Category Archives: Behavioural Economics

Minimal monetised societies and happiness

For less developed countries economic growth is often assumed to improve the happiness of the population although this relationship has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent times. A new study shows that people in societies where money plays a minimal role can have a level of happiness comparable to those living in Scandinavian countries which typically rate highest in the world. An interview with Eric Galbraith (McGill University, Canada) on Radio New Zealand’s ‘Sunday’ programme caught my attention in which he discusses the research undertaken in the Solomon Islands and Bangladesh. The paper is entitled:

Happy without money: Minimally monetized societies can exhibit high subjective well-being

Public policy that has focused on GDP growth fails to capture other aspects such as income inequality, the depletion of natural resources, environmental concerns etc. However subjective well-being (SWB) is an indicator that is more associated with the variables that matter to people. Galbraith et al question the role of money in determining SWB and reference the Easterlin Paradox (see below) which found that people don’t tend to get happier when their income goes up – see graph below.

What is the Easterlin Paradox?

Easterlin Paradox
  1. Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
  2. But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
  3. As countries get richer, they do not get happier. Easterlin argued that life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. One of Easterlin’s conclusions was that relative income can weigh heavily on people’s minds.

It is generally believed that people in less developed countries that have minimally-monetised economies have low that SWB. However the fact that happiness has a universal feeling suggest that income may be just a substitute for other sources of happiness, an assumption that is easier to notice in settings where money has little or no use. They used three independent measures to assess complementary but distinct psychological dimensions of SWB.

  1. Cognitive life evaluation – this asks about a person’s satisfaction with life and questions are phrased in a few different forms.
  2. Affect balance – asks what emotions they had experienced throughout the previous day, and calculated as the difference between positive and negative emotions.
  3. Momentary affect – data was obtained by querying subjects by telephone at random times about their emotional state.

Researchers selected four sites in two countries:

Solomon Islands – round 80% of the population live in rural subsistence communities and it has a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.546 (rank 152 in the world). The sites were Roviana Lagoon (rural site) and Gizo (urban site)

Bangladesh – 35.9% of it being urban, and has an HDI of 0.608 (world rank 136). The sites were Nijhum Dwip (rural) and Chittagong (urban).

Results
The graph below shows that the 4 sites, although are minimally monetised societies,
do experience high levels of SWB which challenge the prevailing view that economic growth is a reliable pathway to increase subjective well-being. While the data presented here were collected only in two countries and four sites this is the first study to that systematically compares standardised SWB measures in minimally monetised, very low-income societies.

New Zealand Household income not enough to be happy.

The recent Parliamentary Economic Review looked at the Household incomes and housing costs for the year ended 30 June 2020. Household income includes income from wages and salaries, self-employment, investments, government benefits, along with superannuation income. Some main points from the article:

  • Annual average household income was $107,731
  • Median annual household income was $88,327
  • Data only covers nine months to March 2020 – Stats NZ unable to collect data during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Stats NZ

Highest/lowest household incomes were:

  • Auckland region had the highest average annual income at $128,747
  • Wellington region $123,533.
  • Manawatū- Whanganui region $85,841.

Housing costs include spending on rents and mortgage repayments (both principal and interest repayments), along with spending on property rates, and building-related insurance. NZ households spent an average of $21 of every $100 on household costs which is similar to 2019. Of those in rental accommodation 26.5% spent more than 40% of their household income on rental payments and other housing costs.

What level of income makes us happy? New Zealand 5th

However a “happiness premium” established by researchers at Purdue University, in the United States suggested that an individual salary of $178,328 (US$128,844) will make New Zealanders happy but as shown above our average household income is $107,731. Money and finance website Expensivity has calculated the salary level in each country that would prevent unhappiness. Researchers looked at data from 1.7 million people and cross-referenced their earnings and life satisfaction. They found that more money boosted happiness – but only to a point. Beyond that, further increases in income could actually lead to more unhappiness. New Zealand ranks as the 5th highest income required to achieve happiness.

Making economics relevant to students

Although a few years old now the mini-documentary below is very good and features many notable economists and economic thinkers. They basically look at the issue of financial stability, or the lack thereof, and discuss what is at the core of the problem. It includes Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett, David Tuckett, Stephen Kinsella, John Kay, David Weinstein, Steve Keen and Dirk Bezemer. I have used this post to try and bring some reality to a lot of prescribed economics courses at high school level.

