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Greece and the Troika are engaged in a war of attrition. The player with the higher cost to staying IN vs conceding and dropping OUT is in a stronger position in a war of attrition.

Greece has capital controls, is about to renege on a payment to the IMF, faces an offer from the Troika that is impossible for the Greek government to get through Parliament and the offer consigns the Greeks to more austerity and economic stagnation. They have little to lose from staying IN.

The IMF does not face an existential crisis if it sticks to its guns. The EC suffers from staying IN if there is contagion but they have protected themselves.

So both sides have low costs to staying IN. They have to increases costs on the other side to persuade them to concede.

For the Troika, the strategy is straightforward: they can’t accede to the Greek request to extend the bailout for the referendum, give extra money to banks etc. This is basically what they are already doing.

For the Greeks, the strategy is more surreal: To inflict maximum cost of the Troika, Greece should default on its payments but remain in the Eurozone. Greece is cut off from international lenders anyway and the default will not have any incremental effect on their ability to borrow. With Greece insolvent, the ECB will be the key decision-maker. Do they keep on lending to Greece as they are still technically in the Eurozone? The German Finance Minister says this is the case (via Bloomberg):

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told lawmakers in Berlin that Greece would stay in the euro for the time being if Greek voters reject austerity in a referendum scheduled this week, according to three people present.

Schaeuble also said the European Central Bank would do what’s needed to protect the euro if Greeks voted against the bailout terms in the July 5 referendum

This is ideal for Greece. They keep the Euro and get the debt restructuring they want via default. And other countries in the Eurozone are infected by Greece being in the Euro. If Greece needs anything from the EC, this is an ideal threat point for them.

What if the ECB denies Greece credit? This state of affairs may need to be maintained by the Greek government issuing GrEuros as a medium of exchange. GrEuros can be used to pay the government as if they were Euros. GrEuros will not be accepted outside Greece by wary investors but they would trade internally in Greece. The GrEuro/Euro exchange rate will float. There is less risk of contagion here as GrEuros are not the same as Euros. Eventually GrEuros will become drachmas.

All these tactics will prolong the war of attrition. They will mask the bigger problem: How sustainable is the Eurozone with a monetary union but no political union?

I found this discussion paper by Stergios Skaperdas offered a useful perspective on the crisis. Here is a passage on default:

If Greece had defaulted in early 2010 Greek debt could have become sustainable in the long run with a writeoffs imposed on bondholders of considerably below 50% of total debt. The country would have had to borrow internally, perhaps issue IOUs (as it has done already), and impose a few modest cuts. The effect of such a policy would have been mildly recessionary.

What was done in 2010 instead by the troika was to provide Greece with loans so as to cover its budget deficit without default, in exchange for increasingly draconian budget cuts, tax increases, and institutional changes of dubious value. The effect of this policy was a fast downward spiral of the economy. Since debt kept increasing and the country kept getting poorer fast, debt was becoming ever less sustainable. Thus, the second bailout in 2012 restructured Greek debt, with the main losers being Greek pension funds and Greek banks. The Greek state had to borrow 50 billion euros just to recapitalize the banking system and continues to have to cover the losses of the pension funds (in addition to cutting pensions, cutting health expenditures, and increasing retirement ages). The continued contraction of the economy, deflation, and a few additional loans from official sources have brought the debt-to-GDP ratio close to 180%, the highest it has ever been.

Now, default would be considerably more difficult both because Greek public debt is under English law and because 80 percent of it is official and owed to official sources (the IMF, the ECB, and other Eurozone member countries). Yet, that debt is unsustainable and there is virtually no chance it will be fully paid back. Default is still a taboo but it is bound to occur in one way or another, regardless of how it is named.

Airlines are making it more difficult to do comparison shopping:

Airlines are increasingly pushing and prodding travelers to book flights through their own websites, where they can sell more services like in-flight entertainment and add-ons like hotel reservations. They also bypass paying a commission to websites that book plane tickets.

For consumers, this means that the hunt for the lowest fare has become more difficult as the number of places where they can comparison-shop has dropped. In many cases, they just give up.

Sure airlines can sell add-ons and cut out the middleman when people buy from their websites but they also have more wiggle room to increases prices if price comparison is difficult. Here is the abbreviated logic from our description of Diamond-Mortensen-Pissarides 2010 Nobel:

Peter Diamond has a classic paper A Model of Price Adjustment in the Journal of Economic Theory in 1971.  Diamond shows that even an infinitesimal search cost can lead to monopoly pricing rather than competitive pricing because of a hold up problem.  Suppose there is no search cost and two firms are selling an identical good.  The logic of (Bertrand) competition means they will both end up pricing at cost.  At any higher price, one firm can undercut the other and capture the entire demand rather than half the demand and double its profit.

