Category Archives: Behavioural Economics

Has banking culture changed since GFC?

Below is an excellent video by Gillian Tett of the FT looking at banking culture. She discusses the ‘flaw’ in Alan Greenspan’s thinking and how culture has been overlooked at the cost to the global economy 10 years on from the financial crisis. By understanding the role of culture in banking, are we more resilient to another crisis now? She also talks of trust in the modern economy and in order to build it you must understand it and how human culture works. And once trust or credit is lost it is very hard to regain.

Veblen Goods and inconspicuous consumption?

Conspicuous consumption was introduced by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a term used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status.

Economists and sociologists often cite the 1980’s as a time of extreme conspicuous consumption. The yuppie materialised as the key agent of conspicuous consumption in the US. Yuppies didn’t need to purchase BMWs or Mercedes’ cars for example; they did so in order to show off their wealth. This period had its origins in the 1930’s with Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrick von Hayek – the latter being the author of “The Road to Serfdom”, in which he said that social spending rather than private consumption would lead inevitably to tyranny. Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989) believed in this ideology and cut taxes and privatised the commanding heights in a move to a free market environment.

VeblenSo-called Veblen goods (also as know as snob value goods) reverse the normal logic of economics in that the higher the price the more demand for the product – see graph below

Over the last three decades conspicuous consumption has accelerated at a phenomenal level in the industrial world. Self-gratification could no longer be delayed and an ever-increasing variety of branded products became firmly ingrained within our individuality. The myth that the more we have the happier we become is self-perpetuating: the more we consume, the less able we are to tackle the myth.

However a recently published book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett looks at how the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. Although the lower income groups must dedicate a greater proportion of their income to basic necessities, they spend a higher share of their income to conspicuous consumption than the rich do. Between 1996 and 2014 the richest 1% fell further behind the national average in the percentage of their spending dedicated to bling. The middle income quintile went the other way: by 2014 they spent 35% more than the average as a percentage of their annual expenditure.

According to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett the higher income groups have moved away from buying stuff – materialism – to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge. The most common of them being education for their children.

Those in the top 10% of income earners now allocate four time as much of their spending to school and university compared to 1996, whereas for other income groups spending has remained fairly constant. However one could say that fees for both school and university have increased over that period of time. The upper class also invest heavily in domestic services such as housekeepers, freeing up time that the less fortunate must spend on chores.

Rather than frittering away that precious leisure time on frivolities, as Veblen’s leisure class did, they devote it to enriching experiences, like attending the opera, holidaying in far-off lands and working out at fancy gyms. Their children, by tagging along and thus absorbing this “cultural capital”, develop the sophistication needed to win admission to selective universities, vastly increasing the odds that they will form the next generation’s elite. The modern equivalent of Victorian worsted-stocking wearers are hipsters, who imitate the wealthy’s penchant for farmers’ markets and fair-trade lattes, even if they cannot afford a cruise to Antarctica.  Source: The Economist – August 5th 2017

Satisfaction-maximising gifts versus favour reaction-maximising gifts.

A recent research paper entitled “The Smile-Seeking Hypothesis: How Immediate Affective Reactions Motivate and Reward Gift Giving” by Adelle X. Yang, Oleg Urminsky discussed the fact that when we decide on gifts for others we often do not choose what the recipient really desires. It is assumed that the person giving the gift wants to be rewarded with a non-monetary currency called ‘gratitude’ – this can be in the form of hugs, kisses and smiles. It is the latter (smiles) that the research focuses on and asks the question is gratitude creating poor incentives. Prior research has generally explained such preference mismatches as decision makers mispredicting recipients’ satisfaction. They propose that “smile-seeking” motive is a distinct cause for these mismatches in the context of gift giving.

The gift giver has the choice of getting an affective reaction to the gift versus the gift’s long-term utility – satisfaction. Adelle X. Yang, Oleg Urminsky framed an experiment around Valentines Day. They picked 3 pairs of appropriate gifts – one of which would be more likely to induce an appreciative response versus a gift more likely to have more long-term satisfaction:

They recruited 295 volunteers online on 13th February, the day before Valentine’s Day, in order to standardise and have an appropriate mood. They were asked the following:

  • Men were asked which of each pair they would give as a gift
  • Women asked which they would prefer to receive
  • Men and women asked to predict how much affection would be displayed by the receiver for a particular gift and which would create the greater long-term utility.

Results

Men seemed to go for the gift that would induce hugs and smiles over the long-term satisfaction of the present. Women on the whole were the opposite except for the biscuits and the fruit – the majority of women preferred the sugar boost over the long-term benefit of healthy fruit. This is despite what they had said about the long-term value of fruit.