The economic environment is said to be determined by agents or economic decision-makers. Today, an economy is a much more intricate machine which aims to allocate scarce resources to satisfy the utility of economic agents such as individuals, firms and government. The dominant model for many years has been “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium” (DSGE) and it takes all the characteristics of an individual (this person is typically called the representative agent) which is then cloned and taken to represent the typical person in an economy.These agents make supposedly perfect decisions by optimising, working out the kinds of mathematical problems in an instant. However the rise of behavioural economics has shown that cognitive errors are now assumptions in many aspects of economics namely – heuristics, confirmation bias, overconfidence and distorted probability weights.

According to a paper entitled “Mindful Economics: The Production, Consumption, and Value of Beliefs” by Roland Bénabou and Jean Tirol research has shown that beliefs often fulfill important psychological and functional needs of the individual. Examples include:

  • confidence in ones’ abilities,
  • moral self-esteem,
  • hope and anxiety reduction,
  • social identity,
  • political ideology
  • religious faith.

Therefore people hold beliefs because of the value they attach to them, as a result of the tradeoff between accuracy and desirability. As a consequence of this some of the beliefs do not consider prior knowledge of conditions or events that might be related to their beliefs – Bayseian Updating – this refers to people who are willing and able to modify their beliefs based on new, objective information. This non-Bayesian behaviour includes ignoring signals about their beliefs and denying what in turn will be the reality. Nevertheless motivated beliefs will respond to costs, benefits, and stakes involved in maintaining different self-views and world-views which leads to self-sustaining “social cognitions.”

Overconfidence
Bénabou and Tirol suggest that overconfidence is the most common indicator of the motivated beliefs experience. Overconfidence can be seen as quite damaging although moderate confidence can be quite useful as it often enhances an individuals ability to act successfully on their own behalf and work well with others. Research has shown that psychologically “healthy” people display some degree of overoptimism and biased updating, while it is primarily depressed subjects who seem to be more objective.

If beliefs are shared between parties they may magnify each other and there is a tendency to follow the herd, especially if information is uncertain, incomplete, and asymmetric (some people are more informed than others). Basically, in a world of bounded rationality (the limits of the human brain in processing and understanding information), herding makes sense to most people. Herding is a fast and frugal heuristic (short-cut) that has been used by both human and non-human animals across the millennia. Some behavioural economists see herding as irrational because people aren’t basing their decisions on objective criteria. If herding is seen as rational it can result in price cascades leading to excessive booms and busts in the prices of financial assets. Case and Shiller (2003) surveyed the expectations of homeowners during the real-estate bubbles of 1988 and 2003. In both cases, 90 percent of respondents thought housing prices in their city would “increase over the next several years,” with an average expected gain for their own property of 9 to 15 percent per year over the next ten years.

The strategies of self-deception and dissonance-reduction used to protect valued beliefs are many and varied, Bénabou and Tirol group them into three main types: strategic ignorance, reality denial, and self-signaling.

Strategic ignorance is when a believer avoids information offering conflicting evidence.

Reality denial refers to troubling evidence that is rationalised away: house-price bulls might conjure up fanciful theories for why prices should behave unusually, and supporters of a disgraced politician might invent conspiracies or blame fake news.

Self-signaling is when the believer creates his own tools to interpret the facts in the way he wants: an unhealthy person, for example, might decide that going for a daily run proves he is well.

Final thought

People derive utility from a sense of belonging to communities and having a positive self-image. Optimistic beliefs can also be valuable motivators to overcome self-control problems, as well as helpful in strategic interactions. In order to maintain this level of utility people tend to disregard Bayesian updating and are not willing to modify their beliefs based on new, objective information. Even if they did consider new information they will manipulate it to align with what their beliefs are.

Overconfidence is the most common indicator of the motivated beliefs experience and this can be impacted by the behaviour of others. Their confidence is often reinforced when people know that other people, including experts, and the rich and famous, are doing the same. In a world of bounded rationality, such behaviour may make sense – even though it can result in errors in decision making.

Sources:

“To err is human; so is the failure to admit it” – The Economist June 10th 2017

“Mindful Economics: The Production, Consumption, and Value of Beliefs” by Roland Bénabou and Jean Tirol. Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 30, Number 3—Summer 2016—Pages 141–16

Crowd Psychology and the Stock Market

Anatole Kaletsky wrote an article in Gavekal Research – ‘Five Features Of Market Madness’ – (Ideas June 16 2020) in which he talked about ‘Nominative determinism’. Two examples:

  1. Chinese property company called Fangdd Network where its value jumped from US$800mn to US$10bn in four hours of trading. Fangdd Network made it sound like a cheap ETF (ETFs give you a way to buy and sell a basket of assets without having to buy all the components individually) for the FAANG technology giants.
  2. Nikola, an aspiring electric vehicle manufacturer with no revenues that launched three months ago on Nasdaq saw its value spike to almost US$30bn, up from US$300mn at its March IPO, mainly because, like Elon Musk’s electric car company, it was also named after 19th century Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla.

Anatole Kaletsky 5 features of market madness

  • While monetary easing usually starts a bubble, a reversal in monetary policy is unlikely to deflate the bubble once the speculative momentum builds.
  • Valuations do not matter while a bubble is inflating, but they become very important after it bursts.
  • Bubbles typically end with the some huge corporate collapses (Charles’s analogy of dynamite fishing), often tainted with fraud.
  • Bubble dynamics need not bear any relation to the strength, or weakness, of the economic cycle.
  • Speculation increases dramatically when prices break through major highs.

These examples show that it is not analysis of valuations, monetary policy or economic data that is driving prices up. Famous economist J.K. Galbraith once remarked that ‘economic forecasting was invented to make astrology look respectable’. He also said that we are mush reassured by the ‘conventional wisdom – i.e. strongly held beliefs that have, at best, a tenuous grounding in reality. John Maynard Keynes stated that ‘the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent’. Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England, argues that economic decisions always occur under conditions of, what he calls, ‘radical uncertainty’ – unaware of what might happen in the future. King says that people use ‘narratives’ to make sense of the world. He also suggest that economists in the 2008 GFC didn’t learn from history – the Great Depression before they were born.Each time they suggest that this time it is different – an expression by experts suggesting that the new situation (GFC) bears little resemblance to previous crises. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their book entitled ‘This Time is Different’ show that we haven’t learnt from what happened in the past – short memories make it all too easy for crises to recur.

The Economist magazine nudge readers to opt for digital subscription

Last week I received a letter from The Economist to renew my subscription and noticed how it had changed from previous years – see 2019 and 2021 renewal letters

The Economist – 2019 subscription
The Economist – 2021 subscription

Notice the following:

  • They have moved away from 3 to 2 options in 2021.
  • They have still left the Print only edition on the subscription letter even though it is not available. This is showing the customer that they are getting a very good deal with the Print & Digital package.
  • In 2019 the Print & Digital package is more expensive than the Print alone option.
The Economist renewals for 1 year.

With the increasing cost of print media I believe The Economist is trying to nudge subscribers to the Digital option by making the price of the Print version (although not available) the same as the Print & Digital. Therefore the Digital subscription is part of both available options.

But there are those subscribers that still like the hard copy every week in their letter box but the fact that they are getting the digital version free (if you compare it to the Print only discontinued option) it might nudge them go onto The Economist website and read the magazine through that medium i.e. the Internet. The bonus is if they like the digital version they get rewarded by saving NZ$90 when compared to the Print & Digital option. No doubt The Economist will acquire subscribers email addresses and send them news, offers etc. in the hope of getting them to subscribe to the Digital only option. If the Print option is no longer offered will the price of the Digital option stay the same? I guess not.

Veblen goods and how to own part of a Birkin Bag

Online trading site Rally Rd has introduced an opportunity to part own various luxury items. For instance you could become part owner of a $61,500 Birkin Bag or top of the range Lamgourghini car. Rally Rd acquire the most noteworthy items from collections and individuals all over the world and make them into “a company”. They then split it into equity shares and open an “Initial Offering” where investors can purchase shares & build a portfolio. After 90 days, investors have the chance to sell shares in-app or add to their position on periodic trading days (through registered broker dealers).

The market for investing in fractions of items otherwise seen as collectibles — and largely reserved for the wealthiest people — has seen an uptick in interest during the pandemic as people spend more time at home. Although there is a potential return on the investment you never get to see your Birkin Bag or Lambourghini. Shares are traded until the owner of the marketplace sells the asset.

Are Birkin Bags Veblen Goods?

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.

So-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.

The Economist 1843 bi-monthly magazine had a very good article on Hermès’s Birkin handbag (named after Jane Birkin, an Anglo-French actress who spilled the contents of a overfull straw bag in front of Jean-Louis Dumas, Hermès’s chief executive) and how it has become one of the world’s most expensive – prices start at $7,000; in June Christie’s Hong Kong sold a matte Himalayan crocodile-skin Birkin with a ten-carat diamond-studded white-gold clasp and lock for $300,168. The rationale for its expense is that it is hand crafted and can take up to 18 hours to complete although the production cost is estimated to be around $800.

One would think that this would be a Veblen Good – a good in which the higher the price the more demanded. However there are a couple of ways that the Birkin handbag is not.

1. The bag is not all that conspicuous as although most people can identify Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Chanel, a Birkin is not so easy to find. In fact it is an inconspicuous but expensive bag. This theory was explained in the article “Signalling status with luxury goods: the role of brand prominence” from the Journal of Marketing (2010). It divided the high income earners into two groups;

Parvenus – who want to associate themselves with other high income groups and distinguish themselves from those who do not have material wealth.

Patricians –  who want to signal to other people in their high income bracket and not to the masses. They are of the belief that more expensive luxury goods aimed at them will have less obvious branding than cheaper products made by the same company. This was achieved with smaller logos for more expensive items and larger ones for cheaper goods which are aimed at the masses. People who cannot afford the luxury items will buy the big logo items (louder products) and this is where the counterfeiters have a field day.

2. Normally producers of Veblen goods should raise the price till the point where the demand curve starts to follow it normal shape – downward sloping from left to right. However with Birkin they maintain its exclusivity not by raising the price but by limiting the supply. Unlike other Veblen goods you just can’t walk into a shop and buy a Birkin bag – you have to place an order and wait for it to arrive. But you would wonder why they don’t sell more and make more money? It is a supply constraint – limited availability of high-quality skins and craftspeople to make them – it takes two years training. Hermès suggests, Birkins are mined, not simply made.

Commercial Reasons to limit supply of Birkins

Rationing by supply rather than price does make good commercial sense for the following reasons:

1. It gives Hermès a buffer as if demand drops, sales will not.

2. It creates excess demand for the bags, which overflows into demand for other Hermès products – wallets, belts, beach towels etc.

3. Profitability in the short run would reduce its exclusiveness as the main buyers of the bags would eventually be those concerned with social climbing. Therefore the rich may lose interest in the bags and so will those that aspire to be like them.

However I not sure Hermès actually want you to buy their amazingly expensive bag.

Should we stop consumption?

Geoffrey Miller is his book – Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour – examines conspicuous consumption in order to rectify marketing’s poor understanding of human spending behaviour and consumerist culture. His thesis is that marketing influences people—particularly the young—that the most effectual means to show that status is through consumption choices, rather than conveying such traits as intelligence and personality through more natural means of communication, such as simple conversation. He argues that marketers still tend to use naive models of human nature that are uninformed by advances in evolutionary psychology and behavioural ecology. As a result, marketers “still believe that premium products are bought to display wealth, status, and taste, and they miss the deeper mental traits that people are actually wired to display—traits such as kindness, intelligence, and creativity.

The recent global downturn with Coivd-19 has sent out a few mixed messages. Firstly there has been the reduction in consumption as people’s credit lines have dried up but there are those that believe that you should spend more to maintain growth and employment in the economy. With household budgets being very tight smarter consumption rather than less consumption has been advocated by Geoffrey Miller. He refers to this as more ethical consumption where the production of produce does not involve the abuse of natural resources or the exploitation of people or animals.

GDP or GPI – Genuine Progress Indicator

HT to former colleague Kanchan Bandyopadhyay for this piece on the Genuine Progress Indicator. Most economics courses will include the topic of limitations of Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of standard of living. US senator Robert F Kennedy pointed out 50 years ago that GDP traditionally measures everything except those things that make life worthwhile.

Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is designed to include the well-being of a nation and it incorporates environmental and social factors which are not included in GDP. The GPI indicator takes everything the GDP uses into account, but adds other figures that represent the cost of the negative effects related to economic activity (such as the cost of crime, cost of ozone depletion and cost of resource depletion, among others). The GPI nets the positive and negative results of economic growth to examine whether or not it has benefited people overall. The figure below shows the aspects of Social, Economic and Environmental variables.

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

Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma Tournament

I have played this with my classes and although not in the CIE A2 syllabus, found it useful to go into greater detail as to the strategies available.

Robert Axelrod used an experimental method – the indefinitely repeated PD tournament – to investigate a series of questions: Can a cooperative strategy gain a foothold in a population of rational egoists? Can it survive better than its uncooperative rivals? Can it resist invasion and eventually dominate the system? Contestants submitted computer programs that select an action, Cooperate or Defect, in each round of the game, and each entry was matched against every other, itself, and a control, RANDOM.