Instead suppose there is a small search cost e>0 a consumer must pay to discover the price.  Pricing at cost is no longer an equilibrium – one firm can raise its price by almost e. The consumer discovers the higher price once he enters the store.  But going to the other store to get a lower price involves a transactions cost of e anyway.  So, it is better to submit to hold-up and pay the higher price.   This logic obtains at all prices lower than the monopoly price.  At that point you do not want to raise the price any more as consumers simply stop buying at a rate than makes further price increases lead to lower profits.   So, a small search cost reverses the intuition about pricing completely.

Suppose there are two bakeries which make wedding cakes and other baked items. The pastries from one bakery are pretty much the same as those from another so the baked goods market is quite competitive and margins and profits are thin.

The legislature passes a law allowing businesses to select which customers they will serve and which they will not.

One bakery, bakery A, decides to be selective and the other, bakery B, decides to be non-selective. The fact that bakery A has become selective becomes public knowledge either because the bakery advertises this fact or through word-of-mouth.

Does economic competition eliminate discrimination? This is the question.

Customers who abhor bakery A’s selection criterion boycott bakery A even if in other respects it would be convenient to just get a doughnut from bakery A. So, bakery B, gets additional business it did not get before.

Surely bakery A is suffering and hence should drop its ill-advised selection policy? Not so fast.

Some customers favor bakery A’s policy and they actively seek out bakery A’s products (the “Chick-fil-A” effect). So bakery A loses some customers but gains others. Moreover, the customers it gains are more loyal than the customers who enjoyed its products before it adopted its policy. Similarly, the customers bakery B gains are more loyal too.

Hence, product differentiation has increased because of bakery A’s active adoption of its policy and from bakery B’s decision not to adopt the same policy. The logic of competition now implies both bakeries will make more profits than they did before.

So, discrimination is not driven out by competition between firms. If anything it is reinforced by competition. This stands in contrast to Becker’s model where competition decreases discrimination in employment. (There is some way to make these models consistent by having workers have preferences over co-workers. Maybe someone already did this model?)

Without political or legal intervention, competition will not drive out discrimination.

Forty-seven Republican Senators signed a letter to the Iranian leadership claiming that any nuclear non-proliferation treaty signed by President Obama could be vacated at the stroke of a pen by the next President. What is the impact of their tactic on the probability of the deal being signed?

There are many effects but here are four key ones:

1. The Iranians now get further confirmation that President Bush III will be tougher than President Obama. The deal on the table is the best they are going to get. This makes them more likely to sign.

2. Democrats who are skeptical of the deal with now rally round the President, as they did after the surprise Netanyahu speech. This makes a deal more likely.

3. The Iranians now get further confirmation that the deal may fall apart under next administration. This makes it easier for them to renege in the future if circumstances dictate – they can more credibly blame the U.S. for being untrustworthy. Their citizens will not blame them if they exit the agreement as the Iranian leadership can more credibly blame the U.S.

Russia and China can trade with Iran with less international condemnation as the U.S. can be more credibly faulted for the deal falling apart. This makes a deal more likely.

4. The “no deal” option just got better too for reasons outlined in 3. Iran can blame the U.S. for not agreeing to the treaty and try to persuade Russia etc to break sanctions. This makes “no deal” more attractive relative to “deal” and makes the deal less likely. It could also mean that the deal the Iranians now get is improved to reflect their better outside option. If the deal is already better than even the improved outside option, the improvement will have little effect on the chance of a deal.

So, unfortunately, the net effect of the letter on the probability of an agreement is ambiguous. But even if the letter makes a deal less likely, it makes it less likely by making Iran stronger.

An excellent survey from the White House. Useful for teaching. For example:

Even if sellers do not wish to randomize prices across potential buyers at a point in time, it is often possible to collect similar data by raising and lowering prices for all customers over very brief time intervals. For example, if customers who arrive at a website at 10 am face a lower price than those who arrive at 10:15 am, and buy correspondingly more of a given product, the seller has discovered valuable information about the demand curve without technically offering different prices to its customers. To provide an example indicating that this phenomenon happens, the following chart shows two years of prices for a particular children’s toy on Amazon.com. While these frequent price changes are not necessarily experiments, they will certainly provide information about consumer demand for this item.

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From NYT:

You recently did a tour with $20 tickets and $4 beers. Is it your goal going forward to keep it affordable? Yeah. Even if you’re not a big fan, you’re like: “Let’s find something to do tonight. It’s $20 to see Kid Rock. I like one of his songs, whatever!” The scary part is, you’re going to find out who your audience is, very fast. If nobody comes for $20, it’s about time to hang the hat up.

Another reason why companies do not cut prices when demand tanks? They are worried about what they will find out about themselves. If you keep the price high and no-one buys, you can console yourself that sales would have been high if you had cut the price. If your price is low and no-one shows up, it is harder to rationalize that your product is popular.

