Why Blockchain has no economic future

When Bitcoin went public in 2009 it introduced to the world of finance and economics the technology of blockchain. Even the many who thought Bitcoin would never make it as a major currency were intrigued by the BlockChain technology and a large set of new companies have tried to figure out how to offer new services based on blockchain technology. It is still fair to say that very few economists and social scientists understand blockchain, and governments are even further behind.

I will argue that blockchain has no economic future in the regular economy. I will give you the bottom-line, then describe blockchain, discuss its key supposed advantages, and then take it apart as a viable technology by giving you a much more efficient alternative to the same market demand opportunities.

The bottom line for those not interested in the intricacies of blockchains and public trust

The essence of my argument is that a large country can organise a much more trustworthy information system than a distributed network using blockchain can, and at lower costs, meaning that any large economic role for blockchain is easily displaced by a cheaper and even larger national institution.

So in the 19th century, large private companies circulated their own money, in competition with towns and princedoms. In that competition, national governments won, as they will again now.

The reason that the tech community is investing in blockchain companies is partially because some are in love with the technicalities of blockchain, some hope to attract the same criminal and gullible element that Bitcoin has, some lack awareness of the evolution and reality of political systems, and some see a second-best opportunity not yet taken by others. But even in this brief period of missing-in-action governments, large companies will easily outperform blockchain communities on any mayor market. Except the criminal markets, which is hence the only real future of blockchain communities. Continue reading “Why Blockchain has no economic future”

I guess I can’t run for Australian Parliament

I’m not sure if anyone was hoping I might return to Australia one day and run for Parliament. I certainly never thought about it. But it had never occurred to me that I might be prohibited from doing so. After all, I am an Australian citizen, was born in Australia, and right at the moment am not, to my knowledge a citizen of another country. I did know — thanks to the experience of my long-time co-author, Andrew Leigh, that if I wanted to run for Parliament I could not do so while holding a position at an Australian University as that would make me a government employee. But at least there was something I could do about it.

For those who don’t know, my brother — Jeremy — is a law professor at the University of Melbourne. That hasn’t really impacted on my life although he has lamented the inability to get the coveted ‘j.gans’ username there and previously at UNSW. He mostly writes about criminal stuff and even has a popular book out on some ridiculous jury laws in the UK. But over the past few months he has become somewhat obsessed with s44 of the Constitution which has now caused several MPs — including the Deputy Prime Minister — to be booted out of Parliament with perhaps more to follow. I have been waiting for all this to get on John Oliver but apparently it is still way down the list of Australian craziness.

Anyhow, in the wake of the High Court decision, he went on a rant about how ludicrous it was. The High Court basically decided that, in order to ensure that potential MPs did not shy away from checking whether they are beholden to a foreign power, they had better interpret the Constitution not as some sensible person might but as a strict rule that if you are potentially a citizen of another country — that is, they would be nice to you if you had nowhere else to go — then you had better make sure you have renounced your citizenship so that you cannot be tempted to be their agent in the future. I know that isn’t the legal interpretation but that is the way I read it.

Now Professor Jeremy’s rant — despite a surprising tie in with Gilbert and Sullivan — is mostly legal stuff and is kind of long so I didn’t notice until now this part:

I’m fortunate to have never contemplated nominating for elected office. But, like many Australians, the recent debate has caused me to ponder my own status under s44(i). Despite being born in Sydney and long assuming that I was exclusively an Australian citizen, my eligibility for election to my own nation’s Parliament proves to be quite a puzzle.

The simplest half of the puzzle is my father’s birth as a German citizen in Frankfurt in the 1930s. Thanks to  Adolf Hitler, whose 1941 Eleventh Decree to the Law on the Citizenship of the Reich stripped my Jewish father of his citizenship years after he arrived in Australia, I am certain I’m no German.

But there is a complication: Article 116(2) of Germany’s Basic Law provides that people in my father’s position ‘and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored’. Although I haven’t applied, it seems arguable that I am nevertheless ‘entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power’ (a phrase that the current High Court says is part of the same ‘limb’ as s44(i)’s ban on foreign citizens.) This interesting legal question can only be tested if someone like me is first elected as an MP and then has her eligibility challenged in the Court of Disputed Returns.

