08-11-2023 12:12

Helge J. Pedersen: The curious economist always chasing new knowledge

As a young student, Helge J. Pedersen got completely hooked on economics. The Nordea expert never looked back, and today he is one of Denmark’s most well-known economists. But his passion for football and the world of sports never fades.
Helge J. Pedersen
Helge J. Pedersen as a student in Bratislava in 1983, standing in front of the research institute ÙEOS where he studied.

For almost 25 years, Helge J. Pedersen has served as Group Chief Economist at Nordea. At 64, he remains as committed, motivated and curious as ever.

What sparked his first interest in economics? How does he stay energized in the role? What advice would he give the next generation?

We caught up with Helge just moments before he took the stage for an important client event.

What was your biggest dream growing up?

“As a kid I was crazy about football, always playing, always competing. Brønshøj Boldklub was a big football club in Denmark in my youth, filled with talented players and coaches. I joined the club in 1968, and I’m still a member, now part of the Club 100 together with other veterans and club legends. We watch games together and join other club events over the season. I’ve also always been passionate about sports journalism, tables and all kinds of statistics. The world of sports was and still is a big part of my life.” 

What sparked your first interest in economy and finance?

“My plan was to study medicine, but all that changed after one year at Niels Brock International Gymnasium in 1978. I met an excellent teacher who sparked my interest in economics. After that year, I decided to study economics instead, and since then I’ve been completely hooked.” 

My plan was to study medicine, but all that changed after one year at Niels Brock International Gymnasium in 1978. I met an excellent teacher who sparked my interest in economics. 

Helge J. Pedersen, Group Chief Economist

41-year anniversary

How would you describe your years as a student at the University of Copenhagen?

“Those were the good years, a time when you mature and find your way in life. I became passionate about economics and spent many hours studying. I was a substitute teacher in public schools, and also taught economics students while getting my Master’s. I have always found a lot of joy in teaching and communicating my message to others. My time at university also brought me to the former Czechoslovakia to study planned economy. That’s where I met my wife, Lubica. In 1982 I got a part-time job in Privatbanken (later Unibank, then Nordea), which means I have been with Nordea for 41 years.”

Can you explain your role as a Group Chief Economist at Nordea?

“My task is to always be up-to-date on what’s going on in the global, Nordic and Danish economy and to communicate my view to our clients, journalists, internal partners, the group leadership team (GLT) and the board. I also coordinate the work around our economic flagship publication, ‘Economic Outlook,’ write research notes and columns for newspapers and host the Danish weekly podcast ‘Nordea Markets Insights.’"

"In many ways, I see myself as a Nordea ambassador. My integrity and trustworthiness have always been most important. I have one narrative about the economy, and I tell the same story whether talking to journalists, internal partners or clients. I’m an economist, not a salesperson. This has always been my standard for 25 years in this role.” 

What does it take to succeed?

“It takes a lot of hard work and passion to always stay updated, but it’s also important to like to speak in front of big audiences and be with clients. Nerding with numbers is also key.”

Helge met the love of his life as a young student in Czechoslovakia. Here he is together with Lubica in Prague in 1984.
Helge’s passport, filled with entry and exit stamps from the DDR and other countries behind the Iron Curtain.

A changing world order 

What gives you energy in your daily work?

“Meeting clients in person gives me a lot of energy. I really appreciate them and find it gratifying when they invite me to attend meetings with them year after year. Creating great customer experiences by discussing the economy – I just love that part of the job. The pandemic was tough. Sitting at home and hosting webinars wasn’t really me. That struck me with the reopening. Client meetings and feedback, that is energising! I’m also excited to hold the position of chairman of the Chief Economist Group under the European Banking Federation and to be a  member of a High Level Group providing input on the economic situation to the president of the European Council, Charles Michel.”

What is the most important thing happening in the world economy right now?

“There are many important things going on right now. But I think it’s especially worth highlighting the economic policy focused on combating climate change and accelerating the green and digital transformation. It will be crucial. Demographic conditions are also changing dramatically at the moment. We see signs of deglobalisation, and the new geopolitical situation is upending the old world order. After Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, defence policy matters more and more. We of course also have the fight against inflation and changes in monetary policy. In many ways, we are seeing a paradigm shift and a changing world order. I’m happy to be living in this part of the world.” 

And what about Denmark? 

“Denmark is that bumble bee that just keeps on flying, despite high inflation and higher interest rates.  We have a diversified economy, resilient labour market, a huge current account surplus and very strong public finances. It’s simply an amazing development. Together with Norway, we probably have one of strongest economies in the world right now.” 

41 years in Nordea: Here’s Helge as a young economist in Privatbanken (later Nordea) in 1987.
The talented student was curious about the DDR and life behind the Iron Curtain. A private photo from Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor, a symbol of the Cold War, is a part of his memory book.

Fear for the first time

We are experiencing turbulence and volatility both in geopolitics and financial markets. What will it take to see brighter times?