According to the NYT, the Saudi’s (the principal) are thinking of using the oil price to incentivize Russia (the agent) to stop supporting Iran:

Saudi Arabia has been trying to pressure PresidentVladimir V. Putin of Russia to abandon his support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, using its dominance of the global oil markets at a time when the Russian government is reeling from the effects of plummeting oil prices…Saudi officials say — and they have told the United States — that they think they have some leverage over Mr. Putin because of their ability to reduce the supply of oil and possibly drive up prices.

There is one countervailing effect that has been foreseen and dismisssed:

American and Arab officials said that even if Russia were to abandon Mr. Assad, the Syrian president would still have his most generous benefactor, Iran. Iranian aid to the Syrian government has been one of the principal reasons that Mr. Assad has been able to hold power as other autocrats in the Middle East have been deposed.

And as a major oil producer, Iran would benefit if Saudi Arabia helped push up oil prices as part of a bargain with Russia…..

But the military aid that Russia provides to Syria is different enough from what Damascus receives from Iran, its other major supplier, that if “Russia withdrew all military support, I don’t think the Syrian Army could function,” a senior Obama administration official said.

But there is a bigger one: Iran has a nuclear program that the US (and Saudi Arabia?) would like to undermine. Low oil prices and sanctions are the stick that the US has been using to get Iran to the negotiating table. An increase in the price of oil price takes away the stick etc etc. Hope the absence of any mention of this in article does not imply someone is not thinking it through.

Here are the prices you see if you access the Kiwi Rail website from Chrome in the US:

Screenshot 2014-11-26 14.45.28

Note the blank space between the trip name and the prices. What could be there? Google “Kiwi Rail discounts” and find information that suggests accessing the Kiwi Rail website via a browser with a New Zealand IP address. When you do that, you find:

Screenshot 2014-11-26 16.10.43

Why are people physically in New Zealand getting better deals? You can tell a demand elasticity story: New Zealanders have cars and access the website from browsers with NZ IP addresses. Their demand is more elastic than that of foreign tourists. So, price lower to people buying from NZ. You can tell the reverse story: Many tourists in NZ buy when there. Their outside option is flying and buying flights late is expensive. Tourists make up the vast majority of train travellers in NZ. People buying from abroad are also tourists but they are buying early and can find cheaper domestic flights. So their demand is elastic.So price high for people buying from NZ IP addresses but low for people buying from foreign IP addresses.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is quite interesting to see this kind of price discrimination by Kiwi Rail. God knows what Amazon is doing in comparison!

From WSJ:

Even for the airline industry, cheaper oil may not be all good, analysts say, if carriers see it as an opportunity to increase capacity and then lower fares to fill empty seats, some analysts say. Hunter Keay of Wolfe Research LLC recently noted that airlines did just that during a previous oil slump in 2010. “Then oil prices went right back up again, as they tend to, and 2011 stunk,” he wrote.

Paul Krugman has an op-ed today where he argues Amazon is abusing its power:

Which brings us back to the key question. Don’t tell me that Amazon is giving consumers what they want, or that it has earned its position. What matters is whether it has too much power, and is abusing that power. Well, it does, and it is.

Amazon is attempting to negotiate lower prices from the publisher Hachette and is slowing down sales of Hachette books on amazon.com in an attempt to force their hand. This is the main evidence.

But this kind of bargaining leads to lower prices for consumers not higher. Hence, from the perspective of welfare it is actually good. It is akin to the argument for reducing double marginalization via vertical integration. Double marginalization occurs because the primary producer (here Hachette) and the retailer (here Amazon) BOTH add a margin on to costs to maximize profits. Welfare would be higher and prices lower if they vertically integrated so some externalities are internalized. In fact, here is Krugman in 2000 explaining why breaking up Microsoft into Windows and Office is a bad idea:

In the last few days the Justice Department, outraged by the lack of contrition among Microsoft executives, has apparently decided to seek a ”horizontal” breakup of the software company — that is, to split it into one company that sells the Windows operating system (the upstream castle) and another that sells Microsoft Office and other applications (the downstream castle)….

even if you believe that Bill Gates has broken the law, you don’t want to impose a punishment that hurts the general public. And even strong critics of Microsoft have worried that a horizontal breakup would have a perverse effect: the now ”naked” operating-system company would abandon its traditional pricing restraint and use its still formidable monopoly power to charge much more. And at the same time applications software that now comes free would also start to carry hefty price tags.

As we know from ECON 101, integration is just one way to internalize externalities. Another would be for the retailer to negotiate lower prices from the producer so they are closer to production costs. Another would be for the producer to force the retailer to charge a lower margin. As both sides try to negotiate such deals which are good for them but bad for the other side, there is a war of attrition as we see currently. Sure Amazon’s tactics may be a bit crude but this is the typical kind of negotiation that lowers input costs and eventually prices. Hachette’s tactics are harder to observe but I would bet they are not so different.

(Update Oct 21: Spelled out some more details!)

You are trying to convince others that the product you are selling is high quality. Your target audience is concerned that the product is low quality. So your sales pitch should be credible – it should be convincing that the sales pitch would not be made by someone who is selling a low quality product.

Your target customers are also salesmen. They sell their own products and use a certain kind of lingo when they pitch. They use this lingo even when they are selling bad products.

Since you are pitching a product to them, you are tempted to use language they understand. But here is the problem: they know they use this language even when are makin’ stuff up. If you use that language, they suspect you are makin’ stuff up. So they do not believe you.

So, you have to come up with your own jargon, one your customers are unfamiliar with. Of course, back up your pitch with facts and logic. But if you pitch seems like BS, the evidence will have to be all the stronger to help you. If you have no facts and logic on your side, only a unfamilar pitch has any chance of succeeding.

Norway and Liberia (somewhat) internalize externalities:

Norway will give Liberia up to a hundred and fifty million dollars in aid, in exchange for which Liberia will work to stop the rapid destruction of its trees.

Liberia has much of what remains of West Africa’s rain forest, but logging is rampant. The initiative is not an act of charity but a trade: Liberia gets income, which it needs; Norway gets to preserve biodiversity and take a small step against climate change. A similar deal that Norway struck with Brazil years ago helped slow deforestation there. Economists call arrangements of this kind “payments for ecosystem services,” and they follow a rationale known as the Coase theorem. In 1960, the economist Ronald Coase argued that bargaining between parties could, under certain conditions, produce a mutually beneficial and efficient solution to problems like pollution.

Brazil and US subvert efficiency via transfers:

When the WTO’s Appellate Body upheld Brazil’s claim that U.S. cotton subsidies were depressing world prices and hurting Brazilian cotton farmers in the process, the United States did not amend its subsidies to make them compliant. Rather, it agreed to pay Brazil $147 million a year for the privilege of continuing to subsidize its own farmers in a WTO-inconsistent way. This week, the United States reached another settlement, buying Brazil’s peace once more, this time to the tune of a $300 million lump sum payment.

Jean Tirole gave the Nancy Schwartz Lecture at Kellogg in 2012. He won the Nemmers Prize at Northwestern in 2014 and will be visiting in Spring 2015. So, there is no surprise that he won the Nobel Prize in Economics – it was just a matter of when, not if.

The first thing to note is that Tirole won this prize alone (though the way the advanced information is written, it leads you to think Jean-Jacques Laffont would have won the prize too if he were still alive). Most Nobel prizes are shared by two or more recipients. When it is given to just one person, it is a signal that they dominate a field. Jean Tirole dominates the field of Industrial Organization. Part of the reason for this is his textbook from 1988 which is still the best thing out there. Most people who do research just want to describe their own ideas. They go to the effort of saying why their ideas are original – otherwise the papers would be rejected by journals! But most of us stop there. Jean Tirole not only has many ideas but he can show how they fit within a broader framework. Moreover, he can describe how others’ ideas also fit together even when he not written on the topic. This is a special skill many of us do not have.

As an example, take one of his papers with Drew Fudenberg, The Fat-Cat Effect…..Along with a fundamental paper by Bulow, Geanakoplos and Klemperer, Multimarket Oligopoly…, it is the mainstay of many of the more advanced courses in Competitive Strategy in business schools. The Nobel write-up focuses on public policy, but Tirole has also had impact on private policy!

For example, think of a firm thinking of entering a market with an incumbent with a cost advantage. What’s to stop the incumbent from wiping the entrant out? Well, the entrant should be “soft” and enter with a low capacity and low price. Then the incumbent would have cannibalize high volume, high margin sales to regain a small market share. So why bother? Fudenberg and Tirole call this the puppy dog ploy. It is called Judo Economics by Gelman and Salop. It was later popularized for a business school audience. Of course, there are other circumstances where you want to look “tough” and the Fudenberg-Tirole papers tell you when you should do that – the optimal strategy is contingent on the underlying game. In fact, many, many ideas in IO can be synthesized in this framework and Chapter 8 of Tirole’s textbook shows you how.

This is just one of his many papers. In fact the Nemmers conference will focus on asset market bubbles because Tirole has made fundamental contributions in that area!

Finally, Tirole is one of the reasons why my letters of recommendation are so bad. He is student of my advisor, Eric Maskin. Eric’s letters must say “Sandeep is my 95th best student”. If it were not for Jean, I would be 94th.

Several weeks ago, I happened to pick up a bottle of Tinto Cao at Perman Wine Selections off Randolph in Chicago. The aroma made it seem like a regular New World wine – lots of fruit. But the taste was totally dry. I found more bottles at Vinic in Evanston and the first impression was reinforced in multiple bottles. Well worth the $25 – quality is comparable to much more expensive wines. The grape is Portugese but transplanted to California in the deep, dark pre-prohibition past. And when you read the back story of the winemaker Matthew Rorick and the origin of the name of label, you can’t help but be intrigued.

I’m going to a conference in New Zealand in January and just bought tickets. Just before you fly you can participate in an auction to move up one class in seats:

Using OneUp is really simple. If it’s at least seven days before your flight, go online to the OneUp page and follow the step-by-step process:

  • Decide what you’re willing to offer
  • Submit your offer
  • Provide your payment details – you can pay by credit card, debit card or by using your Airpoints Dollars™*
  • Check your offer and then submit.

When I fly, I expect the flight to be near empty so I just want to hit the reserve price. Wonder what it is?

From NYT:

“It’s a simple logic, bigger is better,” said Ulrik Sanders, global head of the shipping practice at Boston Consulting, “if you can fill it.”

“There’s too much capacity in the market and that drives down prices,” he continued. “From an industry perspective, it doesn’t make any sense. But from an individual company perspective, it makes a lot of sense. It’s a very tricky thing.”

I have a bad, bad neighbor. He’s actually a lovely guy but he spoils his kids and let’s them do crazy stuff. Several concussions and broken bones later, my bad, bad neighbor has not learned his lesson – the kids are still wild.

My kids are quite envious of the neighbor’s kids. They’re allowed to perform death-defying acts our kids can only dream of doing. My kids think I’m a bad dad because I won’t let them do death-defying stuff.

So I had a chat with the neighbor to try to persuade him to internalize externalities. Unfortunately, he is an argumentative lawyer. He appears to have heard of the Coase Theorem. So he says I should pay him to be a good neighbor. After all, he wants to indulge his children so, for him, doing what I want has a negative effect. I super-Coased him and pointed out that my transferring stuff to him creates perverse effects – he has the incentive to create more crazy activities – perhaps even ones he himself thinks are crazy to extract surplus from me. (By the way, of course it is not about the money. He is a competitive neighbor so he would love to “win” just for the sake of it.)

So, really, he should pay me not me pay him. That was my counter-proposal. He is puzzling over it – frankly, it has obvious flaws, though not ones I will reveal in this post just in case he reads it. In the meantime, crazy stuff continues.

(Of course many elements of the post are fictionalized and are a composite of many experiences and incidents, most involving my spouse.)

Explaining why authors should support Amazon in its dispute against Hachette, Amazon says:

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

The important thing to note here is that at the lower price, total revenue increases 16%. This is good for all the parties involved:

* The customer is paying 33% less.

* The author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. And that 74% increase in copies sold makes it much more likely that the title will make it onto the national bestseller lists. (Any author who’s trying to get on one of the national bestseller lists should insist to their publisher that their e-book be priced at $9.99 or lower.)

* Likewise, the higher total revenue generated at $9.99 is also good for the publisher and the retailer. At $9.99, even though the customer is paying less, the total pie is bigger and there is more to share amongst the parties.

Thanks Amazon for giving me a great example for class. But no thanks for really solving the puzzle about the terms of your dispute with Hachette because, as you say above, if you are right, the drop in price is “good for the publisher”. Hachette should be into your strategy too. Why aren’t they? Some say that the drop in e-book prices cannibalizes hardcover sales so you are not telling the whole story. This is true but if try to expand your story we do not reach an Aha moment because Amazon also sells hardcovers as well as e-books. Amazon should also care about cannibalizing hardcover sales just like Hachette. So they should have similar interests when it comes to e-book prices even taking hardcover sales into account.

So, is Hachette, a French company, confused because in France they put price on the x-axis and quantity on the y-axis so marginal revenue is upside down? Surely Jean Tirole can sort that out for you.

I suppose there is some long run issue. If hardcovers die off as e-books become cheap, why will authors need Hachette? Amazon can just cut out the middleman and publish authors directly. Would be great of some journalist can get an answer out of Hachette not the authors whom they publish.

Incredible piece by Dani Rodrik on a plot to discredit his father-in-law, a Turkish general:

On a drizzly winter day four-and-a-half years ago, my wife and I woke up at our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to sensational news from our native Turkey. Splashed on the first page of Taraf, a paper followed closely by the country’s intelligentsia and well-known for its anti-military stance, were plans for a military coup as detailed as they were gory, including the bombing of an Istanbul mosque, the false-flag downing of a Turkish military jet, and lists of politicians and journalists to be detained. The paper said it had obtained documents from 2003 which showed a group within the Turkish military had plotted to overthrow the then-newly elected Islamist government. The putative mastermind behind the coup plot was pictured prominently on the front page: General Çetin Doğan, my father-in-law

Begs the question: In a comparison between two types of pseudo-democracies – voting constrained by threat of military coups or voting manipulated by dirty tricks – which is the better system?

