Comments on the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation, and Financial Services Industry

October 26, 2018

  1. The following remarks are informed by discussions during a by-invitation-only roundtable on October 19 that was organized by the UNSW Business School research networks on Cyber Security and Data Governance and Behavioural Insights for Business and Policy. It was attended by a judicious mix of 14 legal academics and (behavioural, experimental, and financial) economists as well as representatives of behavioural insights units from government and firms in the banking industry. The roundtable took part under the Chatham House Rule and was meant to facilitate an open discourse about the issues identified in the Royal Commission’s Interim Report, especially its chapter 10 and therein pages 327 – 342 and pages 345 – 7, as well as other chapters (namely 1, 8 and 9).
  2. While my comments draw on those discussions, the following comments reflect my opinion only. Importantly, my opinion below does not necessarily reflect my employer’s view.
  3. Kudos first to Commissioner Hayne and the senior counsels assisting (namely Rowena Orr and Michael Hodge) for a job well-done in uncovering plenty of misconduct when, in the run-up, representatives of the government du jour repeatedly argued, and strenuously so, that there was nothing to see here, that the call for a Royal Commission (RC) was a populist whinge, and that an RC would endanger economic growth by undermining trust in the banks, superannuation providers, and the financial services industry more generally. It seems obvious now that these claims were made despite better knowledge. It seems important to recall this fact, as the implementation of effective solutions – even if evidence-based – is likely to encounter considerable opposition and attempts to water them down. Strategic dishonesty is a thing and it is at the heart of the problems so competently ferreted out by the RC.
  4. Kudos also to ASIC – much maligned these days – since it clearly has provided a considerable portion of the relevant systematic evidence under not always favourable conditions (e.g., the substantial reduction in its resources announced in the 2014 budget; the fact that some of these resources were restored in 2016 cannot distract from the fact that any such disruption is counterproductive).
  5. For an economist who knows the empirical (including the experimental) evidence on the effects of market power, incentives (especially those in social dilemma situations), and on human actors’ frequent failure to be ethical (honest) and in violations of existing norms of conduct, there is nothing surprising in the Interim Report. Likewise, the failure of the regulators to interfere effectively was hardly surprising, although the discussion of effective remedies among economists is likely to be more robust than on the other topics.

5.1. We know for example that market power begets socially suboptimal outcomes (e.g., Huck et al. JEBO 2004, or any textbook on Industrial Organization worth its cost).

5.2. We know, for example, that incentives, especially when in conflict with organizational or societal welfare, lead to undesirable outcomes (e.g., the huge literature on trust games reviewed in Ortmann et al. EE 2000, or more systematically in Johnson & Mislin JoEP 2011)

5.3. We know, for example, that, even for low stakes, there is a considerable amount of people that will always be unethical, with many more people being easily tempted by dishonest behaviour as the stakes increase (e.g., Rosenbaum et al. JoEP 2014; Abeler et al. JPublE 2014; Kajackaite & Gneezy GEB 2017; Capraro JDM 2018; Heck et al. JDM; Abeler et al. ECMTA forthcoming). People’s susceptibility to norm violations has been documented since Adam Smith wrote his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For more recent evidence, see some of the evidence from psychology and related behavioural sciences in Gentilin (2016; for a critique of that evidence see Ortmann CE 2016 and references therein).

5.4. The question of effective remedies is a more complicated one. It touches on numerous mechanism design issues, although even there one can tap into a considerable empirical (and experimental) literature that addresses questions such as the relative efficacy of self-regulation (possibly under the threat of government intervention; see Van Koten & Ortmann 2017), certification, and other institutions such as independent standards boards that administer ethical culture surveys and whiste-blower protection, and provide pools of principal integrity officers, as suggested in Dennis Gentilin’s submission. More on these issues below under 7.