“First and foremost, we would need a peace agreement in Ukraine. It’s difficult to see that coming, and this could be a frozen conflict for a number of years. We also see tensions between the US and China, as well as unrest in the Middle East after Hamas’s attack on Israel. It is really worrying. The US presidential election is coming up, and Donald Trump could once again be president. What would Trump’s position be on Russia, China and Europe? I fear we face a long period of geopolitical uncertainty and volatile markets.”

In what way will the war in Ukraine affect the European and global economy in the time to come?

“The attack was such a traumatic event and changed the world completely. One of the consequences is that security policy now suddenly plays a significant role in the decisions of both politicians and business leaders. There’s a risk of geo-economic fragmentation, which means that trade and investment activity will increasingly take place between politically allied countries. The positive trends related to globalisation that started in the 1990s are now dead.” 

The COVID pandemic. War in Ukraine. Inflation and higher interest rates. How does all this affect you – both as a chief economist and European citizen?

“February 24, 2022 was the first time in many years that I was truly scared. Russia, a superpower, attacking a European country. Where could that end? I grew up during the Cold War, but I never really feared a nuclear war. This act of aggression filled me with fear, but also a lot of anger. I am a pacifist and consider myself a true European, believing in the values of the European Union. I have tried living behind the Iron Curtain in 1983 as a student in Czechoslovakia, and it is really shocking to see Europe being divided again. This has all had a huge impact on me both as an economist, but also personally. It has also made me appreciate even more living in a free and liberal society. We cannot value that enough.”

We have freedom and rights in this part of the world, but that’s not a given for everybody. Embrace it and appreciate it. That would be my advice to the next generation.

Helge J. Pedersen, Group Chief Economist

A message to students

What do you do to relax after a hectic day at work?

“I use exercise as a tool to relax after busy days with many impressions. Biking home from work, jogging, and exercise are all great ways to clear the head. Watching a football match is another good way for me to relax. I also value reading a good book, watching a movie or visiting an art exhibition. Then I enter another world with my thoughts and new perspectives.”

Who has been an important source of inspiration for you throughout your career?

“The Danish economics professor Niels Thygesen is one of my role models. He is one of the architects of the economic and monetary union in the EU. He’s close to 90 years old but still active and chairman of the European Fiscal Board. I once met him on a flight to Brussels, before he continued on to a meeting in Lisbon. He spent the trip reading up on Portugal’s economy to ensure he was well-prepared for the meeting. From there, he went on to meetings in London. It’s impressive what he has accomplished over so many years. His international network is almost astronomically large. No matter where in the world I meet colleagues, they mention his name when I say I’m from Denmark. He’s a great inspiration.”

What advice would you give to young students?

“Be honest to yourself, work hard and be diligent. Explore and see the world while you can. Gain experience, learn other cultures and don’t hurry through your life as a student. Feel life and enjoy life. That’s the best investment you can make. We have freedom and rights in this part of the world, but that’s not a given for everybody. Embrace it and appreciate it. That would be my advice to the next generation.”

As we know him today: Nordea's Group Chief Economist, Helge J. Pedersen.

Helge J. Pedersen at a glance

Position: Group Chief Economist at Nordea since 1999 

Family: Wife Lubica, three adult children (32, 28, 20) and two grandchildren 

Studies: Master’s degree in economics from the University of Copenhagen 

Interests: A lifelong passion for football and sports. Biking, jogging and other physical activities are all important in my daily life. My wife is an art historian, and I have developed an interest in the arts over the years. The Austrian painter and founder of the Vienna Secession, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), is my favourite. 

Daily news sources and updates: Financial Times, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, Danish newspapers and analysis from Capital Economics 

Favourite book: I read a lot and really like thrillers. Author Daniel Silva (former journalist and CNN producer) is a favourite. I also enjoy biographies and historical books. Right now I am reading an 800-page book about Europe in the wake of World War II. The book is called “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” by Tony Just. It’s a masterpiece, and of course very relevant with the current situation in Ukraine. I also just finished “I hundene”  by the German author Erich Kästner about life in Berlin during the Great Depression (1929-1939). I’m fascinated by both the interwar and post-war period, and what went on culturally, architecturally and historically. Those periods shaped our Europe of today.   

Favourite podcast: The podcast “Genstart” from Danmarks Radio (DR) is the one I usually listen to. It takes a deep dive into different themes and discusses them in a way where you simply can’t stop listening. 

Favourite TV show: My all-time favourite is the Danish sitcom “Klovn.” I just love it, and it always puts me in a good mood. But, like everybody else, I also do more streaming, and it’s great to watch a good TV show on Netflix or HBO Max. The last one I saw together with my wife was “The Last of Us,” which is excellent. Another good one made by Danmarks Radio is the weekly TV programme “Horisont,” which focuses on different themes, for example, from Ukraine or other foreign countries. I find that very interesting.