Ec101: Links for 21st November, 2019

  1. What is the Coase Theorem? Watch.
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  2. Why does it matter? Listen.
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  3. Where all is it applicable? Laugh.
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  4. “Coasean solutions exist. But governments need to set up the relevant property rights and create an exchange, and then trust its prices to incentivize the appropriate action.”
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    And here’s the first reason why  we learn about the Coase theorem today
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  5. “Some also suggest that we create a market for the stubble. But how do you get it out in the first place? Indeed, that’s why it is burnt as the cheapest form of disposal.”
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    And here’s the second!

In Memoriam: Oliver Williamson

Why does Gokhale Institute exist? Why did all of the students at Gokhale Institute not choose to try and fashion their own degree, by independently getting in touch with faculty members of various universities the world over, and negotiating rates for teaching each subject?

Similarly, why did I join Gokhale Institute as a faculty member? Why do I not try and advertise myself as a guy who can teach different subjects in econ, finance and stats to students the world over, every semester?

Why, as I said at the start of this post, does the firm I work in exist at all?

For that matter, why do firms exist in general? The “miracle” that is Walrasian economics guarantees that in a perfectly competitive economy with no frictions and perfect foresight, everything will be in a state of eternal bliss.

Except, economies are not perfectly competitive. Who teaches you which subject is important to you as students – which is another way of saying that labor is not homogeneous. There are frictions, such as teachers falling ill, or monsoons disrupting schedules, or uh, pandemics occurring every 100 years or so. And there isn’t perfect foresight (see pandemics, previous sentence).

And because we live in an imperfect world, we outsource, as students, the difficult job of finding appropriate professors, managing the physical infrastructure, and awarding degrees to an entity we call “the firm”. The firm exists in order to make it worth our while to get an education without having to spend time figuring everything else out.

Professors outsource the grunt work too the college too. It would be too painful for me to try and figure out which students across the world will want to learn Principles of Economics next year. I outsource the job of filtering the students out so that I get sixty students to teach to the Gokhale Institute. Plus, Gokhale Institute fixes the fees, arranges for the whiteboard, the benches. I just have to strut over into the classroom and teach.

We – you and I – minimize transaction costs by using the Institute as an intermediary. That’s Ronald Coase’s answer to why the firm exists. Read both of his papers (The Nature of the Firm, and The Theory of Social Cost). Here are past mentions of Prof. Coase on EFE.

Now, Prof. Coase had a student. His name was Oliver Williamson.

He extended Coase’s ideas about the firm, and that is why he really and truly matters when it comes to economics. There are many things to learn by reading Williamson, but three concepts stand out, in my opinion:

  1. Contract incompleteness: Imagine that the director of Gokhale Institute tells me that my performance as the course coordinator for the BSc programme hasn’t been good enough, and that he’ll be letting me go by the end of the year (I’m hoping this is only an example.) Will I muster up the same enthusiasm for coming up with new stuff this year, now that I know I am going to be out of a job? Or, on the other hand, imagine that the director says that my performance has been so good that I’m guaranteed this job for the next decade. Will there be a drop in my performance, now that I’m guaranteed the post no matter what? So how to write a contract that overcomes these hurdles? That’s one of the problems he tackled.
  2. Asset specificity: There are many definitions on the internet, but I liked the one supplied by Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution the best. I’ll get to it in a while, but here’s the textbook-ish statement first: “Asset specificity is a term related to the inter-party relationships of a transaction. It is usually defined as the extent to which the investments made to support a particular transaction have a higher value to that transaction than they would have if they were redeployed for any other purpose.”
    And here’s Alex Tabarrok’s explanation:
    “Marriage, for example, takes away some possibilities but it adds others. With marriage, for example, comes a greater willingness to invest in children (n.b. asset specificity, the child is of extra value but only to the specific parties involved in the marriage)”. Asset specificity can help lock in a relationship – whether it be marriage or an employment contract.
  3. Appropriable quasi-rents: Let’s say I create software to enter marks and grades while at Gokhale Institute. I wouldn’t have created this software without being employed at Gokhale Institute, and it is valuable enough to sell to other firms (let’s assume). These AQR’s exist precisely because of the fact that I (with my skill-sets) was hired by Gokhale Institute. Discernible value has been created precisely because the employee was hired by the employer – this specific employee, by this specific employer (non-homogeneity of labor)

There is a whole can of worms that opens up as a consequence of thinking through the implications of what is written above. That can of worms is called industrial organization. Long story short, if you want to study the field of IO – and as a student of economics, you do! – you really need to start with Profs. Coase, and Williamson.

