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Thursday, September 03, 2020

Thomas Laubach

by Ila Patnaik and Ajay Shah. 

Our dear friend, Thomas Laubach, died in the US, yesterday.

Thomas reached out to us in 2011. He wanted to spend time in a research group in India that worked in macroeconomics. Thomas, his lovely wife Tahniyat and their three children were in India for 3 months, then. Apart from NIPFP, they visited Amravati where Tahniyat’s family came from.

Thomas fell in love with Delhi in those sunny winter months. At NIPFP, his happy smile encouraged even the youngest members of the staff to go and talk to him. He tried to communicate his excitement and passion about what had been achieved in the last century. 

We were engaged, in those years, in trying to figure out a first principles understanding of Indian macroeconomics. Thomas, a former Ph.D. student of Ben Bernanke, was a great influence for this work. He brought immense knowledge of the edifice of modern macroeconomics of advanced economies, and at the same time was sympathetic and supportive of the idea that we had to figure out what makes sense under Indian conditions from scratch. We spent endless hours with him, groping in the facts, looking for the conceptual machinery that made sense and was consistent with the big facts. He cared about understanding the world, and being useful in the world, over and beyond the normal academic incentives.

At the time, Thomas was an academic at Goethe University in Frankfurt. Shortly after he finished at NIPFP, he joined the US Federal Reserve Board. Whenever one of us visited DC, Thomas would be happy to meet. He would always find time for a quick coffee in work hours. Tahniyat would be warm and welcoming and cook a lovely Indian meal at home.

Through the following years, we met Thomas regularly, as he would visit India regularly, and we would coordinate days with him in Delhi and Bombay. He loved walking in Bombay, and his answer to `what would you like to do today' was always "I want to see Bombay through your eyes". He loved stepping out to restaurants in Delhi for the local food. When he could not get leave to come, he  missed India, and would write to us remembering his lovely winter days of Delhi, calling his feelings the IWS (India Withdrawal Symptoms). His last visit to India was on a short trip in February 2019.

In Bandra (West), a favourite walking region

He was very curious about how India worked. He knew that the emerging markets were going to become more important, and that what made them tick was fundamentally different from what was well understood elsewhere. Sometimes it felt like he was an anthropologist talking with us about what we were doing, and he would go under the hood, seeking the thick description.

We always looked upon his time at the US Fed as a busy interlude, and then he would get back to doing something closer to research, with more control of his time. We had planned that he would join a Sahyadris trek on a post-Fed winter visit to India. It is so cruel, that life worked out like this.

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