Service charges

So the Indian government has said that it is not mandatory for customers to pay “service charges” at restaurants. It will be interesting to see how the restaurant industry will react to this.

The basic idea of a “service charge” is a “forced tip”. Given that Indians aren’t big tippers, restaurants, about a decade ago, started levying a service charge on top of the bill, ranging from 5% to 15%. Some restaurants mention this on the menu explicitly. In others, the print is fine. Some customers have come to accept the service charge. Others fight it.

The National Restaurants Association of India hasn’t taken too kindly to the notification, and has said they’ll take the government to court on this matter. It sounds like a rather extreme reaction, but illustrates the effect of behavioural studies.

Lower end eateries typically publish menus with “all inclusive” prices. If a cup of coffee is listed at Rs. 10, you pay Rs. 10 for it. Mid-priced and higher-end restaurants, however, have defaulted to showing prices exclusive of taxes and charges. With a 5% VAT, 15% Service Tax and (typically) 5% service charge, the final bill comes out to about 25-30% higher than the labelled price.

Now, frequent restaurant goers are aware of all these charges, and that the bill will be much higher than the sticker price. If they are rational, they should be taking into account these additional charges when deciding whether to go to restaurants, and when they do, what to order.

The problem, however, is that these charges are not immediately visible at the time of ordering, and so the customers end up ordering more expensive food than they had budgeted for (after controlling for the overall price level of the restaurant itself). It is a behavioural effect, where the customers’ minds are tricked by the number in front of them rather than what they will immediately end up paying.

The order that service charge is not mandatory will now push restaurants to include them in the sticker price of the food itself (it doesn’t matter what you call it – it’s ultimately revenue to the restaurant). The immediate impact of this will be that sticker prices will have to go higher, which will put a “bigger price” in front of the customers’ eyes, and they will order less.

How much less is not clear, but the fact that the restaurants association wants to take the government to court suggests it’s not insignificant. The high end restaurant business runs on extremely low margins (think what you may of the pricing), and even a less than 5% impact on revenues can have a significant impact on the bottom line.

It will be interesting to see if the government next mandates menus to print prices inclusive of taxes. It will be another behavioural nudge, but will end up ruining the restaurant business even more.

More on focal points at reunions

On Friday, just before the IIMB reunion started, I had written about reunions being focal points that help a large number of alumni to coordinate and meet each other at a particular date and venue. What I’d not written about there was the problems that could potentially be caused with the said venue being large.

In this case, the venue was the IIMB campus itself. While all official events, meals and accommodation for outstation attendees had been arranged in a single building (called MDC), the fact that people would explore the campus through the event made the task of coordination rather difficult.

The whole point of a reunion is to meet other people who are attending the event, and so it is important that people are able to find one another easily. And when the venue is a large area without clear lines of sight, finding one another becomes a coordination game.

This is where, once again, Thomas Schelling’s concept of Focal Points comes in. The game is one of coordination – to land up at locations in the venue which maximise the chances of meeting other people. While our class WhatsApp group enabled communication, the fact that people wouldn’t be checking their phones that often during the reunion meant we could assume there was no communication. So when you arrived at the venue, you had to guess where to go to be able to meet people.

Schelling’s theory suggested that we look for the “natural, special or relevant” places, which would be guessed by a large number of people as the place where everyone else would coordinate. In other words, we had to guess what others were thinking, and what others thought other others were thinking. Even within the reunion, focal points had become important! The solution was to search at those specific points that had been special to us back in the day when we were students.

On Saturday morning, I took about ten minutes after entering campus to find batchmates – I had made poor guesses on where people were likely to be. And once I found those two batchmates at that first point, we took a further twenty minutes before we met others – after making a better guess of the focal point. Given that the reunion lasted a bit more than a day, this was a significant amount of time spent in just finding people!



A simpler solution would have been to start with a scheduled event that everyone would attend – the venue and starting time of the event would have defined a very obvious focal point for people to find each other.

And the original schedule had accommodated for this – with a talk by the Director of IIMB scheduled for Saturday morning 10 am. It seemed like a rather natural time for everyone to arrive, find each other and go about the reunion business.

