It’s not often that someone graduates from university one year and becomes a senior economist commentating on national media the next. George Driver investigates the meteoric rise of the high-flying Brad Olsen.
Google “senior economist Brad Olsen” and you’ll find him quoted in no fewer than 167 articles in the past year, speaking on just about any economics topic you can think of. He’s a regular speaker with Hosking and Hawkesby on Newstalk ZB, with John Campbell on Breakfast, and with Wallace Chapman RNZ’s The Panel. In print he’s no less prolific, popping up in every major media outlet in the country and featuring in articles in The Guardian, Time, and CNN.
And yet, he’s only 23 years old. He graduated last year, he was 12 during the GFC, and has only been old enough to vote once. So who is senior economist Brad Olsen and how did he become New Zealand’s go-to commentator on the economy?
His CV is the archetype of the overachiever: academic achievement sprinkled with extracurricular activities. As a 12-year-old growing up in Whangārei, he’d note down changes in the stock market while watching the 6pm news every night. As an eight-year-old, he began learning the workings of representative democracy, meeting with a local MP to discuss water quality after working on a class project on a polluted culvert.
At primary school (St Francis Xavier Catholic School) he was a do-gooder, volunteering for librarian, road patroller, bell ringer, PE monitor, and wet day monitor. His high school years at Whangārei Boys’ have been more or less documented in the pages of his local newspaper, the Northern Advocate. The list of articles in which he features runs to four pages.
As a 15-year-old he got his first taste of politics as an inaugural member of the Whangārei District Council’s Youth Advisory Group. As a 16-year-old he was flying to Fiji in his role as Unicef Youth Ambassador, attending a forum on bullying. Later that year he was writing opinion pieces in the paper, calling for the council to listen to youth. A few months later he was in parliament, receiving a Youth Week Award from youth minister Nikki Kaye. He was back in parliament the following year making a submission on behalf of the National Youth Advisory Group which advises the youth minister. A couple of months later he was the “Whangārei high-flyer’, off to a summit for youth leaders from the Commonwealth in Malta to help “solve profiteering from the refugee crisis”. The next year he met the Queen, receiving a Queen’s Young Leader Award at Buckingham Palace, part of a junket that included a meeting at 10 Downing Street. He went on to meet the Queen two more times over the next two years as one of the “Queen’s Young Leaders”, extending his acquaintance with the royal family by meeting the former Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, before meeting them again on their post-wedding royal tour of New Zealand in 2018.
It’s a breathless list of achievements for someone in their early 20s. What could possibly be driving such do-goodery? When I call him to find out, he’s visiting family in Ngunguru, a sleepy seaside town north of Whangārei.
“I was a very inquisitive child, always trying to understand what was happening in the world around me,” he says. “I was always trying to understand the motivations for people’s behaviour. And I could never shut up.
“I love public issues and I’ve always been aware of them from a young age, which is why I very quickly got involved in community efforts,” he says.
But growing up, besides attending council and community meetings and making submissions, was he ever, you know, a teenager? His mum, Helen, says no.
“He never went through a rebellious teenager phase, or a ‘grunting phase’,” she says. “He always talked a lot, even when he was very little he’d talk to anybody and he always wanted the long answers. Answer and expand.”
After high school, Olsen gained an internship at economic analysis firm Infometrics as part of a scholarship. He’s been there ever since, first working part-time while studying a double degree in economics and politics at Victoria University, then full time after graduating, gaining the title “senior economist”.
As part of his work, he started to deal with the media fielding inquiries coming from Infometrics press releases. His media appearances began to snowball in June last year when Infometrics released a regional wellbeing report which Olsen co-authored and he was thrust in front of the cameras for TVNZ’s Breakfast show.
“I remember quite clearly getting messages from people giving me feedback,” he says. “Most were a bit harsh, about my appearance, people saying ‘please smile more’.”
But since then he’s become something of a go-to commentator on the economy, particularly over the past three months as the economic impacts of Covid-19 have unfolded. He’s now such a regular on Breakfast that John Campbell quipped he’s become “very fond of the elephants in Brad’s room”, referring to the painting which served as the backdrop for Olsen’s live crosses during lockdown, broadcasting from his Wellington flat.
“I don’t have books and certainly don’t have a bookcase,” Olsen says, explaining his choice of backdrop. During lockdown his media appearances were often delivered from an ironing board posing as a desk.
“I’m a 23-year-old flatting in Wellington, so it’s different from what people expect of an economics commentator.”
And yet over the past month he has commented on issues including unemployment, interest rates, infrastructure spending, a four-day workweek, the property market, the wage subsidy scheme, immigration, extra public holidays, the construction industry, business grants, the future of big box retailers, Burger King and Timaru.
