Obituary for Ray Rees

In Remembrance of Ray Rees

On 29 December 2022 Ray Rees, one of the central figures of CESifo and an internationally renowned economist, died in his hometown in Wales. He had fallen victim to long Covid,  which he contracted on a flight to Munich more than a year ago. 

Ray became a faculty member of the Economics Department of the University of Munich in 1993 after an extended sabbatical stay in 1990. From the very beginning he was part of the CES directorate, participating in the selection of scholars and serving on the CES and CESifo scientific councils. After his retirement in 2008 he maintained an office at CES until he eventually returned to Wales with his beloved wife Denny. 

Ray was an applied theorist, writing on a great many topics such as household economics, taxation, labour supply, fertility choice, ageing, income distribution, insurance, price cap regulation, collusion, profit sharing and energy economics. His impressive publication list includes papers in the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Public Economics and the Economic Journal, to name only a few of the most renowned outlets. Even after his retirement he published 13 papers in top economic journals. 

Most widely cited are Ray’s papers on household economics, often published together with Patricia Apps. Not fully in the tradition of Gary Becker, the authors study resource allocation within a family by explicitly modelling the negotiations and resource allocation among individual family members as if they resulted from a competitive equilibrium. Thereby they are able to come up with novel conclusions about the household’s reaction to taxation as well as its decisions on the optimal intra-family division of labour. The approach chosen by the authors has meanwhile turned out to be of seminal importance for a new branch of research in welfare economics, giving rise to fruitful and provocative results that challenge conventional wisdom.

Ray wrote seven books, of which four were classical scientific monographs and three introductory textbooks. Shortly before his death he completed his work on the fourth edition of Mathematics of Economics, published by MIT Press and co-authored with M. Hoy, J. Livernois, C.J. McKenna and T. Stengos. By then he was well aware of his likely fate, but with iron discipline he successfully fulfilled his obligations.

In Munich Ray primarily taught  microeconomics, risk and insurance theory and, later, the history of economic thought. The clarity of his presentations and the importance of his subjects fascinated his students. 

Ray was a very moderate and calm person, even though he had been a rugby player in his youth and once even felt tempted to become a professional player instead of attending university. He was always even-tempered and was kind to everyone. His co-workers, assistants and friends liked him for that, but also for the depth and intensity of his conversations and the humor he used to spread relentlessly.  

His dinner speeches after the annual Munich Lecture ceremonies were renowned for displaying deep insights and being funny at the same time. He talked about the question of whether bankers are rabbits, rats or monkeys, resorted to Greek tragedies to explain to Yanis (Varoufakis) why his country went bankrupt, and, alluding to the  criterion of rapidity of pelvic gyration,  explained why Fijian women were well represented in the national contest of Elvis impersonators. 

When abroad, Ray regularly wrote a "Letter from Germany" to the Royal Economic Society about his observations, which often had a humorous undertone. The letter was widely published and enjoyed by many readers. 

Ray was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but stemmed from a poor Welsh working class family. He never saw his father and had difficult experiences with two stepfathers who did not always treat his young mother respectfully. As a young pupil he earned money by distributing newspapers to make his living and support his mother. He learned to concentrate on his homework on the kitchen table with five younger siblings around him, creating chaos all over the place.  

Due to his extraordinary dedication, ability to concentrate, and intelligence, Ray was able to attend Dyffryn Grammar School in Port Talbot and was later offered a place at the LSE, benefitting from a government grant to gifted children from working class families. The fact that Mick Jagger was one of his classmates did not distract him from seriously studying economics. He graduated with distinction.

Later stops on his career included Queen Mary University of London where he climbed the academic ladder up to a readership. He then served as full professor at the University of Wales, the University of Guelph in Canada and finally, from 1993 onward, at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, where he  ultimately stayed for 20 years before returning to his homeland.

From Munich Ray toured the academic world, holding guest professorships at the Australian National University, the University of York, UK, CORE in Belgium, and Harvard University, USA, to name only a few. During the Munich summer break he used to go to his house in Fiji to do his writings in an undisturbed natural environment, supported by his wife, the offspring of a colonial British family living in Fiji. 

Ray was fluent in German from the time I met him nearly 40 years ago at a conference at Bonn University. He had learned German in high school and mastered it so well that he won a national essay competition in that language.  This allowed him to participate in an exchange programme with a Gymnasium (grammar school) in Lauf, a city close to Nuremberg, at the age of 15. He often emphasized how much he loved the family that hosted him there. 

But Ray not only liked German but also the Gaelic language that he had learned in school. When he was with his friends he often took his guitar and sang old Gaelic folk songs. The picture of this strong, Celtic character with his dark hair, bright skin and blue eyes singing his tunes in an archaic language, whose strong guttural tunes had no similarity whatsoever to his impeccable English, is unforgettable. The song Ray liked most included verses that might be translated to English as follows: 

Mary-Ann has hurt her finger 
The baby in the cradle is crying 
And the cat has scratched little Johnny 
A little saucepan is boiling on the fire
A big saucepan is boiling on the floor

The everyday chaos this song describes is the chaos of Ray’s youth which, against the odds,  he overcame with hard work, discipline and dedication, becoming not only a responsible husband and father, but also a renowned and admired scientist. His death has left grief and sadness with his friends throughout the world. 

Hans-Werner Sinn, 3 January 2023


CESifo Network - Ray Rees