EC101: Links for 10th October, 2019

  1. “Coase’s originality was not in his reasoning, but in recognizing that economic exchange is not the mere trading of physical goods but trading rights to property or rights to engage in certain types of conduct affecting property.”
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    Was Ronald Coase the first to come up with the Coase theorem?
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  2. “However, the joy of this book is less in the big picture than in the detail. And what a lot of it! The mind boggles at Smil’s extensive reading and absorption of information. We get the speed at which marathons are run – over the entire course of human history; the growth rates of piglets and weight of chicekns over time; sales of small non-industrial motors over time; the envelope for the maximum speed of travel; Kuznets cycles; Zipf’s law for city size…. The middle section of chapters offer a fantastic overview of technical progress over long periods in a wide range of technologies. I love all this detail.”
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    Diane Coyle thoroughly approves of Growth and Civilization.
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  3. “When a daughter is married, we do worry about her future. But why should I worry when the government of India is my son-in-law who married my daughter Syndicate Bank,” asked the late Tonse Madhav Ananth Pai in 1969, in the aftermath of the nationalization of the first-generation private-sector banks. Fondly known as “Brahma of Manipal”, Pai was the founding father of Syndicate Bank in 1925.”
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    A lovely read on bank mergers, bank nationalization and banks from a particular part of Karnataka.
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  4. “This is where the popcorn enters the picture. Pricey popcorn makes those lower ticket prices possible, And that is why you should buy popcorn at the movies.”
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    Expensive popcorn? Uh, no, cheap movie tickets. Yes, really. Cheap for whom, you ask? Welcome to microeconomics.
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  5. “This leads to the question: Why try these markets at all? This is quite similar to creation of super highways which help reach destinations much quicker but lead to accidents as well. Should we then not create highways?Policies always raise such trade-offs and hopefully, the regulator will take steps which minimise the negative aspect of creation of these markets.”
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    Amol Agarwal, in Moneycontrol, on securitization in real estate loans in India. Me, I think this is not such a great idea.

EC101: Links for 25th July, 2019

Five economic theorems you may not have heard of. They are somewhat abstruse, but all are truly interesting. All Wikipedia articles too – like Twitter, grossly underrated.

 

  1. “In game theory, Aumann’s agreement theorem is a theorem which demonstrates that rational agents with common knowledge of each other’s beliefs cannot agree to disagree. It was first formulated in the 1976 paper titled “Agreeing to Disagree” by Robert Aumann, after whom the theorem is named.”
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  2. “The Alchian–Allen effect was described in 1964 by Armen Alchian and William R Allen in the book University Economics (now called Exchange and Production [1]). It states that when the prices of two substitute goods, such as high and low grades of the same product, are both increased by a fixed per-unit amount such as a transportation cost or a lump-sum tax, consumption will shift toward the higher-grade product. This is true because the added per-unit amount decreases the relative price of the higher-grade product.”
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  3. Revenue equivalence is a concept in auction theory that states that given certain conditions, any mechanism that results in the same outcomes (i.e. allocates items to the same bidders) also has the same expected revenue.”
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    Unless you are an avid student of math and economics (and, not or), feel free to Ctrl-F the word “Implication” and skip straight to that section.
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  4. Mandeville’s paradox is named after Bernard Mandeville, who posits that actions which may be qualified as vicious with regard to individuals have benefits for society as a whole. This is alluded to in the subtitle of his most famous work, The Fable of The Bees: ‘Private Vices, Public Benefits’. He states that “Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live; Whilst we the Benefits receive.”) ”
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    This is a painfully short article – I have set myself a target of using only Wikipedia links in today’s set, but I am breaking my own rule.
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  5. “In law and economics, the Coase theorem describes the economic efficiency of an economic allocation or outcome in the presence of externalities. The theorem states that if trade in an externality is possible and there are sufficiently low transaction costs, bargaining will lead to a Pareto efficient outcome regardless of the initial allocation of property. In practice, obstacles to bargaining or poorly defined property rights can prevent Coasean bargaining. This ‘theorem’ is commonly attributed to Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner Ronald Coase during his tenure at the London School of Economics, SUNY at Buffalo, University of Virginia, and University of Chicago.”
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    Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most misunderstood of all the theorems above – and I probably misunderstand it myself!

Links for 4th December, 2018

  1. An interesting map of the world.
  2. Ronal Coase at work.
  3. Tyler Cowen’s picks for best non-fiction of 2018.
  4. Mithila Phadke on (ostensibly) her grandmother’s cooking.
  5. Via Neha Sinha, John H. Cochrane on preventing financial crises.

