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Model economist takes on Pan-Asia

Citi chief of Pan-Asia economics walks away from the catwalk to oversee cross-border economic research
/ 05:15 AM March 17, 2019

Johanna Chua

Johanna Chua, the Filipino woman chief of Pan-Asia economics at Citi, has had a long-running romance with economics that began when she was 15.

But she did take a slight detour when she joined a supermodel search in the summer before she entered UP Diliman.

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“I tried. I failed,” Chua says with a chuckle.

Reaching the semifinals of that supermodel search was not  what others will consider a total failure, but for the competitive Chua, that’s exactly what it was.

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The modeling world’s loss, however, is economics’ gain as that is where she found her real passion.

“I just fell in love with the topic,” she says.

In UP Diliman, where she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Economics, she was “very nerdy” but also active in extra-curricular activities.

On just her second year in UP, she started writing to US universities to ask about their graduate programs.

She eventually entered Harvard University in 1995. There she pursued her master’s and doctorate in Economics. The Ayalas covered her last two years of PhD studies.

After defending her dissertation, which tackled imperfect competition in taxation, Chua thought she would go back to the Philippines to work for a think tank, or maybe join the academe.

It was an internship at Lehman Brothers that decided her fate.

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“That opened my eyes to financial markets and it was right after the financial crisis. I was doing a project for them about the banking crisis and I found it fascinating. Then I thought: Do I really want to go to academia or do I want to do something fast-paced? I’m a generally fast-paced person. That’s when I realized: I want to try working in markets,” she says.

She was hired in 2000 by Salomon Smith Barney, the investment banking arm of Citi, right after she completed her PhD. She has stayed with Citi since then, working out of Hong Kong.

Covering Asia, she rode on the bull market through 2007. She covered Asian sovereign debt, which was exciting at that time.

Credit spreads were so wide and the Philippines was among the biggest debt issuers. Having been exposed to the global financial market, she realized this was “economics in action.”

As Asian credit spreads tightened with the improving creditworthiness of these sovereigns, it was no longer an exciting market, so Chua shifted gears and went into trading.

“I just loved it! I was in the trading floor. I was very passionate,” she says.

So passionate in fact that she found herself putting out  trade recommendations while still in the hospital after giving birth.

When the US-epicentered global financial crisis erupted in 2008, Citi underwent a lot of changes, and that opened up an opportunity for Chua.

“I put my hand up and said I want to run economics. I was actually quite confident and then it worked out,” she says.

She thus became Citi’s chief economist for Asia in 2009, covering 14 economies.

Recently, her role was expanded. Her geographic scope has expanded to include Japan and Australia.

As chief of Pan-Asia economics, she’s responsible for cross-border economic research across the region for both developed and emerging markets.

“The nice thing about covering the region is I can move across markets. Sometimes this country is hot [so] I can focus on that. Then another country is hot. You can move around so you can find a lot of dynamism. But it’s a cutthroat job because you have to give people the info or insight that they don’t know and there’s so much free information already,” she says.

Except for short internships and a teaching stint in the Philippines at UA&P, Chua landed her first real job at Citi and has stayed for 19 years since then. A “lifer” at Citi, she is. “The reason why I’ve stayed for so long is my job changed and I was able to grow. It’s always a research role- and that has always been my love – but I was able to grow from just looking at sovereign and quasi-sovereign,” she says. “It always changes and it’s fascinating.”

“A lot of what we do is storytelling but you have to put some structure in the story. A lot of times when I’m interviewing people for jobs, I ask them an economics question and expect them to give me the right answer. But I always expect them to structure their arguments and I think that is what economics as a discipline teaches you: it puts a framework on how your variables interact,” she says. “It’s a fun job.” 

“Sometimes it’s a little bit like teaching. It’s like giving a lecture sometimes. But you also have to be very humble because you realize that there are so many things that you don’t know. Things keep changing, especially when you’re dealing with financial markets. A lot of times, whatever economic argument you make, the markets will move without anything to do with fundamentals.  It’s just positioning or herd behavior or whatever. You have to be very humble and willing to change your views when you’re wrong,” she says.

“What I always tell people even in my team is that what is important is to have a view. It may be wrong but as long as you have a strong argument to support your view, you should have a view. Because no one pays us just to say — on one hand or the other hand…”

Adding to the excitement is her being one of the few females in a male-dominated industry, and from a developing market at that.

“As a Filipino, you always have to fight. Sometimes you feel insecure, have that impostor complex. So over time, I worked really hard to gain confidence and realized this was I wanted to do,” she shares.

Chua certainly raised the bar for Filipino analysts. From associate in 2000, she moved up to managing director in seven years, a fast progression in the Citi universe.

Because she worked harder than everyone else, she also gained external recognition.

The Asset magazine, for example, consistently rated Chua a top economist. FinanceAsia, meanwhile, rated her No. 1 in sovereign credit research for nine consecutive years (2001-2009) and ranked her among the “Best Analysts” across all sectors, including corporate credits.

She never forgot her Filipino roots despite nearly two decades of living overseas. She’s active in the Immaculate Conception Academy and UP Alumni groups and goes to Filipino community events in Hong Kong.

Asked what else she wants to accomplish, Chua quickly points to helping her own children and others achieve their own dreams, just like she did.

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TAGS: Citi, Johanna Chua, Pan-Asia economics
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