Intellectual Property

A blog post earlier this month on Econlog finished off with a very strong quote by Friedrich Hayek:

One of the forms of private property that people cherish most is their ideas. If you convince them that their ideas are wrong, you have caused them to suffer a capital loss.

I ended up liking it so much that I added it to my work email signature. Thinking about it further, why is it that some people are more open to debate than others? Why do some people admit to their mistakes easily while others are dogmatic about them? Why do some people simply refuse to discuss their ideas with other people? I think Hayek’s observation offers a clue.

Let us consider two people – Mr. Brown and Mr. Green. Mr. Brown believes in diversification, and his investments are spread across several financial instruments, belonging to different categories, with a relatively small amount of money in each of them. For purposes of this analogy, let us assume that no two instruments in his portfolio are strongly correlated with each other (what is strong correlation? I don’t know. I can’t put a number on it. But I suppose you get the drift)

Mr. Green on the other hand has chosen a few instruments and has put a large amount of money on each of them. It is just to do with his investment philosophy, which we shall not go into, as this is just an analogy.

Let us suppose that both Mr. Brown and Mr. Green held Satyam stock on 6th January 2009. They were both invested in Satyam according to their respective philosophies – and the weightage of Satyam in their respective portfolios was also in line with their philosophies. The next day, 7th of January, the Satyam fraud came out. The stock crashed to a tenth of its value. Almost went to zero. How would our friends react to this situation?

Mr. Green obviously doesn’t like it. A large part of his investments has been wiped out. He has become a significantly poorer man. For a while he will be in denial about this. He will refuse to accept that such a thing could happen to one of his chosen stocks. He will try to convince himself that this fall (a 90% fall, no less) is transient, and the stock will go back to where it once was. As days go by, he realizes that his investments have been lost for ever. He is significantly poorer.

Mr. Brown will also be disappointed by the fall – after all, he too has lost money in the fall. However, his disappointment is mitigated by the fact that the loss is small compared to his portfolio. There have been other stocks in his portfolio which have been doing well, and their performance will probably absorb the Satyam losses. Some of the stocks in his portfolio may also be fundamentally negatively correlated with Satyam, which means they will now gain. There is also the possibility that the Satyam fall has opened up some new possible areas of investment for Mr. Brown, and he might put money into them. It is much easier for Mr. Brown to accept the fall of Satyam compared to Mr. Green.

So you replace stocks by ideas, and I suppose you konw what I am gettting at. The degree of openness that people show with respect to an idea they have varies inversely with the share of this particular idea in their “idea portfolio”. The smaller the proportion of this idea, the lesser will be the “capital cost” of their losing the idea. And hence, they will be more open to debate, to discussion, to letting someone critically examine their ideas. If the proportion of this particular idea in their overall portfolio is large, there will obviously be resistancce.

A corrolary of this is that when someone possesses a small number of ideas they are more likely to be dogmatic about them (I am using the indefinitive “more likely” here because even when you have a small number of securities in your portfolio, your exposure to some of them will be really small and so you’ll be less unwilling to lose them. Though I must point out that people with small ideas portfolios become so used to madly defending the big ideas in the portfolio that they start adopting the same tactic for the smaller ideas in their portfolio and become dogmatic about them – which is irrational).

I just hope I didn’t cause you a capital loss by writing this. For me, on the other hand, this was a bonus stock.

7 thoughts on “Intellectual Property”

  1. I’m not sure if number of ideas is an appropriate metric..If so, then you’d have to ask whether a person with a smaller idea-portfolio ended up letting very few ideas because of pre-existing dogmatic nature.

    But sticking with your metric works well for small numbers. For instance, when n(no: of ideas) = 1 (or 2). You get the worst manifestation of ideas/capital loss problem… Namely “the man with hammer sees everything as a nail” syndrome..

    Keynes said it best, when he said “Economics professors are most economical with ideas, they make the few they learn in grad-school last a lifetime”.

  2. Yes, having many ideas helps. At the same time, having too many ideas might deprive important and crucial idea of time and energy it deserves. Striking the right balance is the key, tight rope walk that it is!

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