  1. That breaches were so many and so widespread will, especially in light of the significantly larger stakes at stake, not surprise any economist who knows the literature on the negative effects of market power, poorly designed and calibrated incentives, and many human actors’ tendency to be economical with the truth, and in violation of norms (especially if the chance that they are found out is minimal – see Dana et al. ET 2007)). Pages 268 – 270 of the Interim Report get it exactly right: “There being little threat of failure of the enterprise, and there being little competitive pressure, pursuit of profit has trumped consideration of how the profit is made. The banks have gone to the edge of what is permitted, and too often beyond that limit, … because they can; and because they profit from the misconduct that is described in this report.” (p. 269)

7.  So what needs to be done to prevent the conduct from happening again?

7.1. It seems obvious that extant law be applied to lay charges for unconscionable acts such as charging customers fees for advice they did not receive. (While it is laudable that ASIC has secured hundreds of millions in refunds for affected customers, it has come through enforceable undertakings which let the perpetrators of criminal actions off the hook.) Other potentially criminal offences have been committed and they should be pursued under current law wherever possible. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs has considerable reputational spill-over effects and contributes to the wide-spread decline of trust in key institutions.

7.2.  It seems clear that the light-touch approach of ASIC, and APRA, has not served the community well although it is hard to tell from the outside whether tough cops – such as Allan Fels and Graeme Samuel – alone can do the trick (Irvine SMH September 22, 2018).

7.3. It also seems abundantly clear that Commissioner Hayne’s assessment of the sorry state of internal compliance assessment and reporting within CBA and NAB (and possibly other banks) justifies immediate action (p. 10 of Interim Report).

7.4. I do agree with Fels that structural separation of banks from their financial advisory arms is the way to go (Irvine SMH September 22, 2018). The same applies in my view for superannuation providers. The conflicts of interest are just too obvious to ignore and some proposed remedies (such as disclosure of conflicts of interests) seem to have counterproductive effects (e.g., Taguchi & Kamijo 2018, for a recent review of the literature).

7.5. Relatedly, the whole commission business has to be reconsidered. See also the relevant discussion on the broken model of broker remuneration in the Productivity Commission’s June 29 report on Competition in the Australian Financial System (pp. 21- 23) Financial advisors are effectively glorified salespeople and incentivizing them through commissions is a recipe for disaster under the best of circumstances.

7.6.  Relatedly, the variable-remuneration provisions for accountable persons according to BEAR have to be rethought. I endorse fully Recommendation One and Two in Dennis Gentilin’s submission on the RC’s Interim Report.

7.7. I also endorse fully Recommendations Four through Eight of Dennis Gentilin’s submission on the RC’s Interim Report and the rationale they are based on. What exactly the relation of an Independent Standards Board would be to Treasury, APRA, ASIC, and possibly ACCC, is as worthy of a good discussion as is a discussion of appointment procedures to that Board. See also the discussion of “a competition champion” in the Productivity Commission’s June 29 report on Competition in the Australian Financial System (pp. 15 – 19). Preferably the appointment of the Chair of some such Board would be consensus-driven and not partisan. (The sorry partisan transition from the first to the second ACNC Commissioner is not a recommended template.) I believe that Mr. Gentilin’s Recommendation Six – to have the proposed Independent Standards Board oversee the recruitment and appointment of Principal Integrity Officers to designated ADIs — is a brilliant one that will be key in guaranteeing the independence of Principal Integrity Officers. With Mr. Gentilin (specifically Recommendation Eight and its rationale), I believe that the establishment of a Whistleblowing Protection Authority is an indispensable and complementary step if indeed reducing misconduct in the banking, superannuation, and financial services industry is a serious concern and not just public posturing.

7.8. Last but not least, I would urge the Royal Commission – rather than adding more regulation that then is likely not enforced – to explore ways to let reputational feedback systems (e.g., Bolton et al MS 2013; see also systems such as TripAdvisor or Serviceseeking.com.au) work their magic. Considerably more transparency, and data, should be provided to the public to let interested researchers identify anomalies and developments that might be otherwise go unnoticed too long. Take the fascinating Figure 3 in the Productivity Commission’s April 2018 draft report on Superannuation: Assessing Efficiency and Competitiveness. Making that data available in a timely fashion would do wonders for the alignment of incentives. No traditional regulatory action I can think of would have the same effect.

References

Abeler et al. (2014), Representative evidence on lying costs. Journal of Public Economics pp. 96 – 104.

Abeler et al. (forthcoming), Preferences for truth-telling. Econometrica forthcoming.