But at 23 years old, with relatively little professional experience and a bachelor of commerce degree so fresh you can still smell the ink, is he qualified to be one of the country’s top economic commentators?
Media commentator Gavin Ellis says we shouldn’t be too cynical about the abilities of youth. “One shouldn’t be critical of a commentator simply on the basis of age,” says Ellis. “Indeed, even ‘experience’ can be misleading. We should judge these people not by who they are or how old they may be but on the value of what they say.
“If he was an independent commentator I might be wary, but we shouldn’t forget that he works for Infometrics, which houses a host of widely experienced economists who no doubt provide a sounding board. And, as he trades under its name, they will make sure he’s no loose cannon.”
Gareth Kiernan, chief forecaster for Infometrics and Olsen’s supervisor, says talking to the media is something the business encourages and he’s confident in Olsen’s abilities.
“He’s pretty tough on himself and sets high standards, so that gives me confidence,” says Kiernan, although Olsen’s rapid rise has resulted in some ribbing from colleagues.
“We were joking with him that he was becoming an expert for no good reason other than he was happy to get out there and put forward his views,” Kiernan laughs. “But I think it’s a reflection that he’s willing to make himself available and he comes across well. And it’s nice to have a younger person commenting on the economy sometimes.”
Kiernan also says the media appearances are no accident, and something Olsen has worked hard to achieve.
“Brad’s real strength is that he is very good at cultivating relationships with people in the media. Me, I’m happy to speak to the media, but I’m not a great networker like he is. And I think that reflects in how successful he has been. He’s always happy to have a coffee with people and cultivate relationships.”
Olsen says being a commentator is something he’s naturally gravitated towards given his interest in public affairs and his talkative nature. He says his youth gives him a different perspective from other commentators and he’s careful to back up everything he says with evidence and data.
“It’s a different viewpoint I provide,” he says. “I don’t look at what the economy should be doing from my experience, but what it’s actually doing based on information. I don’t come with some preconceived view. And I’m simply offering another view – people shouldn’t take what anyone commentator is saying as gospel.”
Despite now working a full-time job, along with the almost daily media duties, his extracurricular activities haven’t stopped. He’s currently a member of the following: the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network, the Wellington District’s Alcohol Licensing Committee, the NZQA’s External Advisory Group, the Citizens Health Council of the Capital and Coast DHB, and the Wellington Youth Council. Last year he also became a justice of the peace and is now the youngest JP in the country.
“I’ve also always found it difficult to access a JP when I’ve needed to,” he says. “I often leave things to the last minute and I thought as a young person I could be someone people can text or call and I can meet them in half an hour in downtown Wellington to sign some document.”
But what does he do for fun?
“I find all of these things fun,” he says, without a hint of irony. “There’s not a huge amount of downtime though, to be honest. If I do get the chance, I like to go for a walk, have time to clear my head. I love to see how the world is moving, and how people are operating.”
So he’s a great communicator, well versed in economics, deals well with the media, appears to be genuinely community-minded, and already has nearly a decade of experience in leadership roles working with public institutions. Is it just a matter of time before he heads to the Beehive?
He says he’s been approached – a lot – and it’s something he’s still considering.
“Being a politician is about representing other people and in my mind, if a bunch of people encourage me to stand, I have to consider that quite seriously,” he says.
“It’s something a lot of people are expecting of me, but it’s nothing I’m considering in the immediate future.”
He refuses to divulge his political colours which he says would undermine his role as an independent economist. In an interview in 2018, he hinted at a future political career and a return to Northland where Whangārei has been a safe National seat since 1975. He says he supports a “market approach” to the economy, “getting the right settings to allow people to make their own choices”.
But he’s certainly no right-wing commentator and his political affiliations are hard to place. He recently wrote a column saying the government’s wage subsidy package didn’t do enough for low-income workers and called for more targeted assistance for the poor. He wrote a column applauding the government’s decision to ban charging tenants letting fees and the report on regional wellbeing he co-authored included measures such as the environment, health and social connections. He also supports a capital gains tax.
Regardless of where on the political spectrum he falls, Kiernan says he doesn’t expect Olsen will still be at Infometrics in 10 or 20 years time.
“He’s got ambition and things he wants to do and whatever opportunities present themselves, he’ll take them. He’s always looking for ways he can build his CV, but not in a self-serving way. He’s ambitious but not egocentric.
“Perhaps that reflects that he didn’t come from a wealthy family. [His father is a builder and his mother a bank teller] and I think he’s having the time of his life, having opportunities that he never thought he’d have in his wildest dreams.
“I mean meeting the Queen three times, it’s ridiculous for this boy from Whangārei!”