Monday, August 28, 2017

Anti-Price Gouging Laws: Keeping Assets in Low Valued Uses

The gulf coast of Texas needs critical supplies. It is wonderful that many are contributing out of the goodness of their hearts. But the Attorney General seems to not want to marshal the power of the profit motive.
“During declared disasters, state law prohibits businesses from charging exorbitant prices for necessities such as gas, food, drinking water, clothing and lodging,” Attorney General Paxton said. “Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey should take steps to protect themselves and report any alleged price gouging or scam contractors to the Office of the Attorney General.”

Keeping prices artificially low: 1) means critical goods flow to those who 'know a guy' rather than those who have the greatest need (as expressed by their willingness-to-pay), 2) creates an inefficient black market, and, most importantly, 3) blunts incentives for entrepreneurs to supply these goods.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

REPOST: Truckers are stockpiling dirty diesel engines

In 2007, new EPA regulations that mandate cleaner diesel enginestook effect. The new engines reduce particle emissions by up to 98% over the previous generation and cut Nitrogen-oxide emissions in half.

But they increase the cost of trucks by $12,000, or about 10%. In addition, truckers (consumers of the new engines) expect higher maintenance costs and worse fuel mileage.

Predictably, the new regulations caused a big increase in demand for 2006 engines and trucks,
Truckers seeking to beat the price increases made 2006 a record year for truck makers. More than 373,000 big-rig trucks were built in North America, says Ken Vieth of A.C.T. Research, which follows truck sales trends. The tally easily topped the previous record of 330,000 trucks in 1999.
But next year, Vieth predicts "a production drought," with sales falling by more than 40% to 220,000 as trucking firms hold off buying to see how the new clean-diesel trucks perform. ...
The cost to truckers goes beyond new big-rig purchases, according to Moskowitz. The new fuel costs 5 cents to 10 cents more per gallon to refine and may produce lower fuel mileage. The new engines weigh more, further cutting mileage. "Over the long run, their increased costs will be passed on to the shippers and ultimately, the consumers," Moskowitz says.
Both the 2006 boom, and the 2007 bust were predictable with simple supply-demand analysis, especially since a similar regulatory change occurred in 2002.

For policy makers, this points out yet another disadvantage of a command-and-control approach to clean air. Mandates from Washington have to be phased in, and this gives consumers an incentive to stockpile old, cheap, but dirty engines so they can use them in the future. Instead of telling producers what to produce, or consumers what to consume (by picking technologies, like ethanol, to subsidize), tax what you don't want (pollution) and let the market decide how best to reduce it.

Bottom line: How many economists does it take to screw in a light bulb? None--the market will do it.

REPOST: Uber's surge pricing is efficient, but deeply unpopular

So much so that places like Dehli has banned the practice.  In response to these political threats Uber has started trying to educate the public about the benefits of surge pricing.  Here is a "natural experiment" in Manhattan.

In the left panel, on New Year's eve 2014, there was no surge pricing (the algorithm broke down), and wait times tripled while the completion rate was cut to 25%.  The right panel shows the same area of Manhattan following a Ariana Grande concert in 2015.  After the concert let out, fares increased, but there was no change in wait times nor completion rates.

BOTTOM LINE:  surge pricing is needed to bring in supply and allocate rides to those who want them the most.  Without it, supply is too small, and rides are not allocated to their highest valued use.
(Economist article)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Heckman on Empirical Economics

Jim Heckman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics mainly for his contributions to the development of empirical methods. He applied these to social policy issues but they are also being applied to managerial decisions. Here he is talking about the value of empirical economics to go beyond ideology.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Markets Reveal Value

A recent article in the WSJ reports that:
Four mutual-fund companies have marked down their investments in Uber Technologies Inc. by as much as 15%, the first such price cuts that suggest these investors are souring on the ride-hailing giant following a scandal-ridden year.

A 15% swing in price in one day is huge. This happens because Uber is privately held and there isn't an organized market for the shares. They do not have to announce write downs of their shares in, say, GM or Merck. They simply check their favorite financial news site. But they likely had a team gathering information and poring over the numbers in order to come up with the new Uber price point. This is costly. One of the great virtues of markets (described beautifully by Hayek) is that they reveal value to the uninformed nearly costlessly. Yet another reason economists are so infatuated with markets.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reduce Prices When you Acquire a Complementary Good

Minjae Song, Sean Nicholson, and Claudio Lucarelli examine the pricing of drug "cocktails" in their new paper in the RAND Journal of Economics. Sometimes the preferred treatment regimen is a combination of drugs made by competing firms. Each drugs might deal with issues not treated by the other, or that are exasperated by the other, and so are complement each other. In these cases, there would be two effects from a merger between firms:

  • higher prices from increased market power when the drugs are sold stand alone and 
  • lower prices from internalizing the complementarity when the drugs are sold in combination. 

