Bonn · The financial economist Zwetelina Iliewa teaches and researches investor behaviour at the University of Bonn. Her latest topic: robo-advisors, which are supposed to help investors manage their assets.
It is not easy to meet up with Zwetelina Iliewa somewhere quiet these days. The Bonn-based economist of Bulgarian descent leads a jet-setter's life: She is currently in the USA on a research project; once a week she flies to Bulgaria where her son is living temporarily with her grandmother; she has her flat in Bonn and she has a partner who works in London. Our meeting takes place on the platform Teams on one of her days in Bulgaria. she is sitting on the balcony, lush nature behind her, a blanket on her lap, summer has not quite arrived yet.
Iliewa describes herself as a "why" person. She likes to get to the bottom of things, especially when it comes to the financial world. During the financial crisis of 2008, she worked as a foreign exchange trader in her native Bulgaria. "The crisis made it clear that professional and small investors make the same mistakes. And I asked myself: why is that?" This was a question her job did not provide answers for, but she didn’t let go. She studied the reasons for distortions in the financial market alongside her work. Then the opportunity arose to work with concrete data sets in the place where she’d been to university: Mannheim. She quit her job in Bulgaria and devoted herself entirely to research at the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) and later at the University of Mannheim.
Bonn conveys a sense of timelessness
She has lived in the Gronau district of Bonn for four years. She initially worked at the Max Planck Institute, but then, after colleagues there wouldn’t stop nagging her, she applied to the University of Bonn while heavily pregnant. That was shortly before the pandemic broke out. In the first semester of the pandemic, she was still on maternity leave. Since then she has been teaching Behavioural Finance. "I learn something myself in every course - German students are very persistent, they think along with you and ask a lot of questions." Because of Coronavirus, much of the teaching took place online. It was difficult for Iliewa not to be able to see her Bulgarian family during the peak of the pandemic. But the many distractions in Bonn provided a remedy. "My family and I often walked along the banks of the Rhine or took the ferry to Remagen," she says. She feels particularly at home at the university, "there I have a sense of timelessness, the old and the modern go hand in hand." In winter, she was a regular visitor to the Arithmeum and the Haus der Geschichte.
Research should serve the consumer
But Iliewa can sometimes withdraw into herself for hours and days. Namely, when one of her research projects suddenly begins to take shape. "I only develop such an obsession when I notice that people can be disadvantaged by certain distortions in the financial market," says the academic. "It is important to me that my research also serves consumer protection." Her work is therefore always about how financial market participants make decisions and the stumbling blocks they fall into.
Her current topic is robo-advisors, programmes that are supposed to support investors in managing their assets. According to Iliewa, there is still an enormous need for optimisation. Robo-advisors often work with statistics to explain financial market processes to their users. But the latest results of Iliewa's team show that Investors make better financial decisions when robo-advisors offer them simulation games instead of statistics. It is also helpful if investors have their body signals - such as fear or euphoria - mirrored when investing. "We found that women in particular invest significantly more than men when they are supported in listening to their own bio-signals. This is exciting because women are more reluctant to invest than men under normal circumstances." If robo-advisors were adapted accordingly, women could make better financial decisions with their help.
Sense of community through Ukraine war
In her work as a financial economist, Iliewa constantly deals with decisions under uncertainty and risk. She is all the more troubled by the fact that it is so difficult for her to understand the current situation in Ukraine. "The fate of Ukraine ultimately depends on one person. This means that it’s not possible to predict a certain behaviour, unlike if you were to look at a sample of several individuals." In Bulgaria, many people fear a nuclear catastrophe because of the proximity to Ukraine. But lliewa is surprised by the sense of community created by the war. Not only in the EU, but also the USA. "Among my American research colleagues, there is great approval for the US involvement in Ukraine. Whereas before only a few political issues connected us, now we have a common problem."
Constant contact with international colleagues has become part of Iliewa's everyday life. She now finds it easy to feel a little at home everywhere. Bonn, however, will always remain a special place for her: "My son was born here - so I associate the city with my greatest happiness."
Original text: Nina Bärschneider
Translation: Jean Lennox