Prisoner’s Dilemma in the classroom.

This game can be played over as many rounds as you wish and played between two players in the classroom environment. The pay offs shown – Win = 3 or 5, Lose = 0 or 1

Below shows the first 14 rounds of a 100 round PD game between John and Kate that includes the comments that were apparently written after each player had decided on strategy in that particular game, but before the other player’s choice was known.

Source: William Poundstone – Prisoner’s Dilemma 1992

Strategies – see below

  • D (ALWAYS DEFECT): Defect on every move.
  • C (ALWAYS COOPERATE): Cooperate on every move.
  • T (GRIM – TRIGGER): Cooperate on the first move, then cooperate after the other cooperates. If the other defects, then defect forever.
  • TFT (TIT FOR TAT) cooperates in the first round, and then does whatever the opponent did in the previous round.
  • PAVLOV: 1st round, Cooperate. Thereafter if you win use the same action on next round. If you lose switch to the other action.

PAVLOV v M5. Time-average payoffs can be calculated because any pair will achieve cycles, since each player takes as input only the actions in the previous period. Here there is an average of 2 per player per cycle.

A2 Revision – Oligopoly and the kinked demand curve – download

With the A2 Essay paper tomorrow I thought something on the kinked demand curve might be useful. I alluded to in a previous post that one model of oligopoly revolves around how a firm perceives its demand curve. The model relates to an oligopoly in which firms try to anticipate the reactions of rivals to their actions. As the firm cannot readily observe its demand curve with any degree of certainty, it has got to estimate how consumers will react to price changes.

In the graph below the price is set at P1 and it is selling Q1. The firm has to decide whether to alter the price. It knows that the degree of its price change will depend upon whether or not the other firms in the market will follow its lead. The graph shows the the two extremes for the demand curve which the firm perceives that it faces. Suppose that an oligopolist, for whatever reason, produces at output Q1 and price P1, determined by point X on the graph. The firm perceives that demand will be relatively elastic in response to an increase in price, because they expects its rivals to react to the price rise by keeping their prices stable, thereby gaining customers at the firm’s expense. Conversely, the oligopolist expects rivals to react to a decrease in price by cutting their prices by an equivalent amount; the firm therefore expects demand to be relatively inelastic in response to a price fall, since it cannot hope to lure many customers away from their rivals. In other words, the oligopolist’s initial position is at the junction of the two demand curves of different relative elasticity, each reflecting a different assumption about how the rivals are expected to react to a change in price. If the firm’s expectations are correct, sales revenue will be lost whether the price is raised or cut. The best policy may be to leave the price unchanged.

With this price rigidity a discontinuity exists along a vertical line above output Q1 between the two marginal revenue curves associated with the relatively elastic and inelastic demand curves. Costs can rise or fall within a certain range without causing a profit-maximising oligopolist to change either the price or output. At output Q1 and price P1 MC=MR as long as the MC curve is between an upper limit of MC2 and a lower limit of MC1.

Criticisms of the kinked demand curve theory.
Although it is a plausible explanation of price rigidity it doesn’t explain how and why an oligopolist chooses to be a point X in the first place. Research casts doubt on whether oligopolists respond to price changes in the manner assumed. Oligopolistic markets often display evidence of price leadership, which provides an alternative explanation of orderly price behaviour. Firms come to the conclusion that price-cutting is self-defeating and decide that it may be advantageous to follow the firm which takes the first steps in raising the price. If all firms follow, the price rise will be sustained to the benefit of all firms.

If you want to gradually build the kinked demand curve model download the powerpoint by clicking below.
Oligopoly

Global GDP per person vs Happiness

Some great graphics here from The Economist – The Data Behind Happiness. Each circle represents a country and the size represents its population.

Red circle = countries where happiness has moved in the opposite direction to GDP.

Blue circle = countries where happiness and GDP have moved in the same direction.

On a scale from zero to ten where would you place your life satisfaction right now? That question was asked of thousands of people around the world, and surprisingly the rich in the country the happier it is. That makes Europeans the most gleeful, Africans the most miserable – but there’s a snag.

Overall in about a third of countries happiness has moved in the opposite direction to income. Countries don’t always get happier as they get richer. USA people are less happy despite a growing economy and in the UAE happiness has risen despite falling wealth.