Tuesday, October 15, 2019

3 Randomista's win Nobel prize in economics

...for using Randomized Control Trials to figure out which policies work and which do not. 
Here are some blog posts on information from randomized control trials:

Below is a Ted Talk from one of the winners (I suspect that it would be profitable for business to run more randomized control trials, e.g., to estimate the effects of advertising campaigns.

Why are 600,000 waiting for apartments in Stockholm?

Good article from Economist on how rent control destroys wealth by preventing housing from moving to higher valued uses:
Rent controls are a textbook example of a well-intentioned policy that does not work. They deter the supply of good-quality rental housing. With rents capped, building new homes becomes less profitable. Even maintaining existing properties is discouraged because landlords see no return for their investment. Renters stay put in crumbling properties because controls often reset when tenants change. Who occupies housing ends up bearing little relation to who can make best use of it (ie, workers well-suited to local job opportunities). The mismatch reduces economy-wide productivity. The longer a tenant stays put, the bigger the disparity between the market rent and his payments, sharpening the incentive not to move.

... It is unrealistic to expect politicians to ignore voters’ demands. But the danger is that one abuse of power is replaced by another as renters, just like NIMBY's, campaign for regulations to lock newcomers out of the market. Although today’s residents might benefit from capped rent increases, outsiders, faced with less supply and fewer opportunities, will suffer. Just ask the 636,000 people who were queuing at the end of 2018 for a diminishing stock of rental housing in rent-controlled Stockholm. There, the average waiting-time to find a long-term tenancy is ten years and black-market rentals have begun to thrive. Rent control harms almost everyone eventually because the housing stock deteriorates.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Learn regression simply

·         PEDAGOGY: The program http://trialandstderror.com/  "inverts" the problem of teaching regression by asking students to create data by clicking on an (x, y) graph to achieve a given outcome, like a statistically significant regression line. An early version of this program was used to teach Justice Dept. attorneys enough about regression to allow them to cross-examine rival experts.

·         © 2019, Luke M. Froeb & Keyuan Jiang. The program may be freely used athttp://trialandstderror.com/ but not copied without permission from Froeb luke.froeb@vanderbilt.edu.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Conneticut's slow job growth

is likely caused by taxes and regulations that prevent assets from moving to higher valued uses:

  • ...the governor raised taxes on Connecticut residents by about $1.7 billion over two years, mostly in the form of various new sales taxes. 
  • [the governor] “refinanced” pension payments to state employees. The agreement with the unions doesn’t reform the system but shorts contributions by $2 billion through 2032, only to increase the taxpayer’s obligation by $5 billion from then until 2047. 
  • a 6.5 percent pay increase for state troopers and an 11 percent increase for assistant attorneys general.  
  • a $15 statewide minimum wage and workers will be hit with a new 0.5 percent payroll tax to fund a mandatory paid-leave program.

Monday, October 7, 2019

What could possibly go wrong?

In August the knights of the Business Roundtable announced that they are putting “stakeholders” ahead of shareholders as their primary business purpose.

Senator Warren sent the Roundtable a letter saying that she "expects" them to "live up to their promises" by endorsing her bill to change the way that capitalism works:

...Every company with revenue of more than $1 billion would have to obtain a new federal charter, in contrast to the current system of state charters.
Instead of serving the interests of the shareholders who own the company, CEOs and directors would have to serve some combination of “the workforce,” “customers,” “the local and global environment” and “community and societal factors.” 

UPDATE:  Why An Elizabeth Warren Presidency May Not Be Catastrophic For The Market

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

How did Blockbuster's CEO solve the double marginalization problem?

Hal Varian's (Chief Economist at Google) tells the story of Blockbuster (a video "rentailer") and its distributors who suffered from "double marginalization" or "the double markup problem." In other words, competition between firms selling complementary products results in a price that is too high and output that is too low:
Consider, for example, video tape rental industry. Prior to 1998, distributors sold video tapes to rental outlets, which proceeded to rent them to end consumers. The tapes sold for around $60 apiece, far in excess of marginal cost. The rental stores, naturally enough, economized on their purchase, leading to queues for popular movies.

The old contractual form suffered from double marginalization, which resulted in video rental prices that were too high and output that was too low.

The Blockbuster CEO recognized this as a problem and proposed a solution:

In 1998 the industry came up with a new contractual form: studios provided video tapes to rental stores for a price between zero and $8, and then split revenue for rentals, with the store receiving between 40 and 60 percent of rental revenues.

Although the stores marginal revenue was cut in half, the marginal cost of a video went down by about 90%.  As a result,

.. these contracts increased revenue of both studios and rental outlets by about 7 percent and consumers benefitted substantially. Clearly, the revenue sharing arrangement offered a superior contractual form over the system used prior to 1998.

 This arrangement is subject of course to verification of the downstream revenue by the upstream distributor.  New "smart" cash registers at Blockbuster made this possible:

The interesting thing about this revenue-sharing arrangement is that it was made possible only because of computerized record keeping. The cash registers at Blockbuster were intelligent enough to record each rental title and send in an auditable report to the central offices. This allowed all parties in the transaction to verify that revenues were being shared in the agreed-upon way. The fact that the transaction was computer mediated allowed the firms to contract on aspects of the transaction that were previously unobservable, thereby increasing efficiency. 