Bolton et al. (2013), Engineering Trust: Reciprocity in the Production of Reputation Information. Management Science pp. 265 – 85.

Capraro (2018), Gender Differences in lying in sender-receiver games: A meta-analysis. Judgement and Decision Making pp. 345 – 55.

Dana et al. (2007), Exploiting moral wiggle room: experiments demonstrating an illusory preference for fairness. Economic Theory pp. 67 – 80.

Gentilin (2016), The Origins of Ethical Failures. Lessons for Leaders. Routledge.

Heck et al. (2018), Who lies? A large-scale reanalysis linking basic personality traits to unethical decision making. Judgement and Decision Making pp. 356 – 71

Huck et al. (2014), Two Are Few and Four Are Many: Number Effects in Experimental Oligopolies. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization pp. 435 – 46.

Irvine (2018), ‘Stop being bastards’: how the royal commission could reform banks. Sydney Morning Herald 22 September.

Johnson & Mislin (2011), Trust Games: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Economic Psychology pp. 865 – 89.

Kajackaite & Gneezy (2017), Incentives and cheating. Games and Economic Behavior p. 433 – 44.

Ortmann et al. (2000), Trust, Reciprocity, and Social History: A Re-examination. Experimental Economics pp. 81 – 100.

Rosenbaum et al. (2014), Let’s be honest: A review of experimental evidence of honesty and truth-telling. Journal of Economic Psychology 181 – 96.

Taguchi & Kamijo (2018), Intentions behind disclosure to promote trust under short-terminism: An experimental study. Kochi University of Technology working paper.

Van Koten & Ortmann (2017), Self-regulatory organizations under the shadow of governmental oversight: An experimental investigation. In: Deck et al. (2017), Experiments in Organizational Economics, Research in Experimental Economics 19, 85 – 104.

Comments welcome.

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Opportunities for innovation in Australia

The Australian startup ecosystem is growing too slowly, but existing firms are becoming more interested in innovation as a source of competitive advantage.

MBS students brainstorming during the Innovation Bootcamp
Students brainstorming during the MBS Innovation Bootcamp

Australia performed poorly in the global startup ecosystem ranking 2015 which was published recently (http://goo.gl/UXcGcO). Sydney fell 4 spots and now ranks 16th in the world, while Melbourne fell entirely out of the top 20 despite being on that chart in the previous version of the report published three years ago. The study expresses concerns about the Australian ecosystem that echo those in other studies performed by academics as well as in the Australian Government’s Innovation System Report (http://goo.gl/kvQZhK). The 2014 AIS report sums it up nicely: “Australia performs relatively poorly on ‘new to market’ innovation”.

Yet on the ground, interest in innovation and startups has never been stronger than before in Australia. Compared to five years ago, we now have many more ‘meetup’ groups in Melbourne and Sydney for founders and entrepreneurs, a variety of incubators and accelerators, and a number of innovation-oriented programs at leading universities including Melbourne, UTS, Swinburne and QUT. There is strong interest in courses on “design thinking” and “lean startups”. MBS has our innovation bootcamp for MBA students, while the University of Melbourne now has an accelerator and is about to launch a new Masters in Entrepreneurship program. A growing number of entrepreneurs are contacting me to discuss new business models, market entry and how to protect their innovations. These will take time to bear fruit.

How do we reconcile the weak findings at the ecosystem level with growing interest at the ground level? Part of what’s happening is that other startups ecosystems are maturing faster than the one in Australia. Many ecosystems abroad have continued to enjoy stronger government support, better access to venture capital and closer industry-university linkages. The most successful ecosystems (including Silicon Valley, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Tel Aviv) have continued to develop and reinforce a coherent system for connecting resources, talent, funding and market access. Here in Australia, we have bits and pieces that are good in each major city, and we also have specific firms and sectors that are incredibly innovative. But that distribution is uneven and the parties involved are not as seamlessly interconnected as they could be.

A second part of the explanation is due to the business environment in Australia. Given our small domestic market, many of our startup entrepreneurs will continue to sink at least one foot (if not both feet) into other ecosystems. This makes sense from the point of view of being close to market and expertise.

