Mike Schussler brought a dose of cheer to the ‘dismal science’ of economics
Mike Schussler, a towering figure in the world of South African economics, passed away on Tuesday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 60. Affable, engaging and always insightful, he injected a healthy dose of cheer into the often dry world of economics.
Mike Schussler’s legacy includes a generation of financial journalists whose knowledge of economics was brightened by his insight and ability to convey the nuts and bolts of the discipline in an easy-to-grasp manner.
It is no surprise that his CV included part-time teaching stints – he was a natural teacher. Come to think of it, he would have also been a fantastic financial journalist.
“Mike was a lovely guy. A gentleman, and so patient. He’d never make you feel bad for asking stupid questions. In fact, he’d encouraged it. Journalists owe their careers to this man. A gem,” is how my colleague Ray Mahlaka described Mike on Twitter.
Ray’s words were one of many tributes to Mike on social media and elsewhere, and he was spot-on. More than once, this correspondent asked him questions that betrayed ignorance, but Mike would shine a light on the subject matter that suddenly made it gin-clear.
Economics has been dubbed the “dismal science” – the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle coined the phrase – but Mike injected it with a healthy dose of cheer.
“He was one of the best economists out there. Humble, never arrogant, fiercely independent, never politically correct for the sake of it. He could interrogate arcane data in a way that yielded insights the average economist would not have dreamt of,” is how my colleague Sasha Planting described Mike.
He was also more than willing to engage in debate and discussion with journalists and others about economic issues, always in his patient and thoughtful manner. Was the South African economy showing signs of stagflation? Why are South African consumers moving to fast food consumption? How can there be economic growth but no job creation?
Mike was in many ways an economist’s economist with a profound sense of how an economy worked.
Part of this no doubt stemmed from the range of sectors he worked in over the course of a career that spanned more than 30 years. Before becoming an independent economist and founding the consultancy economists.co.za in 2005, Mike plied the tools of his trade at Transnet, Treasury, FBC Bank, EW Balderson and SAA.
According to economists.co.za, Mike consulted widely, with a list of clients that included “… National Treasury, Daimler Chrysler, BP, the South African Property Owners’ Association, the Financial Planning Institute of South Africa, the Debt Counselling Association of South Africa, Capitalworks, the South African Poultry Association, the Private Sector Health Forum and many more, including mines, banks, pharmaceutical companies, microlenders and commodity desks at private institutions”.
His passion for the nitty-gritty of economics and a penchant for research lead Mike to develop a number of provincial economic barometers, and, in recent years, the BankservAfrica Economic Transaction Index – a measurement of economic transactions between South Africa’s banks – the Private Pensions Index and the BankservAfrica Take-Home Pay Index.
If there was a way to measure economic activity, Mike was on top of it.
Insights gleaned from these indices have often pointed to the direction the economy was headed in, with the findings borne out by subsequent economic indicators.
“Mike communicated complex economic concepts in a way that ordinary South Africans could understand … in that way, he brought economics to the dinner table and made us all feel more knowledgeable by demystifying economics for many of us,” said Shergeran Naidoo, BankservAfrica’s head of stakeholder engagements.
“He was passionate about South Africa and created a niche with the development of the BankservAfrica economic indices. He left an indelible mark as an economist, and those of us who knew him and worked closely with him will feel his loss for years to come.”
When the economy was putting in a massive rebound in the third quarter of 2020 after collapsing under the weight of South Africa’s initial hard lockdown, Mike made a forecast to this journalist: “It is going to take at least three years to get back to 2019 levels. The first part is very swift and then the recovery flattens.”
That, of course, is pretty much precisely what has unfolded since, with the caveat that it might take a bit longer to get back to 2019 levels of production.
A scholar and a gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and a generous spirit, Mike will be missed by many. He is survived by wife Greta and son Rudi. DM/BM
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