HE Ping: China is My Home

Is Tsinghua SEM to blame for the global financial crisis? When viewing this question seriously, the answer, of course, is “no.” But from Professor HE Ping’s perspective, the answer might be “yes,” since SEM hired him away from Lehman Brothers just eight months before the now infamous investment bank filed for bankruptcy.


“If I was still there, I would have saved them,” Professor HE said, jokingly.


While Professor HE may have displayed fortunate timing in leaving Lehman Brothers, his decision to resign to become a professor at Tsinghua SEM came not because he felt the bank was doomed to fail, but because of his love for teaching and specifically his love for Tsinghua University.


Professor HE was an undergraduate at Tsinghua SEM, from where he graduated in 1997 with a degree in finance. Originally, he was a mechanical engineering major, but when SEM founding Dean ZHU Rongji (who later became the fifth Premier of the People’s Republic of China) gave students from other schools and departments an opportunity to transfer to SEM in order to help meet China’s demands for more accountants and financial professionals, he jumped at the opportunity.


“I was definitely very lucky because there was only a two year window where students were allowed to transfer to SEM,” said Professor HE, a native of Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province. “I found that mechanical engineering wasn’t a good fit for me. I wasn’t very good at drawing and designing stuff. I definitely felt a lot better once I transferred to SEM. I definitely spent too much time studying, but I had a lot of fun with my classmates.”


After graduating from Tsinghua, Professor HE spent one year working at a small investment company in Beijing before attending the prestigious University of Pennsylvania. There, he received a master degree in 2002 and a Ph.D. in 2004, both in economics. In terms of academics, his experience reminded him a great deal of his days as an undergraduate at Tsinghua, since he admits that he “spent too much time studying” and spent little time on activities outside of academics and research. However, he did try a few new things. For example, he learned how to play tennis, how to swim and even how to Latin dance. His time in the United States also saw him give up the one hobby he had as an undergraduate in Tsinghua: playing the card game Bridge.


“I stopped playing it because its reputation in the states is that only old women play it,” said Professor HE, who managed to win a couple of tournaments as an undergraduate. “When I later moved to New York, I went into a Bridge club and I was by far the youngest person there.”


Following his graduation from UPenn, Professor HE took a job at the University of Illinois at Chicago as an Assistant Professor of finance. Again, he reflects that he spent an extreme amount of time focused on research and academics, but this time he made a concerted effort to enjoy more extracurricular activities.  


“In Chicago I did make it a point to reach out and have some fun and make some new friends,” Professor HE said. “Chicago really is a great city. It’s well balanced and isn’t crowded and doesn’t have the traffic like Beijing. I lived in a tower building along Lake Michigan. It was a great experience.”


After two years at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Professor HE took a job as an Associate at Lehman Brothers. There, he worked in Lehman’s Interest Rate Product Group, first doing quantitative analysis, and then interest rate strategy. He took the job to get practical experience. 


“I think finance is a very market-related social science, so I wanted to know a lot about the market to become a good researcher,” Professor HE said. “I always wanted to get exposure to the market, at least to some extent. My experience helped me a lot in terms of understanding how financial models are designed, how they should be used and how they should work.”


When developing these models, Professor HE noted that “we did have a model forecasting that real estate prices would go down, but no one forecasted the collapse.”


After a year and a half at Lehman, Professor HE decided to leave in December, 2007 to become a professor at SEM. The process of returning to Tsinghua is one that started when he first graduated from UPenn in 2004, when he set his sights on one day returning to Tsinghua. He started to get back in touch with people and lay the foundation to become a professor.


“It was a dream to come back,” Professor HE said. “My experience in the States was great, but ultimately China is my home. It’s very comfortable to work here, especially because everyone speaks your language. It’s true that Beijing does have its disadvantages, but overall this is the ideal place for me to work.”


Now, Professor HE’s research focuses on money and banking.


“The faculty members [at Tsinghua SEM] take on more close-to-real-life instead of theory,” said Professor HE, who did his Ph.D. thesis on monetary economy and banking. “For example, I’ve been working on a study on how RMB internationalization would affect China, but it’s not as theory-based; it’s much more policy-based. I make predictions that are closer to real economy. There’s just so many interesting things going on in China right now. It’s a very intriguing issue, in particular over 30 years transitioning from a planned economy to a market economy. There’s just so much stuff to dig into.”


And finally, after all these years, Professor HE does more than spend all of his time on research and studying.


“Now I’m able to combine fun with work,” Professor HE said. “I spend a lot of time with students, including as an advisor for graduate students. I think the students at Tsinghua are the best and I really enjoy working with them. It’s a lot of fun.”  (By Neil Schwartz)