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U of T Remembers

Peter Christoffersen, a Rotman expert in financial risk, was 'a global thinker pushing the boundaries'

Peter Christoffersen was devoted to teaching and wrote the seminal textbook "Elements of Financial Risk Management"

Peter Christoffersen was an outstanding scholar whose work had a profound influence in the world of business and finance, but he remained modest, easygoing and devoted to his family, friends and colleagues. 

Christoffersen, a professor of finance at the Rotman School of Management, was a leading expert on the management of risk – a crucial issue for the financial and business community, and the economy as a whole. He held the TMX Chair in Capital Markets and twice was a Bank of Canada fellow.

Christoffersen’s stellar career was cut short in June, when he died of cancer at the age of 51.

“He was at the very leading edge of his field – a global thinker pushing the boundaries,” said Tiff Macklem, dean of the Rotman School of Management. While Christoffersen’s work on volatility modelling, risk management and option pricing was often cited in academic journals and won many prizes, he also “really wanted his research to be used,” Macklem said.

 And it was, steering senior policy makers in the public and financial sectors to “understand the big forces that were going on in the industry,” Macklem said. Christoffersen’s work was particularly crucial in helping financial institutions and other businesses manage and put a price on their risks.

In recent years, Christoffersen began new work on the intersection of technology and finance, a crucial field that is becoming increasingly important to business. “He was looking at the implications of big data and machine learning for the financial services industry, and even for the Canadian economy,” Macklem said.

Macklem described Christoffersen as “every dean’s dream,” because he was an outstanding researcher, a popular teacher, and he was always willing to take on new projects. “When he saw something that needed to be done, he would step up.” Christoffersen helped create a new Master of Financial Risk Management program at U of T, and the new Rotman FinHub – a financial innovation meeting place that brings together financial services firms, entrepreneurs, students and faculty so they can understand the impact of new technology. 

At the same time, Macklem said, Christoffersen had a “wry wit and an infectious smile,” and he was self-effacing about his scholarly achievements. He always made sure colleagues and students got credit for their work. “His modesty, in what can be a very competitive field, was very endearing. He was extraordinarily well liked by his colleagues.”

In addition to his research, Christoffersen was devoted to teaching, where he was known as a tough task-master, but also highly supportive and possessing an ability to distill complex ideas and make them understandable. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses, and had more than 20 PhD students over the years, a high number for the finance field.

Chayawat Ornthanalai, a PhD student of Christoffersen’s who is now an associate professor of finance at Rotman, describes his former supervisor as “an optimist, a cup-half-full guy.”
Ornthanalai said he had two co-supervisors for his PhD, and of the two professors, “Peter was always the good cop.” 

Christoffersen had a hands-on approach, where he encouraged students to use real-world data to replicate results that had been predicted in theoretical work. Ornthanalai said he now finds himself using that same style in his own teaching. And he also tries to replicate Christoffersen’s broader approach to life, especially the value he placed on spending time with his family.

Another of his PhD students, Redouane Elkamhi, said Christoffersen provided a valuable – and unusual – mix of patience, a positive attitude and subtle guidance. “A journey to his office made you feel like you could do something after all. He could make you believe in yourself and go back and work even harder,” said Elkamhi, now an associate professor of finance at Rotman.

Kris Jacobs, a finance professor at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business who met Christoffersen when they were both professors at McGill, said his friend combined a very disciplined work ethic with a laid-back nature. “He was a hard worker but a fun guy to be around. He was a good guy to have a beer with. He got along with everybody.”

Jacobs, who co-wrote many papers with Christoffersen over the past 20 years, said his colleague had a valuable combination of talents. He had very strong mathematical and statistical skills “but at the same time he thought like an economist. [He understood] how people behaved, and their incentives. He had intuition for that.”

That approach was reflected in Christoffersen’s seminal book, Elements of Financial Risk Management, a textbook that is internationally recognized as a crucial contribution to the field. “It is a lot harder than people think to write a good textbook in finance,” Jacobs said, but Christoffersen managed to do it by deftly combining state-of-the-art research with practical relevance.

Christoffersen’s self-discipline was evident in the creation of the book, says his wife Susan Christoffersen (pictured with him at left), a professor of finance and vice-dean of undergraduate and specialized programs at Rotman. At the time he was writing the textbook, their children were very young, so she was concerned it would take him away from family duties. “He made a deal with me that he would spend Saturday afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m. for 12 weeks writing the book. I thought he was crazy, as how could one possibly write a book draft in that amount of time, but true to his word he did just that and actually finished in about 10 weeks.” 

Peter Christoffersen was born in 1967 in the small town of Menstrup, Denmark, where his parents owned and ran an inn, called a “kro" in Danish. He and his brother were put to work on the many tasks that needed to be done to keep the enterprise running. “Peter often said that school work was the one excuse that he could use to get out of the various duties at the kro, and maybe this was part of the reason he became such a diligent student,” Susan said.

Growing up in a tight-knit community, and working in a business that emphasized hospitality, had a lasting impact, she added. “Even after moving away he carried with him a love of hosting friends and family,” she said. “In grad school he was renowned for his margaritas on our back deck.”

Christoffersen went to the University of Copenhagen for a degree in economics, and then headed off to the United States where he got a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania – he had perfected his English while spending a year in Michigan on an exchange program at the age of 16.

It was at U Penn that he met Susan, a Canadian from British Columbia who was working on a finance PhD at the university’s Wharton School. The two were married in 1996. Christoffersen worked as an economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington for two years before he and Susan moved to McGill University in 1998, where they both took up assistant professorships. 

The couple moved to Toronto in 2010, joining U of T’s Rotman School of Management. “The university was growing and Rotman was climbing in the ranks,” Susan said, making the move attractive to both of them. 

Christoffersen retained his deep connection to Denmark, returning every year to visit family and friends. He and his immediate family spent a sabbatical year there in 2007-2008. “He was very proud of his Danish heritage and had many qualities of a good Dane,” Susan said. “He was incredibly humble, he was really smart, and he had a quick wit,” she said. “I remember constantly laughing through our 22 years of marriage.”

Christoffersen loved sports, and transferred his European immersion in soccer into a deep interest in North American football. He was also a voracious reader, with an endless curiosity and a depth of knowledge on a vast range of topics, Susan said, and was involved in every aspect of their two sons’ lives. 

He was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2014, and it spread to his lungs about two years ago. Even as it progressed in the last months of his life, he continued to teach and kept involved in academic research and activities.

“He appreciated life. He stayed constantly curious,” Susan said. “He never stopped living or enjoying life despite having to face the uncertainty and difficulties of his disease.” 

Indeed, he kept in touch with colleagues by email until shortly before his death. “A week before he passed away he was finishing up a paper for submission,” she said. “Peter left this world with his foot on the gas pedal.”

Christoffersen leaves his wife Susan, sons Nicholas and Phillip, his parents Jenna and Johannes, and brother Jacob. A scholarship in his name will be established at the Rotman School of Management.