As it happened, revelry on the previous night had continued well into the morning, because of which the talk got postponed. The new starting point was to “meet for lunch around noon”. With people who were staying off-campus, and those arriving only on Saturday arriving as per the original schedule, search costs went up significantly!

PS: This takes nothing away from what was finally an absolutely fantastic reunion. Had a pretty awesome time through the duration of it, and I’m grateful to classmates who came from far away despite their large transaction costs.

The purpose of reunions

So later today and tomorrow, the class of 2006 at IIMB is going to have a reunion. Reactions to this have been mostly mixed. Some people have been excited about it for months together. Some have been dismissive, loathing the idea of meeting some people they used to know. Most have gone along with the flow, quietly registering and promising to turn up.

As I’ve dealt with people showing all these reactions, I was thinking of why reunions make sense. I had even tweeted this last year:

As the reunion has come closer, though, my views have become more nuanced. Yes, I’ve kept in touch with all those batchmates I’ve wanted to keep in touch with. However, transaction costs (have I told you I’m writing a book on that topic? Just wrapped up third draft) mean that it’s not been possible to meet many of them.

It is not feasible, for example, to schedule a trip all the way to London because a handful of people you want to meet live there. Nor is it possible that even if you visit Mumbai, regularly, you are able to put “gencu” with everyone you have intended to put gencu with.

And so it remains, that you keep putting off meeting those people you want to meet until a time when transaction costs are low enough for you to be able to meet.

There are transaction costs that operate in other ways as well – a scheduled bilateral meeting is a commitment to exclusively talk to each other for at least close to an hour. And sometimes when you want to meet someone for the purpose of catching up, you aren’t sure if you can spend an hour with them without either of you getting bored. And so you put off that gencu.

The beauty of a scheduled reunion is that it takes into account both these costs. Firstly, by ensuring a large number of people congregate at one place at one time, it amortises (among all the counterparties you meet) the cost of having travelled to the meeting. Secondly, given that there are so many people around there, you don’t have an obligation to talk to anyone beyond the time when it’s pleasant for both of you (sadly, IIMB has outlawed alcohol on campus during the last decade so “i’ll go get a refill” trick of walking away won’t work).

The other great thing about a scheduled reunion (organised by the Alma Mater’s alumni office) is that it acts as what Thomas Schelling termed as “focal points“. Focal points are basically solutions to coordination games where each player plays in a natural or obvious way, expecting others to play the same way as well, so that they coordinate.

Now let’s say that the IIMB Class of 2006 decided to all meet sometime during the course of the year. Coordinating on a date would have been impossible, with any arbitrarily chosen date attracting too few people for network effects to take effect.

With the alumni office proposing a date and venue, it now becomes an “obvious solution” to everyone coming together and going through a process on that date (anchoring is also involved). People are willing to make the investment to meet on that date because they expect others to be there as well. So I’ve registered for this weekend’s event with the expectation that a large number of my batchmates would have done so as well, and each of them would have in turn registered for a similar reason.

Over the next couple of days I expect to spend a lot of time with people I’ve anyway been in touch with over the last 10 years. I might also spend a small amount of time with people I don’t really want to meet. But there is a large number of people I want to keep in touch with, but can’t due to transaction costs, and that is where I expect the reunion to add most value!

Moving towards a cashless economy

In any transaction, the process of payment is a pain. It is a necessary step, of course, in that payment is what completes the transaction, but the process of payment is not something that adds any value to the transaction. If money could be magically be transferred from buyer to seller at the end of a transaction, both transacting parties would be happy.

In this context, any chosen method of payment, be it cash or credit card or cheque or bank transfer, involves some degree of pain for the transacting parties.

In case of cash, there’s the problem of counting out the money, cross checking it, finding exact change, being able to handle currency without the fear of being robbed, and making sure the currency is not counterfeit. Cheques have a credit risk, since they can bounce, not to speak of the time it takes to write one, and the time it takes for the money to get transferred.