The trickier part of the puzzle is my mother. She was born during World War Two somewhere on the Soviet side of the front. However, precisely where in the former Union she was born (and hence her potential current foreign citizenship in a former Soviet Republic) is something that only my long-dead grandparents know for sure. My mother obviously can’t confirm her birthplace with any certainty. Her earliest memories are crossing countless borders as a war refugee. (My grandparents themselves were very vague about the details and timelines of their respective wartime ordeals. It is obvious that they were awful.) While none of these facts concern me at all, every single detail would be crucial to determining my current eligibility under s44(i).

The current High Court’s judges (some of whom would also be my future electoral executioners) saw fit to smugly declare:

“It is necessary to bear in mind that the reference by a house of Parliament of a question of disqualification can arise only where the facts which establish the disqualification have been brought forward in Parliament. In the nature of things, those facts must always have been knowable. A candidate need show no greater diligence in relation to the timely discovery of those facts than the person who has successfully, albeit belatedly, brought them to the attention of the Parliament.”

But, if I was ever elected to a very narrowly divided parliament, then there would be a good many people with much better resources and motivation than me to solve the mystery of my citizenship. Somewhere, there may be an old Soviet record, or a wartime refugee camp form, or a surviving acquaintance of my grandparents, or a genetic link to some ‘atomic globule’ in Central Asia, that could belatedly confirm me as a citizen of one of a potential dozen or so nations, each with their own highly complex and shifting citizenship laws. My own ignorance of these matters (no matter how diligent my personal search) would be absolutely irrelevant to my future eligibility,. So holds Re: Canavan.

And for me to do my constitutional ‘homework’ would, at a minimum, be punishingly expensive, much more so than the truly ridiculous sums that Sam Dastyari had to pay to (probably) rid himself of his Iranian citizenship. Worse, there is every likelihood that I would be unable to ever be sure that I wasn’t a foreign citizen, much less satisfy any party contemplating nominating me. The likely result of any ‘serious reflection on the question’ of my eligibility is that nominating me would not be worth the risk. And I am hardly an unusual case (outside of the ‘came with the First Fleet‘ set, that is.)

Hang on a second I thought as I read this. Jeremy’s mother and father are my mother and father too — sometimes it takes a minute for the ball to drop on that. That means all this crap applies to me!

And not just my but prominent MPs like Josh Frydenberg and several other Jewish MPs.

So I don’t see how I could ever run for Parliament. Well in Australia. If I become a Canadian citizen — and no, they don’t care how many other citizenships I hold in order to do that (phew!) — then I could run for Parliament here. In other words, I am potentially barred — forever! — from running for Parliament in Australia by the High Court decision but can actually do so elsewhere.

But there is another thing. While Malcolm Turnbull and the current government I know did not agree with the High Court’s decision as they put forward an argument that would not have led to this if they had adopted it, I do now wonder what the Opposition’s position really is. From my reading, they have been playing politics in criticising the Government and now taking seriously the idea of contesting the new by-elections etc. That sounds like they accept that interpretation. If that is so, am I to read that they also believe that immigrants and children of immigrants should never run for Parliament in Australia? I think we all deserve an answer on that one.

[Update: it gets worse for Jewish people in Australia. They may all be prohibited. A High Court test case on this is urgently needed.]

EU plans for VAT taxation are doomed to fail. Again.

Taxation is the potential downfall of the EU as an institution. The reason is that within the EU, several member states are making money from the tax evasion in other member states, a situation akin to having a wife slowly murdering her husband with poison. Unless this stops, a divorce becomes inevitable.

Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Ireland, Lichtenstein, Austria, London, and several others are at it: they help large corporations avoid their taxation responsibilities. They either make deals that allow companies to hide their tax obligation, have idiosyncratic definitions under which there are less tax obligations, provide re-labelling services such that head-offices can be a mere post-box, etc.

These tax-avoidance enablers have also systematically frustrated all attempts over the last 30 years to harmonise taxation and reverse the damage they have done to the integrity of the other nation states in the EU. Whenever the issue of tax evasion was in the public eye, for instance during the GFC, they stalled by insisting tax evasion should be solved internationally and should include all other tax havens. Predictably, these were impossible demands. They have also made life difficult inside committees and government forums.

The EU bureaucracy has just put out a new set of proposals regarding VAT on large international corporations (like Google and Amazon), impact evaluated and all. I have read them and predict they will not be implemented, nor would they work anyway.

For one, the EU commission has no power to enforce new tax rules, and these proposals are in a long line of ignored prior proposals. To become law they would need the unanimous backing of all EU members. They hence need the cooperation of about 5 countries that would lose billions if they complied. Fat chance, even with Brexit reducing the political clout of London.

Secondly, the proposals repeat the main mistake of the past: they advocate a rules-based administrative system of taxation which is cumbersome, highly-complex, and easy to game. I explain how over the fold. Continue reading “EU plans for VAT taxation are doomed to fail. Again.”

Why would banks eliminate ATM fees?

Over the past two days, the four major Australian banks have eliminated ATM fees charged to users who are not their customers who use their ATMs. This is great news for people who do not use ATMs of their own banks. They no longer have to pay the fees — that have been transparent since 2009 — that were charged by ATMs — at least those owned by the four major banks. Not surprisingly, the media is fawning over it as are politicians.

But nothing tickles an economist’s spidy sense like this. Wait a second? Banks have decided to charge nothing for a service, that people who are otherwise not their customers for any other products, use? I have to ask: doesn’t this use impose direct costs on the banks? Aren’t those costs likely to be non-trivial? Aren’t those costs likely to rise substantially as consumers do not suffer the pain at the ATM of paying for those costs? The stench no economist nose is picking up is quite pugnant.

The news articles all say that this was the result of government pressure. To be sure, it is just that. There are no laws preventing such things nor has any government wanted to pass them.

And there is a good reason for that. This will have consequences.

For starters, there are going to be fewer ATMs; at least from the big four banks. They no longer have to roll them out to please their own customers, so they won’t. If you all decide a service will be free, it will be supplied by a free service. In addition, independent ATM operators — who charge the highest fees — will also see returns slashed by the new competitive pressure and so they will pull back to. As for smaller banks and credit unions, they get a gift. People will use their ATMs less but since they likely didn’t earn anything other than covering their costs, they might even expand a little. However, in the aggregate, there will be fewer ATMs.

(Actually, the smaller banks really do benefit from all of this. I am not saying that is a bad thing per se but once again, why are the majors giving them this gift?)

I have not been following recent regulatory developments but it strikes me that this may be the first act in trying to get a better deal under the hood. Banks are doing this to get lighter regulation elsewhere. Perhaps to avoid a Royal Commission? This is something that Australians will need to watch out for.

Personally, I have not really bought the notion that Australian banks are colluding on things like interest rates. (I looked). But this time, one bank (the CBA) seemingly unilaterally eliminated fees (for people who weren’t their own customers) and then the other banks followed. The only way the CBA’s customers benefited from this was if the other banks followed. Otherwise, there is no benefit coming back to the CBA. So there is no private benefit, only a group benefits. Usually, those things do not happen without explicit coordination.

Is cross-ownership a competition problem in Australia?

Possibly.

First some context. I raised this issue a couple of years ago in a post here. It was motivated by new research in the US on the impact of cross-ownership by institutional investors on competition in US airlines.

So ask yourself: when those shareholders vote on the composition of boards or the management of the firm, or, importantly how the management of the firm is compensated, are they going to vote for managers who will care only about the profits of the firm they manage or about the profits more broadly? The answer is obvious: they will look to managers who manage in the interest of shareholders and so that means they care about all firm profits and not just the one of their own firm.

In a world where shareholders can get what they want, we won’t have competition in this outcome but, more likely, a collusive outcome. What is more, the firms won’t have to go to all the difficulty of violating antitrust laws to obtain this outcome, they will do it unilaterally. There are no laws against that.

That research was recently updated but has also been extended to banks and also executive compensation consistent with a competition-reducing effect (compensation is based on absolute rather than relative performance).

In an op ed, Shadow Assistant Treasurer and my long-standing co-author, Andrew Leigh, took the US approach and applied it to Australia. He looked at cross-ownership patterns but he made a mistake looking at custodial firms (who don’t have voting or influence rights) rather than the core institutional investors that are the core of the theory. Peter Martin pointed out the error. Who knew that determining ownership could be so complicated?

