The Nobel Prize in Economics, 2020

It is such a pleasure to begin a blog post on such a happy, warm and fuzzy note in 2020 – and what’s rarer is that the note is courtesy Twitter!

Milgrom and Wilson aren’t exactly household names in India – or at any rate, weren’t household names until yesterday. In fact, even within economics departments, they are unlikely to have been names that absolutely everybody is familiar with. This blog post is as much a celebration of they having won the Nobel Prize for Economics as it is an opportunity for me to learn more about their work.

But let’s begin by allowing Twitter to return to type, as it were:

This is not, to be clear, any random person on Twitter. Branko Milanovic is currently a Professor at CUNY, has worked in the World Bank, and has written some rather well received books in the recent past.

So what gives? Why such a curmudgeonly response to the highest prize that one can receive as an economist?

Twitter being what it is, Branko Milanovic was eventually goaded into answering this question himself (link here), but his response – to me! – boils down to “Pah! There are other, more important problems to think about.”

Well, maybe. But if you ask me, Milgrom and Wilson’s work is plenty important in its own right.

Let’s find out why!

Every day, auctions distribute astronomical values between buyers and sellers. This year’s Laureates, Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson, have improved auction theory and invented new auction formats, benefitting
sellers, buyers and taxpayers around the world.

https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2020/09/popular-economicsciencesprize2020.pdf

How do we decide who gets what? Should this be decided by governments without the use of markets, or should this be completely random? Should bidding wars (that is, auctions) be deployed, and if so, what might be the implications?

It is for their attempts at answering that last question, for the most part, that Milgrom and Wilson have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics.

How did they go about answering this question? Here’s Timothy Taylor with one answer:

A useful starting point is to recognize that auctions can have a wide array of formats. Most people are used to the idea of an auction where an auctioneer presides over a room of people who call out bids, until no one is willing to call out a higher bid. But auctions don’t need to work in that way.

An “English auction” is one where the bids are ascending, until a highest bid is reached. A “Dutch auction”–which is commonly used to sell about 20 million fresh flowers per day–starts with a high bid and then declines, so that the first person to speak up wins. In an open-outcry auction, the bid are heard by everyone, but in a sealed-bid auction, the bids are private. Some auctions have only one round of bidding; others may eliminate some bidders after one round but proceed through multiple rounds. In “first-price” auctions, the winner pays what they bid; in “second-price” auctions, the winner instead pays whatever was bi by the runner up.

In some auctions the value of what is being bid on is mostly a “private value” to the bidders (the Nobel committee suggests thinking about bidding on dinner with a Nobel economist as an example, but you may prefer to substitute a celebrity of your choice), but in other cases, like bidding on an offshore oil lease, the value of the object is at least to some extent a “common value,” because any oil that is found will be sold at the global market price. In some auctions, the bidders may have detailed private information about what is being sold (say, in the case where a house is being sold but you are allowed to do your own inspection before bidding), while in other auctions the information about the object being auctioned may be mostly public.

In short, there is no single perfect auction. Instead, thinking about how auctions work means considering for any specific context how auction rules and format in that situation, given what determines the value of the auctioned objects and what what kind of information and uncertainty bidders might have.

https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2020/10/a-nobel-prize-for-auction-theory-paul.html

Do read the rest of the blogpost for some very interesting examples of how auctions might go wrong – most of them excerpted from an excellent paper by Paul Klemperer.

The excellent, excellent blog A Fine Theorem ends up responding (unintentionally, to be clear) to Branko Milanovic while speaking about Milgrom and Wilson’s body of work:

When it comes to practical application, Milgrom’s work on auctions is well-known, and formed the basis of his Nobel citation. How did auctions become so “practical”? There is no question that the rise of applied auction theory, with the economist as designer, has its roots in the privatization wave of the 1990s that followed the end of the Cold War. Governments held valuable assets: water rights, resource tracts, spectrum that was proving important for new technologies like the cell phone. Who was to be given these assets, and at what price? Milgrom’s 1995 Churchill lectures formed the basis for a book, “Putting Auction Theory to Work”, which is now essential reading alongside Klemperer’s “Theory and Practice”, for theorists and practitioners alike. Where it is unique is in its focus on the practical details of running auctions.

https://afinetheorem.wordpress.com/2020/10/12/operations-research-and-the-rise-of-applied-game-theory-a-nobel-for-milgrom-and-wilson/

In other words, applied auction theory helps us, as a society, decide who gets what, and on what basis. Especially with the end of the Cold War, and with the wave of liberalization and privatization that followed in many major economies the world over, applied auction theory became especially important!

Timothy Taylor again:

One useful property of auctions is that in a number of settings they can discipline the public sector to make decisions based on economic values, rather than favoritism. For example, when a city wants to sign a contract with a company that will pick up the garbage from households, companies can submit bids–rather than having a city council choose the company run by someone’s favorite uncle. When the US government wants to give companies the right to drill in certain areas for offshore oil, or wishes to allocate radio spectrum for use by phone companies, it can auction off the rights rather than handing them out to whatever company has the best behind-the-scenes lobbyists. In many countries, auctions are used to privatize selling off a formerly government-owned company.

https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2020/10/a-nobel-prize-for-auction-theory-paul.html

By the way, this post – or indeed the blog posts that I have referred to so far – aren’t really indicative of just how complex this field has become today! For example, take a look at this video to understand how modern auction design is the combination of cutting edge computer science, operations research and economic theory at the same time (h/t Alex Tabarrok on MR)

MR’s other blogger, Tyler Cowen’s posts on both winners are also worth reading: here is the post on Milgrom, and here is the post on Wilson. Like the post on A Fine Theorem, both posts contain much more information about both authors than just the body of work that won them the Nobel.

For example, the story of Milgrom courting his wife:

And before I forget, also read about the “no-trade” theorem and the bid-ask spread paper – not to mention the “Chain Store” paradox and the “Gang of Four” papers. Tyler Cowen’s post, and A Fine Theorem’s post have fine summaries of all of them.

In line with Tyler Cowen’s post about Milgrom, his post about Wilson contains much more information about Wilson’s work outside of auction theory. The entire post is worth bookmarking for the treasure trove of links contained therein, but in particular, the following are particularly interesting to me:

Dynamic Games with Incomplete Information, Wilson’s survey article on Electric Power Pricing, and a (mutual) interview between Alvin E. Roth and Wilson.

Speaking of Roth (himself a Nobel Prize winner, of course), here is his blogpost about the prize – as he says, 2024’s Nobel Prize is something we should keep an eye out for!

Joshua Gans, another student of Paul Milgrom, also has a blog post on the winners, with a rather neat explanation of why Milgrom’s Wikipedia page is so lengthy:

For that conference, the attendees all contributed to complete Paul’s wikipedia page. The idea was to make sure that everything was there specifically for today. I had a goal of making it the longest page of any living economist. We overshot and it is the longest page of any economist! His contributions were so voluminous, it wasn’t hard to get to that point.

https://digitopoly.org/2020/10/12/remarks-on-paul-milgrom/

There is so much to read as a consequence of having written this blogpost! Both for myself, and for anybody who might be interested, here is a (by no means comprehensive) list:

  1. Paul Milgrom’s Wikipedia page (Joshua Gans and team are nothing if not thorough!)
  2. Robert Wilson’s Wikipedia page.
  3. How Market Design Emerged from Game Theory: A Mutual Interview
  4. Economics, Organization and Management, by Milgrom and Roberts (a textbook)
  5. The Firm as an Incentive System, by Holmstrom and Milgrom
  6. Putting Auction Theory to Work, by Paul Milgrom
  7. The Nobel Prize popular science background
  8. …and the scientific background.
  9. What Really Matters in Auction Design (by Klemperer, note!)
  10. Trillion Dollar Economists, by Robert Litan (h/t Arnold Kling)
  11. And of course, everything else I have linked to already!

And finally, just to round off the whole thing, why not end with a tweet, since we started with one? Explaining stuff as simply as possible is one of my life goals, and I wish my game was half as good as this tweet:

Congratulations to both winners!

Previous Nobel Prize entries can be found here (2019: Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer) and here (2018: Romer and Nordhaus)

Prepping for Placements in 2020

The million dollar question. This comes from a student at one of the colleges I taught at recently.

“How do you think the placement season will be? How can we train ourselves during this time to have better chances?”

  1. Things are going to be really bad this year. There’s no point in beating around the bush. You’ll be lucky to get placed, and even luckier to get a really good, high paying job. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but it is best we go into this season eyes wide open.
  2. That being said, let’s think about the second question more carefully, because there are things that I would recommend:
    1. I say this every placement season, but it is even more important this year. First, beware the streetlight effect. Second, never play cricket with Sachin Tendulkar.
    2. What is the streetlight effect? Here’s Wikipedia on the subject, but the gist is people search in the easiest, most obvious place. In an interview, that place is your CV.
    3. When, in an interview, you hand the interviewer your CV, it is literally the most perfect example there can be of the streetlight effect. The interviewer doesn’t know you from Adam (or Eve), and will therefore begin to ask you questions basis stuff you’ve written in your CV.
    4. Therefore, possess the ability to speak – thoroughly, meaningfully and concisely – about every single word on your CV.
      1. Thoroughly means you should know, and I mean really know, every single project, subject and achievement you have listed. No faffing!
      2. Meaningfully means you should be able to answer how a business might benefit because of the work you have done, or the topic you have learnt, or the internship you did. “I did XYZ in my internship” is a bad answer. “The business was able to achieve ABC, because of  I doing XYZ” is a good answer.
      3. Concisely means you should leave the interviewer with the feeling that you know what you’re talking about, but you shouldn’t overburden the listener with an endless stream of sentences. Practice by saying what you want to about a project, and then try to repeat the explanation in literally half the time. Keep at it!
    5. So if you are going to be subjected to the streetlight effect during an interview, be prepared for it. Or, and even better, give the interviewer something other than your CV to talk about.
    6. Which brings me to the most important thing you can do right now, and it not training yourself. It is training others.
      1. You’re not going to be the only one saying I did a course on Coursera | I learnt MS Excel | I did project XYZ with firm PQR
      2. But you could end up being the only one saying I taught kids in my society math using videos from 3Blue1Brown | I taught my batchmates Excel, and so learnt it better | I mentored a bunch of people online on <insert subject of your choice here>
      3. I’ll say this more concisely. Try and utilize this time to do, not learn. It is vastly underrated.
    7. Which brings me to my final point, about never playing cricket with Sachin Tendulkar. Here’s what I mean: if I ever met Sachin, and got to be in a contest with him, I would have to be stark raving mad to choose a contest involving bat and ball. But I’m fairly confident I can beat him in, say, a quiz on economics.
      What is the point? The point is that in an interview about analytics, for example, good luck trying to be better than the interviewer on machine learning algorithms. That is literally that person’s job! With your experience, learning and age, it’s like playing cricket with Sachin. But what if the interviewer learns that you put up videos on, say, photography, and you have been doing so for three months? And that of the 100 videos you shared, 50 got more than 10,000 views? And that you got to interact with people the world over as a consequence? You didn’t learn a course. Instead, you put yourself out there, you shipped a product that other people could benefit from, you were a mentor to other people. Now Sachin is playing your sport – and your chances just got a whole lot better. (Example: my CV is this blog, not a piece of paper)
  3. So my advice would be to identify a skill at which you are genuinely good, and to teach other people that skill, in public. Blogs, YouTube videos, Zoom sessions, whatever. Make that your CV, and crack that interview.

I hope this helps! Thank you to said student for asking the question, and if anybody has any follow-up queries, don’t hesitate to write in.

Cheers!

 

The Union Budget: The past, the process and the expectations for 2020

There’s this nagging sense of dissatisfaction: I have spent more than my usual allotment of time coming up with today’s post, and that’s because I have still not been able to find the perfect way to kickstart today’s five links.

I was looking for a nice, easy-to-read and yet informative article about the Union Budget: what is the finance bill, what is the importance of Article 112, what is the process behind the budget being formulated every year, how the budget fits into the medium term fiscal policy – the works. Well, as it turns out, to the best of my knowledge, there is no article that fits (pardon the pun) the bill.

Hence the nagging sense of dissatisfaction. Still, on that rather dispiriting note, here we go: five links about the Union Budget

  1. Moneycontrol to kick things off, on the process behind the budget. Again, not great, but lets run with what we’ve got!
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    “”The budget is made through a consultative process involving ministry of finance, NITI Aayog and spending ministries. Finance ministry issues guidelines to spending, based on which ministries present their demands. The Budget division of the Department of Economic Affairs in the finance ministry is the nodal body responsible for producing the Budget.

    How is the budget made? Budget division issues a circular to all union ministries, states, UTs, autonomous bodies, departments and the defence forces for preparing the estimates for the next year. After ministries & departments send in their demands, extensive consultations are held between Union ministries and the Department of Expenditure of the finance ministry.”
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  2. “Boost to spending can revive the economy, which will improve the returns of equity mutual funds. However, a possible surge in inflation poses a key challenge. A careful tightrope walk is what is required.”
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    Macroeconomics – and I may have said this before, stop me if you’ve heard it – is hard. This article is a classic example of “On the one hand/ but on the other hand…”
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  3. “An MTBF is a set of institutional arrangements for prioritizing, presenting, and managing revenue and expenditure in a multiyear perspective. Such a framework enables governments to demonstrate the impact of current and proposed policies over the course of several years, signal or set future budget priorities, and ultimately achieve better control of public expenditure. An MTBF, therefore, does not refer solely to the actual numerical multiyear revenue and expenditure projections and restrictions presented alongside a given budget. Rather, an MTBF comprises all the systems, rules, and procedures that ensure the government’s fiscal plans are drawn up with a view to their impact over several years.”
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    MTBF stands for Medium Term Budget Framework. We’ve got one of our own! Dr. Vijay Kelkar helped prepare it. The point is this – and any corporate leader will tell you it’s importance – never look at a budget as a stand-alone exercise. It fits into a broader, more long term scheme of things. And we in India need to be aware of the more long term scheme of things. Except, uh…
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    “The idea at the time was that the Ministry of Finance would think on a one-year budget horizon, while the Planning Commission would think about deeper issues in public policy formulation wielding an array of different instruments. Now that the Planning Commission has been disbanded, we will need to build a medium-term budget system that incorporates both points of view. There is a need to clearly define the role and function of NITI Aayog in this new environment, so as to fill these gaps in the mainstream policy apparatus”
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    That excerpt is from a book that perhaps every student of economics should read: In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.
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  4. “However, data on revenue available so far suggests that the government has very little fiscal space for any significant growth stimulus. If the government’s off-budget liabilities (or withheld payments) are taken into account, the central government’s real fiscal deficit could end up being as high as 5.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the current fiscal year, a Mint analysis of public accounts suggests.”
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    This is old news to folks who have been following Union Budgets for a while, but might come as a surprise to those of you who are just now discovering the hidden delights of this sport: our fiscal deficit numbers aren’t – and haven’t been for a very long time indeed –  exactly crystal clear.
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  5. “To cut a long story short, there is very little that the government can do in the budget to revive the Indian economy. The government budget is, ultimately, a financial account. And financial accounts, ultimately, are financial accounts and nothing more. Keynes’s formula doesn’t always work, at least not in the way it should. ”
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    I’ve cut to the chase and excerpted the last paragraph from this excellent piece by Vivek Kaul, but you shouldn’t – read the whole thing very, very carefully indeed. I have a couple of points to nitpick here and there, but the broad thrust of the article I can’t help but agree with completely.

Video for 12th January, 2019

Tech: Links for 7th January, 2020

In similar vein to yesterday’s post, these five articles are about what to expect in tech in the year 2020. This Sunday’s video will be along similar lines, by the way.