 

Clayton Christensen responds to Jill Lepore. One passage:

One criticism Lepore makes is that some of the firms you describe as failed incumbents—whether it’s in the disk drive industry or the mechanical excavator industry or the steel industry—the companies that are ostensibly being disrupted, don’t disappear but continue to do very well, in some cases continue to dominate their industry. In 1960 there were 316 department stores in North America—department stores like Macy’s. Then the discount department stores like Korvettes and Kmart and Woolco and Target and Walmart came in, starting in 1962, and they were disruptive because for the department stores to go down-market and compete with discount prices, their profitability would have been decimated, so they had to move upmarket and get out of hard goods where margins were small and get into clothing and cosmetics where margins were higher. (My emphasis.) Now, how long has it been? Fifty-two years, Jill. Just so you understand, disruption doesn’t happen overnight. There are now six or eight traditional department stores in existence in North America. Let’s just call it less than 10. And Walmart is quite a large company. Target is quite a big company. So has disruption been at work in the retailing industry? It’s a question. Macy’s still exists. So—Jill, tell me, what’s the truth? If you could just be Jill’s answer for me.

The stuff in italics is a slightly more elaborate version of the replacement effect from a previous post. So it seems Christensen’s logic is in fact based on the replacement effect. But actually Christensen does not correctly account for the impact of competition.

Suppose an incumbent is making profits from the high-end hard good market. If there is no threat of entry, he has a weak incentive to create discount stores for these self-same goods because of the risk of cannibalizing his own high-end sales. This is the replacement effect. But facing the threat of entry, the incumbent’s logic changes. The entry destroys the incumbent’s profits from his core activity. Since these profits were holding the incumbent back and now there will be no such profits, the incumbent has good incentives to enter the low end. Knowing that the incumbent will enter the low end, the entrant may actually stay out as profits are going to be shared at the low end and price competition will dissipate them anyhow. The bottom line is that “disruption” can rationally increase the incentives of the incumbent to innovate even at the low end.

How does this fit in with the previous post? If the entrant’s product is differentiated from the incumbent’s (eg MOOCs are quite different from HBS classes) and poses little threat to the core business, the replacement effects is the key force and the incumbent innovates less than the entrant.

(All this analysis is quite generic. We have MBA homeworks exercises based on it. Tirole’s textbook has a great exposition of key intuitions and cites papers from the early 1980s. I should not be blogging about old stuff. But if old stuff is having impact on business practice and is only partially understood, why not? After all, Krugman goes over IS-LM repeatedly!)

From a story about the NCAA trial:

Noll, like most of the expert witnesses here, was paid well for his testimony: $800 an hour. (James Heckman, an N.C.A.A. expert, received $2,300 per hour.)

“I think it’s like being a pro athlete,” Noll said. “Getting paid for something I love to do.”

Every few years, a fad comes along that takes the business world by storm. Jack Welch loved Six Sigma, others look for “synergies”, “core competencies”, “blue sky strategies”, etc etc. These fads usually involve over-generalization from a key example or set of examples.

Occasionally, a nay-sayer identifies the over-generalization. Jill Lepore has an article in the New Yorker that goes further by debunking even some of the key examples that underlie the theory of “disruptive innovation” of Clayton Christensen. What is disruptive innovation? Lepore describes it thus:

Manufacturers of mainframe computers made good decisions about making and selling mainframe computers and devising important refinements to them in their R. & D. departments—“sustaining innovations,” Christensen called them—but, busy pleasing their mainframe customers, one tinker at a time, they missed what an entirely untapped customer wanted, personal computers, the market for which was created by what Christensen called “disruptive innovation”: the selling of a cheaper, poorer-quality product that initially reaches less profitable customers but eventually takes over and devours an entire industry.

Another key example for Christensen is the disk-drive industry. Lepore follows the key companies and concludes:

As striking as the disruption in the disk-drive industry seemed in the nineteen-eighties, more striking, from the vantage of history, are the continuities. Christensen argues that incumbents in the disk-drive industry were regularly destroyed by newcomers. But today, after much consolidation, the divisions that dominate the industry are divisions that led the market in the nineteen-eighties. (In some instances, what shifted was their ownership: I.B.M. sold its hard-disk division to Hitachi, which later sold its division to Western Digital.) In the longer term, victory in the disk-drive industry appears to have gone to the manufacturers that were good at incremental improvements, whether or not they were the first to market the disruptive new format. Companies that were quick to release a new product but not skilled at tinkering have tended to flame out.

Josh Gans finds the Lepore takedown to be easy pickins’ and also does a great job explaining why Christensen’s attempt to make his theory predictive contradicted the essence of his own argument. While the takedown does not surprise Gans, it irritates the tech community:

@pmarca: What does Jill Lepore PhD in American Studies from Yale think about Bayesian algorithmic filtering?