This of course highlights how difficult it is for politicians to research and make arguments. One little error and it is as if the whole hypothesis doesn’t exist any more. But we academics in the real world don’t operate that way. What I wondered was: do the patterns we see in the US match occur in Australia.

Fortunately, for me, I didn’t have to do much heavy lifting to find out. Here are some summary stats provided on Twitter by Martin Schmalz who is a key player in the US studies. First, let’s check out energy retailing:

martincschmalz_2017-Mar-16 3.jpg

The top three investors are the same across the two biggest competitors in Australia.

Let’s turn to grocery and other retailing:

martincschmalz_2017-Mar-16 2.jpg

Wesfarmers (who owns Coles) and Woolworths have some similarities there.

Or petrol:

martincschmalz_2017-Mar-16.jpg

Or investing itself:

martincschmalz_2017-Mar-16 1.jpg

For banking in general, I took a look and NAB’s top shareholders are (Vanguard 2.03% and BlackRock 1.43% and Capital Research and Management Company, 1.13%); Commonwealth Bank has (Vanguard 2.78%, BlackRock 1.46% and Govt Pension Fund of Norway, 0.88%), while Westpac appears to have little shareholder concentration.

Looking at telecommunications we have Telstra (Capital Research and Management Company, 1.13%; Vanguard 1.62%, BlackRock 0.63%) while Singtel is owned by the Singapore government.

This is, of course, far from a comprehensive concern but the pattern is interesting. The very funds — BlackRock and Vanguard — whose ownership changes were related to competition reductions in the US by research there have the same pattern of ‘diversified’ holdings in Australian oligopoly companies.

Now you might say that even so, the ownership of the largest shareholders is low. That is true. It is not like they themselves command a majority for voting purposes. However, as the largest shareholders they have power and their trading behaviour can impact on the returns of others. The very fact that we see cross-ownership patterns in Australia similar to the US where there are concerns that have been measured suggests that this is something we need to watch.

Will pricier soda lead to slimmer waistlines?

Policies that can be set in motion with little more than the stroke of a pen can be very seductive. That’s particularly true with policies that appear to have the same hue as some major social problem, since lawmakers can use that problem as a rationale for the policy, and hope that no one thinks too hard about whether it’s logical to expect the policy to effectively address the problem.

Such is arguably what we’ve seen recently in the heated debate about universal basic income (UBI), and now it we are seeing it with the proposed sugar tax.

Though it may have some other benefits (e.g., capturing externalities of obesity), the sugar tax is often defended on the basis that there are a lot of obese people in modern-day Australia – including children – and many Australians take in far more sugar than health guidelines recommend, much of it in the form of sugary drinks. Hence, or so the argument goes, if we make those drinks more expensive through imposing a sugar tax, then people will buy less of them and obesity rates will dutifully start to fall.

As parents, we can make sugary drinks harder for our kids to access by not buying a lot of them in the first place. Schools too have choices about what to stock in canteens, and how to arrange and price food so that healthier things are within easier reach. A tax on sugary drinks also makes them less accessible, especially for cash-constrained people, and therefore may well reduce the consumption of those drinks – as has been seen in Mexico.

But are sugary drinks really the underlying cause of obesity? History shows us that sugary drinks have been around far longer than the modern obesity epidemic, which began in select developed countries around the late 1980s and early 1990s. Why were we able to resist the soda on the shelves for generations before the 1980s, after which we suddenly started succumbing to large quantities in the past generation? On the basis of layperson logic alone, sugary drinks cannot be the primary cause of the catastrophic rise in obesity we’ve seen in the internet age.

Evidence suggests that sugary drinks are more likely to be bought regularly by people in the lower income brackets of our society. Why then do lower-income adults buy large quantities of sugary drinks for themselves or their children? Are they ignorant of sugar’s health effects? Sadomasochistic? Trying to select the least-cost beverage option (water) but misfiring due to plain stupidity?

An alternative theory is that the reason for the initial kick-off in obesity rates, and some of the reason they’ve stayed high, is psychological. Evidence suggests that being lower-income can cause negative pressure on people’s self-esteem. The stress of being poor may have worsened as inequality has increased, and/or with the advent of globalized media, which provides access to unlimited stories about beautiful superstars to whom it’s very difficult for most real people to measure up. If modern lower-income Australians are already finding life pretty mentally exhausting, then they may not have the surplus mental strength required to resist buying unhealthy things (sugary drinks included) that will taste nice, and that their family and friends will enjoy and thank them for.

