How a student took on eminent economists on debt issue - and won

Thu Apr 18, 2013 1:54pm EDT
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By Edward Krudy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Thomas Herndon, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's doctoral program in economics, spotted possible errors made by two eminent Harvard economists in an influential research paper, he called his girlfriend over for a second look.

As they pored over the spreadsheets Herndon had requested from Harvard's Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which formed the basis for a widely quoted 2010 study, they spotted what they believed were glaring errors.

"I almost didn't believe my eyes when I saw just the basic spreadsheet error," said Herndon, 28. "I was like, am I just looking at this wrong? There has to be some other explanation. So I asked my girlfriend, 'Am I seeing this wrong?'"

His girlfriend, Kyla Walters, replied: "I don't think so, Thomas."

In the world of economic luminaries, it doesn't get much bigger than Reinhart and Rogoff, whose work has had enormous influence in one of the biggest economic policy debates of the age.

Both have served at the International Monetary Fund. Reinhart was a chief economist at investment bank Bear Stearns in the 1980s, while Rogoff worked at the Federal Reserve, passing through Yale and MIT before landing at Harvard.

Their study, which found economic growth slows dramatically when a government's debt exceeds 90 percent of a country's annual economic output, has been cited by policymakers around the world as justification for slashing spending.

Former U.S. vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, is one influential politician who has cited the report to justify a budget slashing agenda.   Continued...

Harvard Professor and Economist Kenneth Rogoff speaks during the Sohn Investment Conference in New York, May 16, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz