Monday, June 29, 2009

Hulu vs. TV Advertising Rates

Looks like the marginal benefit of advertising during programs shown on Hulu must be higher than that of the same program shown on TV.
Marketers typically pay $20 to $40 per thousand viewers for a prime-time ad. On Hulu, which began offering shows to the public in March 2008, an ad on the animated series “The Simpsons” costs $60 per thousand viewers, Michael Nathanson, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. wrote in a June 18 report.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why bother?

Oh, yeah, to give us a reason to make political donations:
The cap-and-trade bill is a travesty. ... It gives emission permits away, and tells utilities to rebate the windfall to consumers, so their electricity bills do not go up. It creates a vastly complicated apparatus, a playground for special interests and rent-seekers, a minefield of unintended consequences – and the bottom line for all that is business as usual.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Insure this

Where there is demand...:
...on the first play from scrimmage against LSU on Oct. 10, 1998, a gruesome knee injury ended Florida senior defensive tackle Ed Chester's career. Fortunately for Chester, he had bought an insurance policy from Gainesville agent Keith Lerner after deciding against entering the 1998 NFL draft. Lloyd's of London, the venerable firm that insured Bruce Springsteen's voice and Angie Dickinson's legs, underwrote the policy. Thirteen months later, Chester walked out of Lerner's office with a $1 million check. Chester never played in the NFL, but if he handled his finances correctly, he never had to worry about money again.

Management in Venezuela

El Presidente (for life?) first grabbed the guns (suppressing dissent is easy if only your supporters have guns), and then paid off those who supported him:
... my friend from Venezuela manages a factory, and told me 8 years ago Chavez made a law that you cannot fire anyone who makes 3-times minimum wage or less. So he has some employees who literally do nothing, and he can't fire them. Another one had a night shift and caused a lot of problems, so they put him on the day shift so they could better supervise him; he went to the department of labor to complain, and now my friend has to hire a lawyer to deal with this.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is this enough?

College Bound Sisters pays $1/day to 12-to-18-year-old girls to reward them for not getting pregnant.
Some recent graduates earned more than $2,000 and are an inspiration to those still in the program."I might want to be a teacher for a few years and then be a lawyer," said 12-year-old Chelsey Davis. "I might want to be an actor or singer," another girl in the program, Amanda Davis, added. Program director Laurie Smith said those aspirations are more achievable because of the incentives the program provides and the friendships it helps create.Smith said nearly 100 percent of the girls who finish the program have gone on to graduate college.
However, if a girl drops out or gets pregnant, her money is divided among the other girls still in the program.

Coinstar Economics

Coinstar offers kiosks in retail locations (grocery stores and similar outlets) that count your loose change. Dump your change in and get a voucher to redeem for cash at the store checkout. Coinstar charges a fee of 8.9 cents per dollar counted.

The company also offers a couple of other redemption options that allow you to avoid the fee. Coin counting is free when you exchange the coins for a gift card from a variety of leading merchants (Amazon, CVS, iTunes, JCPenney, Lowes, Starbucks, etc.). Also, if you donate your change to a non-profit (option available from the machine), there’s no charge, and the machine prints a tax deduction receipt for you.

A couple of questions occur to me: why take the cash option (I wonder how many people do)? Even if you calculate the time it takes to redeem the gift card and the probability that you won’t spend it, I can’t see that costing more that 9%. Second, I guess Coinstar must have some deal on the gift cards such that they don’t pay full price. Otherwise, where does the margin come from? I wonder how much of a discount they are getting, and how it compares to the 9% they make on the cash option.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Did the CRA contribute to the financial crisis?

One man's solution is another one's problem:
Defenders of the CRA have tried to maintain that the law didn't require lenders to adopt lax lending standards that characterized the boom years.

Unfortunately, that's just not true. The CRA led directly to lending practices that included extremely low to nonexistent down payments, outrageous loan to value ratios and other "innovations" that later became some of the best predictors of defaults and foreclosures.

Monday, June 22, 2009

It's the Incentives, Stupid, III

All we are saying is "give bankruptcy a chance."
Some of these consequences might have ensued, but the risk of widespread ripple-effect collapses--also known as contagion effects or systemic risk--was almost certainly overstated. The creditors of Bear Stearns would have suffered losses, and the shareholders would have been wiped out. But this hard medicine would have sent a very clear message to the managers, creditors, and shareholders: Better watch what the company is doing, or you could get burned. In more technical terms, a Bear Stearns bankruptcy would have eliminated moral hazard--the tendency not to take precautions if you'll be spared the consequences of bad outcomes.

Let the sick banks die so they can be replaced with healthy stubstitutes

Former student John Tamny scores a rhetorical bulls eye:
As [President Obama] sees it, "one of the most significant contributors to our economic downturn was an unraveling of our major financial institutions." No doubt that's the conventional wisdom of late, but it's hard to see how it could be completely true.

Indeed, finance as we know it is nothing if not a very broad concept. While Ford Motor Co. can trace its beginnings to car manufacturing, Quicken to tax software and E*TRADE Financial to low-cost stock trading, all are presently significant players in the business of lending. More broadly, retail behemoth Wal-Mart would have been in banking years ago if it weren't for regulations meant to keep it out, while leveraged-buyout giants of the Blackstone Group variety are dying to pick up insolvent financial institutions on the cheap.

In that sense, the true contributor to our economic downturn wasn't so much the failure of banks, but instead a bipartisan failure within Washington to let market forces prevail whereby finance substitutes would have entered a marketplace badly served by various dead banks walking. Put more simply, the unraveling of major financial institutions is not what presently ails us, but an unwillingness to allow them to die so that they could be replaced by healthy substitutes is.

These Dollars are Still Strong

Retailers Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General all show strong recent performance:
At Dollar Tree, Inc. (3,667 stores), earnings were up nearly 38 percent in the most recent quarter. In its most recent quarter, Family Dollar Stores (6,654 stores) said same-store sales were up 6.2 percent. Both companies' stocks are higher than they were when the market peaked in October 2007. But Dollar General (8,400 stores, $10.5 billion in 2008 sales) is performing even better. KKR says the value of its stake in the company is up 30.8 percent since July 2007, when KKR and several other partners completed the $7.3 billion acquisition, just as the fat lady was singing her final leveraged aria.
Goodlettsville, TN-based Dollar General is doing particularly well:
After rising 9 percent in fiscal 2008, same-store sales grew by 13.3 percent in the first quarter, better than smaller rivals or Wal-Mart. Most significantly, profits aren't being driven by heavy discounts. In the most recent quarter, gross profits were 30.8 percent of sales, compared with 25.8 percent in fiscal 2006.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Iceland's amazing boom then bust, III

Former student Olafur Arnarson who wrote a book on Iceland's amazing boom then bust, and who helped us write a new chapter on bubbles for the second edition of our textbook, is going to be talking about the Icelandic bubble tonight on 20/20.

For centuries, Iceland was a simple fishing society, largely shut off from mainland Europe. The people survived off the sheep in the meadows and the fish in the sea. For cultural sustenance they had elaborate sagas -- intricate tales of fairies and goblins, heroes and ghosts -- that would inspire J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy writers.

Then a modern saga began to unfold -- that of a nation of fishermen who became millionaires, only to lose it all and return to the seas.

Watch the full story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET

In the early 21st century, Iceland experienced one of the most spectacular cycles of boom and bust in history.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

iPhone vs. Pre

Is Apple abusing its dominant position in iTunes to promote its iPhone over Pre?
"Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players and, because software changes over time, newer versions of Apple's iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with non-Apple digital media players."
If Apple should re-design its iTunes software to make it incompatible with Pre, I would wager that some antitrust authority will start to investigate.

This works if the price elasticity is less than the advertising elasticity

US Govt charges foreign travelers $10/visit to fund advertising encouraging them to visit the US.

PT Barnum was right

Look ahead and reason back before you enter an auction at From former student Dave Parks:
You buy auction vouchers for 75 cents (each voucher raises the bid price by 1 penny and adds between 2 and 15 seconds to the ending time of the auction). All auctions are for new items and the final bid price is what the winner has to pay. I saw a $1300 computer sell for $240.00 ... seems like a great bargain until you realize 24,000 vouchers were used. The auction house received $18,000 + the $240 sell price for a total of $18,240 less the cost of the computer.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The alternatives to agreement...

...determine the terms of agreement. Thanks to a Toyota dealer in Kenosha who is also CarMax dealer, consumers have a good "outside" option to use when they bargain with their local Toyota dealers. The Kenosha dealer lists all their inventory on the CarMax website, priced at about 90% of MSRP, which is about where dealer cost should be (according to Consumer Reports). If your local dealer doesn't come down to that price, take a road trip to Kenosha. Online buyers seem excited:
Has anyone from Il-Chicago bought a brand new Toyota at CarMax,Kenosha WI ? They advertise brand new HL below MSRP. From the numbers I have seen, better deal than local Toyota dealerships. I am not sure how it all works out in terms of registering the car in IL, warranty and taxes. Anyone has any idea ?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Loss aversion

In the new edition of our textbook ,we have a discussion of psychological theories of pricing, including what is known as "loss aversion" from prospect theory. Apparently this behavioral theory explains why pro golfers make more par putts than birdie putts:
Even the world’s best pros are so consumed with avoiding bogeys that they make putts for birdie discernibly less often than identical putts for par, according to a coming paper by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After analyzing laser-precise data on more than 1.6 million Tour putts, they estimated that this preference for avoiding a negative (bogey) more than gaining an equal positive (birdie) — known in economics as loss aversion — costs the average pro about one stroke per 72-hole tournament, and the top 20 golfers about $1.2 million in prize money a year

If you laid all the economists end to end...

...they still couldn't reach a conclusion.

Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson warns us that we have to address our long run borrowing before it causes financial Armageddon:

Up until now, China has been willing to hold her recycled resources in the form of lowest-yield U.S. Treasury bills. That's still good news. But almost certainly it cannot and will not last.

Some day -- maybe even soon -- China will turn pessimistic on the U.S. dollar.

That means lethal troubles for the future U.S. economy.

When a disorderly run against the dollar occurs, I believe a truly global financial panic is to be feared.

But Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman thinks it is too early to start saving:

To sum up: A few months ago the U.S. economy was in danger of falling into depression. Aggressive monetary policy and deficit spending have, for the time being, averted that danger. And suddenly critics are demanding that we call the whole thing off, and revert to business as usual.

Those demands should be ignored. It’s much too soon to give up on policies that have, at most, pulled us a few inches back from the edge of the abyss.
And now President Obama wants us to spend now on Medicare because it will have a long run benefit:

MEDICARE expenditures threaten to crush the federal budget, yet the Obama administration is proposing that we start by spending more now so we can spend less later.

This runs the risk of becoming the new voodoo economics. If we can’t realize significant savings in health care costs now, don’t expect savings in the future, either.

Why is benefit-cost analysis so abhorrent?

Psychologist Bruce Hood interviewed by REASON:
REASON: One example that you give in the book is the case of a child who needs medical attention that will cost $1 million, which the hospital will have to cover. You describe this phenomenon where most people not only have the instant intuition that the child should be saved no matter what, but they are actually disgusted by anyone who tries to do a cost-benefit analysis on the question, even if that person comes to the "right" conclusion in the end.

HOOD: It was Philip Tetlock, who is an economic psychologist, who first pointed that out. The fact that you might deliberate over it, the fact that you might even have to apply some kind of cost benefit analysis is in itself abhorrent. Because it's a violation of what should be an instantaneous assumption, something that the group should automatically feel. Leon Kass called that the gut reaction, the politics of decision making, that you should just feel the answer to be correct. These are all driven by intuitions. The moral disgust that we feel is again something that you shouldn't have to think about. But that's really quite arbitrary, because in many ways—I think the hospital administrator example is perfect for that—in terms of what's best for the group, it's clear that these are tough decisions. In fact, it's clearly a decision that people do agonize about. But if you put them into the open domain they'd be very reluctant to say that or to admit that publicly. But that's in fact exactly what does have to go when you're in a position to hold the purse strings.

Controlling Moral Hazard to Reduce Health Care Costs

Remember this post about an interview with Vanderbilt's Larry Van Horn regarding how to control health care costs? Somebody at Safeway must have been listening. By charging employees more for their "bad" behaviors (actually the company is smart enough to frame the program as discounts for those who don't engage in the behaviors), Safeway has kept its health care costs flat over the last four years.
[The] plan utilizes a provision in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that permits employers to differentiate premiums based on behaviors. Currently we are focused on tobacco usage, healthy weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Safeway's Healthy Measures program is completely voluntary and currently covers 74% of the insured nonunion work force. Employees are tested for the four measures cited above and receive premium discounts off a "base level" premium for each test they pass. Data is collected by outside parties and not shared with company management. If they pass all four tests, annual premiums are reduced $780 for individuals and $1,560 for families.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rational actors?

In past posts we have discussed the shortcomings of the rational actor paradimg and the challenge that behavioral economics poses to traditional benefit-cost analysis. Now we have some evidence that consumers are not as dumb as we thought they were, particularly when making inter-temporal tradeoffs between current and future consumption. In particular, consumers do NOT count chickens before they hatch:
Households with high measured risk aversion consume less out of future income. All households, on average, consume more out of the more predictable sources of future income, such as future Social Security benefits.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bubble-ologist extraordinaire, II

Another Cassandra: Jeremy Grantham wrote this article in July of 2007, before the market had started to come down. yet the equity market seems totally unaffected with volatile and risky stocks still making the running. Although the brontosaurus has been bitten on the tail, the message has not yet reached its tiny brain, but is proceeding up the long backbone, one vertebra at a time.
I have often been too bearish about the U.S. equity markets in the last 12 years (although bullish on emerging equity markets), but I think it is fair to say that my language has almost never been this dire. The feeling I have today is that of watching a very slow motion train wreck.*

Bubble-ology: household net worth/GDP

From Calculated Risk: this statistic seems to peg the last two bubbles (tech, housing) pretty well.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Customer Service Losers

Think you have to keep your customers happy to stay in business? Not so much. In a recent MSN Money – Zogby International poll of how customers think they are being treated by the nation's largest retailers and service providers, nine of the Top 10 were repeats from last year (and by Top 10, I mean Top 10 Worst). Here’s the list:
  1. AOL
  2. Comcast
  3. Sprint Nextel
  4. Capital One
  5. Time Warner Cable
  6. HSBC
  7. Qwest
  8. Abercrombie & Fitch
  9. Bank of America
  10. Citigroup

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

President Obama mugged by reality

He now knows that overuse is the problem:
Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coordination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later?
So why is the solution expanded coverage?

Larry's Keynesian experiment

I used to describe the difference between econometrics and statistics by saying that the government didn't let economists run experiments on the economy, so we had to learn how to interpret non-experimental data. But this seems to be changing. Now that Prof. Summers' recovery is behind schedule, Niall Ferguson tells us what to watch for:
Borrowing is forecast to be $1,840bn – equivalent to around half of all federal outlays and 13 per cent of GDP. A deficit this size has not been seen in the US since the second world war. ... Even if the White House’s over-optimistic growth forecasts are correct, that will still take the gross federal debt above 100 per cent of GDP by 2017. And this ignores the vast off-balance-sheet liabilities of the Medicare and Social Security systems. ...
...“The only thing that might drive up interest rates,” [Paul Krugman] acknowledged during our debate, “is that people may grow dubious about the financial solvency of governments.” Might? May? The fact is that people – not least the Chinese government – are already distinctly dubious. They understand that US fiscal policy implies big purchases of government bonds by the Fed this year, since neither foreign nor private domestic purchases will suffice to fund the deficit. This policy is known as printing money and it is what many governments tried in the 1970s, with inflationary consequences you do not need to be a historian to recall.

Monday, June 8, 2009

How should we manage risk?

In this 13 minute video, Peter Bernstein, author of Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk explores the history of risk and how it works in real-world markets and in our lives.
Risk doesn’t mean danger—it just means not knowing what the future holds. That insight resides at the core of risk management for companies, whether in managing the potential downside of an investment or putting a value on the option of waiting when making irreversible decisions. In this video Peter L. Bernstein also explains why in the real world the most sophisticated mathematical models can sometimes fail.

It's the Incentives, Stupid, II

What happens when you pay kids for better performance in school?

About two-thirds of the 59 high-poverty schools in the Sparks program -- which pays seventh-graders up to $500 and fourth-graders as much as $250 for their performance on a total of 10 assessments -- improved their scores since last year's state tests by margins above the citywide average.

The gains at some schools approached 40 percentage points.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Supremes to Tackle Business Method Patents

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case regarding patents on so-called "business methods" (the most famous of which is probably Amazon's one-click ordering process). Historically, methods of doing business were not patentable in the United States; however, in the 1998 State Street Bank case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that business methods should not necessarily be excluded from patent protection. A wave of business method patent applications have followed the ruling.

Interestingly, a number of large technology companies oppose the protection of business methods, claiming that the incentive to invent created by patent protection is simply not necessary in the case of business methods: IBM maintains that the patents are not needed to promote innovation; businesses would come up with the products even without patent protection. "You're creating a new 20-year monopoly for no good reason," IBM's top in-house patent attorney, David Kappos, told BusinessWeek last year.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bubble-ologist extraordinaire

Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, but was also cursed so that no one would believe her. Robert Rodriguez, in June, 2007:

... after many years of an excessively easy monetary Fed policy, a bubble of massive proportions has been created in the housing market.
...As loan underwriting standards deteriorated, more potential home buyers were then able to qualify for a loan. We are seeing the initial effects of this erosion in underwriting standards by the collapse in the prices of sub-prime mortgage securities
EQUITY MARKET not realize the extent of the risks they may be taking.
FPA Capital Fund has over 40% allocated to cash (short-term investment securities) and our largest sector investment is in energy. Preservation of capital is paramount to us in this risky investment environment.
We see most investment sectors as providing little in the way of a margin of safety. The potential risks that we see do not appear to be well considered in the valuations within these sectors.

