Unions and competition

I completely fail to see why workers’ unions are against competition in the sector. The latest round in this comes from the National Federation for Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), which represents most of the workers in the Indian Railways, which has slammed the Bibek Debroy report on railway restructuring claiming that the report seeks to bring in privatisation into the sector.

Business Standard reports (emphasis mine),

While Debroy has sought to define liberalisation separately from privatisation in the report, he has also said the entry of private players into the system is already provided by extant policy. fear any effort at bringing in private players into railway operations would jeopardise the workers’ jobs and negatively impact railways’ financial health

That private players coming in to railway operations could jeopardise jobs simply defies logic. Currently, the sector has a monopoly employer, namely Indian Railways, and this limits the bargaining power of any worker. With the coming of more (private) players, the demand for skilled workmen is only going to increase, and any new players would be much better off recruiting existing employees of the railways who are experienced in this business than recruiting from elsewhere.

So the coming of private players can only be a good thing from the point of view of workers.

 

However, what is good for the workers is not necessarily good for workers’ unions. The NFIR is a powerful union, representing 80% of the Railways’ 1.3 million employees (source: Business Standard report quoted above), or about a million employees. With the coming of private players, this number is surely going to go down (thanks to workers leaving, etc.) and this surely cannot be good news for the unions.

In other words, what is good for workers is not necessarily good for unions, and vice versa. And it is important to take this into account while making policy. In popular discourse, workers’ welfare and workers’ unions’ welfare get conflated, leading to policies that are pro unions but (they have higher bargaining powers) but not necessarily pro workers.

Recognition of this distinction can lead to much superior public policy.

Pipes, Platforms, the Internet and Zero Rating

My friend Sangeet Paul Chaudary, who runs Platform Thinking Labs, likes to describe the world in terms of “pipes” and “platforms”. One of the themes of his work is that we are moving away from a situation of “dumb pipes”, which simply connect things without intelligence, to that of “smart platforms”. Read the entire Wired piece (liked above) to appreciate it fully.

So I was reading this excellent paper on Two-Sided Markets by Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole (both associated with the Toulouse School of Economics) earlier today, and I found their definition of two-sided markets (the same as platform business) striking. This is something I’d struggled with in the past (I admit to saying things like “every market is two-sided. There’s a buyer and a seller”), especially given the buzzword status accorded to the phrase, but it is unlikely I’ll struggle again. The paper says:

A necessary condition for a market to be two-sided is that the Coase theorem does not apply to the relation between the two sides of the markets: The gain from trade between the two parties generated by the interaction depends only on the total charge levied by the platform, and so in a Coase (1960) world the price structure is neutral.

This is an absolutely brilliant way to define two-sided markets. The paper elaborates:

Definition 1: Consider a platform charging per-interaction charges a^B and a^S to the buyer and seller sides. The market for interactions between the two sides is one-sided if the volume V of transactions realized on the platform depends only on the aggregate price level

a=a^B +a^S

i.e., is insensitive to reallocations of this total price a between the buyer and the seller. If by contrast V varies with a^B while a is kept constant, the market is said to be two-sided.

So for a market to be two-sided, i.e. for it to be intermediated by an “intelligent platform” rather than a “dumb pipe”, the volume of transactions should depend not only on the sum of prices paid by the buyer and seller, but on each price independently.

The “traditional” neutral internet, by this definition, is a platform. The amount of content I consume on Youtube, for example, is a function of my internet plan – the agreement between my internet service provider and me on how much I get charged as a function of what I consume. It doesn’t depend on the total cost of transmitting that content from Youtube to me. In other words, I don’t care what Youtube pays its internet service provider for the content it streams. Transaction costs (large number of small transactions) also mean that it is not practically possible for Youtube to subsidise my use of their service in this model.

Note that if buyers and sellers on a platform can make deals “on the side”, it ceases to be a platform, for now only the total price charged to the two matters (side deals can take care of any “adjustments”). The reason this can’t take place for a Youtube like scenario is that you have a large number of small transactions, accounting for which imposes massive transaction costs.

The example that Rochet and Tirole take while explaining this concept in their paper is very interesting (note that the paper was written in 2004):

…As the variable charge for outgoing traffic increases, websites would like to pass this cost increase through to the users who request content downloads…

..an increase in their cost of Internet traffic could induce websites that post content for the convenience of other users or that are cash-strapped, to not produce or else reduce the amount of content posted on the web, as they are unable to pass the cost increase onto the other side.

Note how nicely this argument mirrors what Indian telecom companies are saying on the Zero Rating issue. That a general increase in cost of internet access for consumers can result in small “poor” consumers to not consume on the internet at all, as they are unable to pass on the cost to the other side!

Fascinating stuff!

On Sony Six telecasting Pacquiao-Mayweather

Summarising the blog post:

1. Having paid for the rights to the fight, the incremental cost of showing the fight to a customer is negligible, making this a great case for “revenue management”.
2. Each television market is independent, and in each the holder of the rights indulges in “monopoly pricing”. The monopoly price for the US is $~100. For India, it is close to zero. 
3. Television is a two sided market, and by offering the content at Zero rupees in India, the rights holders are maximising the sum total of what they can earn from viewers (subscription fees) and what they can earn from advertisers. 

Now for the harikathe:

So the much-awaited bout between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather is going to be telecast on Sony Six tomorrow, as per this tweet:

Some people are surprised that this fight is being telecast on a “normal” sports channel in India, considering that elsewhere in the world it is being mostly telecast on pay-per-view channels, with the payment for one connection running close to a hundred dollars. Yet, in India, we will get to see this without shelling out any incremental cost over what we have already shelled out to receive Sony Six (and most people who are interested in the fight are likely to have already subscribed to the channel since it telecasts the ongoing IPL. The difference between {people who want to watch Pacquiao-Mayweather} and {people who want to watch IPL} is infinitesimal and can be ignored).

So why is it that a fight that is being sold at an exorbitant premium in most places in the world, and billed as the most sought after boxing bout in over twenty years, is being shown at a throwaway price (close to zero) in India? The answer is simple – revenue management.

For the holder of the telecast rights of this fight, having paid for global telecast rights, any further costs of telecasting to an additional television set are marginal. In that sense, any marginal revenue that they make from the further sale of these rights goes directly to their bottom line. Hence, this is a classic case for “revenue management”, where they will try to maximise the revenues from the rights they hold.

Given that they hold monopoly rights over telecast of the bout, we can expect them to follow “monopoly pricing” to price their product. Monopoly pricing, as the name says, is how a monopoly would price a product, which is literally true in this case. For every price point, there is a certain demand, and monopoly pricing prices the product at a level that maximises revenue (price x quantity). And considering that television rights are usually at a national (or even sub-national) level, monopoly pricing can mean that there are different prices in different markets.

The US, for example, is a market that has an established model of pay-per-view, and the price they’ve arrived at there (of USD 90 per connection, or whatever) is a function of this history. Based on historical responses to such events, and what people have indicated as their willingness to pay, this rate has been arrived, and from what I notice on social media, it has probably been successful in terms of raising revenues.

In a market like India, however, firstly there is no established pay per view model, and no “channels” for exhibitors to show pay per view content (Tata Sky Showcase might be an exception but it’s too niche). Moreover, boxing is also not that big in India – while Indians (like me) might be interested in big fights like this one, it is not as big for us to actually pay money to watch. In that sense, even if the channels had offered this fight at a low (but non-zero) price, the uptake would have been small.

In other words, for an event like this one, the “monopoly price” that the owner of the content could charge in India would be extremely small, and even at that price, the number of people watching would have been small, leading to small revenues.

But then television is a “two-sided market”. The content is simply a platform to bring together the advertiser and the viewer, and the amount that an advertiser will be willing to pay for an advertisement can be considered to be proportional to the viewership. In India, where the volumes for a non-zero price will be low, the price that the broadcaster can command from the advertiser will also be similarly low, leading to low revenues all along.

Instead, by offering the rights to Sony Six, which will offer the content for “free” for all its currently existing viewers, the owners of the rights are ensuring that a significantly positive section of the population is going to watch the fight. Which in turn means that a significant premium can be extracted from advertisers, which will form strictly positive revenues for Sony Six, a part of which will go to the global rights holders. And these revenues are significantly greater than what the rights holders would have achieved in case the content had not been offered at all in India.