In their simulations of hypothetical mergers, Song et al. find that the two effects are practically a wash and often consumers are better off.
The net impact of a merger is a modest price increase, or even a price decrease.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Germany's North-South divide

The latest evidence about the superiority of markets (over government planning) seems to come from Germany, people go to better schools, get jobs more easily, earn more and live longer to enjoy it. Crime is also lower. I say "seems to" because inferring causality from correlation is notoriously difficult.
In 1960 Bavaria was the poorest part of West Germany. Like its neighbours, it lacked natural resources and had to find work for millions of Germans who had fled central Europe from 1945 and settled in rural areas. So successive governments limited bureaucracy and offered incentives for investment not just in big cities but also in smaller-scale production in towns and villages. This suited economic traditions: the hilly south had generally been farmed in small patches by self-sufficient families, while the flatter north lent itself to larger, more class-stratified agri-businesses. ... Bruno Hildenbrand, a sociologist, even suggests that the relative autonomy of the southern farming families gave the region a more entrepreneurial and pragmatic mentality.
HT: MarginalRevolution.com

Friday, August 18, 2017

Fake Eclipse Sunglasses

Like many, I will stop my day to experience the solar eclipse on Monday. Many will regret it. As the WSJ reports, they will have stared up at the sun thinking their eyes were protected by special sunglasses that "can filter out tens of thousands of times as much light from the sun as sunglasses." Instead, they will be exposing their eyes to potential harm from counterfeits.
Mr. Jerit said some dealers on Amazon have created copycat versions of his company's Soluna brand of eclipse glasses, sold by GSM Sales LLC. He says the knockoff Solunas are replicas down to the logo, design and product information printed on the frames, and often are sold at much lower prices. A pack of 10 legitimate Soluna eclipse viewers cost $39.95 on Amazon as of Aug. 4

This is a case of a very large and very temporary expansion in demand. Supply cannot increase fast enough making price rise temporarily. But even more, the new temporary demanders are not as discerning about quality as the traditional customers. These are the characteristics that permit moral hazard. With a higher price, there is room low cost producers to enter temporarily with sub-standard products.

I am predicting that ophthalmologists will be busy over the next few months.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sheldon Chooses a Console

I use this youtube video in class to get a discussion going of all the instances of opportunity costs. The writers did a good job making it accessible even to non-gamers and in carrying a gag as far as they could.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Game theory applied to extreme view protests

In light of events in Charlottesville over the weekend, I am reposting from a story in the WSJ. Germans pledged money to an anti-nazi group for every meter that nazis marched. You cannot help but smirk when watching the video.


I suggest that the next time an alt-right, nazi, or KKK rally is planned, a similar campaign is launched. I know many would pledge money for every hour that the speeches are made and their protest lasts if donations went to a suitable organization that peacefully counsels these folks back into the mainstream. Then hand out lozenges so they could continue as long as possible. Have a signboard with a running total so they could see how much they have raised.The media would eat it up.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Dark Side of Incentive Pay?

The Financial Times recently published a thoughtful commentary by Jonathan Ford arguing that performance pay in the financial sector has been bad for financial market consumers. He extolls the virtues of the post-war, pre-liberalization banking system where a particularly industrious bank manager might get rewarded with a letter of commendation from the bank president. Ford notes that there were flaws.
The system was not perfect: it could entrench snooty managers and make credit hard to come by.

In contrast to these halcyon days, today's financial managers face constant competitive pressure and are constantly rewarded for increasing profits. We hope that profits are generated by delivering ever increasing value to customers. But, especially during the financial crisis, there were many examples of bankers fleecing customers. He notes that the bad acts are a result of bad incentives and suggests a remedy for these bad acts.
But there is of course a simpler way to avoid offering bad incentives. That is simply to pay employees a salary based on what the job is worth.

On net, was the move to market liberalization, and incentive pay as a consequence, worth it?

I will note that, over the past four decades, the financial sector has seen nearly as much innovation as the IT sector. Spreads between interest rates to borrowers and savers and in stock market transactions have shrunk dramatically. More consumers have access to more financial instruments than ever before in part because more financial instruments are available at cheaper rates than ever before. Ask your grandparents if they diversified their retirement fund into international equity funds when they were your age and you will probably get a blank stare. This innovation is also a result of market liberalization. Would de-liberalization and a reduction in banker incentive pay also put a halt to further financial market innovation?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Non-Standard Real Estate Commissions

The relationship between home sellers and their realtors represents a classic principal/agent problem. Realtors are engaged in many activities related to selling the property such as photographing it, listing it, coordinating with home buyers' agents, holding open houses, and so on. Since realtors have traditionally earned a 6% commission on sales they have an incentive to engage in these costly activities. But realtors know much more about how the market is likely to shake out than do their clients. All else equal, they would recommend dropping the price so that the house will sell faster and without all that effort since 94% of the lower sales price is born by their clients. What happens when they bear the full 100%? Levitt and Syverson showed that when realtors sell their own homes, on average, they keep them on the market longer and sell them for higher prices.

So maybe a 6% commission is not enough to eliminate shirking. How do you provide stronger incentives without giving away too much? Alina Dizik at the WSJ reports that owners of high priced houses are getting creative.
[Mr. Mahller's] agent would earn a 2% commission, and the buyer's agent would get a 2.5% commission on the home's sale price. The sweetener: Mr. Mahller's agent also pocketed an extra 5% commission on the difference between the asking price of $2.7 million and the final sale price, which was $2.85 million.

