Grabel to deliver University Lecture
October 27, 2011
By: Tom Wilmes

faculty-grabel.jpgIlene Grabel was named University Lecturer at DU's Convocation on Oct. 5.

If you meet Professor Ilene Grabel and ask about her work, she’ll tell you she’s an economist on faculty at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She’ll also tell you that her research focuses primarily on issues of global financial architecture and specifically on financial policy in developing countries.

The conversation inevitably turns to the global financial crisis, at which point Grabel will likely posit her thoughts on resurrecting capital controls — a policy that involves more direct governmental oversight in managing international flows of capital.

It’s an idea that has “fallen out of fashion over the past several decades” — as policy makers and economists idealized liberalized markets, especially financial markets — but deserves another look “in the context of the global financial crisis,” says Grabel.

“Certainly the United States was at the heart of the crisis initially, but as we know, the crisis has left few nations untouched,” she says. “For me, it isn’t so much that individuals engaged in wrongdoing, but rather that policy makers pursued the wrong strategies — strategies that offer little oversight over those markets and over the capital flows that contributed to the crisis.”

The upside, however, has been that some larger developing countries like Brazil, China, India, South Korea and Indonesia “have actually done quite well during the crisis … and are much more economically dynamic because they’ve been able to experiment with various kinds of financial instruments and policies and arrangements,” she continues. “Those are the kinds of changes that I think are very productive in terms of economic development and policy heterogeneity.”

And the thing is, as you listen to Grabel explain her ideas, and even if you don’t have a background in economics or political science, the way she explains it makes sense. Her ability to distill a complicated web of ideas into an argument that’s accessible to a broad audience is a trait that distinguishes Grabel both in the academic arena and in her consulting work.

It’s a skill she’ll bring to bear when she delivers the University Lecture to the DU community during the 2012 spring quarter — and it’s a skill that she uses every day in the interdisciplinary environment of the Korbel school. Grabel was named University Lecturer during Convocation on Oct. 5, and it’s not the first time she’s been commended for her work. Grabel received DU’s United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award in 2006. Also, the Graduate Student Association Council has recognized Grabel on multiple occasions, including, in 1995, naming her the “Most Outstanding Professor at the [Korbel] School of International Studies.”

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Economic Development has commissioned her to conduct original research on global financial controls, and she has published many papers on the topic. She also blogs for TripleCrisis.com, a site that offers a popular take on global finance, development and the environment, and last year she collaborated on an op-ed piece for the Financial Times.

Grabel is also co-director of the Korbel School’s master’s program in Global Finance, Trade and Economic Integration, which she developed with fellow professor (and spouse) George DeMartino.

“Ilene is an enormously influential scholar in economics, in policy circles and also for many political scientists,” says Associate Professor Rachel Epstein, who teaches with Grabel in the master’s program. “Her approach generally is very interdisciplinary and she’s had major scholarly impact on multiple fields. She’s also influential on a public policy level, particularly in the U.S., where she’s had a lot of impact on looking at the ways multilateral financial institutions are targeting their approach.”

Grabel’s work, Epstein continues, is very much against the mainstream in economics in that she takes a critical but constructive approach in evaluating accepted models with an eye toward quantifying wild-card variables such as herd behavior in markets, individual actors and other unknowns.

“Keep in mind we’re talking about human beings and they’re not always going to act in a rational way,” Epstein says. “Her work has been an important corrective to the conventional wisdom about the desirability of international capital mobility.”

This critical approach ­— the academic fortitude to poke a stick at widely held assumptions and ask “well why not this?” — is also something Grabel strives to pass on to her students, especially as a new generation of rising scholars grapples with issues related to a global economy in flux.

Grabel was born and raised in New York and completed her master’s degree and PhD at the University and Massachusetts-Amherst. She became interested in international finance during the economic uncertainty of the mid-1980s, and notes that student interest in international economics is again on the rise.

At the Korbel school “we’re lucky to have students that come from all around the world, and many of the U.S. students are returned Peace Corps volunteers or have lived and worked abroad. That makes for a very stimulating environment,” says Grabel. “I hope that [my students] develop a strong degree of literacy about the international economy and particularly about the financial system. That they can understand what’s going on and be able to participate meaningfully in future debates over financial policy issues.”

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