 

Startup equity and the ultimatum game

The Ultimatum Game is a fairly commonly used game to study people’s behaviour, cooperation, social capital, etc. Participants are divided into pairs, and one half of the pair is given a sum of money, say Rs. 100. The objective of this player (let’s call her A) is to divide this money between herself and her partner for the game (whom we shall call B). There are no rules in terms of how A can divide the money, except that both sums need to be non-negative and add up to the total (Rs. 100 here).

After A has decided the division, B has an option to either accept or reject it. If B accepts the division, then both players get the amounts as per the division. If B rejects the division, both players get nothing.

Now, classical economics dictates that as long as B gets any amount that is strictly greater than zero, she should accept it, for she is strictly better off in such a circumstance than if she rejects it (by the amount that A has offered her). Yet, several studies have found that B often rejects the offer. This is to do with a sense of “unfairness”, that A has been unfair to her. Sociologists have found that certain societies are much more likely to accept an “unfair division” than others. And so forth.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but the way co-foundes of a startup split equity can be likened to a kind of an ultimatum game. Let’s say that there are two people with complementary and reasonably unique skills (the latter condition implies that such people are not easily replaceable), who are looking to get together to start a business. Right up front, there is the issue of who gets how much equity in the venture.

The thing with equity divisions between co-founders is that there is usually not much room for negotiation – if you end up negotiating too hard, it creates unnecessary bad blood up front between the founders which can affect the performance of the company, so you would want to get done with the negotiations as soon as possible. It should also be kept in mind that if one of the two parties is unhappy about his ownership, it can affect company performance later on.

So how do the founders decide the equity split in this light? Initially there will be feelers they send to each other on how much they are expecting. After that let us say that one of the founders (call him the proposer) proposes an equity division. Now it is up to the other founder (call him the acceptor) to either accept or reject this division. Considering that too much negotiation is not ideal, and that the proposer’s offer is an indication of his approximate demand, we can assume that there will be no further negotiation. If the acceptor doesn’t accept the division that the proposer has proposed, based on the above (wholly reasonable) conditions we can assume that the deal has fallen through.

So now it is clear how this is like an ultimatum game. We have a total sum of equity (100% – this is the very founding of the company, so we can assume that equity for venture investors, ESOPs, etc. will come later), which the proposer needs to split between himself and the acceptor, and in a way that the acceptor is happy with the offer that he has got. If the acceptor accepts, the company gets formed and the respective parties get their respective equity shares (of course both parties will then have to put in significant work to make that equity share worth something – this is where this “game” differs from the ultimatum game). If the acceptor rejects, however, the company doesn’t get formed (we had assumed that neither founder is perfectly replaceable, so whatever either of them starts is something completely different).

Some pairs of founders simply decide to split equally (the “fairest”) to avoid the deal falling through. The more replaceable a founder or commoditised his skill set is, the less he can be offered (demand-supply). But there are not too many such rules in place. Finally it all boils down to a rather hard behavioural problem!

Thinking about it, can we model pre-nuptial agreements also as ultimatum games? Think about it!

The problem with Indian agriculture, and government

The problem with the Indian agriculture sector is that the government takes a very “cash view” of the sector while what is required is a “derivative view”. 

So Congress VP Rahul Gandhi railed on in a rally about how the current Narendra Modi government is anti-farmer, and pointed out at the land acquisition amendment bill and the lack of raising of “minimum support price” as key points of failure. Gandhi was joined at the rally by a large number of farmers, who reports say were primarily very pissed off about the failure of their rabi crops thanks to unseasonal rains in the last month and a bit.

If the government were to take Gandhi’s criticism seriously, what are they expected to do? Not amend the land acquisition act, or amend it in a different way? Perhaps, and we will not address that in this post, since it is “out of syllabus”. Increase the Minimum Support Price (MSP)? They might do that, but it will do nothing to solve the problem.

As I had pointed out in this post written after a field trip to a farm, what policymakers need understand is that farming is fundamentally a business, and like any other business, there is risk. In fact, given the number of sources of uncertainty that exist, it can be argued that farming is a much riskier business than a lot of other “conventional” businesses.