If the gratitude market was working correctly the long-term option would be more appropriate.

Cash as a gift – is it rational?

I have blogged on this topic before using an episode of Seinfeld. It seems rational that Jerry gives Elaine $182 for her birthday but it really is inappropriate. Cash replaces social norms by market norms and ruins the feelings usually evoked by a typical non-cash birthday gift. The deadweight loss of giving is the loss of efficiency that occurs when the value of the gift to the recipient is less than the cost of the gift to the giver. In this case, economists argue that cash would be a more efficient gift. See video below.

Source: The Economist ‘The Economics of Gifts’ –  June 30th 2018

VSI – Top 10 things you should know: Behavioural Economics

The Oxford University Press ‘Very Short Introduction’ series are excellent publications and particularly useful for extending students at A Level. Below is a video of Michelle Baddeley, author of Behavioural Economics: A Very Short Introduction, who gives her top 10 things you should know about the science of behavioural economics and how it relates to our everyday lives. You can find more videos on VSI here.

GDP not the indicator for wellbeing – Robert Kennedy was right 50 years ago

Traditional economic measures, such as gross domestic product (GDP), productivity and economic growth remain fundamentally important but they’re not the whole picture. We think economics is ultimately about improving people’s living standards but you can’t look at GDP as the indicator to focus on.

US senator Robert F Kennedy pointed out 50 years ago that GDP traditionally measures everything except those things that make life worthwhile.

The introduction of the living standards framework in New Zealand takes into account environmental resources, individual and community assets, ‘social capital’ – which includes cultural norms and how people interact – and human capital, such as people’s health, and their skills and qualifications.

By living standards, the NZ Treasury means more than income; it’s people having greater opportunities, capabilities and incentives to live a life that they value, and that they face fewer obstacles to achieving their goals.

Limitations of GDP as a measure of standard of living – see list below.

  1. Regional Variations in income and spending
  2. Inequalities of income and wealth
  3. Leisure and working hours
  4. The balance between consumption and investment
  5. The shadow economy and non-monetised sectors
  6. Changes in life expectancy
  7. Innovation and the development of new products
  8. Defensive expenditures

 

Aussie Cricketers, Sandpaper and Game Theory

You will no doubt have heard of the ball tampering episode at the third cricket test in Cape Town between South Africa and Australia. Australian cricketer Cameron Bancroft was caught by a TV camera roughening up the ball with some yellow sandpaper that was kept in his pocket. He was seen later getting rid of the sandpaper down his trousers so that when the umpires asked him about he produced a sunglasses bag. Later on that day at the post play press conference Australian captain Steve Smith came clean with what was a premeditated plan to roughen one side of the ball and so that the Australian bowlers could take advantage of reverse swing. Tampering with the ball is illegal in cricket and the ICC (cricket’s governing body) banned Steve Smith for one game

I have blogged previously on game theory in sport looking at – Penalty Kicks in Football and How doping impacts Athletes, Organisers and Supporters. As prize money and sponsorship deals get bigger, so do the incentives for coaches and players to find ingenious ways to cheat. So how would the sandpaper incident at the third cricket test in Cape Town lend itself to game theory?

Game theory deals with differences of opinion between groups who know each other’s inclination but not their genuine objective or choice. It then concludes the optimum course of action for any rational player. In this scenario the parties involved are the competing cricketers and, although both are better off if neither tampers with the ball, they cannot trust each other so both engage in ball tampering – Prisoners Dilemma. If you introduce an authoritative figure – the International Cricket Council (ICC) – to observe cricketers with many camera angles, the fear of getting caught should ensure that no ball tampering takes place. This is referred to as the inspection game. However as you know it wasn’t the ICC who took strong action over the video footage but Cricket Australia.

Another party that is crucial to cricket is sponsors and the spectators. Their critical role is the potential withdrawal of support which could see the cricket’s demise. Wealth-management company Magellan has terminated its three-year sponsorship agreement with Cricket Australia in response to the ball-tampering scandal worth around AUS$20 million.

A withdrawal of one of these three parties can trigger the withdrawal of the other two. Cricket cannot survive without sponsors, withdrawal of the media restricts the access to the customers, and finally cricket is only attractive for sponsors as long as there are customers. Therefore the strategies of the three parties looks like this:

Cricketers – Ball tamper or Don’t ball tamper (B D)
ICC – Video or No Video (V N)
Sponsors / Spectators – Stay or Leave (S L)

The assumptions are as follows:

Cricketers

B-N-S > D-N-S = cricketers prefer to ball tamper if not videoed.
D-V-S > B-V-L = cricketer prefer not to ball tamper and be videoed = customers stay, over being ball tampering and videoed = customers leave (assuming that customers don’t like ball tampering scandals)

Organisers

B-N-S > D-V-L = a scandal combined with a loss of customers is worse for organisers than undetected video where customers stay.
D-V-S > D-N-L = videoing and non ball tampering actions with customer support is better for the organisers than not videoing other cricketers when customers leave.