To which I replied: “What does Clayton Christensen DBA at Harvard know about ….?” In other words, both are equally qualified/unqualified to discuss innovation. Also, why not attack Lepore’s argument not her?

But I have my own bone to pick with disruptive innovation. Let’s say an incumbent firm has a great product and buys into the disruptive innovation idea. What should it do? Since its core product is under threat of disruption, it seems the company should disrupt it themselves and invest in all sorts of technologies that look weak right now but might improve dramatically. But this does not make any sense because it implies huge costs but with little expected gain because most crappy-looking initial ideas do in fact end up on the shelf. On the other hand not investing opens up the company to disruption. To make the theory operational, we need to understand the tradeoffs. For that, you need a toy model of some sort.

The obvious candidate for such a model is Ken Arrow’s (1962?) idea of the “replacement effect” (this term was coined by Tirole). (We teach related material in our MECN 441 Competitive Strategy elective.) The profits from a new invention that supersedes the incumbent’s old product will replace the profits from the old product. Hence, the bigger the profits from the old product, the smaller are the incentives to innovate. You would destroy your own profits so no need to make the better Rice Crispy when the exisiting one is doing great. Past success rationally constrains incentives for future innovation. This theory would predict that incumbents innovate less than entrants who have no exisiting profit flow to replace. Bit like Christensen’s theory, no?  Arrow pre-disrupted Christensen’s main thesis but based on rational choice analysis and with a coherent argument for assessing new investments (roughly, compare the expected NPV of current product with expected NPV of new one minus cost of investment).

As MOOCs come along, Christensen’s employer HBS has to decide how to proceed. The tradeoff is is clear and quite similar to Arrow’s point:

Universities across the country are wrestling with the same question — call it the educator’s quandary — of whether to plunge into the rapidly growing realm of online teaching, at the risk of devaluing the on-campus education for which students pay tens of thousands of dollars, or to stand pat at the risk of being left behind.

Ironically, HBS has decided not to side with Christensen but with Porter who sees no major disruption:

“Do it cheap and simple,” Professor Christensen says. “Get it out there.”

But Harvard Business School’s online education program is not cheap, simple, or open. It could be said that the school opted for the Porter theory. Called HBX, the program will make its debut on June 11 and has its own admissions office. Instead of attacking the school’s traditional M.B.A. and executive education programs — which produced revenue of $108 million and $146 million in 2013 — it aims to create an entirely new segment of business education: the pre-M.B.A.

 

Excellent article by Lawrence Wright:

Al Qaeda was originally envisioned as a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation….

Bin Laden had asked Zarqawi [founder of ISIS] to merge his forces with Al Qaeda, in 2000, but Zarqawi had a different goal in mind. He hoped to provoke an Islamic civil war, and, for his purposes, there was no better venue than the fractured state of Iraq, which sits astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line….Violent attacks would create a network of “regions of savagery,” which would multiply as the forces of the state wither away, and cause people to submit to the will of the invading Islamist force….[A] broad civil war within Islam would lead to a fundamentalist Sunni caliphate.

In other words, Al Qaeda is focussed on expelling the West from the Middle East but ISIS is focussed on creating a Sunni Islamic superstate. Hence, Al Qaeda attacks the West but ISIS attacks Shiites. This leads to different “realist” policy prescriptions – self-interest implies attacking Al Qaeda but not necessarily ISIS. It leads to the same neocon policy prescriptions – there will be a humanitarian crisis from civil war and democracy (to the extent Iraq is a democracy) is threatened. Hence, send in the troops say Kristol and Kagan, just as they did before Gulf War II.

From the WSJ:

“I think the rate of innovation is just getting faster and faster,” Mr. Mokyr said over noodles and spicy chicken at a Thai restaurant near the campus where he and Mr. Gordon have taught for four decades.

“What’s the evidence of that?” snapped Mr. Gordon. “There isn’t any.”

The men get along fine when talk is limited to, say, faculty gossip. About the future, though, they bicker constantly. When Mr. Mokyr described life-prolonging medical advances, Mr. Gordon cut in: “Extending life without curing Alzheimer’s means people who can walk but can’t think.”
Lots to argue about with both men in this article (e.g. arguments do not rise to level of logical structure and falsifiability normally required of academic discourse but hey this is a newspaper article after all).
Here is one other thing I disagree with:
Mr. Gordon, the more famous of the two men, has the credentials to buck conventional wisdom…..
Since when is Bob Gordon more famous than Joel Mokyr?  I suppose it depends on the audience you ask – Joel is not known to journalists. But in academic circles, the fame ranking is reversed.