ROW: Links for 10th July, 2019

  1. “The radio station, whose call letters are KHIL, has long been the daily soundtrack for this frontier town (population 3,500) that prides itself on its cowboy culture and quiet pace of life. But six decades after the founding of the station, the property is in foreclosure, with utility disconnect notices coming nearly every month.”
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    Culture and Coase (an updated version) in rural America. For both of these reasons and more, worth your time.
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  2. “When Amnesty International U.S.A. started looking for a new headquarters in New York City, the human rights group settled on office space in a modest skyscraper in Lower Manhattan known as Wall Street Plaza.But just as the organization was about to sign a lease last week, the building’s owner said that its new parent company, a giant shipping conglomerate owned by the Chinese government, decided to veto the offer. The company, Cosco Shipping, did not want the United States chapter of Amnesty International, which has produced scathing reports highlighting human rights abuses in China, as a tenant, according to the group.”
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    Business, culture, nationalism, America and China.
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  3. “When you’re doing everything wrong, the best way to fix the problem isn’t usually to go through the list of things you’re doing wrong and fix them one by one. It’s best to step back and ask why you’re so bad at everything, whether a systemic problem is causing you to make so many separate mistakes. And in the case of the MTA, the root cause of its capital-construction failures is usually diagnosed as unaccountability: Nobody knows who’s in charge, so nobody has to be terrified of taking the blame for obscene costs and endless delays.”
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    Coordinating stuff is hard. The New York version of this story. Also, this is why Singapore deserves all the admiration it gets (and more)
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  4. “During the French referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, we observed that 60% of the voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications voted against, whereas the 40% of the electorate with higher incomes voted in favour; the gap was big enough for the yes vote to win with a small majority (51%). The same thing happened with the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, except that this time only the top 20% were in favour of the yes vote, whereas the lower 80% preferred to vote no, whence a clear victory for the latter (55%). Likewise for the referendum on Brexit in the UK in 2016: this time it was the top 30% who voted enthusiastically to remain in the EU. But, as the bottom 70% preferred to leave, the leave vote won with 52% of the votes.”
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    An article which helps you think a little bit more about the European Union and what plagues it.
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  5. “China’s overall external surplus is down. That’s not surprising—China’s general government deficit is somewhere between 4 percent of GDP and 12 percent of GDP, depending on what measure you use. The gap between China’s fiscal stance and that of Korea is even bigger than the gulf between Germany’s surplus and the deficit of France—and the gap between the euro area’s (tight) overall fiscal stance and the much looser stance of the United States.But the surplus of China’s neighbors, who have responded, in many cases, to the “rise” of China with policy stances designed to maintain weak currencies and protect their exports, has soared over the past ten years, and now is substantially larger than it was prior to the global crisis.”
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    A useful article about Korea’s macroeconomic choices, and the reasoning behind them.

Links for 26th February, 2019

  1. “He wished to insure “all persons against absolute want,” but this minimum subsistence income had to be made “less desirable than the condition of those who find support for themselves.””
    Before you click on the link, would you care to take a guess about who is batting for UBI? As the article points out, the idea itself isn’t new. Nobody has come up with a clearheaded way of implementing it, though. Also, have you heard of the flypaper effect?
  2. “Any restructuring of Venezuela’s debt will therefore need to be intolerant of holdout creditors of any type because even a marginal holdout community could pose a lethal threat to the prospects for the recovery of the economy.”
    Paging Ronald Coase. Read this article to find out how to think about debt, and debt resolution in international finance – and about how different points of views are inevitably going to emerge. How to reconcile these views? Paging Ronald Coase!
  3. “There is no $3 billion that NYC gets to keep if Amazon does not show up. That “money” was a pledged reduction in Amazon’s future tax burden at the state and local level.”
    In which Tyler Cowen explains to us why Amazon not setting up in New York is bad news – not good. You don’t usually think of the word lugubrious when you think of Professor Cowen, which is worrying.
  4. “The meekness of the pangolin allowed it to survive for tens of millions of years. They are ancient. But humans, the only creatures that can threaten them, have not been kind to them in return. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two as endangered, and two as critically endangered. They are the most trafficked animals in the world”
    I know very little – next to nothing, in fact, about the pangolin. But reading this article helped me both learn about the pangolin, and about how without some degree of protection, pangolins might well not survive. Also contains interesting snippets about how humanity has, over the ages, tried to make sense of its surroundings. This link is via The Browser – if you like reading, and have some cash to spare, I’d recommend subscribing.
  5. “India is interested in creating a reliable transport corridor that would link it with Central Asia, Russia and Northern Europe; however, the corridor would have to pass through Pakistani territory – and strained relations between New Delhi and Islamabad stand in its way. Similarly, territorial disputes between New Delhi and Beijing have put paid to the hope of a commercial corridor being developed through Chinese territory.”
    How might India develop better relations with the Central Asian nations. Most of us would struggle to even place all the Central Asian nations on a map – but this article helps us begin to understand why the relationship is important, and the challenges associated with developing it.