So there is the risk of high prices of inputs, there is risk of bad weather, there is risk of a glut in supply that leads to low prices, there is a risk that the crop wasn’t harvested at the right time, there is a risk that elephants trampled the field, or there is a risk that there might be a new strain of bugs that might destroy the crops. And so forth. And given that most farmers in India are “small”, with limited land holdings, it needs to be kept in mind that they don’t have diversification as a (otherwise rather straightforward) tool to mitigate their risks.

And when the farmers face so many risks, what does the government do? Help them mitigate at max one or two of it. One of them is the “minimum support price” which is basically a put option written by the government, for free, in favour of the farmers. All it entails is that the farmer  is assured of a minimum price for his wares if market prices are too low at the time of harvest. In other words, it helps the farmer hedge against price risk.

What other interventions do Indian governments do in farming? There are straightforward subsidies, all of the input variety. So farmers get subsidised seeds, subsidised fertilisers, subsidised (or in several cases, free) electricity, occasional subsidies in irrigation, subsidised loans (“priority sector lending” rules), and occasionally, when shit hits the fan, a loan waiver.

Barring the last one, it is easy to see that the rest are all essentially input subsidies, making it cheaper for the farmer to produce his produce (I’m proud of that figure of speech here, and I don’t know what it’s called in English). Even loan waivers, while they happen when market conditions are really bad, are usually arbitrary political decisions, and never targeted, meaning that there are always significant errors, of both omission and commission.

So if you ask the question of whether the government, through all these interventions, make the business of farming easier, it should be clear that an answer is no, for while it makes inputs cheaper and helps farmers hedge against price risk, it doesn’t help at all in mitigation of any other risks. Instead, what the government is essentially doing is by paying the farmers a premium (subsidised inputs, free options) and expecting them to take care of the risks by themselves. In other words, small “poor” farmers, who are least capable of handling and managing risk, are the ones who are handling the risk, and at best the government is just providing them a premium!

The current government has done well so far in terms of recognising risk management as a tool for overall wellbeing. For example, the Jan Dhan Yojana accounts (low-cost bank accounts for the hitherto unbanked) come inbuilt with a (albeit small) life insurance cover. In his budget speech earlier this year, the Finance Minister mentioned a plan to introduce universal insurance against accidental death. Now it is time the government recognises the merits of this policy, and extends it to other sectors, notably agriculture.

What we need is a move away from “one delta” cash subsidies and a move towards better risk management. The current agricultural policies of successive governments basically ensure that the farmer makes more when times are good (lower inputs costs, free put options (MSP) with high strike price), and makes nothing when times are bad. Rudimentary utility theory teaches us that the value of a rupee when times are good is much lower than the value of a rupee when times are bad. And for the government, it doesn’t really matter as to when it spends this money, since its economic cycle is largely uncorrelated with farmers’ economic cycles. So why waste money by spending it at a time of low marginal utility as opposed to spending it at a time of high marginal utility?

In other words, the government should move towards an institutionalised system of comprehensive crop insurance. Given the small landholdings, transaction costs of such insurance is going to be high, and the government should help develop this market by providing subsidies. And this subsidy can be easily funded – remember that the government is already paying some sort of a premium to farmers so that they manage their own risk, and part of this can go towards helping farmers manage their risk better.

It is not going to be politically simple, for the opposition (like Rahul Gandhi) will rail that the government is taking money away from farmers. But with the right kind of messaging, and subsidies for insurance, it can be done.

Brainstorming

I was never a big fan of “brainstorming”. I’m referring to those meetings where everyone gets together and thinks aloud, in order to converge to a solution. In the past, when I’ve been involved in such exercises, they’ve mostly come to nothing, and mostly ended with a list of to-dos which got never done (this was mostly in a corporate context). As a consequence, I started hating large meetings also (either most people wouldn’t add value or it would end up like a group discussion with everyone shouting), and have been trying to avoid them.

This time, though, it was different. The context was not corporate. The agenda did not involve an item of day to day work. None of us had a firm stand on the topic at the beginning of the meeting, with each of us having our own apprehensions of either stand (when people come with preconceived ideas and biases, there usually is nothing to storm our brains about).

