Boehmermann vs Erdogan – an update

You might remember the case of German comedian Boehmermann and the poem with which he demonstrated what you could, by then-German law (paragraph 103 StGB, the Criminal Code), *not* say about high-office holders abroad. Because the poem targeted him, and since wanna-be dictators like him tend to lack a sense of humor, Turkish PM Erdogan fell into the trap and took Boehmermann to court, demanding at the same time that all traces of it, and the earlier brilliant song that motivated it, be removed by the German government. Much hilarity ensued. Also much publicity for both, the song (now at more than 12 million views on youtube alone) and the poem.

That obscure paragraph 103 StGB with which Erdogan tried to silence Boehmermann goes back to 1871 and had been invoked only a few times previously. Equally obscure, and absurd, was paragraph 104a which stipulated that the government must decide whether it allows the complaint to go forward under 103. Merkel copped much opportunistic criticism, mostly from spectacularly ill-informed media writerlings and pollies, for her considered decision to let the suit go ahead, arguing correctly that it was not her job to decide whether Boehmermann had run afoul of paragraph 103 StGB.

I predicted then – confidently, because clearly the poem was meant to illustrate what you were *not* allowed to say — that Erdogan did not stand a chance. And sure enough he never did.

It must have been quite the lesson for Erdowahn. Be it only for the additional wave of ridicule it generated.

As of January 1, 2018, that silly paragraph in the criminal code (StGB), is gone for good. A  pity really because teachable moments for wanna-be dictators are few and far between.

Lessons to be learned: First, in a functioning democracy, satire can be used to speak truth to power even if that power feels perpetually offended. Second, a bit of knowledge of what laws say carries a long way. Spectacularly ill-informed opinions about what ought to be done, not so much. Third, a bit of sound game-theoretic reasoning carries a long way. Almost always.

Lemonade and the question of (laboratory) evidence

Lemonade Inc., the New York based fintech startup that sells home and renters insurance has been in the news recently. It has raised tens of millions in venture capital  and also considerable interest in the top echelons of corporate Australia. I know because I was asked to reflect on it as part of a workshop on behavioral economics/behavioral science that I conducted a couple of months ago. I have to admit that I did not know about Lemonade before that request.

Turns out that Lemonade uses “Behavioral Science (and Technology) To Onboard Customers and Keep Them Honest”, so the title of a piece in Fast Company earlier this year. Lemonade bets that insights from Behavioral Economics (BE) will give it the edge over incumbent competitors. It bets specifically that the BE insights of Dan Ariely (he of Predictably Irrational and TED talk fame, and now Lemonade’s CBO = Chief Behavioral Officer) will provide that edge, important components being “trusting our customers” and “giving back” to charity all unused excess funds. On top of these components, or maybe undergirding it, is the promise that Lemonade commits to spending at most 20 percent of its income on administration and marketing, which presumably prevents it from profit maximizing at the expense of its customers. Lemonade also promises that it will process claims fast and relatively un-bureaucratically, at least by the standard of an industry that has a reputation for delaying tactics and for its persistent attempts to evade having to pay up. Examples of speedy processing are featured prominently on Lemonade’s website.

And not only that: A couple of months ago, Lemonade launched its Zero Everything policy which gets rid of deductibles and rate hikes after claims and is supposed to pay for itself through elimination of the paperwork that comes with relatively small claims.

BE principles are also appealed to when customers that make claims are asked to submit a brief video outlining their claim and to provide at the same time a honesty pledge which supposedly induces more honesty.

In sum then, Lemonade builds its business allegedly on the trust(worthiness) of its customers, and of itself, and also honesty on the part of both parties.

Let’s start with the (laboratory) evidence for trust(worthiness). On its web page, Lemonade illustrates the advantages of trust(worthiness) with one of the workhorses of experimental economics, the trust, or investment, game. According to the web page, a person that invests (the trustor) will see her investment to a trustee of $100 quadruple and then see the trustee return half of that $400 to herself (the trustor), for an impressive ROI of one hundred percent. Trust pays off, we learn: “We are more trusting and reciprocating than what standard economic theory predicts.”

Ignoring the stab at economic theory (which shows little more than a lack of elementary knowledge of modern economic theory), there are at least three problems with the Lemonade narrative. First, it is not clear at all why this particular game, in this particular parameterization, captures the customer – insurance company situation. Second, I am not aware of anyone ever having experimentally tested this game with that specific parametrization (specifically, a multiplication factor of 4), and I am not aware — the multiplication factors typically used being 3 or 2 — of responders returning more than what was invested. In fact, the results of my own work (which are very much in line with the literature in this area) suggest that trustors invest about half of what they were given and trustees return slightly less than what was invested. It is noteworthy that there is much heterogeneous behavior to be found in these experiments, with many of those that trust (“invest”) being brutally exploited.

  “Everyone has a price, the important thing is to find out what it is.” (P. Escobar)

Which brings us to the question of honesty. There is indeed some evidence that the way in which people are being prompted makes a difference and, more generally, that context matters (see Various, JEBO 2016). Friesen & Gangadharan  (Economics Letters 2012) use an individual performance task (“matrix task”) after which they ask their subjects to self-report the number of successes that participants had. While very few of their participants – only one out of 12 — are dishonest to the maximal extent, about one out of 3 are to different degrees, with men (in particular those of Aussie and NZ provenance) being more dishonest, and more frequently so, than female participants. Rosenbaum, Billinger, & Stieglitz  (Journal of Economic Psychology 2014) review experimental evidence of (dis)honesty 63 experiments from economics and psychology (including Friesen and Gangadharan EL 2012) and find the robust presence of unconditional cheaters and non-cheaters with the honesty of the remaining individuals being particularly susceptible to monitoring and intrinsic lying costs. Most of these experiments involve fairly low stakes, so those intrinsic lying costs are unlikely to be much of a constraint when stakes increase. The fraction of unconditional non-cheaters is almost certain to shrink towards the Escobar limit when stakes increase.

Interestingly, notwithstanding its public declarations in the good of people, Lemonade tells itself that, while trust is good, control is better.  It runs its claimants, on top of the honesty pledges, through 18 different fraud detection algorithms before it pays up. On top of this, Lemonade engages in blatant cream-skimming. For example, it did not quote half of their customers that wanted to insure their homes. And it reports that the customers that are joining, or allowed to join, are younger, educated, tech-savvy, above-average earners, and female. So much for trust, trustworthiness, and all that BE marketing horsemanure. Pretty cold-blooded standard economic theory if you ask me. Note that this screening takes care of a key problem with their advertised approach: the likely adverse selection of bad types that mere trusting would invite, a very likely whammy on top of the moral hazard problem that every insurer faces.

So is Lemonade a viable business model?

Time will tell.

In the State of New York, Lemonade claims to have overtaken Allstate, GEICO, Liberty Mutual, State Farm, etc. in what is probably the single most critical market (renters and home insurance) share metric of all: NY renters buying new insurance policies since 1 Jan 2017.

Lemonade, we are told, is growing “exponentially” = “new bookings have doubled every ten weeks since launch, and show no sign of letting up.” According to its most recent Thanksgiving Transparency ‘17 report, Lemonade has now branched out into, and is selling in, Illinois, California and Nevada, Texas, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and has been licensed in 15 other states.

Of course, collecting insurance premia is one thing. Paying insurance claims and balancing the books is another thing altogether and the verdict on that one will be out for a while.

If Lemonade succeeds – and we all should hope it does –, it will do so because it engages in cream-skimming, targeting of low-risk market segments, and massive control and surveillance of its clientele. It will not do so because of its invocation of the feel-good alleged BE findings so prominently displayed on its web page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.