iPhone price elasticity=-2

Cheaper iPhones are being introduced by Apple:
Citing a firm survey of consumers, Morgan Stanley analyst Kathryn Huberty said that a $50 price cut could increase demand by 50 per cent and a $100 cut by 100 per cent.
For a $199 iPhone, this would imply a price elasticity of demand of about -2.  If so, a price cut would increases profit if the actual margin, (P-MC)/P, greater than the inverse elasticity, 50%.  Remember,

MR>MC  if (P-MC)>1/|e|

in which case you should sell more, which you do by reducing price. 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

It's the incentives, stupid

As someone who teaches students to anticipate self interested behavior, why am I always suprised and disappointed when I run into it?
QUESTION: The U.S. government does a reasonably good job of regulating things like the safety of airplanes and foods. Why, then, does it do such a lousy job of regulating the financial system?

ANSWER: "Capture." For those not up on regulatory theory, this refers to the notion that regulators become captive of the industries they regulate. Noting that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac spent $100 million on campaign contributions over the last 10 years,

Who's your daddy?

Courtesy of Don Marron.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If you cut the categories finely enough...

Everyone is a winner:
Winner=Fantastic Froebs (173 place overall in a time of 1:05:26)

Cleaner Cars Increase Pollution?

Henry Hazlitt's one lesson of economics is to consider the unintended / unforeseen consequences of a particular policy: "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy."

Could it be that the administration's proposed automotive fuel efficiency standards and tailpipe standards for C02 emissions (which are projected to raise the price of new cars by around $1,300, on average) might have the unintended effect of increasing pollution?
In today's automobile fleet, the majority of the pollution comes from the oldest, dirtiest cars. In fact, the dirtiest 10% of the cars account for more than 50% of smog and carbon monoxide. The dirtiest one-third of the fleet accounts for more than 80% of the pollution.. . . if you raise the price of new cars, people will buy fewer of them or, at a minimum, put off the purchase for a year or so while they drive the old clunker for a few thousand more miles. And fewer new cars means more pollution, which can cause significant health problems. Yet environmentalists and the press have ignored this issue, so as not to inject a note of complexity or doubt into the chorus of glee that greeted the president's attack on greenhouse-gas emissions.
Note: perhaps we would just be looking at a short-term spike in pollution while people put off the purchase of a new car. Eventually, those old clunkers have to die. So maybe the long-term impact is not as dire as the author implies.

Monday, June 1, 2009


It seems doubtful that taxpayers will ever get the $60B back they have spent on the UAW (and GM). There has got to be a higher purpose, but what? The answer to the bailout question.

It cannot be to preserve GM jobs, because the US Treasury has signaled GM must slim to get the cash. ... Plans call for laying off another 18,000 U.S. workers by the end of 2010.

The purpose cannot be to create a new, lean, debt-free company that might one day turn a profit. That is what the private sector is supposed to achieve on its own and what a reorganization under bankruptcy would do.

Nor is the purpose of the bail-out to create a new generation of fuel-efficient cars. Congress has already given auto makers money to do this. Besides, the Treasury has said it has no interest in ... telling the industry what cars to make.

The only practical purpose I can imagine for the bail-out is to slow the decline of GM to create enough time for its workers, suppliers, dealers and communities to adjust to its eventual demise. Yet if this is the goal, surely there are better ways to allocate $60 billion than to buy GM?

What about patronage?

Analyzing Corporate Risk with the Wisdom of Crowds

Jesper Andersen and Toby Segaran think there's a better way to assess corporate credit risk
Their project,, provides a platform for investors, academics, and armchair analysts to rate companies by crowdsourcing. The site amasses data from SEC filings (in XBRL format) to which anyone may add unstructured info (like footnotes) often buried in financial documents. Users can then run those numbers through standard algorithms, such as the Altman Z-Score analysis and the Piotroski method, and publish the results on the site. But here's the really geeky part: The project's open API lets users design their own risk-crunching models. The founders hope that these new tools will not only assess the health of a company but also identify the market conditions that could mean trouble for it (like the housing crisis that doomed AIG).

Savings rate up

The higher savings rate will repair household balance sheets, but will reduce consumption. Since one person's consumption is another person's income, (the "multiplier"), this will reduce the effectiveness of stimulus.

Int'l financial crisis slides

The story can be told a lot of different ways, but here it is told to a group of M&A attorneys