That expert economist hogging headlines in Vancouver and Australia? Not 'technically' an economist
Philip Soos, cited as a Deakin University researcher and economist, is actually an IT grad and masters student passing off the university's address as his personal contact
The Hongcouver blog takes a detour via Australia this week to introduce you to Philip Soos, an expert economist from Down Under who has recently earned a level of fame uncommon for the dismal science.
Soos has been the subject of a thicket of headlines both in Canada and Australia. Here in Vancouver, he’s received attention for his opinions on the impact of Chinese money on the Aussie housing market (he’s dismissive), which supposedly parallels the experience in Vancouver. Back in Oz, he and colleague Lindsay David have been big news for the past couple of weeks because of their predictions of an impending market “bloodbath”, thanks to a bubble they link to indebted local speculators.
Soos has variously and repeatedly been described as an economist, a housing economist, and a leading economist. The Globe and Mail called him “an economist at Deakin University”. The Australian newspaper’s Alan Kohler called him a “lecturer at Deakin University”.
The trouble is that Soos, 30, is not an economist. He holds no economics degree, though he does have a bachelor’s degree in computing. Nor does he have any working relationship with Australia’s Deakin University, though he is a student, along with more than 45,000 others.
Soos may not have been personally touting himself as an esteemed Deakin University economist, but he hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to dispel the notion. For instance, even though he currently has no professional link to Deakin, his personal website oddly lists the university’s street address on Melbourne's Burwood Highway as his own contact address. He also uses a Deakin email address, such as is available to all students.
When I first asked Soos about whether he had any economics qualification - and before he stopped responding to my emails and interview requests - he was dismissive of the need for a piece of highfalutin paper. He confirmed that he held only an IT degree and an MBA. “Those with the most experience and credentials in the economics profession failed to see the global housing bubbles, especially in the US. There is far too little independent thought in the economics profession, especially housing studies (where I currently am at Deakin University),” Soos told me.
Note his use of “at Deakin”, rather than “studying at Deakin”.
In an email to a colleague of mine, Soos said instead that he was “not technically” an economist and he was “largely self-taught”.
Soos is not in any way an economist, technically or otherwise. He is a 2006 IT grad from the Swinburne University of Technology. His MBA, which may be a handy qualification for an aspiring businessman, is no qualification for an economist.
Deakin confirmed that Soos is merely a student in the finance department at the university. He is working on a masters. An online bio vaguely states that he is “working his way towards a doctorate in political economy” . Which may not be technically untrue, in the same way that any bachelor’s degree holder may aspire to work “towards” a PhD in any field - however unrelated to one’s existing qualification. [UPDATE: Soos tells the SCMP in a July 8 email that the description - "working his way towards a doctorate in political economy" - is part of a 2012 bio that "hasn't been updated in a long time". He has yet to respond to a question about whether this description was true at the time, and if so, why these studies were abandoned or left incomplete].
As I mentioned, Soos’ opinions on the role of foreign money in Australia have been sought for the supposed insights they offer on Vancouver’s market. He’s been the subject of lengthy pieces in the Globe and Mail, and the Vancouver Sun, as well as the local Chinese media.There was a brief (uncredited) mention of his research in a front-page piece carried by the Vancouver Courier.
Soos’ work was also favourably cited by Bob Rennie in a conversation I had with Vancouver’s condo king in late May (Rennie has been lobbying for a speculation tax instead of curbs on foreign investment in Vancouver’s housing market).
Frances Bula, author of the Globe’s May 8 piece that described Soos as an economist at Deakin University – and which appears to have triggered the subsequent Canadian interest in Soos’ work - declined to make a correction or clarification when I pointed out this error. [UPDATE: Bula, writing in her personal blog, justifies her description of Soos as an economist here, saying: "But Soos is an economist, working on his PhD in political economy". This is untrue, as confirmed by the SCMP with both Soos himself and Deakin; this information has also since been shared with Bula by the SCMP. In his July 8 email, Soos says he is now working on a masters of commerce, and Deakin's media manager Glenn Atwell confirms that this is being undertaken in the department of finance - and not the department of economics, where studies in political economy are typically undertaken].
Pete McMartin, who wrote the Sun’s July 1 piece, also declined to correct his description of Soos as an economist, which is also how he described Soos’ research partner Lindsay David. For the record, David also lacks an economics degree or any formal research qualification; he has a 12-month MBA from the IMD school in Switzerland (though he lists no degree qualification).
If Soos isn’t being paid by Deakin, how, then, does he earn a crust? He and David have set up a business called LF Economics*, and flog their doomy research to the worried public, for A$19 a go. I’m sure business is booming since the recent flurry of headlines.
Soos is also the author of an 810-page “book”, Bubble Economics, which he modestly describes as “arguably the most in-depth analysis of the Australian banking and real estate market ever authored”. I say “book” because it doesn’t actually exist in print, and instead takes the form of an upload to the servers of the World Economics Association - an organisation based out of this pleasant-looking house in Bristol, England. The WEA’s “technical support” person said the group would consider my queries about how its books were edited. They never responded again.
Content aside, the kudos of being a book author comes from a publisher’s decision to invest royalties, editing effort and costly wood pulp to bring someone else’s thoughts to print (and hopefully still turn a profit). But the WEA doesn’t pay Soos or its other authors anything. It doesn’t have to print anything. And as for the rigour of its editing, it promises to turn emailed submissions into books “within a few weeks”, which seems rather hasty for 810 pages of in-depth analysis.
WATCH: Lindsay David, "lead economist"
[Incidentally, the WEA boasts of its ability to distribute its “books” to its membership of “13,000 economists”. Make that 13,001 - since the WEA demands nothing more of its member economists than an email address, I joined up]
Soos would not explain himself when I pointed out that he didn’t work for Deakin. But David stepped into the fray, darkly warning me to “back off”. He said Soos was “previously employed to perform research at his university”, but neither he nor Soos would explain what kind of research an IT bachelor’s degree holder is hired to do – whether for instance, he was simply doing data work for actual academics, as opposed to being paid to conduct his own groundbreaking economic research (which he certainly was not).
“We conduct macroeconomic research particularly focused on housing and affordability issues in Australia. Yet, for one reason or another, the media in Australia and elsewhere often cites one or both of us as ‘economists’ which is beyond our control,” said David, as if the depiction were a mystery. “[We] have not attempted to pass ourselves off as economists,” he added.
That was before I pointed out that his own Twitter profile photo included the helpful description of him as “LEAD ECONOMIST”.
There’s nothing wrong with a diversity of opinion and analysis on Vancouver’s housing market. But why focus on the insights of a university student halfway round the world, who doesn’t even profess specific knowledge of Vancouver’s situation? As an Aussie might put it, let’s get fair dinkum.
(*note: contains no actual economists)
The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email email@example.com or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70 .