While healthcare workers are on the frontlines and scientists are busy testing possible vaccines or cures for a virus that has changed the world, economists are getting their hands dirty at home as well. They are rigidly working with data to assess how this pandemic could change the course of our economy, updating their projections and recommendations to help seal that soft landing when recovery comes.
We spoke with chief economists Michael L. Ricafort of Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. and Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion of UnionBank of the Philippines, Inc. recently and they told us what life looked like for them working from home. They talked about their ways to go around the seemingly never ending new data to analyze as the pandemic stretches out and ultimately hampers growth.
There were no mentions of gross domestic product, inflation or unemployment rates from the analysts during the interview. Economists are humans too, who feel anxious about the uncertainty of the future. This is about more time spent with the family instead of getting stuck in traffic, and deadlines beaten while lying in bed after a tiring day at work in a living room.
Here’s their take outside global oil prices — of missing getting haircuts and burger cravings, packing a bag to walk 10 steps towards their workplace, and analyzing data to the beat of banging drumsticks.
The interviews have been lightly edited.
HOW HAS WORK CHANGED FOR AN ECONOMIST DURING THIS LOCKDOWN PERIOD?
Mr. Ricafort: I realized that in this field of work, the demand is bigger at times like this because clients have more time compared to what they had during normal circumstances. They have more questions. For our part, we have to deal with developments so there’s a lot to process.
There is more to monitor these days. There is more data, estimates, and calculations. Research is more in demand at a time like this so we have to work a lot.
Mr. Asuncion: I think the word is “maximized” because anytime an “appointment” is fixed, you’re already “there.” You want to set a boundary and you’re trying to have space. Later on you start to get the hang of it.
Especially with this pandemic, it’s quite hard to follow through the spate of data all coming out. It feels like you’re trying to catch the wind. As economists, we try to make different scenarios. But by next week, another development unfolds. You’re maximized because it’s an extraordinary time.
HAS IT GOTTEN TO AN OVERWHELMING POINT, SINCE YOU ARE DEALING WITH SCENARIOS AND ASSESSMENTS CAUSED BY COVID-19?
Mr. Ricafort: I have somehow gotten used to it. Things similar to this have happened before and I was already in this line of work. There’s this previous recession [in the US] and even the Asian financial crisis 20 years back. I guess I have prepared, although this time, it’s really different because we cannot go out. It’s a different level. I have not even stepped out to the garage.
I have so far grasped it and learned to process this situation, [getting it] in perspective. That this is a health issue first. I believe our economy is strong anyway.
Mr. Asuncion: That first Friday [after] the lockdown happened, I realized I was having an anxiety attack and my heart was beating so fast. I realized the developments I’m receiving are really quite heavy, they’re out of the ordinary. It started with Wuhan and back then, we thought, wow, this is really intense. But when it started to happen here, you feel like there’s a lag as you process it, that it’s actually right within your boundaries.
To overcome that, I silenced myself and meditated — which really helped. What disrupts this serenity however is whenever an ambulance would pass by every morning. You somehow feel okay but you also feel sadness because most likely, the ambulance is bringing someone [who is] not in a very good state. And with all this, you can’t do anything. That pushes you to be in touch with something bigger than you. If I could sum it up, I guess what helped me are awareness, meditation, and prayer.
HOW DO YOU ESTABLISH THAT SENSE OF “NORMALCY” WHILE WORKING DURING THESE TIMES?
Mr. Ricafort: Realistically, I can’t wear my shoes because the floor will get dirty, because shoes are just supposed to be on the first floor near the entrance. So I wear slippers. I feel awkward when I just wear shorts with my office top. It does not feel right so I also wear my pants which are also comfortable because they’re usually khaki.
Mr. Asuncion: I still carry my bag because you have to bring it to work before, right? Just now, the “travel time” is much shorter, it’s just 10 steps. It contains a laptop and some files which I got from previous events that I know I will eventually need. I also include my drumsticks just so I can play around with something while working.
I dress up with an office top and shorts. I felt excited in the first days and I was thinking [whether] I should wear a tie. Right now, I’m wearing this [a collared UnionBank shirt] which we usually wear on dress down Fridays.
HOW ARE YOU DOING WITH THE WORK-FROM-HOME ARRANGEMENT?
Mr. Ricafort: It’s perfect timing that my brother from Canada came home after five years and he’s the techie type. So before the lockdown, he fixed the things I will need for working from home — the desktop computer, the laptop, so that I didn’t need to bring my PC from the office.
I’ve been trained to work anywhere. I work while I’m traveling, either around the country or abroad. When my wife was still alive, we were in a long distance relationship and I would work remotely every time I visited her in Boracay at least twice a month. I also worked remotely whenever I would visit my family in the US and Canada.
Mr. Asuncion: I realized it’s really possible for me to work this way and that I can do much more. That this can be possible in normal days sometimes, just to change the routine. It does help with productivity and I know some firms are already doing it. I think it can be done for my field of work because we are output-based at the end of the day.
WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY LIKE IN THE NEW “OFFICE” WHERE YOU ARE WORKING?
Mr. Ricafort: I’m working in a sort of living room here at the second floor. Sometimes, I would also work in the bedroom. I just want to make sure there is no disruption.
These days, I could work even when I’m already tired and lying down in bed if I have to run after deadlines. But as much as I can, I try to work in the living room because I realized it’s a bit tiring to work on a laptop. This has given me a backache in the past two weeks.
Mr. Asuncion: It’s quite flexible as I can move around within the living room. If I need to have space for an interview, I just tell people here ahead of time. If I want somewhere more quiet, just like for a radio interview I had, I go to the room.
ANY LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNED FROM THIS LOCKDOWN? WHAT ARE YOU ITCHING TO DO WHEN THINGS GET “BETTER” OUTSIDE?
Mr. Ricafort: I miss eating outside whenever I crave for something; also the simple pleasures. I have not had a burger since the lockdown. I also miss presenting in front of the audience. I miss my friends, too. Maybe, I also miss having a haircut. But I have been trying to condition my mind that many ladies have long hair and they’re used to it so I guess I can handle this.
I have trips lined up and it makes me excited. I know there’s a new normal and I might have to rebook some flights, especially the one I’m taking to the US. I’m also looking forward to visiting my wife’s grave.
Mr. Asuncion: In life, I realized there are things you thought you actually need but are not really what you need. That anytime, things can change. We are fortunate that we are a bank that valued digitalization even before this situation.
I really want to buy a bike. I want to go back to physical activities like swimming, cycling, and running. Because of this situation, I also learned to value more the connections here at home which were hampered by work — time spent with your partner and your kids as well.