Ed O’Bannon’s anti-trust suit against the NCAA moves forward today. Roger Noll of Stanford is likely to testify on his behalf. Here is a sample of  his views from a related case:

[R]esearch in the economics of sports concluded long ago that the only way to achieve competitive parity among schools was to randomly allocate athletes and coaches among teams and prohibit athletes and coaches from switching after they have been allocated. With an unfettered competitive market for coaches and freedom of choice among student-athletes, the expected result is that the colleges with the most revenue will hire the best coaches and build the best facilities, and that as a result they will attract the best student-athletes. Interestingly, a market for student-athletes actually could improve competitive balance. If teams can pay different amounts to different students, a lesser school may find that it is willing to pay more for its first five-star athlete than Alabama or USC is willing to pay for its tenth five-star athlete. If so, the lesser schools could be somewhat more successful than they are now in recruiting top players. But even in the best of circumstances, as long as coaches and athletes have a choice, the colleges with the most to spend will have the best teams. The main effect of the scholarship limits in comparison to a market allocation is to transfer wealth from studentathletes to expenditures on coaches and facilities.

Full testimony can be found here.

A division in a company, division A,  is trying to find talented people. They have a number of positions to fill and they can fill them now or wait to find better candidates. Once a position is filled, it is hard to terminate employment for a few periods at least. The profits of the division depend both on the quantity and quality of the people employed.

This system creates an option value to waiting. Given its payoff function, the division has a quality bar for hiring. The quality bar depends on the number of unfilled slots. It leaves some slots empty deliberately to capitalize on option value. There is another threshold for firing, also with an important option value component in its determination.

A CEO is hired to build value. He is focussed on the short term. For him, unused resources mean lower output – the quality is less important. So he starts allocating resources across divisions. If a division has unused resources or positions, the CEO gives them to another division if they can come up with a candidate that passes their bar.

Let’s assume the divisions have private values – they put zero value on the other division’s success. (Microsoft recently reorganized itself because different parts of the company were at war with each other.)

For each division, the option value of an empty slot declines – it can now be filled by someone from the other division. The incentives are obvious – both divisions lower their standards for hiring and firing. There is a race to the bottom.

Counterintuitive effects arise if there are common values – each division takes the other’s success into account. Suppose division A’s standards for hiring are originally higher than division B’s. Division A faces much the same incentives as in the case of private values – it will lower standards to pre-empt slot reallocation to division B. But division B, since it now wants to prevent the decline of division A, will raise standards so the principal will not give it division A slots. The fact that this seems so implausible argues in favor of private values.

In any case, even in the case of common values, the divisions’ equilibrium response to principal short termism will not achieve the first best. A better strategy is to reallocate slots between divisions ex ante. The reallocation should reflect the principal’s payoff function as well as those of the divisions. Then, let the divisions make their own decisions on hiring and firing.

 

Just went to a talk by Jesse Shapiro where he gave an overview his work on the media, much of it joint with Matt Gentzkow. One theme is that competing newspapers with different party affiliations generate more information for the electorate. How fitting to return to my office and find this Guardian discussion (by Howard Reed) on FT takedown  of Piketty (by Chris Giles).  Main issue is that FT did not account for differences in way wealth is measured across separate series which are then merged into one time series:

To summarise, Chris Giles’s investigation of Piketty’s data has uncovered some errors and inconsistencies which Piketty will hopefully address in future work. This shows the importance of quality assurance and third party checking of all results from statistical analysis – particularly when they involve spreadsheets, where it is very easy to make errors.

However, Giles then goes on to make a very serious error of his own in handling the UK data: he treats changes in the way wealth inequality is measured over the decades as if they were real changes in the underlying distribution of wealth. This error leads him to the misleading conclusion that wealth inequality fell in the UK between 1980 and 2010, whereas in fact it has increased (although not by quite as much as Piketty’s published results would suggest).

In some ways, the Guardian discussion is even clearer than Piketty’s own response today. This reflects the universal truth that (good) referees and discussants can often explain your paper better than you can yourself.

But this all leaves one question unanswered: When is Piketty going to respond to Debraj? He disputed Piketty’s theory not his data.

Finally, a review I can understand. Here’s one simple but good bit:

The rate of return on capital tracks the level of capital income, and not its growth. If you have a million dollars in wealth, and the rate of return on capital is 5%, then your capital income is $50,000. Level, not growth. On the other hand, g tracks the growth of average income, not its level. For instance, if average income is $100,000 and the growth rate is 3%, then the increase in your income is $3000. Saying that r > g implies that capital income will grow faster than labor income is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. 

To make the point clear, I’m going to expand upon this argument in two ways. First, let us look at a situation in which the argument apparently holds. Suppose that capital holders save all their income. Then r not only tracks the level of capital income, it truly tracks the rate of growth of that income as well, and then it is indeed the case that capital income will come to dominate overall income, whenever r > g. But the source of that domination isn’t r > g. It is the assumption that capital income owners save a higher fraction of their income! 

Debraj adds his own sobering thoughts on technological progress and inequality at the end of his review.

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