Active aggression and passive aggression

For the record I’m most often actively aggressive. I believe passive aggression is a waste of energy since not only do you end up fighting but you also end up trying to second guess the other party, which leads to suboptimal outcomes. This post is a justification of that.

Let’s say you and I are trying to decide the price of something I want to sell you. There are two ways we can go about it. One way is for us to have a negotiation. I can name my asking price. You call your bid. And if the two meet, well and good. Most often they won’t meet. So one of us will have to budge. We start budging slowly, in steps, until a time when the bid and ask are close together. And then we have a deal.

In most situations (except exceptional cases where there are very few buyers and sellers – read the first chapter of my book. This is within the Kindle sample), this will lead to an efficient outcome. Even if the final price were a little too close to the bid or to the ask, both parties know that under the circumstances they couldn’t get better. And the transaction takes place and the parties move on.

The other situation is where one party publicly states that they are unwilling to negotiate and will do the deal if and only if the counterparty comes up with a good enough offer. If the offer is not good enough, there is no deal. This is similar to the ultimatum game popular in behavioural economics. In this case you are also required to guess (and you have exactly one guess) what the counterparty’s hurdle rate is.

When there is a liquid market, there is no issue with this kind of a game – you simply have your own hurdle rate and you bid that. And irrespective of whether it gets accepted or not, you get the optimal outcome – since the market is liquid, it is likely that your quote will get accepted somewhere.

In a highly illiquid market, with only one buyer and one seller, the ultimatum setup can lead to highly suboptimal outcomes. I mean if you’re desperate to do the sale, you might bring your price “all the way to zero” to ensure you do the deal, but the thing is that irrespective of whether you get a deal or not, you are bound to feel disappointed.

If your ask got accepted, you start wondering if you could’ve charged more. If you didn’t get your deal, you start wondering if reducing a price “just a little” would have gotten the deal done. It is endless headache, something that’s not there when there is an active negotiation process.

Now to build the analogy – instead of a sale, think of the situation when you have a disagreement with someone and need to resolve it. You can either confront them about it and solve it “using negotiation” or you can be passive aggressive, letting them know you’re “not happy”. Notice that in this case the disagreement is with one specific party, the market is as illiquid as it can get – no negotiations with any third party will have any impact (ignore snitching here).

When you express your disagreement and you talk/fight it out, you know that irrespective of the outcome (whether it was resolved or not), you have done what you could. Either it has been resolved, which has happened with you telling what exactly your position is, or you have given it all to explain yourself and things remain bad (in this case, whatever happened there would have been “no deal” or an “unhappy deal”).

And that is why active aggression is always better than passive aggression. By expressing your disagreement, even if that means you’re being aggressive, you are stating the exact extent of the problem and the solution will be to your satisfaction. When you’re passive aggressive, nobody is the winner.

PS: I realise that by writing this post I’m violating this own advice, since this post itself can be seen as a form of passive aggression! Mea culpa.

Magnus Carlsen’s Endowment

Game 12 of the ongoing Chess World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana ended in an unexpected draw after only 31 moves, when Carlsen, in a clearly better position and clearly ahead on time, made an unexpected draw offer.

The match will now go into a series of tie-breaks, played with ever-shortening time controls, as the world looks for a winner. Given the players’ historical record, Carlsen is the favourite for the rapid playoffs. And he knows it, since starting in game 11, he seemed to play towards taking it into the playoffs.

Yesterday’s Game 12 was a strange one. It started off with a sharp Sicilian Pelikan like games 8 and 10, and then between moves 15 and 20, players repeated the position twice. Now, the rules of chess state that if the same position appears three times on the board, the game is declared a draw. And there was this move where Caruana had the chance to repeat a position for the third time, thus drawing the game.

He spent nearly half an hour on the move, and at the end of it, he decided to deviate. In other words, no quick draw. My suspicion is that this unnerved Carlsen, who decided to then take a draw at the earliest available opportunity available to him (the rules of the match state that a draw cannot be agreed before move 30. Carlsen made his offer on move 31).

In behavioural economics, Endowment Effect refers to the bias where you place a higher value on something you own than on something you don’t own. This has several implications, all of which can lead to potentially irrational behaviour. The best example is “throwing good money after bad” – if you have made an investment that has lost money, rather than cutting your losses, you double down on the investment in the hope that you’ll recoup your losses.