A big change however is the growing interest in innovation by existing firms. In recent years, incumbent firms in industries ranging from retail to energy, news and financial services have been jolted out of a comfortable (often monopolistic or duopolistic) existence due to the threat of entrants, both online and offline.

The embrace of innovation by Australian firms has taken a long time, partly due to the difficulty of changing the mindsets of senior executives who run these organizations. However, it is clear that in a variety of industries across the globe, the terms of competition have changed and Australia is no exception. In conversations with senior managers at Australian organizations, I am discovering a growing interest in innovative strategy, business transformation, ‘design thinking’ and ‘business model innovation’. These conversations often begin with a reactive or defensive tone reflecting a need to respond to market or technological threats. However at some organizations the discussions have begun to advance beyond that stage: managers at some firms start to view innovation as an opportunity to reconsider their existing ways of doing things, engage new stakeholders and to develop new capabilities.

In the short run, I see a good opportunity in helping existing Australian firms learn to innovate and become more agile and competitive. In the longer run, it would be nice to see the startup ecosystem flourish in Australia, but that is something that will take time and sustained effort.

Note: I was invited to write this article for the Melbourne Business School student newsletter. It is reprinted above, sightly edited.

“Blue Ocean” strategy? Actually it does not matter what colour your ocean is

Blue Ocean strategies promise to break the tradeoff between costs and willingness to pay. But they don’t really. The tools offered by the blue ocean approach are useful such as the strategy canvas and ERRC framework, but irrespective of whether your ocean is blue, red or some other colour.

Ocean View, Mt Eliza
The blue yonder, Mt Eliza

Yesterday my MBA students and I discussed “Blue Ocean Strategy”, a popular book on strategic management by Kim and Mauborgne. A good thing about the book is that it encourages managers to be innovative and to pursue new markets rather than competing in highly competitive existing arenas, i.e., playing in “blue oceans” instead of “red oceans”. According to the authors, this way of thinking has served well for companies like Cirque du Soleil, Nintendo and Casella, an Australian firm that has succeeded in selling easy-to-drink wine in the US. Managers are encouraged to use the Strategy Canvas as an organizing framework (see here for an example). This encourages managers to ask themselves whether their products and services are really distinct after all, and along what dimensions they actually differ from the competition.

So far so good. But the problem is that in their enthusiasm, Kim and Mauborgne go on to make a tantalizing claim that the blue ocean approach allows you to break the tradeoff between pursuing differentiation and low costs. This puts them at odds with many leading strategy textbooks, which argue that it is often difficult for firms to increase consumer “willingness to pay” (WTP) while simultaneously reducing cost, all else being equal. You usually have to spend money on R&D, marketing and better execution in order to increase WTP. The “blue ocean” claim leads to all sorts of confusion among MBA students.

Does the blue ocean approach actually offer a silver bullet? Unfortunately not. The truth lies in the details. For a blue ocean strategy to work, you aren’t just supposed to add new activities that increase willingness to pay. You are also supposed to look for opportunities to eliminate or reduce others in order to cut costs. This is presented as the “ERRC” framework (pg 35 of the book) which asks managers to raise and create new dimensions for their product/service, while eliminating or reducing others. For example, Cirque du Soleil increased willingness to pay by introducing broadway-style themes, artistic music and dance, and better stage lighting to their productions. Meanwhile they reduced costs by eliminating animal shows and star performers, both of which are expensive cost components for a circus.

From the above it should be apparent that you still face a tradeoff between costs and willingness to pay. But you are just avoiding it by removing some of the costly activities. In other words, it isn’t the case that all else is equal. If Cirque du Soleil were able to offer all the new features in addition to having animals and circus stars (but at no marginal cost), then it would be legitimate to make a claim that the cost-WTP tradeoff had been broken. But fundamentally this tradeoff remains, and while the exciting new features enabled Cirque du Soleil to differentiate themselves from ordinary circuses and to increase ticket prices, the removal of animal shows and star performers inevitably meant that some customers who valued those things were now less willing to pay for a show.

Overall, the strategy map and blue ocean approach are useful because they encourage managers to think outside the box when looking for new competitive opportunities. But personally I find the distinction between blue and red oceans somewhat forced, especially when you realize that a firm produces multiple products, and these are likely to fall along a spectrum ranging from red to blue and beyond. So while the Nintendo Wii was blue ocean in approach, other Nintendo products at that time such as the DS were clearly not. In a fundamental sense, increasing WTP and reducing costs are complementary (Athey & Schmutzler, 1995). Hence, finding new and innovative opportunities to increase WTP and reduce costs should be something a manager ought to do anyways, regardless of whether their ocean is blue, red, purple or some other colour.

“What really went wrong for Borders and Angus & Robertson” on The Conversation

Final Closing Down Sale at A&R

Today, Melbourne University along with 8 other University partners and CSIRO launches a new media venture, The Conversation. It will present independent commentary by academics and researchers. The Business+Economy section features my article on “What really went wrong for Borders and Angus & Robertson.” Using publicly available data I explore several explanations for the demise of REDgroup, the firm which owned and operated the Borders and A&R stores in this region. Drop by to read the article and share your thoughts at:
http://theconversation.edu.au/articles/what-really-went-wrong-for-borders-and-angus-and-robertson-301

New Models for the Book Industry

IPRIA Seminar- Books
MBS/CMCL/IPRIA Seminar on Book Publishing. 9 Feb 2011

Traditional book publishers have been increasingly challenged by e-books and other digital technologies. We decided to organize a public seminar with industry participants to learn about new opportunities in this area.

A common theme among our speakers was of the growing fault lines between those who create content and those who distribute it. From the point of view of content creators, digital technology is not a bad thing. It presents new ways to reach customers. To a firm like Lonely Planet, printed books, e-books and apps are alternative and useful delivery mechanisms. The heterogeneity is a good thing since each delivery mechanism has its strengths and weaknesses. For example a map-based application on your mobile phone may be useful for navigating the streets of Melbourne, while a printed travel book might be preferred if you are traveling the Australian outback (books are more durable than electronic devices; they also require no electrical power).

Authors are beginning to explore new pricing schemes. For example several authors are trying to sell a larger volume of e-books at lower prices (around $2.99 – $3.99) instead of a small number of regular books at higher prices (say, $10). Other authors are trying “pay what you want” schemes. Our guest speaker Max Barry will be selling his next book as a real time electronic serial, distributing it directly from his website in small chunks and for an attractive price ($6.95). It is too early to know which of these will work well and for whom because the book industry has many different segments of customers with different needs. Furthermore, there are concerns with e-books around the issue of digital piracy. However, we were reminded by one of the speakers that for many authors, obscurity is worse than piracy. Besides, piracy has long been a threat even with printed books: you will of course remember the photocopy machine which has existed for quite awhile, as well as those suspiciously inexpensive textbooks printed on poor quality paper brought in from various developing countries. It seems to me at least that in the digital world, selling a large volume of e-books at a low price makes a lot of sense. In this context, the serialized e-book has an added advantage because it builds a repeated interaction between the reader the author. Over time this may help create loyalty towards the author.

I see three areas of opportunity and these arise along the fault lines described above.

The first opportunity is with “apps”. It crossed my mind earlier this month that simply repackaging a book as an app gives the author tremendous freedom. With books, the author is stuck with publishing delays, parallel import laws and other legal impediments, not just the need to physically deliver products. With apps, all that is gone. Re-purpose a book as an app and it morphs into a software program, so different rules apply. If you go one step further and make the app exciting to use, you can counteract the myth that printed books are superior. Those who have tried The Elements on an iPad will find it hard to go back to a printed Periodic Table. Similarly, having compared both this app and the book version, I much prefer learning about photography using the app version which is more interactive and has built-in videos.

A second opportunity lies in offering new skills combinations. In order to serialize his next novel, Max Barry combined his computer programming expertise with a passion for writing: he is essentially selling each subscriber a private RSS feed as a separate product. Most people do not have this combination of skills, especially the generation of authors that went to journalism school and did not acquire a technical background. An opportunity exists for people who can bridge this divide and provide new tools and services to help content authors to craft their products and reach customers easily. For example, Graeme Connelly spoke to us about the new “expresso printer” at Melbourne University Bookstore which produces small print runs that were uneconomical in the past. I believe this is only a starting point, e.g., we don’t yet have the equivalent of WordPress for creating books with existing tools being either too complex or too amateurish.