Links for 10th April, 2019

  1. “In an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to amortize. The prices will all be reflective of reality, there will always be a rational buyer at a rational price if you want to sell. In an ideal world corporates will not rollover their liquid fund investments every day either – they will know how much money they need, and they will only withdraw that much, leaving enough back in the liquid fund.”
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    The always excellent Deepak Shenoy explains the how, and some of the why when it comes to amortization in debt funds. If you are interested in corporate finance, finance in general, or policy-making when it comes to finance, this is well worth your time.
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  2. “Within the overall context of having asset allocation in an individual’s portfolio, passive investments will play an important role. It will increase overtime as a complementary strategy. It will not be just be plain vanilla passive but smart beta products. Look at these three benefits. Better returns profile, lower risk profile and wider diversification as compared to normal other products. So, it is a clear cut thing from the growth perspective.”..
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    An interview on Bloomberg Quint about smart beta products. As with the first link, a must read if you are a student of finance, especially from India.
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  3. ““If you wanted a snapshot of all your financial assets in one place on your mobile or to share information securely with a lender, it was previously not possible,” says Atluri Krishna Prasad, chief executive of Onemoney, one of the five entities that have secured in-principle approval from the Reserve Bank of India to operate as an account aggregator. “Now, if you give Onemoney your consent, we will fetch all your financial information from different sources, aggregate it and give you a single window with the consolidated information.””
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    If you were worried about data privacy in India, we’re only just getting started. A nice article in FactorDaily that explains how more data sharing between financial organizations will soon be on it’s way.
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  4. “Here, as in so many cases, the analysts haven’t got beyond an intuition that Johan Cruyff, the Dutch father of Barcelona’s football, had nearly 50 years ago. Cruyff played for Barça in the 1970s, coached the team from 1988 to 1996 and largely invented the passing game that the club still play. He could rhapsodise for hours about players who were “turned” the right way. He cared much less about a player’s size and speed.”
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    Just one of many excerpt-able snippets from a fascinating article about how a sporting club is using every last little bit of information about, well, everything to make Barca (for that is the football club in question) even better.
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  5. “He’s agreed to forfeit about $50m. It’s not clear what’s happened to the other $73m, but Rimasauskas was a prolific and baroque money-launderer who squirreled cash away in Cyprus, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Latvia. Google has said that “We detected this fraud and promptly alerted the authorities. We recouped the funds and we’re pleased this matter is resolved.”Rimasauskas will be sentenced on July 29. He faces up to 30 years.”
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    One of those articles that truly help you understand Coase/Demsetz and industrial organization overall. But if I am to be honest, a great read in its own right.

Links for 21st March, 2019

  1. “In a 2011 paper, trade-policy researchers Anwarul Hoda and Shravani Prakash analyzed the impact of “the proclivity of the U.S. administration to leverage the GSP program to achieve its economic and political objectives.” They found that with major developing-country trading partners “the reciprocity requirement has proved to be ineffectual.” In 1992, the U.S. stopped India’s preferential access for chemicals and pharmaceuticals in an effort to improve intellectual-property protection. New Delhi shrugged off the pain, and waited for a World Trade Organization agreement before amending its patent law, the researchers noted.”
    Andy Mukherjee doesn’t think the removal of the GSP support by the USA will have any meaningful impact on India’s exports to that country. He also cites an interesting paper (which I haven’t read yet), which seems to say essentially the same thing.
  2. “The opportunity is simple to describe but requires real effort to achieve: the community must enforce systems that build the external costs into the way that the industrialist does business. Faced with an incentive to decrease bycatch, waste or illness, the industrialist will do what industrialists always seek to do–make it work a little better, a little faster, a little more profitably.Industrialism can’t solve every problem, but it can go a very long way in solving the problems that it created in the first place.”
    Seth Godin (whose blog is a remarkable thing, by the way) gives his take on externalities, and makes the case that economists take a far too restrictive, anti-septic view of the problem. I’m putting words into his mouth, but that’s how I interpret it – and I’d agree. Certain problems can be identified best by economists, but perhaps the solutions lie outside the textbook. A useful article to read for starting discussions around externalities, the Coase theorem, Elinor Ostrom’s work, the role of culture in economics.
  3. “When it comes to the institutional framework, there are obviously massive differences between India and China. Any leader in India must contend with parliament, the courts and state governments. Also known as democracy. That limits how quickly stuff can get done. It can also save politicians from serious mistakes. China has competing interests and constituencies as well, but it’s not the same sport, let alone ballpark.”
    The article is about India’s less than stellar economic growth in the previous quarter, but that paragraph above was important to me. India is a functioning democracy, China anything but. That has it’s advantages, and its disadvantages – to both. A point worth remembering in many ways – one of which part of the focus of this article.
  4. “In the process, Netflix has discovered something startling: Despite a supposed surge in nationalism across the globe, many people like to watch movies and TV shows from other countries. “What we’re learning is that people have very diverse and eclectic tastes, and if you provide them with the world’s stories, they will be really adventurous, and they will find something unexpected,” Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president for original content, told me.”
    Farhad Majoo in the NYT about why Netflix is such a good thing. It’s a useful article to understand the impact Netflix is having the world over – but also a good article to learn about pricing, the implications of pricing, content discovery on Netflix.
  5. “For several years, India’s banks have been in the spotlight over their problematic lending to prominent industrialists. Now the mutual funds and non-bank lenders — who have taken increasingly important roles in the credit system amid the banks’ woes — are coming under similar scrutiny. That is good for the development of the Indian financial sector. But it is yet another headache for some hard-pressed members of the promoter class.”
    Simon Mundy in the FT on how the IBC has provided teeth to creditors in India – which is genuinely good news. But the transition is unlikely to be smooth, and there may well be some unexpected skeletons waiting to tumble out of the closet. A good read for finance, bankruptcy and non-bank lending in India.