More of Hal Varian's insights about economics (there are some good stories here) can be found in his popular columns.  He is most famous to MBA's for saying that "marketing is the new finance," urging the Quants, who used to go into finance, go into marketing instead.

HT:  Vlad Mares

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

REPOST: Management matters

in exactly the way that economists would predict, both across countries:

Income differences between rich and poor countries remain staggering, and these inequalities are in good part due to unexplained productivity gaps , ..., US productivity is more than 30 times larger than some sub-Saharan African countries. In practical terms, this means it would take a Liberian worker a month to produce what an American worker makes in a day, even if they had access to the same capital equipment and materials.

and across firms within a country:

This huge productivity spread between countries is mirrored by large productivity differences within countries. Output per worker is four times as great, and TFP twice as large, for the top 10% of US establishments compared to the bottom 10%, even within a narrowly defined industry like cement or cardboard box production (Syverson 2011). And such cross-firm differences appear even greater for developing countries (Hsieh and Klenow 2009).

A new survey relates these differences to management practices:
we rated companies on their use of 18 practices, ranging from poor to non-existent at the low end (for example, “performance measures tracked do not indicate directly if overall business objectives are being met”) to very sophisticated at the high end (“performance is continuously tracked and communicated, both formally and informally, to all staff using a range of visual management tools”)...
The large, persistent gaps in basic managerial practices that we document are associated with large, persistent differences in firm performance. Better-managed firms are more productive, grow at a faster pace, and are less likely to die. 

HT: marginalrevolution.com

NY Times should read Chapter 9

Former student John Tamny wrote a nice essay critiquing a NY Times critique of capitalism:
...Wu’s assertions about U.S. corporations wholly focused on profit without regard to “employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities to which they belong” would have meaning if he could produce evidence that the best get that way while running roughshod over the aforementioned. 

John is implicitly referring to the compensating differentials of Chapter 9 (which he has read). Remember that a mobile asset has to be indifferent about where it is used.  Workers will move to the better company, and the migration will continue until wages adjust so that employees are just indifferent between the two.  In this new equilibrium, workers will be compensated with higher wages for working at the bad company.

Labor markets punish companies that mistreat workers by making them pay for their mistreatment.

Monday, September 30, 2019

REPOST: Screening out the "social" entrepreneurs

Funding early stage ventures presents a HUGE adverse selection problem:  How do capitalists find the twenty-something entrepreneur committed to making money for his or her investors, and screen out those who want to be entrepreneurs because it supports their lifestyle?  Here are four different ways:
  •  Mr Hommels employs a subtle test of character. During a chat about funding, he deliberately changes the subject. “The cool entrepreneur will immediately get back to the topic and not be a social talker,” he reckons. “The good ones are more focused.”
  • Mr Lobato’s test is more direct. “I get edgy and unpleasant,” he says. “I want to see what their reaction is. For them, I’m a means to an end. It shouldn’t matter how unpleasant I get. I want to see that they behave rationally and understand they need to get what they need to succeed.”
  • Danny Rimer, a partner at Index Ventures, a global tech fund, says an obvious turn off is an entrepreneur keen to discuss a quick “exit”. He doesn’t want to hear how they plan to sell out to Google or Facebook within a couple of years. Instead, he wants to hear how their company will be around for another decade.
  • And sometimes, obnoxious overconfidence has the karmic effect it deserves. “I had a pitch from an entrepreneur once,” Mr Rimer recalls. “She said: ‘I am the American dream.’ That was a tell-tale sign.”

REPOST: Nobel for figuring out how best to tie pay to performance

One of the enduring themes of out textbook is that to give employees enough information to make good decisions--and the incentive to do so--what we call "goal alignment," you have to tie pay to performance.  The not only attracts the most productive workers (adverse selection) but also motivates them to work hard once they arrive (moral hazard).  The tradeoff is that you expose the employees to risk, for which they have to be compensated.

The Nobel in Economics was just awarded to two economists who have figured out how best to do this.  Our friends at Marginal Revolution wrote a nice essay summarizing their contributions:

  • Use all signals of productivity to better measure performance ("informativeness principle").
  • Put greater weights on the best measures (least noisy).
  • Use a higher base salary when employees are risk averse (to compensate them for bearing risk).
  • Use relative performance metrics ("tournaments") when employees have similar abilities.
  • Use absolute performance metrics when employees do not (otherwise, employees with the most ability will easily win the tournament--without working hard).

We can use this analusis to critique executive pay:
...executive pay often violates the informativeness principle. In rewarding the CEO of Ford for example, an obvious piece of information that should used in addition to the price of Ford stock is the price of GM, Toyota and Chrysler stock. If the stock of most of the automaker’s is up then you should reward the CEO of Ford less because most of the gain in Ford is probably due to the economy wide factor rather than to the efforts Ford’s CEO. For the same reasons, if GM, Toyota, and Chrysler are down but Ford is down less then you might give the Ford CEO a large bonus even though Ford’s stock price is down. Oddly, however, performance pay for executives rarely works like a tournament. As a result, CEOs are often paid based on noise.