Another implication is that even when it is rational to sell something you own, you hold on because of the irrationally high value you place on it. The endowment effect also has an impact in pricing and negotiations – you don’t mind that “convenience charge” that the travel aggregator adds on just before you enter your credit card details, for you have already mentally “bought” the ticket, and this convenience charge is only a minor inconvenience. Once you are convinced that you need to do a business deal, you don’t mind if the price moves away from you in small marginal steps – once you’ve made the decision that you have to do the deal, these moves away are only minor, and well within the higher value you’ve placed on the deal.

So where does this fit in to Carlsen’s draw offer yesterday? It was clear from the outset that Carlsen was playing for a draw. When the position was repeated twice, it raised Carlsen’s hope that the game would be a draw, and he assumed that he was getting the draw he wanted. When Caruana refused to repeat position, and did so after a really long think, Carlsen suddenly realised that he wasn’t getting the draw he thought he was getting.

It was as if the draw was Carlsen’s and it had now been taken away from him, so now he needed to somehow get it. Carlsen played well after that, and Caruana played badly, and the engines clearly showed that Carlsen had an advantage when the game crossed move 30.

However, having “accepted” a draw earlier in the game (by repeating moves twice), Carlsen wanted to lock in the draw, rather than play on in an inferior mental state and risk a loss (which would also result in the loss of the Championship). And hence, despite the significantly superior position, he made the draw offer, which Caruana was only happy to accept (given his worse situation).

 

 

Advertising Agencies: From Brokers to Dealers

The Ken, where I bought a year long subscription today, has a brilliant piece on the ad agency business (paywalled) in India. More specifically, the piece is on pricing in the industry and how it is moving from a commissions only basis to a more mixed model.

Advertising agencies perform a dual role for their clients. Apart from advising them on advertising strategy and helping them create the campaigns, they are also in charge of execution and buying the advertising slots – either in print or television or hoardings (we’ll leave online out since the structure there is more complicated).

As far as the latter business (acquisition of slots to place the ad – commonly known as “buying”) is concerned, typically agencies have operated on a commission basis. The fees charged has been to the extent of about 2.5% of the value of the inventory bought.

In financial markets parlance, advertising agencies have traditionally operated as brokers, buying inventory on behalf of their clients and then charging a fee for it. The thrust of Ashish Mishra’s piece in ate Ken is that agencies are moving away from this model – and instead becoming what is known in financial markets as “dealers”.

Dealers, also known as market makers, make their money by taking the other side of the trade from the client. So if a client wants to buy IBM stock, the dealer is always available to sell it to her.

The dealer makes money by buying low and selling high – buying from people who want to sell and selling to people who want to buy. Their income is in the spread, and it is risky business, since they bear the risk of not being able to offload inventory they have had to buy. They hedge this risk by pricing – the harder they think it is to offload inventory, the wider they set the spreads.

Similarly, going by the Ken story, what ad agencies are nowadays doing is to buy inventory from media companies, and then selling it on to the clients, and making money on the spread. And clients aren’t taking too well to this new situation, subjecting the dealers ad agencies to audits.

From a market design perspective, there is nothing wrong in what the ad agencies are doing. The problem is due to their transition from brokers to dealers, and their clients not coming to terms with the fact that dealers don’t normally have a fiduciary responsibility towards their clients (unlike brokers who represent their clients). There are also local monopoly issues.

The main service that a dealer performs is to take the other side of the trade. The usual mechanism is that the dealer quotes the prices (both buy and sell) and then the client has the option to trade. If the client feels the dealer is ripping her off, she has a chance to not do the deal.

And in this kind of a situation, the price at which the dealer obtained the inventory is moot – all that matters to the deal is the price that the dealer is willing to sell to the client at, and the price that competing dealers might be charging.

So when clients of ad agencies demand that they get the inventory at the same price at which the agencies got it from the media, they are effectively asking for “retail goods at wholesale rates” and refusing to respect the risk that the dealers might have taken in acquiring the inventories (remember the ad agencies run the risk of inventories going unsold if they price them too high).

The reason for the little turmoil in the ad agency industry is that it is an industry in transition – where the agencies are moving from being brokers to being dealers, and clients are in the process of coming to terms with it.

And from one quote in the article (paywalled, again), it seems like the industry might as well move completely to a dealer model from the current broker model.

Clients who are aware are now questioning the point of paying a commission to an agency. “The client’s rationale is that is that it is my money that is being spent. And on that you are already making money as rebate, discount, incentive and reselling inventory to me at a margin, so why do I need to pay you any agency commissions? Some clients have lost trust in their agencies owing to lack of transparency,” says Sodhani.

Finally, there is the issue of monopoly. Dealers work best when there is competition – the clients need to have an option to walk away from the dealers’ exorbitant prices. And this is a bit problematic in the advertising world since agencies act as their clients’ brokers elsewhere in the chain – planning, creating ads, etc.

However the financial industry has dealt with this problem where most large banks function as both brokers and dealers. It’s only a matter of time before the advertising world goes down that path as well.

PS: you can read more about brokers and dealers and marketplaces and platforms in my book Between the Buyer and the Seller

Why Real Estate Prices are High

World over, high housing prices seem to be a problem. They’ve always been an issue in India. They are an issue in the US, where millennials are not able to afford houses to live in. In the UK as well, rising housing prices mean that today’s young are unable to buy up houses. The global phenomenon that is driving all this is the drive towards increasingly large cities.

Going by first principles, there are two major components that determine the cost of a house (note that I said cost and not price) – the cost of the land and the cost of construction. It can be safely assumed that the latter hasn’t increased at a rate dramatically higher than inflation over the years.

Yes, there are bubbles and busts in prices of commodities such as steel and cement. Houses nowadays are being built largely to better specifications and quality than earlier homes. In places like the US, modern houses are  bigger. But all this is balanced by technological innovation which makes stuff cheaper. So on an average, the increase in construction costs over the years is not dramatic.

That implies that the massive increase in price of housing the world over is driven by  increasing costs of land. Some scaremongers will try to tell you that this is due to there being too many human beings in the world, and we are soon headed for a Malthusian collapse. However, the land needed for housing is small, compared to say agriculture, so regular transfer of land from agriculture to housing should take care of this. So why are land prices increasing so much?

It has to do with the distribution. During most of the 20th century, manufacturing being the base of the economy meant that a lot of smaller cities and towns flourished. These cities and towns were either located conveniently enough to tap raw materials or markets for industrial goods, or were helped by the fact that land requirements for industries meant that big cities would get expensive very soon for industries, driving development to smaller cities and towns.

As the share of populations in manufacturing falls, and more people move into services, the larger cities gain at the expense of smaller cities and towns. This means the distribution of demand has changed massively over the last 30 years or so. Rather than demand being more or less uniform over cities, nowadays most of the housing demand is spread over a few small cities.

And these cities aren’t able to keep up. Supply in some cities such as San Francisco and Mumbai, are constrained by regulations on how much can be built. Other cities such as Bangalore or Houston have expanded radially, but housing in the far suburbs is much less attractive than closer to town (due to increased transport costs), and there is only so much supply in “convenient areas” of towns.

This changing pattern of urbanisation is leading to rapid increase in the prices of housing in places that people want to live in. And so millennials are being priced out, unable to buy homes. The distribution of jobs across cities means they don’t have the luxury of “settling down” in smaller cities and towns where housing is still affordable. And until the larger cities hit their limits of growth and businesses start moving to smaller cities (thus creating newer hubs), this housing shortage will exist.

 

Carbon taxes and mental health

The beautiful thing about mid-term elections in the USA is that apart from the “main elections” for senators, congresspersons and governors, there were also votes on “auxiliary issues” – referenda, basically, on issues such as legalisation of marijuana.

One such issue that went to the polls was in Washington State, where there was a proposal for imposition of carbon taxes, which sought to tax carbon dioxide emissions at $15 a tonne. The voters rejected the proposal, with the proposal getting only 44% of the polled votes in favour.

The defeat meant that another attempt at pricing in environmental costs, which could have offered significant benefits to ordinary people in terms of superior mental health, went down the drain.

Chapter 11 of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is both the best and the worst chapter of the book. It is the best for the reasons I’ve mentioned in this blog post earlier – about its discussions of risk, and about relationships and marriage in the United States. It is the worst because Peterson unnecessarily lengthens the chapter by using it to put forward his own views on several controversial issues – such as political correctness and masculinity – issues which only have a tenuous relationship with the meat of the chapter, and which only give an opportunity for Peterson’s zillion critics to downplay the book.

Among all these unnecessary digressions in Chapter Eleven, one stood out, possibly because of the strength of the argument and my own relationship with it – Peterson bullshits climate change and environmentalism, claiming that it only seeks to worsen the mental health of ordinary people. As a clinical psychologist, he can be trusted to tell us what affects people’s mental health. However, dismissing something just because it affects people negatively is wrong.

The reason environmentalism and climate change play a negative impact on people’s mental health, in my opinion, is that there is no market based pricing in these aspects. From childhood, we are told that we should “not waste water” or “not cut trees”, because activities like this will have an adverse effect on the environment.