Links for 20th March, 2019

  1. “In 1950, cement production was equal to that of steel; in the years since, it has increased 25-fold, more than three times as fast as its metallic construction partner.”
    A mostly negative view of concrete, and how pervasive it has become over the years and across the world, in the Guardian. I wouldn’t necessarily argue the view that concrete is all bad, but the data is worth thinking about. Also keep an eye out for a mention of Vaclav Smil later on in the article – an author worth reading.
  2. “Achieving victory over another man, defeating them, forcing them to submit—it’s not about saying “I’m better than you.” It’s saying “I’m better than I was yesterday.” It’s why almost every competition ends with a hug and a thank you. Because each gave the other something—the opportunity to learn, to progress and to become better. At “Camp Settle This Like Men,” and at MMA gyms around the world, black belt instructors lend their time and expertise to lead classes on kickboxing, jiu jitsu, boxing and self-defense. When we teach others our skills, we make them better, hone our own knowledge, and create stronger opponents, that we can measure ourselves against.”
    An article from the Quillette about “Camp Settle This Like Men”. Interesting on multiple levels – masculine toxicity, respect (the earning and the giving of it), and about the plus side of mixed martial arts.
  3. “You have no idea how hard it is. Yes, there’s a lot of work that goes into getting the teams aligned and getting the right leaders in place who believe in these priorities, and being able to execute on that. And even the process of writing something like this is really helpful, because you can talk about a lot of things in the abstract. But it’s not until you actually put it down on paper and say, “Yeah, here are the trade-offs. We’re going to focus on reducing the permanence of how much data we have around, and that’s going to make these things harder.” Then you get all these teams inside the company that come out of the woodwork with all the issues that that’s going to cause for other things that we really care about.”
    Maybe it is because I was teaching industrial organization this semester – but rather than everything else that everybody focused upon, this is the part of the interview that leaped out for me. Organizing a firm is hard. Organizing teams within a firm is harder. There’s a very long reading list that suggests itself about this – it begins from Coase, and ends at Horowitz – for now.
  4. “Today, we’re celebrating the objects and ideas dreamt up and created by inventors, scientists and dreamers. Thanks to over 110 institutions, including National Council of Science Museums and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research from India, as well as dedicated curators and archivists from 23 countries around the world, you can explore a millennia of human progress in Once Upon a Try, now available on Google Arts & Culture. With over 400 interactive collections, it’s the largest online exhibition about inventions, discoveries, and innovations ever created.”
    What a time to be alive. I haven’t seen a lot on the site, principally because I would get nothing else done – but this is a truly bookmark-able resource. Again, what a time to be alive.
  5. “In India, in my opinion, we ape the West too much, particularly America too much. I lived in Silicon Valley so I know both the strengths and the weaknesses. The weaknesses, the short-termist thinking. Very few companies stay the long haul and we have taken more inspiration from the Japanese on these than from the Americans, in this particular area.”
    Lots and lots of interesting stuff here, and the whole interview is worth listening/reading. But of all of those things, this was the most interesting one to me – the influence of Japanese and American start-up culture on Zoho – a remarkable Indian firm.