To the extent that obese people make poor food purchase decisions for psychological reasons, a tax on sugary drinks will do little to help them lose weight.

In Memoriam Thomas C. Schelling

Tom Schelling was a US American economist (born April 14, 1921); until his death yesterday (Aussie time) he was Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences which he shared with Robert Aumann, a belated completion of the NASH quartet that was not possible in 1994 because the Nobel Prize is given to maximally three people.

Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize mainly “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theoretic analysis”.  This is true to the extent that he typically thought about interdependent decisions, i.e., decisions whose outcomes depend on the decisions of others. Schelling wanted game theorists to pay more attention to strategic uncertainty, issues such as promises and threats, strategies of credible commitments, tacit bargaining, the role of communication, and the design of enforceable contracts and rules. Schelling is probably right in saying (as he did in the biographical sketch that he supplied to the Nobel Prize Committee) that his work in this area – at least initially – did not have noticeable influence on game theorists but that it reach sociologists, political scientists, and some economists. His interests in such issues were in the first couple of decades clearly motivated by his having one foot in academia and the other firmly in various policy making bodies.  He ended his work for the government upon the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in the Spring of 1970 but in later years took up important advisory and consulting activities.

Schelling wrote numerous widely cited articles which were the basis for the half dozen books that he wrote. These are Schelling (1960, 1961, 1966), Schelling  (1978), and Schelling (1984, 2006). The first three – as also suggested by their title – deal with strategic interaction between entities such a nations but Schelling (1960) is a very fundamental, and eminently readable, treatise that tries to inject new themes into game theory. Almost three decades later it inspired a literature on what is now known as coordination games (Devetag & Ortmann 2007). Schelling (1978) provides models of racial dynamics that are as insightful as they are simple – Schelling’s work is almost always non-technical — and elegant. He showed specifically how seemingly fairly innocent micro-motives could bring about undesirable macro-outcomes. This particular work is said to have inspired what is now known as agent-based computational economics.  Schelling (1984) is dedicated to issues of self-command and Schelling’s interest in substance abuse and addictive behavior; this interest guided much of his research in the seventies and eighties.  The strategic interaction between competing selves is at the heart of his personalized narratives of strategic conflict.  Schelling (2006) covers all aspects of his work and in this sense is the idea starting point for an exploration of the astonishing range of ideas pursued by this very public intellectual.  The book contains also three essays on climate change, and related collective action problems, that interested him since 1980.  Schelling is on record as saying that “global warming and climate change is what I expect to be, during this century, what nuclear arms control was during the century past, namely an immense challenge to ‘cooperation amid’ conflict.” His solution to climate change – geoengineering rather than a world-wide cap and trade system – is controversial.

The above entry has been culled, with slight modifications, from Morris Altman’s Encyclopedia of Behavioral Decision Making (Praeger 2015)

See also: Strategic Uncertainty, Coordination games, Theory of conflict, Self-command

Further Reading:

Devetag, Giovanna and Andreas Ortmann. 2007. “When and Why? A Critical Review of Coordination Failure in the Laboratory.” Experimental Economics 10, 2007, 331 – 44.

Ortmann, Andreas and Angelika Weber. 2007. “Thomas Schelling und die Theorie der Self-Command,” Pp.121 – 34 in Ingo Pies and Martin Leschke (eds), Thomas Schellings strategische Ökonomik. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2007.

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2005:

Biographical http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2005/schelling-bio.html

Press release http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2005/press.html

Avanced information http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2005/advanced-economicsciences2005.pdf

Schelling, Thomas. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Schelling, Thomas and M.H. Halperin. 1961. Strategy and Arms Control. New York: Twentieth

Century Fund.

Schelling, Thomas. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Schelling, Thomas. 1978. Micromotives and Macrobehavior. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard

University Press.

Schelling, Thomas. 1984. Choice and Consequence. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Schelling, Thomas. 2006. Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Zeckhauser, Richard (1989): “Reflections on Thomas Schelling”, in: Journal of Economic

Perspectives 3, S. 153–64.