Bank transfer requires parties to have bank accounts, and the ability of transacting parties to tell each other their account details. Credit cards have the most explicit pain of transaction – the transaction fees the merchants need to pay the acquiring bank – apart from the time and pain of swiping, entering the PIN, etc.

The reason India has so far been a primarily cash economy is that the pain of transacting through cash has been far lower than the pain through other means. Apart from the pains mentioned above, cash also has the advantage of anonymity, speed of transaction and ability to hide from the tax authorities.

So if we have to turn India closer to a cashless economy, as the current union government plans to do, we need to either increase the pain of transacting in cash, or reduce the pain of transacting through another means. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which was launched with much fanfare earlier this year but has spectacularly failed to take off, seeks to reduce pain of cashless transactions. The government’s efforts to get people open bank accounts through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) also seeks to reduce pain in non-cash transactions.

The government’s recent effort to withdraw legal tender of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes, on the other hand, seeks to increase the cost of transacting in cash – 85% of the current stock of cash in India needs to get banked in the next 50 days. This, however, is not a repeatable exercise – it can simply remove confidence in the rupee and drive people to alternate (formal or informal) currencies.

So what can be done to move India to a more cashless economy? The problem with small change has already played its part, with most auto rickshaw and taxi drivers in Mumbai supposedly willing to accept payment in digital wallets such as PayTM. If the stock for the new Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 notes released is low, and most people have to transact using Rs. 100 notes, that will again increase the pain of transacting in cash, since the cost of handling cash might go up.

Perversely, if crime and robberies increase, that will again make people wary of handling cash. In fact, as this excellent piece in the New Yorker claims, the reason Sweden has moved largely cashless is that people got scared of handling cash after a series of cash robberies a few years ago. The cost of higher crime, however, means this is not a desirable way to go cashless.

It’s been barely three days since the new Rs. 500 and Rs. 2000 notes have been released, and there are already reports of counterfeiting in these notes. Given the framework I’ve proposed in this blogpost, it is not inconceivable that these rumours have been planted – when people become more wary of receiving large currency (thanks to the fear of counterfeiting), they want to reduce the use of such physical currency.

It’s perverse, I know, but nothing can be ruled out! As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, increased use of cash has a fiscal cost (in terms of printing and maintaining currency, apart from people not paying taxes), so the government has an incentive to stamp it out.



Dealing with loss of cash

Ever since Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes ceased to be legal tender on Tuesday night, the internet has been full of “human stories” of people for whom tragedy has struck because they are not able to transact.

This is a valid concern – for there is a significant portion of the population without access to banking (numbers in a Mint piece I’ve sent but they’re yet to publish), and access to banking is necessary to do any transaction of reasonable size (there’s only so much you can pay with 100 buck notes).

One fallacy, though, is that people in rural areas, where access to banks and ATMs is lower compared to urban areas, are going to have it harder till the cash gets adequately replaced. While these places may be out of the way, what will help them tide it over is that everyone pretty much knows everyone else.

In Money: The Unauthorised Biography, Felix Martin argues that money is neither a store of value nor a medium of exchange. Instead, it is simply a method to keep track of debts, with the elegance being offered by the fact that money is “negotiable”. If I have a 100 rupee note, all it says is I’m owed 100 rupees. Who owes me those 100 rupees doesn’t matter. “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of one hundred rupees”, the front of the note declares. It just doesn’t matter who the “I” in question is.

In order to illustrate his theory of money, Martin gives the example of Ireland around 1970, when a six-month banking strike left the country’s financial system in tatters. Life didn’t come to a standstill, though, as people figured out ways of maintaining their credits and transferring them.

Initially, people wrote each other cheques. Despite the inherent credit risk, and the fact that they couldn’t be encashed in near future, people accepted them from people they knew. Then the cheques became negotiable, after “reputed community people” such as barmen started vouching for people’s creditworthiness. And so the economy moved along.

Debts were finally settled many months later when the banking system reopened, and people could cash in the cheques they held. A similar story played out in Argentina in the early 2000s when rampant inflation had rendered the currency useless – cities managed to invent their own currencies and life went on.