Sponsors / Spectators
B-V-L > B-V-S = customers prefer to withdraw support after a scandal
B-N-S > B-N-L = customers prefer to stay if there is no scandal.
D-V-S > D-T-L = customers prefer to stay if there is no scandal.
D-N-S > D-N-L = customers prefer to stay if there is no scandal.

Ball tampering & Video = Scandal
Ball tampering & No Video, Don’t ball tamper & Video, Don’t ball tamper & No Video = No scandal

Final thought
The vast majority of authorities in today’s sports events would state that their regimes to combat cheating are very stringent. However the likelihood of human deceitfulness is very realistic and in some cases it’s not those that tamper with the cricket ball who are the real cheats but those who have generated an environment where players would be foolish not to.

Army ants and cost–benefit trade-off

A HT to former A2 economics student Shelale Mazari for this piece on efficiency and ants. According to some research, they weigh up the costs and benefits and build bridges using their bodies to allow their fellow ants to forage for food. When it becomes inefficient for them to continue doing so – i.e. when there are not enough foragers – they withdraw. And apparently, they do all this without a lead ant.

Army ants (Eciton) form collective assemblages out of their own bodies to perform a variety of functions that benefit the entire colony. Field experiments show that the ants continuously modify their bridges, such that these structures lengthen, widen, and change position in response to traffic levels and environmental geometry. Ants initiate bridges where their path deviates from their incoming direction and move the bridges over time to create shortcuts over large gaps. The final position of the structure depended on the intensity of the traffic and the extent of path deviation and was influenced by a cost–benefit trade-off at the colony level, where the benefit of increased foraging trail efficiency was balanced by the cost of removing workers from the foraging pool to form the structure. To examine this trade-off, we quantified the geometric relationship between costs and benefits revealed by our experiments. We then constructed a model to determine the bridge location that maximized foraging rate, which qualitatively matched the observed movement of bridges. Our results highlight how animal self-assemblages can be dynamically modified in response to a group-level cost–benefit trade-off, without any individual unit’s having information on global benefits or costs.

Source: Army ants dynamically adjust living bridges in response to a cost–benefit trade-off

Economic Theory v Economic Reality

Most theories in economics rest on the premise that people, companies, and markets behave according to the abstract, two-dimensional illustrations of an introductory economics textbook, even though the assumptions behind those diagrams virtually never hold true in the real world.

Below is a table that I found in James Kwak’s book “Economism”. It takes theories found in most introductory economics textbooks and suggests what actually might happen to these theories in the real world.

 

OMD – The Punishment of Luxury

I came across this new album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) – The Punishment of Luxury. For those of you are unfamiliar, OMD are a band from Merseyside Liverpool and have been long remembered for their hits “Electricity”, in 1979 and the 1980 anti-war song “Enola Gay”. The band achieved broader recognition via their seminal album Architecture & Morality (1981) and its three singles, all of which were international hits.

The “Punishment of Luxury” album is specifically about the global divide. Today the world is more unequal than at any time in world history which is due largely to the fact that 200 years ago everyone was poor. But the increasing wealth of the higher income group has been alarming – America’s top 10% now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90%. The fact that people are much better off materially doesn’t seem to translate into a better mental condition – they seem to be unhappy. If you are in this situation you have undoubtedly got on the hedonic treadmill and the marketing people have got under your skin. It seems that if you don’t have the latest brand of a product you are less worthy of being recognized by your peer group and have less self-respect.

It seems that the very wealthy have the same problems as the rest of us but only on a much larger scale. A research paper from Boston College entitled “Secret fears of the super-Rich found that the top fears of the rich are:

  • The rich need increasing amounts of money to make them feel financially secure.
  • They feel isolated and don’t share their concerns or stress as they will sound ungrateful.
  • Thy worry that their children will become spoilt by inheriting so much wealth or resentful if its too little.
  • You are unsure if your friends genuinely like you or your money
  • There is constant dissatisfaction with consumption as something better / new is always being launched. They can’t get off the hedonic treadmill
  • Parents are concerned that money will rob their children of ambition and getting a job.

The title track is below. It is very OMD for those of you who are familiar with the sound of the band.

AS Economics – Inflation Revision

With the Cambridge AS and A2 multiple-choice papers on Wednesday here are some revision notes on inflation and a diagram that I have found useful. As well as cost-push and demand-pull inflation remember:

Inflationary Expectations

In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.

Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves.