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More to Eslake than explaining the big picture

Profile | 25th January 2005

Stephen Dabkowski | Sydney Morning Herald | 25th January 2005

Saul Eslake is probably the best known number cruncher in Australia. He is quoted everywhere, pops up on radio and television and was at the forefront of the trend of chief economists at major financial institutions becoming public property.In truth, the chief economist at ANZ is many more things than just a talking head explaining the latest economic trends.

He’s a keen amateur historian, defender and supporter of most things Tasmanian and most recently, at age 46, father to an adopted child from China.

The adoption of now three-year-old Caroline from Shenyang in China’s north east by Eslake and his wife Linda Arenella illustrates a side to his personality that goes well beyond the technocrat we know from the media.

“Caroline was abandoned on the day of her birth, presumably because she was a girl, although we will never know any more of the circumstances of her birth,” he says.

Coming to Australia from a large industrial city in China, where she had never been outside of the orphanage, was a wrench for Caroline. It was also hard on Eslake.

“Caroline had probably not encountered men before, except doctors who stuck needles in her, so initially she bonded very strongly to Linda and not to me,” he says. “We had to work pretty hard to overcome that.

“It was big strain on Linda having to do everything, because Caroline would not let me do anything and it was also very stressful initially not being accepted by her.”

The result was that in the middle of last year, ANZ allowed Eslake to take four months off work to become a house dad to bond with his daughter.

It worked, and now pictures of father and daughter together are keeping Kodak in profit.

“I cannot think of anything which ANZ has done for me which has meant more than to have allowed me the time to form an effective bond with Caroline,” Eslake says. “It was an important time in my life.”

This year he celebrates 10 years as ANZ’s chief economist.

He isn’t the longest serving person in that position, but in a world where job longevity is becoming a thing of the past – particularly in the financial services sector – it is a big achievement.

Eslake also acknowledges that with the job comes an increasing public profile as the thirst for financial information seems to grow, especially in new media outlets such as pay TV and the internet.

“I sometimes facetiously say to our CEO [ANZ chief executive John McFarlane] that I’m the only reason the ANZ gets its name in the paper without it being for closing branches, sacking staff, selling up struggling small business people, raising fees, making ‘outrageous’ profits or paying him ‘too much’ and for that please make a financial contribution to the cost of running the economics department,” he smiles.

“In truth, John McFarlane in particular has generated quite a lot of positive publicity for ANZ in a whole range of ways and the bank itself has seen some dividends from the conscious effort it has been undertaking under McFarlane’s leadership to re-engage with the community.

“But nonetheless, it is part of the economist’s role to be out there enhancing the image of the bank as a source of authoritative advice on financial matters.”

Eslake was born in England – where his mother and father moved for a few years in the early 1950s before returning to Australia when he was eight. His family settled in a very different environment – the small town of Smithton on Tasmania’s relatively isolated north-west coast.

In an area known for churning out loggers or farmers, Eslake by his own admission was a bookworm. He was never a sportsman in an environment known for embracing Aussie Rules football played on muddy grounds, although today he enjoys watching both AFL and cricket.

“I was and still am an avid reader of history. In fact, if I had chosen what I’d like to do for pure enjoyment, I would have been a historian rather than an economist,” Eslake says. “But unfortunately the career prospects for historians are not particularly good and I came to study economics via a process of elimination.”

Eslake moved to Hobart by the time he began high school and eventually completed a bachelor of economics (with first class honours) at the University of Tasmania.

He moved to Melbourne 22 years ago, drawn north for work, but his heart and soul remain in the Apple Isle.

“I spend probably more of my time each year thinking, writing and speaking about the Tasmanian economy than its share of Australia’s GDP would warrant,” he says.

“It would still be my strong desire to have my last job – whatever it might be – in Tasmania, but that is still many years away.”

Eslake believes the economics profession gets undeserved flak for being boring, although it doesn’t always get it right when it comes to forecasting, which means it attracts its fair degree of justified criticism as well.

“There’s an old joke: economists are good with figures, but don’t have the personality to be chartered accountants. In practice, you probably couldn’t get the sort of profile the bank’s chief economists are expected to have whilst having a particularly nerdy personality. I don’t think any of us actually do.

“I think there is still a great deal of cynicism amongst the general public about economists. That is based upon our indifferent forecasting record of some things.

“As [US Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan has said, forecasting exchange rates is about as reliable as tossing a coin in terms of accuracy.

“But I think we’ve got a good track record of picking interest rates and not too bad a track record of forecasting major economic variables in the past 15 years.

“But any self-congratulation on that score should be tempered that historically economists have been bad at picking turning points in the broader economy and we haven’t had any major turning points in the Australian economy since 1991.”

Eslake received a few different books for Christmas, including the latest collection of Paul Krugman’s New York Times articles. Krugman is one of Eslake’s intellectual heroes, although he doesn’t agree with everything he says.

But these days he has slightly less time to read at night than he used to.

When he gets home, he’s got a daughter to play with.


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