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Leading Edge – Charlie Robertson, Chief Economist of Investment Banking Firm, Renaissance Capital

Renaissance Capital’s Global Chief Economist reveals his go-to sources and essential media connections.

Twitter has become hugely important to me in the last five years. What I didn’t realise at first was how valuable it is as an information source. Across Africa, for example, there is so much English-language media available and Twitter is the best way to access that, to see all the viewpoints and opinions. You can access local newspapers and journalists so much more easily and in less time than going to individual websites. I follow about 1,000 people and feeds, from [political scientist] Francis Fukuyama to legal journalists in Kenya. Benjamin Harvey for Bloomberg in Turkey. I’ll check Twitter a few times an hour, but I can go a day or two without it if I’m deep in writing a research piece. My family might argue that I don’t have the right balance of being on social media, but I think I do.

Meeting people is the difference between being a regular commentator and somebody with valuable extra insight

Some countries, like Kenya and Nigeria, have a lot of primary political sources on Facebook, but most of them will be on Twitter, too. And I keep an eye on LinkedIn, not so much for posting things but more to see where my ex-colleagues have gone. I’ve just opened a work account for Instagram, but that doesn’t lend itself to work as well as Twitter.

I am a Financial Times addict, and have been since university, when I was enticed in by an offer to get it cheaply if you were a student. I still read it on paper. There’s that serendipitous thing where you read an article you know will interest you, then over the page there’s an article about, say, car manufacturing in Brazil, and you realise that it has something useful to tell you about car manufacturing in Turkey. You make the link indirectly; it gives you more than you expected and you only get that from print. And, I’m more sure of not missing something when I read the paper. Online it still feels too easy to miss stories that you should know about. I read the paper on the train, during my commute. There’s sometimes a build-up of copies and I’ll take a pile onto a plane with me to catch up.

Katie Martin [head of breaking news] at the FT ensures that you know what’s happening in the markets today and makes you smile at the same time, which is ideal.

As a chief economist, I spend a lot of time on central bank websites and finance ministry websites, because I want to go to the source of the data. In my job, ideally, you correctly forecast what’s going to happen, which is tough, but clients also value an original point of view. The more you read that has been filtered, the less chance you have of being original. Other people might say the more you read of others, the more chance you have of getting the facts right, but I don’t know about that.

Books I read on Kindle, apart from the five print books on my bedside table which never get finished. Recently I read and enjoyed The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe 1700-1870 and The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. The development issues relevant to Europe I think are relevant to the Africa and frontier development today: similar progress out of agriculture into industry, progress due to literacy. I also enjoyed The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze, about the financing of Nazi Germany.

A big part of my job is going to Nairobi, Abuja, Moscow or wherever and meeting officials. I probably get the freshest ideas from those meetings, and conversations on the ground with ministers, civil servants, central bankers or IMF representatives. It isn’t about getting the right data – that’s all online. It’s so I get the understanding of what people want to be doing. Connected to this is meeting clients around the world, who are investing in bonds, equities, private equity and so on, and gathering the knowledge and ideas they have. Those people tend to be very well connected, and so interacting with them becomes another big help when producing work or research. Meeting people like this is the difference between being a regular commentator and somebody with valuable extra insight.

Charlie Robertson is Global Chief Economist at emerging and frontier markets investment bank Renaissance Capital, which doubled its profits in the first 6 months of 2017. He is also lead author on The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution.