MSBR MEETS: Economics, Life Advice, & Professor Christopher Ragan

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Christopher Ragan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics and has been at McGill since 1989. He received his bachelor degree from the University of Victoria in honors economics and moved on to do his masters at Queens university and eventually a PHD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has had an extremely successful career from being the visiting economist at the Bank of Canada to being the Chair of Canada’s Eco-Fiscal Commission. Besides teaching, Professor Ragan is also a published author and has published many articles, books, as well as co-authored a very popular economics textbook with co-author, Richard Lipsey.   MSBR had the honor to speak with Ragan about his economics journey as well as get any advice he had for the McGill community.


 

MSBR: When you were growing up, did you always have an interest in Economics? When was it that you realized this is what you were passionate about?

Professor Ragan: I didn’t know anything about economics, certainly not that I liked it until my second year as an undergraduate. Coming out of high school, I was a Jacque Cousteau “wannabe”. I was really into scuba diving. I was working in a scuba diving shop and became an instructor before I graduated from high school. I wanted to go to University of Victoria, study basic science and do oceanography. In my first year at University of Victoria, I took basic sciences and it bored the heck out of me and quite by accident, I took an economics course in my second year and loved it. I quickly took that course and then signed up for the honors program in economics. It just absolutely struck me as a discipline that made sense. It spoke my language, it worked in the same way that my brain worked and it was just an absolutely natural fit.

MSBR: Your career has been such an interesting and impressive one! From being the Clifford Clark visiting economist to being the special advisor to the governor of the bank of Canada. Which part of your career do you think had the biggest impact on you?

Professor Ragan: I would have to say the Eco Fiscal Commission. It has gotten gotten me more into the real world policy, thinking about how to communicate properly and effectively to different types of people. Whether they are ministers or prime ministers or whether it’s talk radio or various things in between. There is an element of fundraising, focus on research analysis and consensus building. There is a whole bunch of things that go on in the eco fiscal commission and I was not a specialist by any means in most of those things so I’ve learned a tremendous amount.

MSBR: Before taking your class, I had been using your textbook for a whole year and found the book really easy to read. What made you decide to co-author a textbook? What kind of experience was it?  

Professor Ragan: At the time, I had just started teaching at that level, and I found this textbook was the only book that I knew and the only book that I liked. It was quite by chance that an opportunity came up and quite a tragic one. The person who was a co-author at the time was a professor of mine’s at Queens University, Douglas Purvis. He passed away in 1993 and Richard Lipsey was looking to replace him. Through a long process they ended up with me. It is really good for my writing as well as my thinking. We are constantly making changes and adding new things. Some years I focus on the monetary policy chapter, some years I create new sections so you’re always doing something new and I love the act of doing it.

MSBR: How does it feel that so many students are using your textbook as the foundation of your economics education?

Professor Ragan: I get a glow from that. However, it also means that you have to take responsibility. I think before I came onto the book, Lipsey and co-authors put a tremendous amount of effort into keeping this book comprehensive but also intellectually honest. They didn’t cut corners. If something was complicated, they explained it the best way they could but they didn’t hide the complication. There are many issues in economics that are simply complicated. There are debates that are unsettled and that is just the nature of the beast. Frankly, one of the things that the book is known for is being balanced. I love the fact that there are so many students using the book but I also it forces you to take the process seriously.

MSBR: During class last semester, you gave the class “fatherly advice” on investments and stocks, do you have any advice to share with the McGill community?

Professor Ragan: I am not a professional investor by any means but I will share my approach to investment.

Number one, nobody should think of investment as a get quick rich scheme. If you think about it that way, you will be disappointed and it’s just misleading. The first thing is, you have to save a lot. I think there is a really powerful argument for anyone especially at a young age to start by saving. You start by saving 10% of any income and you set it aside in a TFSA or later on in your life when you’re in a higher tax bracket, you put it into an RSP for example. The next question is if you are saving money on a regular basis and setting it aside for perhaps a down payment on your home or even retirement if you’re really far sighted, which is a good thing.

Then you decide what to do with the money. Here again, I don’t think you should think about a get rich quick approach because that will lead you to take too many risks. So everybody has to decide what their risk profile is. However, when you’re very young I think you can afford to put your money into equity investments that are sometimes volatile, but if you’re putting that money aside for 20 years or more you can accept some volatility in exchange for a long run good rate of return.

My approach is called the four B’s.

  1. Big
  2. Boring
  3. Blue chip
  4. Big dividend

Not everything I do fits into these categories but almost everything I invest in fits into those categories. I very seldom make a transaction. I very much agree with Warren Buffet’s approach that says, “if you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes”. The message is, don’t buy something unless you’re prepared to take that long view.

MSBR: Do you have any advice for Economics students and how to move forward after undergrad and eventually going into the working world?

Professor Ragan: The first thing to keep in mind is you don’t just have a degree, you have a McGill degree and I think that is an asset. As well, you don’t just have an undergraduate degree, you have a Bcom or an Economics degree.

I guess I’ll talk more about the economics degree but I think it is viewed as a very analytical degree. Students coming out of these programs have a skill of analysis, thinking and organization of thought that I think is valued in the marketplace. It is probably difficult to sell yourself as an economist with only a degree in economics but it is easy to sell yourself as a smart and critical thinker

Finding that job requires work and nobody should assume that the world is going to discover you on the day you graduate and the offers are going to come flooding in. It is absolutely doable but it requires a lot of work. You have to phone people and send letters. I think it is a numbers game.

If I were an undergraduate looking for a job right after I graduate, my guess is with what I know today I would be contacting 150 names and addresses in the banking, industrial and service sectors. You have to go about it in an organized and systematic way. You have to send your CV and cover letter to a lot of people and follow up.

The thing is, you don’t have to know where you want to be for the rest of your life when you’re 22. You want a job that can put food on the table and can stimulate you. Your generation may only look for a job and be there for two years and you can keep moving around, while I’ve been at my job post education for 28 years. However, your generation is much more likely to move around and to like moving around. If that is true then you don’t have to figure out where you want to be for the rest of your life, you just have to figure out where you want to be for the next 2 years and that is a lot easier.

MSBR: Do you have any advice for your 19-year-old self?

Professor Ragan: At 19 I was in my second year at University of Victoria so I was just starting economics. In all honesty, my advice would be, good choice. If I get to say something based on my current knowledge to my 19-year-old self, it would be, “you don’t know what a great choice this is when you chose to drop everything and do economics. You can’t even imagine the fabulous things you will do and learn about over the next 30 years.”

 

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