Alumni Spotlight

Ryan Sullivan
Solving Problems

By Kate Callen

Ryan Sullivan is a rare UC San Diego economics alumnus, earning both a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. from UC San Diego. As an undergraduate economics major, he acquired technical knowledge and skills. His pursuit of advanced degrees taught him what he calls “consistent persistence.” His doctoral studies under mentors Hal White and Allan Timmermann plunged him into the real world of a practicing economist.

[Photo: Ryan Sullivan]

Real World Economics

Sullivan’s UCSD education equipped him to be a leader in economic research and analysis. As president and chief economist of Quant Economics, a firm he founded in 2006, Sullivan helps clients make strategic business decisions based on extensive data and advanced statistical methods. Sullivan said that at Quant, “the underlying driving principle has always been the same: to seek relentless improvement of the economic analysis that we’re performing.”

Sullivan and his team also provide expert analysis in litigation related to intellectual property and technology. To date, his most notable court appearance came in Lucent v. Microsoft, where he provided testimony regarding financial damages from patent infringement, which was a billion-dollar issue for Microsoft.

Quant spent nine months performing exhaustive research and analysis for the case. “I enjoy intensity,” said Sullivan, “and that level of intensity was pretty high up there.”

“Testifying in the courtroom was fun. It was the culmination of all the work that my colleagues and I had done up to that point. Being able to convey that work to the jury in a way that they comprehended and understood, and made it theirs, is something I really enjoyed.”

Collaboration with UCSD Economics Professors

Before he launched Quant, Sullivan teamed up with professors White and Timmermann. “They exemplify ‘consistent persistence,’” he said. “They both combine rigorous analysis with creative thinking.”

His mentors were equally impressed with him. “Ryan possesses the complete package,” said Timmermann. “He can work with theoretical questions and empirical analysis. He’s very good at putting results in perspective. And he can pull myriad data together to tell a convincing story, which is a skill he had right from the start.”

One of the several scholarly papers they coauthored has been acclaimed by economics savant Nassim Taleb, best known as the author of The Black Swan. In an earlier book, Fooled by Randomness, Taleb cites their 1999 Journal of Finance article, “Data-snooping, Technical Trading Rule Performance, and the Bootstrap.” Praising their work as “outstanding,” Taleb credits them for demonstrating that “rules that may be in use successfully today may be the result of a survivorship bias,” which renders historical performance misleading.

In “data-snooping,” positive results that occurred by pure chance are rashly given statistical significance, which leads to skewed forecasts. “If you’re trying to develop a statistical model to predict a phenomenon, you might try to fit different models to [existing] data in hopes of finding predictability,” said Sullivan. “But the simple fact of examining many different models means you may find a model that appears to fit well, but it may be due to chance and not to any real validity inherent within the model itself. The model may be fitting the noise rather than the signal.”

Living a Life with More Energy and Freedom

Sullivan spent five years working at Bates White, an economic consulting firm founded by Hal White, and then took a sabbatical in early 2006 for the birth of his first child. At that personal juncture, he was driven by what he calls “a passion for living a life with more energy and freedom, and wanting to spend more time with my family. The sabbatical time was a thought incubator where I really identified the path for moving forward.”

The path led him to Quant. About his departure from Bates White, Sullivan said, “if it wasn’t the toughest decision I ever made, it was certainly one of the toughest.” But taking the helm of his own company gave him new opportunities to put his UCSD education to work. For the Quant team, he hired other UCSD economics alumni, including Christopher Wignall and Sarah Schroeder.

“The training at the university, and especially my work in the graduate program, developed a context for me in which to solve problems,” said Sullivan. “I feel as though the key thing Quant has done is broaden and thicken that context.

“We’re better prepared for any issue that comes to us now, both from a technical standpoint and work execution,” he added. “We have developed the ability to identify and implement the most appropriate analyses for solving some of the most challenging economic problems of today.”