Micro econ videos from Marginal Revolution University

Course Outline

2 Supply, Demand, and Equilibrium
3 Elasticity and Its Applications
4 Taxes and Subsidies
5 The Price System
6 Price Ceilings and Price Floors
7 Trade
8 Externalities
9 Costs and Profit Maximization Under Competition
10 Competition and the Invisible Hand
11 Monopoly
12 Price Discrimination
13 Labor Markets
14 Public Goods and the Tragedy of the Commons
15 Asymmetric Information
16 Consumer Choice
17 Exam

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Why I can't buy a Tesla

Well, besides not being able to afford one.

Because the state of Texas does not allow Tesla to sell me one. Reason TV documents this form of auto dealer protectionism. Tesla has chosen to only sell direct to consumer, or has vertically integrated into retailing. The state of Texas prohibits automobile sales that do not go through a dealer, or they require manufacturers to outsource the retailing function. It is hard to imagine how this regulation benefits consumers. Don't let Bubba tell you that Texas is a bastion of free markets.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Nukes as Sunk Costs

Two South Carolina utilities have plans to abandon two nuclear reactors that are still under construction. The two reactors have cost the utilities roughly $9 billion and are less than 40 percent completed. They were expected to begin generating electricity after 2021 at cost of $25 billion — more than twice the initial $11.5 billion estimate. At the same time, demand growth has not materialized and the costs of alternative energies, such as natural gas and wind, have fallen substantially.

Scana Corporation, the project's owner, said in a statement,“Ceasing work on the project was our least desired option, but this is the right thing to do at this time.” This beats throwing more money at an increasingly unviable project.

Splitting the check? There's an app for that

Do you have to pay for other people's drinks if you didn't order any? Do you chip in for an appetizer you didn't eat? How do you split tax and tip?

So starts the CNN story about splitting the check (without losing friends). The social etiquette of group dinning may be evolving due to  the advent of smartphone payment apps like Venmo and Square Cash that allow funds transfers among friends. Moreover, apps such as Tab or Plates are specifically designed to split the check using these funds transfer apps.

It used to be that when I initiated the invitation, I expected to pick up the tab. Often, there was an expectation of later reciprocal invitations which helped facilitate the development of longer term relationships. Sometimes though, it encouraged free-riding as they ordered from the top-shelf. But if it is easy settle-up after each shared meal, both reciprocation and free-riding are reduced.
Paying only for what you ordered -- particularly down to the cent -- used to feel stingy. But the apps help reduce the pressure to round up or kick in a little extra.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Set prices to reflect costs AND demand

Andy Kessler at the WSJ documents multiple instances of inappropriate use of break-even analysis.
  • The USPS saw the volume of first class mail "fall from 103.7 billion letters in 2001 to 61.2 billion last year." More substitution with email and online bill pay makes demand more elastic implying margins should fall. Instead, the USPS raised prices 50% to make up for the shortfall.
  • ESPN's subscribers have dropped from 100 million in 2011 to 89 million today. To 'make up the difference' it raised prices from $4.69 per sub a month to $7.21 today.
  • Microsoft kept raising the price of its Windows operating system to computer manufacturers at the same time Android based computing came to dominate the market.
  • Booksellers have raised effective prices on digital books "to offset the decline of physical copies."
The article documents many more examples. These examples share some commonalities. Firms had enjoyed substantial market power but now face unexpected competition. Managers feel pressure to meet investor expectations. And then they forget their marginal analysis. The lesson is:
Increasing prices attracts others to attack your market. Amazon's Jeff Bezos warns: "Your margin is my opportunity." 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fantasy Football Draft or Auction?

Tristan H. Cockcroft at ESPN has seen the beauty in auctions.With football season just around the corner, many a fan is looking to put together the ultimate fantasy football roster. And the first step is drafting players among your league members. What is wrong with a draft?
I'm tired of the annual charade of one of my longest-standing home leagues, in which the owner who draws the dreaded 10-spot -- it's a 10-team league -- reacts as if it's some sort of death sentence.

He proposes an English auction perhaps, as our favorite textbook shows, because it is essentially equivalent to a second price auction in which the bidding strategy is simple. Simplicity is important when you are bidding on multiple players and not just buying a single item. Still, he provides lots of advice on strategy: don't fall in love with players, avoid bidding wars, don't bid for players you won't use, don't get rattled, etc.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bargaining as a Group

Last month, FTC alumni Dan O’Brien and Jon Leibowitz along with Russell Anello, completed a study extolling the virtues of Healthcare Group Purchasing Organizations (GPOs). GPOs bring together multiple firms to buy of common products jointly rather than separately. Among the ways this lowers costs is by lowering their counter-party's disagreement value.
A healthcare provider’s bargaining strength depends in part on the size of the loss it can impose on a vendor by refusing agreement. If a vendor has little to lose from failing to reach an agreement with the provider, then the provider’s bargaining position is weak, while if the vendor has a lot to lose, then the provider’s position is strong.