And so we got together. And we talked. There were times when no one spoke. There were times when it actually turned out to be like a group discussion (I actually said, “ok I have ten points which I haven’t been able to make in the last one hour. I’ve written them down and let me shoot now”). But the situation never got out of hand. Mutual respect meant that cross-talk quickly died out, and we listened to each other. And it was extremely civil.

And then things started crystallising. Soon, some of us had an opinion. Later, others did. Some were ultimately not convinced, but had an opinion anyway. In a period of about twenty minutes somewhere in the third hour of the session, we all seemed to have an “aha moment” (apologies for that consultantspeak). But such moments occurred at different times for each of us.

And then we did the usual thing of “going round the table” for each of us to express our opinions. And then we did. And as each of us expressed our opinions, we discussed it further. Things crystallised better. And we ended the meeting asking everyone who was there to blog about it.

This is what I wrote:

given that these two internets are independent, the total value is a^2 + b^2. Now, if we were to tear down the walls, and combine the two internets into one, what will be the total value? Now that we have one network of (a+b) users, the value of the network is (a+b)^2 or a^2 + 2 ab + b^2 . So what is the additional benefit that we can get by imposing net neutrality, which means that we will have one internet? 2 ab, of course!

This is what Nitin wrote:

If the government opens up the telecom service market to greater competition, perhaps by issuing unlimited licenses, then there is a case to allow them the freedom to discriminate among customers. As the state-owned carrier, BSNL can provide a neutral internet. However, if the government does not open the sector to further competition, therefore shielding the telecom service providers from more competition, then mandating net neutrality provides a reasonable approach to promoting the public interest.

Varun wrote this:

the regulator’s two major tasks are to enhance social welfare by protecting the consumer interest and to create an environment that is conducive for business — that will further enhance social welfare. A neutral internet will definitely benefit the consumers interest; but since the regulatory framework is not conducive for business, it appears that net-neutrality is in conflict with business interests. The situation can change if the regulatory framework is eased and the markets are opened up.

And Pranay wrote this:

net neutrality as a principle must be upheld. This is because communication network providers should not have the unfair advantage of being able to price internet content differently. Once the communication networks are setup, costs do not change with consumers accessing different content. In any case, the communication service providers are free to have fair internet usage policies to prevent induced demand effects

Gautam went down approximately the same path as me, and wrote this:

This is exactly why I oppose Zero Rating as well, whether paid or unpaid – it tends towards creating pockets of disconnected users per telecom company and while this is valuable for the telecom company and the applications and sites that are zero-rated, it reduces the total utility of the public internet, as a whole.

Devika deviated a bit from the crowd. This is what she said:

That said, it does not mean that ISPs should be restricted from entering into contracts with content providers. If Flipkart wants to undertake a joint marketing initiative with Bharti Airtel, it should be allowed to so. For example, Flipkart can give benefits to Airtel from sharing their customer base. To be extremely clear, such collaborations should not hinder access to any other internet sites. This will maintain a level playing field for all content providers.

Anupam, too, differed, and argued that customers need to be given choice:

If a person runs his business solely based on international VoIP calls and doesn’t mind paying extra for ensuring reliability and speed, he should be able to access that privilege. Or, for that matter, a Facebook or Twitter addict who wants these apps to be quick such that they can post real time selfies, should be able to choose these apps over say, apps which give real time updates on political happening in Nicaragua. Thus, people can be given a choice as to which data packets have to be prioritized within their limited bandwidth

And Pavan argued that competition is alone not sufficient:

However, if  the internet is a public good – will competition ever be sufficient to ensure the vibrancy of the network? Will competition be sufficient to improve the effective network size? I would argue that it might fall short of the mark. Thus, regulations that enforce net neutrality may be necessary to prevent ‘walled gardens’ from springing up.

As you can see, our opinions at the end of the meetings all differ. But you can also see that the posts are all well-argued, implying that at the end of the meeting we all had a reasonable degree of clarity. And that is what made it a brilliant brainstorming session.

Now if only all other brainstorming sessions were to be as good! Oh, and it’s a long post already but here are some #learnings on what makes for a successful brainstorming session:

  • Open minds on behalf of participants
  • Mutual respect, and giving everyone a chance to speak
  • No overbearing participants or moderators, leading to a freewheeling debate

As you can see, all these are similar to what makes a multiplayer gencu successful! But brainstorming has a specific agenda, so it’s not a gencu!