  1. Venturebeat chooses 10 technologies that the magazine is excited about for 2020. If you ask me, autonomous driving is (mostly) already here. Commercialization of quantum computing is something I am very, very excited by – although I can’t, even now, understand it as much as I’d like to.
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  2. “And 5G will be going to work behind the scenes, in ways that will emerge over time. One important benefit of the technology is its ability to greatly reduce latency, or the time it takes for devices to communicate with one another. That will be important for the compatibility of next-generation devices like robots, self-driving cars and drones.For example, if your car has 5G and another car has 5G, the two cars can talk to each other, signaling to each other when they are braking and changing lanes. The elimination of the communications delay is crucial for cars to become autonomous.”
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    Brian X. Chen with a rather more prosaic list for 2020.
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  3. “In life sciences, we’ll have greater understanding of the dynamics of how our microbiome – the tiny organisms, including bacteria, that live in the human body – influences multiple systems in our body, including our immune systems, metabolic processes and other areas. This will result in seminal discoveries related to a variety of conditions, including autoimmune diseases, pre-term birth and how our metabolism is regulated. Regenerative medicine approaches to creating new tissues and organs from progenitor cells will expand significantly. ”
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    The World Economic Forum weighs in on the issue.
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  4. “Even if the gene drive works as planned in one population of an organism, the same inherited trait could be harmful if it’s somehow introduced into another population of the same species, according to a paper published in Nature Reviews by University of California Riverside researchers Jackson Champer, Anna Buchman, and Omar Akbari. According to Akbari, the danger is scientists creating gene drives behind closed doors and without peer review. If someone intentionally or unintentionally introduced a harmful gene drive into humans, perhaps one that destroyed our resistance to the flu, it could mean the end of the species.”
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    Fast Company ponders a world in which Black Mirror is non-fiction.
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  5. “Ten years from now is “the end of the
    classroom as we know it,” George Kembel of the Stanford d.school
    writes. Professors will be a “team of coaches,” and class projects
    will be like Choose Your Own Adventure — open-ended and actually pretty fun.”
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    Fast Company again, this time in 2010, trying to figure out what the world looks like by the time it is 2020. I can assure you that they got education completely wrong.

India: Links for 6th January, 2020

It’s the first Monday of the year, and therefore the five articles today will be about the year gone by, the decade gone by, the year to come and – you guessed it – the decade to come. All, of course, focused on India.

 

  1. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast, which perhaps explains why some outrageously hopeful investors took India’s markets to greater heights in 2019, despite economic indicators getting progressively worse. The Nifty 500 index rose 7.7% last year, a marked improvement over 2018, when the index had fallen 3.4%.”
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    Economics professors, such as yours truly, are wont to clear their throats and look away when asked by students about the disconnect between macroeconomic indicators and stock market indices. Mobis Philipose in the Livemint to the rescue.
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  2. “Coming out of the current crisis is priority. But without trying to pick winners, India should also be getting its financial industry ready for the opportunities the 2020s may have in store.”
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    A nice blend of the past, the present, and how to be ready (from a financial markets viewpoint) of what is hopefully to come in the future, by Andy Mukherjee.
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  3. I’m not a fan of lists such as these. Specifically, in this case, the last three or four entries simply exist to take the list to 20. It is striking however, to see the obvious contradictions in the list itself. 20 things expected to happen in 2020, for what it’s worth.
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  4. “But consumption growth in 2019-20 has collapsed. In the first six months of this year, consumption growth has been just 7% (in nominal terms, without adjusting for inflation). It is the first time since 2004-05 that consumption growth has been in single digits.”
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    Vivek Kaul in the Deccan Herald, for the pessimists…
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  5. “In the 2019 Independence Day speech made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a key announcement was investment of Rs. 100 lakh crore in infrastructure over the next five years.This was also one of the promises made in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections held in April and May 2019.
    Following the announcement by the PM, a task force was constituted within the Finance Ministry to create a roadmap for this investment.
    Officials from the Departments of Economic Affairs and Expenditure in the Finance Ministry and NITI Aayog were part of this task force.
    The report of this body was presented on 31 December 2019 by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.”
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    While Aashish Chandorkar with how the NIP might play out, for the optimists.