error. It’s what we researchers do. But the times when we don’t fail, those are the moments that matter. Research is about trial and error, and lots of it. Like Thomas J. Watson, who made IBM huge, once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

TFI: "Which researcher do you dream of working with?"

MB: "I would be thrilled to work side by side with Ali Hortacsu, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. I greatly admire his pioneering work on structural models in finance. Time and again he inspires me with his innovative style. He answers central questions about market efficiency and optimal policy in a very clear and convincing way. When I have a new idea, I always visit his website – to check if he hasn’t thought of it first…"

TFI: "You simultaneously study various topics and write various papers, and you do presentations all over the world. Sounds like a burnout in the making…"

MB: "It’s true I work a lot. We’re halfway through 2018 and I know that by December I’ll have travelled and done much more than in 2017. I work 12 hours a day, six days a week. But you know what they say, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” And I do love being a researcher, I really do. I enjoy travelling and talking about my work, discovering patterns in housing cultures around the world, learning how people attempt to solve the same problem from a different perspective on life…"

"It’s crucial though to play at least as hard as you work, so I make a point of having relaxed coffee and lunch breaks, quickly going to the park or cycling for half an hour. Also, I keep work and home strictly separate, and on Sundays I go offline. I hardly check my email when I’m at home. In London I went salsa dancing twice a week, and I swam just as often. In California, I hope to learn how to surf and sail! And as long as I keep playing football with my friends, I’ll be fine."

TFI: "How did you get into your field of interest? How can one get so fascinated by industrial organization, household finance and macroeconomics?"

MB: "It’s funny, I never studied economics in high school. I went for the more classical package – Latin, history, philosophy – because of its fantastic teachers. At university, I picked economics instead of law because I’d thought a social science would encompass more ideas. After all, economics is also about philosophy and history. From mortgage to marriage, it all boils down to supply and demand,. My PhD supervisor at LSE told me that. He was a mentor like a lighthouse, keeping me focused, even when a batch of data had yet again produced nonsense. He’s one of the reasons I would love to be a professor of economics one day, maybe seven years from now…"