Such arguments are always moral, about telling people to think of their descendants and the impact it will have. The reason these arguments are hard to make is because they need to persuade people to act contrary to their self-interest. For example, one may ask me to forego my self-interest of the enjoyment in bursting fireworks in favour of better air quality (which I may not necessarily care about). Someone else might ask me to forego my self-interest of a long shower, because of “water shortages”.

And this imposition of moral arguments that make us undertake activities that violate our self-interset is what imposes a mental cost. We are fundamentally selfish creatures, only indulging in activities that benefit us (either immediately or much later). And when people force us to think outside this self-interest, it comes with the cost of increased mental strain, which is reason enough for Jordan Peterson to bullshit environmentalism itself.

If you think about this, the reason we need to use moral arguments and make people act against their self-interest for environmental causes is because the market system fails in these cases. If we were able to put a price on environmental costs of activities, and make entities that indulge in such activities pay these costs, then the moral argument could be replaced by a price argument, and our natural self-interest maximising selves would get aligned with what is good for the world.

And while narrowly concerned with the issue of climate change and global warming, carbon taxes are one way to internalise the externality of environmental damage of our activities. And by putting a price on it, it means that we don’t need to think in terms of our everyday activities and thus saves us a “mental cost”. And this can lead to superior overall mental health.

In that sense, the rejection of the carbon tax proposal in Washington State is a regressive move.

Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia and the Vodnoy Paradox

I’ve written about the Murray Gell-Mann amnesia here before. The idea there is that you trust whatever is printed in the newspaper, except for the section which is your domain of expertise. And despite the newspaper falling short in this section, you read the rest of the newspaper as if everything there is “correct”.

Yesterday I came across a similar idea when it comes to big government – what University of Nebraska economist Arthur M Diamond calls as a “Vodnoy Paradox” after his optomerist – it’s basically about big government advocates who advocate big government in all fields except for the one they’re expert in.

Government regulations sound plausible in areas where we know little and have thought less. But usually those who know an area well can tell us of the unexpected harmful consequences of seemingly plausible and well-intentioned regulations. As a result, the same person often advocates government regulations in areas in which they are ignorant and opposes them in areas where they have knowledge. I call this the “Vodnoy Paradox.” 

In the field they’re expert in they know that regulation doesn’t work, or is misguided, yet they support regulation in all other fields. Isn’t this just Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia in a different context? (quote via David Henderson of Econlog)

How markets work

A long time back, there was this picture that was making the rounds on Twitter and (more prominently) LinkedIn. It featured three boys of varying heights trying to look over a fence to see a ball game.

Here is what it looked like:

Source: http://www.freshshropshire.org.uk/about-us/equality-and-diversity/equality-of-opportunity/

These pictures were used to illustrate that equality of outcomes is not the equality of opportunity, or some such things, and to make a case for “justice”.

As it must be very clear, the allocation of blocks on the right is more efficient than the allocation of the blocks on the left – the tallest guy simply doesn’t need any blocks, while the shortest guy needs two.

And if you think about it, you don’t need any top-down “justice” to allocate the blocks in the right manner. All it takes is a bit of logical thinking and markets – and not even efficiently.

Think about how this scenario might play out at the ball park. The three boys go to see the ball game, and see three blocks at the fence. Each of them climbs a block, and we get the situation on the left.

Shortest boy realises he can’t see and starts crying. There are many ways in which this story can play out from here onward:

  1. Tallest boy realises that he doesn’t really need that extra block, and steps down and gives it to the shortest guy, giving the picture on the right.
  2. Tallest boy continues to stand on his block. Shortest boy realises that the tallest boy doesn’t need it, and requests him for the block. Assuming tallest boy likes him, he will give him the block.
  3. Tallest boy continues on the block. Shortest boy requests for it, but tallest boy refuses saying “this is my block why should I give it to you?”. Shortest boy negotiates. Tells tallest boy he’ll give him a chocolate or some such in return for the block. And gets the block.
  4. Tallest boy doesn’t want chocolate or anything else the shortest boy offers. In fact he might want to settle a score with the shortest boy and refuses to give the block. In this case, the shortest boy realises there is no point being there and not watching the ball game, and makes an exit. In some cases, the middle boy might negotiate with the tallest boy on his behalf, leading to the transfer of the block. In other situations, the shortest boy simply goes away.

Notice that in none of these situations (all of them reasonably “spontaneous”) does the picture on the left happen. In other words, it’s simply unrealistic. And you don’t need any top down notion of “justice” to enable the blocks to be distributed in a “fair” manner.