Han de Jong, leaving the bank, was always an economics teacher

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For years, he intrigued us with his original analyses and surprising insights. Explaining how the economy works was his passion – first as a teacher, later as Chief Economist at ABN AMRO. This month, Han de Jong is leaving the bank. An interview about his work, the Dutch economy and life after ABN AMRO.

“Many economists lose themselves in numbers and models. But the story behind the figures is much more important. One economist predicts that the economy will grow by 0.6 per cent, the other by 0.7 per cent. Who cares? It’s about understanding how it works, what forces are at play, where it’s going. You can’t answer these questions with models alone. If you believe in models too much, you’ll forget how complex the economy is. For heaven’s sake, let’s use our common sense.”

Han de Jong (62) looks relaxed as he sits in his office in the dealing room, two weeks before he leaves ABN AMRO – his own decision. Except for a small break, Han has been with the bank since 1983, the last 14 years of which as Chief Economist in charge of Group Economics. Sandra Phlippen has been lined up as his successor. He isn’t anxious about leaving. “It’s good. I’ve been Chief Economist for 14 years – that’s long enough. The world has changed. It’s time for somebody else, with new energy, to tell the bank’s story. Sandra is the best person for the job – she’s a great successor.”

Economics teacher

As the bank’s figurehead, Han spoke at hundreds of events a year. His humour, erudition and unique personality make him a popular speaker. He is as much at ease in a room with hundreds of people as with a small group of ten clients. Han is used to appearing in the media, having written a thought-provoking column in Dutch daily Het Financieele Dagblad for many years.

“I’ve always enjoyed explaining economic phenomena, making sense of things,” he says. “The economy is complex. It’s always a challenge to understand it and to explain it to others. I started my career as an economics teacher and perhaps I’ve always been that at the bank, too. The only difference was that I didn’t get my teaching material from textbooks, but from the world around us.”

Great careers

Han’s direct colleagues describe him as a people manager. He paid attention to the people around him and knew what was going on in their personal lives. During the Christmas holidays, he always organised a dinner for his management team, including their partners, where a quiz or games were played. He looks back with pride on the many young talented people who began their careers at Group Economics.

“For years, we had a policy of recruiting and training young people. After a few years, they left the nest. Some wonderful careers were launched at Group Economics, both within and outside the bank. I’ve always really enjoyed following these people and staying in touch with them. In fact, in just a few days I’ll be having dinner with someone who left us many years ago and who now runs their own hedge fund.”

Lucky devil

Looking at the current state of the Dutch economy, Han has a few¬† things to say: “One of the best books I’ve read in years is Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The authors show how important well-functioning institutions are for the welfare and happiness of a country’s population. In that respect, we should be happy in the Netherlands. Dutch people tend to complain, but our government institutions generally work well and are reliable. Our economy also functions well. There’s plenty of employment, people have opportunities, you can earn a decent income, and we live in freedom. So although they complain, the Dutch are happy, and that’s understandable.”

“Yet there’s always the question, can we improve things? Are we making the most of our economy? I have my doubts. Good growth figures are fine, but they don’t show the opportunities you’re failing to take advantage of. I sometimes fear we’re short-changing ourselves. Take, for example, our desire for financial buffers. We want to exclude risks by setting aside reserves everywhere – families, pension funds, cities and, of course, banks. I think that’s over the top. You’d do better to accept that risks are part of life. The economy needs space and freedom – it’s good for the dynamics.”

Telling it like it is

Han invariably tells it like it is. He looks back proudly on his unique personality. “I think I’ve always been willing to say what I think, regardless of who I was talking to. That’s important to me. You have to be critical – of yourself, and of others. As an employee and a person, you have a responsibility to state your opinion and to challenge one another. How many people follow the crowd without questioning anything? It’s important to be authentic and to have your own opinion.”

“That’s the role we at Group Economics have at the bank. We question decisions, we challenge policy based on analyses. We can do that because Group Economics is very close to the businesses. We’re a relatively small team, but we do have a lot of clout. Our economists focus on a broad field, so they can give relevant advice.”

Life after ABN AMRO

Han has lived with his family in Ireland for many years. He travels to work in Amsterdam every week, where he has an apartment. He’s not considering retiring yet. In fact, he’s registered his new business, Crystal Clear Economics, with the Chamber of Commerce. “I’m going to continue doing what I do now, but I’ll only do the jobs I really like. My plan is to do some consulting and writing, and to give lectures here and there. I’ve got a few promising leads, such as a pension fund that needs someone to challenge it on its policy.”

Han will continue to commute between Ireland and Amsterdam as much as he does now. Besides visiting clients, he doesn’t want to miss attending Ajax football club’s home matches. “I really enjoy watching football. I have two season tickets in the Arena stadium, so I always take someone with me – my brother or a friend. Of course, we know a whole lot about football. [Laughs] And we don’t hesitate to share our knowledge with the people around us, so they can learn from us. Once a teacher, always a teacher, right?”

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