Nicholas Kiefer, economist and ‘towering intellect,’ dies at 73

Nicholas M. Kiefer, an economist whose deep curiosity and sharp insights into statistics and economic theory enabled him to parse an impressive range of financial and banking systems, died at home in Ithaca on March 12. He was 73.

As the Ta-Chung Liu Professor in the Department of Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Department of Statistics and Data Science in Cornell Bowers CIS, Kiefer’s work touched on everything from labor market dynamics, to financial economics, credit scoring and risk management in banking, to consumer trend forecasting and quantitative management techniques for the restaurant and retail industries.

Nicholas Kiefer

The depth of his economic and statistical knowledge, his colleagues said, was matched only by the breadth of his interests and his generosity as a friend.

“Nick really was not only the superb academic, but the superb all-around person,” said Erik Larson, Ph.D. ’90, a former student whose decades-long friendship with Kiefer began not in the classroom, but on the squash court. “He was open and friendly, gave advice, and was compassionate. He was truly a Renaissance man. To me that means having interests and developing expertise that are very deep in whatever you try, with the highest quality that you can put forth. Nick lived that mantra in everything he did.”

Kiefer was born in Tucson, Arizona, and raised in Tarpon Springs, Florida. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University in 1972 and received his MA and Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1976. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health and a short stint at the University of Chicago, he was hired in 1980 as an associate professor at Cornell, where he quickly established himself as an economist with a nimble mind and a very large – often sporting – heart.

“He was a mentor, a friend and a big brother. And he was a fundamentally nice guy,” said George Jakubson, associate professor of economics, in the College of Arts and Sciences and the ILR School, who arrived at Cornell three years after Kiefer. “He was interested in all kinds of different areas and his interests changed over time. He was serious about the work but not about himself. He was my oldest, closest friend here. And I will miss him desperately.”

Kiefer came out of a Princeton tradition that linked economic models to statistics, Jakubson said, but with equal attention to their everyday applications: “It was cool to see cool statistics, but there was always this question: Why do I care? What am I going to do with this?”

This field, known as econometrics, uses economic theory and statistics as complementary tools for analysis, drawing out the empirical implications of models, and using data to test their veracity. Kiefer did all of this with “both sheer intelligence and incredible intuition.”

“Nick was so fast,” Jakubson said. “He knew what was important. He knew what the modeling choices were. And he was the same in a canoe. He and I did lots of canoeing and fishing and cross-country skiing together.”

Among Kiefer’s accomplishments were the development of structural job search models employing a dynamic programming framework; the invention of a widely used statistic for measuring the information content of financial trades, called PIN; a new approach for using “asymptotic approximations” to test problems in dynamic models; new methods to examine small probabilities in banking applications; and the incorporation of expert information using Bayesian techniques. 

“He changed the way people thought about all kinds of things, within economics, within statistics,” Jakubson said.

Kiefer eventually taught economics-related courses in the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, and with several faculty he established his own consulting firm for hotel revenue management.

Beyond his academic efforts at Cornell, Kiefer made outstanding contributions in the area of financial regulation services, according to Larson. He worked as a consultant for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency as well as Promontory Financial Group, often focusing on large U.S. banks with international operations that used risk assessment models to calculate capital charges, and anti-money-laundering compliance.

Those experiences ultimately led Kiefer to develop a popular course that explored risk management in banking.

“I can tell you, because I’m director of undergraduate studies, the students would fight to get into that course,” Jakubson said. “Think about it, here’s a course where instead of dry stuff about the Federal Reserve policy, this guy’s teaching you about how money laundering works. They adored him.”

Kiefer was a passionate and enthusiastic teacher. He always made sure graduate students felt connected with the faculty and welcome at social hours and department events.

“He was a towering intellect. I can honestly say that Nick Kiefer was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life,” said Francesca Molinari, the H.T. Warshow and Robert Irving Warshow Professor in the Department of Economics (A&S), who had studied Kiefer’s work before she met him. “He would just sit in a seminar, and other very accomplished economists or econometricians would come through and present their work. And at some point, Nick would start squeezing his eyes. And after you had sat in a seminar with him a few times, you would know that when Nick squeezes his eyes, something is up. He has figured out that there is some problem that nobody else has a clue about, including the author.”

Kiefer was always considerate in those moments, never condescending or pedantic.

“For him, it was always a constructive process of trying to understand what’s true, how do things actually work. And suppose that we find an error in your paper, let’s go have a beer and figure out how to fix it,” Molinari said. “That was Nick. He was very jovial and bigger than life.”

Kiefer was adept at playing the raconteur at group dinners and parties, leading discussions about a myriad of topics. He was also a masterful cook. Molinari still remembers the scones he made for her 12 years ago. Larson has hundreds of photos of the dishes he and Kiefer would prepare and share via text, trying to one-up each other.

“Our friendship grew outside of just being mentor-mentee. We did all kinds of things in central New York together. We went fishing, all across the U.S., several times,” Larson said. “He really was a well-rounded person who liked the outdoors, but the conversations that we’d have were often very deep about math, statistics, interesting things that we would observe in daily lives or in nature, that we would bring back and relate to weird things we saw in business or in the classroom. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet anyone like that again.”

Kiefer co-wrote and edited a number of books, including “Economic Modeling and Inference” and “Empirical Labor Economics: The Search Approach.” In 1986, he was awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He was named the Tai-Ching Liu Professor of Economics and Statistics in 1996.

For the last five years, he had been battling cancer, but continued to live “a very active and meaningful life,” Larson said, at the center of which was Kiefer’s family.

“Nick was the consummate family man. Work was important, teaching was important, but so were the kids,” Jakubson said. “Here’s a Florida boy who did not grow up ice skating. But when his boys started to play hockey, Nick learned to skate, so he could get out there and help them.”

He is survived by his wife Meral Varis Kiefer, whom he married in 1999, and their son, Mark; and his three sons, Patrick, Gregory and Joseph, from his marriage to his late first wife, Charlotte.

A celebration of Kiefer’s life will be held at a later date.

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Adam Allington