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Mercator Awards 2017

Strawberry season and financial analysts

Irene Garonna, Timo Mennle and Stefan Leins have all won 2017 Mercator Awards for their PhD theses – on shifting seasons, markets without money, and financial analysts.


Her thesis investigates how satellite records can help document changes in the seasons: Irene Garonna

Strawberries ripen in spring, melons in summer, and corn is harvested in the fall: We humans are dependent on the changing seasons. In her PhD thesis at the UZH Department of Geography, Irene Garonna looked into the question of how the seasons are shifting along with climate change.

In the West the discipline of phenology – the study of recurrent seasonal events in nature – was pioneered by naturalists in the 18th century who systematically recorded the migration of birds, the ripening of fruit, and the changing color of leaves. These days phenology also helps in understanding more fully the impact of climate change on the environment. Various studies have shown that for many plant species spring has been coming earlier in recent decades.

In her thesis Irene Garonna looked into how satellite records can be used for plant phenological research. Consulting the longest continuous satellite record of vegetation activity, she was able to show that in many parts of the world the growing season for plants has gotten longer over the past 30 years. In her research she quantified these changes and explored links with climatic factors. Her work demonstrates that observing seasons from space helps document changes in the seasons, and might also enable us to better understand and potentially predict the effects of climate change on our environment.

Devoted his thesis to markets without money: Timo Mennle

Markets without money

There are some things that money can’t buy, like places at good public schools or access to social housing. Timo Mennle’s thesis at the Department of Informatics is devoted to such “markets without money.” He focuses on how goods can be meaningfully distributed in situations where moral or ethical concerns make monetary payments unacceptable. For example in a city where 1,000 prospective students have to be allocated to ten different high schools, it goes against our shared moral instinct if rich parents can buy their son or daughter a place at the best public school. For this reason, many school districts use central assignment mechanisms to allocate children to public schools according to their preferences.

There is the risk, however, that participants will put themselves at an advantage by making false claims, for example by overstating their preference for their second choice. “The great challenge in ‘markets without money’ is the mathematical certainty that no assignment mechanism can achieve high economic efficiency and fairness and prevent participants from making false claims about their individual preferences at the same time,” says Timo Mennle. In his thesis he studies the possible and necessary trade-offs when designing assignment mechanisms. He also demonstrates how computer algorithms can be used to redesign the rules of “markets without money” in the future to ensure that more participants receive the goods that they actually want.

Immersed himself in the world of financial analysts: Stefan Leins

Why do we need financial analysts?

Why do we need financial analysts? Until now economics has been unable to come up with satisfactory answers to this question, as empirical studies have repeatedly shown that events on the markets can’t be predicted. Even though analysts often fail to accurately describe future developments on the markets, in recent decades they’ve become established as important players.

Stefan Leins, an ethnologist at the UZH Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, spent two years with financial analysts trying to understand their forecasts as a cultural practice. In his PhD thesis he shows how analysts position themselves as experts by reducing complex and often contradictory issues to market signals which they then package into coherent narratives. These narratives are used to present investors what’s happening on the markets as something that can be explained and predicted. As Leins shows, the success of analysts isn’t based on their ability to predict the future, but on their capacity for winning over other people with plausible-sounding stories.

In January 2018, Stefan Leins’s thesis will be published as a book (Stories of Capitalism: Inside the Role of Financial Analysts) by University of Chicago Press.