Travelling on a budget

It is not hard to travel on a budget. There is exactly one thing you need to do – leave your credit and debit cards behind. And that’s what I did (almost) during my recently 3-day trip to Florence. I must admit first up that I cheated – that I had in my wallet my India debit card (fairly well funded). However, thanks to currency change charges and all that, I had resolved that I would use the card only in the case of emergencies. And that I would otherwise fund my trip on the cash I was carrying on me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Travelling on a budget doesn’t necessarily mean travelling cheap. All it means is that you define how much you are willing to spend during the trip, and then optimising the decisions during the trip so that your expenses are within that limit.

The way I went about my budget was some kind of a “bang bang control”. For the first two days of the trip, I simply ignored my budget and spent on merit. So each time I had to spend money I would evaluate the expense based on a general understanding of whether it was worth it. So four Euros for a gelato (in one of the touristy places) was deemed unreasonable. Three Euros for a larger gelato across the river was deemed okay and I spent. And so on.

In hindsight this is not a very valid strategy. The value of the money you have is a function of its scarcity, and the fact that I was travelling on a budget (carrying limited cash) meant that money on my was scarce (irrespective of the quantum of money that I had). From that perspective, the rational strategy to have followed was to do an initial budget of how much I would spend on what, and then evaluate each spending decision based on the opportunity cost vis-a-vis this particular budget.

So for example, I would have prepared an estimate of how I would spend each cent that I had initially carried. And then every time an expense came up (say three euros for a gelato) I would evaluate what I would have to give up on on my initial budget in order to eat the gelato. And then I would spend accordingly (FWIW, this is how airlines price cargo, at least if they follow the algo I did back when I was working in that sector in 2007). The problem there, however, is that calculations can be complex and you don’t want to be burdening yourself with that when you’re a tourist. Nevertheless, my strategy on the first couple of days (of spending on merit) was clearly wrong.

On the last day of the trip, I suddenly panicked since I now realised I probably didn’t have enough money to last the trip (I had set up “the game” such that if I had to use my debit card I would have “lost”). So I had to change strategy. First of all, I set aside money for the bus ride to the Florence airport and the taxi ride home from Barcelona airport (when there’s a wife waiting for you, you simply take the quickest means of transport available!).

Next, I looked at other mandatory expenses (I had decided to do a day trip to Siena that day so the bus far to go there was one of them; then I had to eat), and set aside money for those. And finally I was left with what I termed as “discretionary spend”, which is what I had to spend on things I had not already budgeted for.

And in order to make sure that I played within these rules, I “locked in” the moneys for the mandatory spends. I put aside thirty Euros in a separate compartment of my wallet (for the taxi fare home). I bought all the bus tickets for the day in the morning itself (Florence-Siena; Siena-Florence; Florence-Airport). And then I was left with twenty odd Euros, and this became my “discretionary spend” (my meals had to be funded from this one).

And so each expense was evaluated based on what I had in this discretionary expense budget. There were two pricing options at the Siena Cathedral (aka Duomo) – four Euros to see inside, and fifteen Euros to both see inside and climb the dome. My budgetary constraints made it a no-brainer (and I’m glad I saw the inside of the cathedral. The sheer diversity of art that hits you from all sides made it a brilliant experience). There were some chocolate shops all over the main square in Siena. Budget meant that I didn’t indulge in any of them.

Budget dictated where I ate (I was glad to bump into this really nice looking l’Aquila Trattoria and Pizzeria, and had excellent ravioli there) and drank (two Euros house wine, and not anything else). And a little left over allowed me to indulge on a second canoli for the day back when I was in Florence!

Overall it was an interesting experience. How would you do it if you were to travel on a budget?

And the trip ended with a scare. I had EUR 32.40 in my pocket when I got into the taxi at Barcelona airport. My three earlier taxi rides on that route had cost EUR 32, 31 and 27, so I couldn’t be entirely confident that I would manage it with what I had. I decided to get off early if the fare went beyond my budget, but that would be embarrassing. So I asked the wife to come down with some money, in case I needed a bailout.

As it transpired, I didn’t need the bailout. The fare was EUR 29.75.