In a similar fashion, in small towns, and other communities where most people tend to know one another, people are unlikely to face that much trouble because of the cash crunch. Credit is already fairly common in such places, except that it will have to be extended for a longer period of time until the cash supply returns. It is similar in other remote unbanked areas, and perhaps even among tightly-knit communities of businessmen. Systems will spontaneously come up to extend and exchange credit, and life will go on.

The concern, however, is for the urban poor, since they tend to do a large number of transactions with people they don’t know well. In such situations, extension of credit is impossible, and people might find it hard.

Extremes and equilibria

Not long ago, I was chiding an elderly aunt who lives alone about the lack of protein in her diet (she was mostly subsisting on rice and thin rasam). She hit back citing some research she’d seen on TV which showed that too much protein can result in uric acid related complications, so it’s ok she isn’t eating much protein.

Over the last couple of years, efforts to encourage non-cash payments in India have been redoubled. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) has come in, payments banks are being set up, and financial inclusion is being pursued. And you already have people writing about the privacy and other perils of a completely cashless economy.

Then you have index funds. This is a category of funds that is 40 years old now, but has gained so much currency (pun intended) in the recent past that the traditional asset management industry is shitting bricks. And so you have articles that compare indexing to being “worse than Marxism” and dystopian fiction about a future where there is only one active investor left.

All these are cases of people reacting to suggestions with the perils of the suggestion taken to the extreme. My aunt needs more protein in her diet, but I’m not telling her to eat steak for every meal (which she anyway won’t since she’s a strict vegetarian). The current level of usage of cash is too high, and there might be more efficiencies by moving more transactions to electronic media. That doesn’t imply that cash in itself needs to be banned.

And as I mentioned in another blogpost recently, we probably need more indexing, but assuming that everyone will index is a stupid idea. As I wrote then,

In that sense, there is an optimal “mixed strategy” that the universe of investors can play between indexing and active management (depending upon each person’s beliefs and risk preferences). As more and more investors move to indexing, the returns from active management improve, and this “negative feedback” keeps the market in equilibrium!

In other words, what more people moving to indexing means is that the current mixed strategy is not optimal, and we need more indexing. To construct scary scenarios of where everyone is indexing in response is silly.

Effectively, what we need is thinking at the margin – analysing situations in terms of what will happen if there is a small change in the prevailing situation. Constructing scare scenarios around what will happen if this small change is taken to the extreme is as silly as trying to find the position of a curve by indefinitely extending its tangent from the current point!

Indexing, Communism, Capitalism and Equilibrium

Leading global research and brokerage firm Sanford Bernstein, in a recent analyst report, described Index Funds (which celebrated their 40th birthday yesterday) as being “worse than Marxism“. This comes on the back of some recent research which have accused index funds of fostering “anticompetitive practices“.

According to an article that says that indexing is “capitalism at its best“, Sanford Bernstein’s contention is that indexers “free ride” on the investment and asset allocation decisions made by active investors who spend considerable time, money and effort in analysing the companies in order to pick the best stocks.

Sanford Bernstein, in their report, raise the spectre of all investors abandoning active stock picking and moving towards index funds. In this world, they argue, allocations to different assets will not change (since all funds will converge on a particular allocation), and there will be nobody to perform the function of actually allocating capital to companies that deserve them. This situation, they claim, is “worse than Marxism”.

The point, however, is that as long as there is no regulation that requires everyone to move to index funds, this kind of an equilibrium can never be reached. The simple fact of the matter is that as more and more people move to indexing, the value that can be gained from fairly basic analysis and stock picking will increase. So there will always be a non-negative flow (even if it’s a trickle) in the opposite direction.

In that sense, there is an optimal “mixed strategy” that the universe of investors can play between indexing and active management (depending upon each person’s beliefs and risk preferences). As more and more investors move to indexing, the returns from active management improve, and this “negative feedback” keeps the market in equilibrium!


So in that sense, it doesn’t matter if indexing is capitalist or communist or whateverist. The negative feedback and varying investor preferences means that there will always be takers for both indexing and active management. Whether we are already at equilibrium is another question!