Global Trends Enlighten MBA Students’ Career Choices

Global Trends Enlighten MBA Students’ Career Choices

UCLA Anderson economist Romain Wacziarg’s course looks at the big picture

Professor Romain Wacziarg holds the Hans Hufschmid Chair in Management. He joined the UCLA Anderson faculty in 2008 to expand the international research focus of the school’s Global Economics and Management area. A major theme of Wacziarg’s research is the causes and effects of the global spread of democracy over the last few decades. He also studies how deeply rooted features of societies affect their economic performance today.

  • Economist Romain Wacziarg teaches MBA students to understand how and why global trends from populism to pandemics affect countries’ economic success
  • Wacziarg encourages students to understand broader economic, political and social issues in addition to the business techniques they may specialize in
  • His popular Global Trends course began as an experiment and is now a standard elective in the UCLA Anderson MBA curriculum

As an economist, Romain Wacziarg seeks to understand what explains economic performance. This broad topic can be tackled on several levels: What makes individuals successful? What makes organizations successful? What makes countries successful? It’s the last question that preoccupies him most.

When Wacziarg sits down to talk with his MBA students, he gladly finds they are extremely knowledgeable about how to write a business plan and how to define accounting concepts — the types of topics covered in Anderson’s core curriculum. But the students’ level of knowledge is more varied when it comes to broader economic, political and social issues. “It seemed like there was a missing piece, and I think a business school should teach not just the techniques of business, but also the broader context and the broader picture,” he says. “I think as you become senior in managerial positions, you must know how to navigate the world really well, as your own job becomes less and less specialized.”

This emphasis on the broader worldview motivated Wacziarg to develop his popular Global Trends course.

Q: Why don’t we begin with an overview of your Global Trends course?

Global Trends is a class that focuses on the big picture, an environment that includes the economic, the political and the social. In most courses, students learn something very precise about a function that they might occupy in a corporate setting. They learn the rules of accounting or how assets get priced.

In Global Trends, it’s kind of the opposite: The idea is that if you take the class, you’ll be able to better understand where the world is going, and that’ll inform some of the decisions you make — not just about how to manage your business, but also what kind of business you want to go into.

Q: When did you start teaching Global Trends?

The first session was taught in the summer of 2018 to a joint FEMBA/EMBA class. It was sort of experimental. I would say the experiment was a big success. I got the best instructor ratings of my career — every single student gave me the top score. And so, as a result of that, I tried it a second time in 2019, and then it was rolled out formally, including in the full-time MBA program.

Q: You mentioned that one of the reasons you developed the course was to increase the students’ broader knowledge of the world. But you had a personal interest as well, right?

These are the topics which I tend to look at in my own research. I study things like globalization, the spread of democracy, the populist backlash that we’re currently witnessing, the rise of inequality and its causes. Many of these topics are also rooted in technology and development of new technologies. Some people know how to use them, some people don’t. That creates inequality.

There’s a whole section of the class devoted to understanding, in general, the rise of new voices, not just on the world stage, but also domestically. We talk about interest groups and how to understand how these interests affect the social and political landscape. We ask ourselves, “Should companies get politically involved?” These are issues I’ve been dealing with in my research for a long time. So, in terms of the class, I thought not only was there a need, but I have the background to put together something that addresses this need.

I’m passionate about the material, and I think that’s a big reason for the success of the class. Often, we ask faculty members to teach classes that are kind of far from their research interest and, as a result, students can sense that you’re not so passionate about a topic, that it’s really not your thing. In this case, it really is my thing. In practically every section of the class, the syllabus includes optional reading of papers that I wrote.

Q: What are some ways the class has evolved?

I initially taught the class during the Trump administration. A lot of the discussion revolved around protectionist trade policies, and now some of that has receded because Trump lost the election.

I have to rethink the class every year because some of the trends change. Some deep-seated trends don’t change or haven’t changed yet, but many of the immediate things have.

When the pandemic hit, I had to add considerable amounts of material. Practically every module of the class has been changed to reflect the pandemic. For example, the pandemic accelerated some existing trends like the backlash against globalization, borders closing and concerns about supply chains that caused protectionist pressures to be even stronger than they were previously. A lot of populist governments have found their voice under the pandemic and it has reinforced authoritarian tendencies that you saw in a lot of the world.

In terms of global inequality, some people and countries coped with the pandemic much better than others, and it’s arguable that the pandemic helped accelerate or at least entrench the trend toward greater inequality that we’ve seen. The fact that some are able to work remotely and some can’t, that introduces big differences.

Events occur almost every year that mean the class has to be adjusted, but in many cases, global events serve to reinforce existing trends.

Q: What are some of the hot global trends you’re looking this year?

The big new topic this year is inflation. Beyond that, one of the things we talk about a lot is cryptocurrencies and the impact they might have on the world of finance and on monetary policy more generally, which is a subject of great interest now.

Another thing we cover in detail is automation. In particular and more recently, artificial intelligence and how that’s going to disrupt a business from a macro level. I’m not going to teach you how to actually do facial recognition, or study the business model of companies that employ AI. We’re going to set it in a more macro context, trying to understand what sorts of disruptions automation is going to bring, what opportunities and challenges it creates, how fast it will occur in general.

Q: When many people think of economics and what an economist does, they think about the law of supply and demand, or someone who studies inflation or GDP. But the work of an economist is actually much broader, correct?

I think people have a perception of economics as much more monistic than it is. I view economics nowadays as much more open-minded and particularly open-minded to the approaches of other disciplines than economics was even 20 years ago.

For example, you have the emergence of behavioral economics, where we’ve amended the traditional economic way of looking at human behavior, beyond simple rational, self-interest-maximizing behavior. It’s not that we think humans don’t have systematic purpose in their actions, it’s just a more complicated set of motivations.

Another opening-up that has occurred is the relationship between economics and political science. I use that a lot in my research and in the class. Economics and political science are both social sciences, and I think there’s been an increasing amount of consilience between the two, where political scientists have become interested in economics and vice versa.

A third might be sociology, and we talk in class about the rise of new interest groups and the rise of new voices in society, borrowing directly from themes that come from sociology.

Q: What are your routine and requirements like for the course?

There are a few things I look for. One is class participation. This is a class that thrives on discussion and disagreement. Sometimes I say things just to get the discussion going. For example, I might say I don’t believe cryptocurrency is real money. A lot of my students believe it will become real money, so it’s a device to get a debate going. Disagreement is important; you learn a lot from listening to the other side. We’re not going to resolve these disagreements, but at least one gains an understanding of the arguments on each side of some important debates.

I also emphasize learning at a group level. We put together teams of five or six students. I ask them to put together PowerPoint presentations and a video. The goal is to dig deeper into a given topic. For example, if you choose to write your presentation on the subject of automation, to which we devote a whole module, I ask that you choose a narrower subset. I had a very nice presentation a couple of years ago about automation in the restaurant industry.