The third opportunity lies in further disaggregating the value chain. I learned from the session that one of the benefits to authors of going with traditional book publishers is their expertise in editing. Publishers convert the messy raw material that is a manuscript into a curated experience that is proof-read, edited and checked. I suspect that the editing activity will split apart into a distinct industry segment, just as has happened in other industries such as semiconductors, which used to be vertically integrated but which now has some firms focusing exclusively on system development and others on chip design or manufacturing. This is pure speculation on my part, but I don’t see why the editing process, while valuable, needs to be tied much longer to the manufacture and distribution of physical products.

It is hard to predict how things will work out and I don’t think the traditional book will completely disappear. This industry is definitely going to be interesting to watch over the next few years.

Assessing the benefits of the NBN

richardhayesMy colleague Richard Hayes is working on a project to analyze various methodologies that could be used for assessing the benefits of a national broadband network (a companion project exists on the cost side). Richard recently described key aspects of his project on ZdNet’s Twisted Wire program.

The main thing I’ve learnt from that podcast is that an accurate and precise measure of the NBN’s benefits will be difficult to calculate. There are two constraints, the first being the availability of data and the second being our difficulty in estimating externalities across economic sectors. For example, one approach would be to estimate a discrete choice model, asking people to choose between hypothetical bundles of broadband options. This would provide an estimate of their willingness to pay for specific characteristics. The approach would require data that does not currently exist, and even if such data were obtained (e.g., through surveys), it is unclear people can accurately assess their utility for some broadband-related goods/services that do not yet exist. A broader approach involves using a Computable General Equilibrium model which would yield an economy-wide estimate of the NBN’s impact on activity, but is especially difficult to implement where there are lots of interdependencies (such as with broadband). I also learned from the podcast that some benefits are easier to quantify than others, especially those that are already in use by large existing organizations.

It’s not entirely clear what this implies. However, it seems to me we can learn from parallel situations of how R&D projects are managed within large firms. Perhaps, we should stop looking at the NBN as an all-or-nothing investment. It is perhaps not realistic to do a complete analysis and match incremental costs to incremental benefits ex-ante. However, by breaking the project up into stages (geographically or by some other criteria), one could postpone the decision of whether to do later stages until additional information is obtained. Consider the example of Google’s decision to build a fiber broadband network for communities in the US. It would be difficult for Google to value the overall benefits of this network ex-ante. But that hasn’t stopped it from trying out this “experiment” with a few communities initially with the possibility of scaling up later. Shouldn’t we take a similar approach with the NBN?

e-books are overtaking printed books

Australia Radio National recently did a radio program on e-books at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Of the 4 panelists, only one actually owned an electronic book reader. A number of benefits were cited of e-books, including convenience of purchase, lower book prices (especially compared to the prices of printed books in Australia), and better access from rural locations. However, the overall the impression was that printed books and traditional bookstores will continue to exist for some time. One of the panelists stated that printed books will still constitute 70% of the market within a decade. Another panelist felt that bookshops will continue to exist because they are a nexus of social activity.

Let me be the first to say I love bookshops and have a large library of printed books. That said, these people clearly did not get the memo from Jeff Bezos that the number of e-books sold by Amazon has already overtaken hardcover books and it will overtake paperbacks by next year. The recent launch of the ipad, multimedia e-books, and this week’s launch of the third generation Kindle (only US$139) are going to accelerate the process. Having used both e-books and printed books for some time, all I can say is that many of the complaints people mentioned in the podcast have been addressed, or are being addressed, in the newer ebook readers. Change is happening faster than many people think. This week alone I bought 7 books on Kindle for a course I’m teaching, and I have no complaints.

One way to address the gap between perception and reality is to allow more customers to get their hands on an e-book reader, such as at retail outlets and other public places. From personal experience, people who complain about e-books are often surprised by how usable they are after I’ve put an actual device into their hands for the first time. I’ve also noticed that at a lot of places where e-book readers are sold, they are displayed all wrapped up or inside glass cabinets, rather than in a way that invites people to experience them. This is is something e-book retailers such as Amazon and B&N should address, maybe taking a page out of Apple‘s book to make the shopping experience much more hands-on.