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Never mind who wins, the World Cup is a treasure trove for curious economists

Never mind who wins, the World Cup is a treasure trove for curious economists

Our boys make progress – and I don’t mean on Brexit.

On a visit to Glasgow last Thursday, a popular Scottish newspaper had a mock-up photo of Harry Kane lifting the cup. In massive type, the headline shrieked “This Would Be the End of the World”. Yes, it would rather put the Highland Clearances into perspective.

There is a general perception this year that the football has been more entertaining than usual. This is reflected in the fact that the average number of goals per game – 3.18 – is the highest since the 1958 finals.

The qualifiers for the last 16 generally followed the form book, with only three of them – Russia, Denmark, and Sweden – edging out teams placed above them in the FIFA rankings before the tournament started.

But the patterns in the results show once again how close many of the teams are in ability. One team has to win, though it is not obvious which one.

Germany’s own qualifying group illustrates the point. A key concept in economic theory is that of transitivity. It essentially means that preferences should be well-structured.

If I prefer product A to product B and product B to product C, the assumption is that I prefer A to C.

If we carry this over into team sports, it seems logical that if A beats B and B beats C, then A should beat C.

None of these “transitive triples”, as the jargon puts it, were observed in Group F. Mexico beat Germany, who beat Sweden. But Sweden beat Mexico. Sweden also beat South Korea, who beat Germany.

The conclusion is that the teams in this group were very evenly matched. It was largely a matter of chance rather than superior ability that Mexico and Sweden qualified.

In the round of 16, three of the eight games ended in draws and the result was by penalty shoot-out. Two of the others were decided by goals deep into injury time. And one of the quarter finals was won on penalties.

Again, the implication is that there is a great deal of randomness in the outcome. Even in England’s famous victory over Colombia, the opposition goalkeeper got his hand to the final penalty shot but could not prevent the ball entering the net. Move his hand by just a few centimetres, and he saves it.

To round off this football economics analysis, finally and frivolously, is winning the World Cup good for the economy? I looked at the eight years from 1974 when European countries won.

As a control group, I examined the US and Australia, two western economies where soccer is a minor sport. Growth in a World Cup year was higher than in the previous year seven times, and lower nine times. Growth was higher in the year after the World Cup nine times and lower seven. So the pattern here looks completely random.

In the countries which won, growth was higher in the World Cup year than the previous on four occasions, and lower on four. But in contrast to the control group, growth in the year after victory fell six times out of the eight.

Winning the World Cup is bad – or so the statistics say!

As published in City AM Wednesday 11th July 2018

Image: World Cup 2018 by RonnyK is licensed under CC-BY-0.0
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There are economic lessons to learn from TfL’s hated bus announcement experiment

There are economic lessons to learn from TfL’s hated bus announcement experiment

The Transport for London (TfL) bus experiment has proved to be overwhelmingly unpopular.

Supposedly at every bus stop (but more usually once the bus has pulled away) a disembodied voice informs the passengers that the bus is about to move.

The hated announcement is being run as a trial for four weeks. TfL will then evaluate its effect on the number of accidents on the buses themselves.

A conflict between individual and collective welfare is exposed by the reactions to the experiment.

Collectively, we do not want it to continue, but individuals have little incentive to stop it in an effective way.

For example, public spirited individuals could fall down and claim that this was due to the motion of the bus. The statistics would then show an increase in accidents. Even the most obdurate bureaucracy would find it hard to persist with the experiment

The “victims” would bear costs as individuals, such as the time spent reporting it, plus the risk they might actually injure themselves. But they would create a benefit for everyone else. The voice on the buses would be switched off.

The concept of the winners compensating the losers has been a fundamental principle of economic theory for at least 100 years. It is important in public policy making, in the cost-benefit analysis which is carried out to decide whether a public infrastructure project should go ahead.

This is the rationale for the soon-to-be-abolished tolls on the Severn crossings, for example. The users benefit from a much-reduced travel time, but the non-users lose by having to pay taxes to build the bridge in the first place.

In general, the problem with implementing this in full is that the gainers are small in number relative to the losers. They tend to object vociferously to the charges levied on them, so that they rarely pay the full amount of their benefit to compensate everyone else.

With the bus scheme, the reverse is the case. Large numbers benefit from the ending of the scheme, and only the small number simulating an accident would lose.

But a public body such as TfL could hardly be expected to set up a scheme which would undermine its own experiment.

We might then ask why a market has not emerged to compensate those willing to simulate a fall. In a market, individuals could be paid the full costs they incur.

With social media, setting up such a market would be easy. But there would be two main problems.

The first is that of trust. How would participants be reassured that the relevant monies would be paid? The issue of institutional trust is a fundamental reason why markets are difficult to set up in many contexts.

There is also what economists call the free-rider problem. How many of those who dislike the voice would simply leave it to others to make the payment? There would be no coordination mechanism for ensuring that everyone paid.

Annoying though it may be, the bus experiment shows that even everyday issues often raise fundamental aspects of economic theory.

As published in City AM Wednesday 31th January 2018

Image: London Bus via Pixaby is licensed under CC by 0.0
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Mind the gap: Economics is catching up to the fact that we’re not always rational

Mind the gap: Economics is catching up to the fact that we’re not always rational

Do Tube strikes make Londoners better off?

At first sight, the question is simply absurd. The answer is surely “no”.

But a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics comes to the opposite conclusion. Cambridge economist Shaun Larcom and his colleagues analysed the two-day strike of February 2014.

They obtained detailed travel information on nearly 100,000 commuters for days before, during, and after the strike.

A key feature of the strike is that nearly half the stations remained open. So most commuters could experiment with routes different to the ones they normally use.

The project may seem barking mad. But it investigates an important issue in economic theory.

Richard Thaler’s recent Nobel Prize for behavioural economics received a lot of publicity. Behavioural economics looks for examples of people making decisions in ways which deviate from those predicted by the rational choice model of economics.

A criticism from the mainstream is that deviations might indeed be observed at a point in time. But over time, they will disappear as people learn to be rational and make the best decision.

The Tube network remains the same for long periods of time. Commuters have many opportunities to learn about it. So almost all of them should use the quickest possible route to work. If someone has just moved jobs or homes, there may be a short period of adjustment. But everyone else ought to have learned the best way to travel.

Yet Larcom and his colleagues find that a significant fraction of London commuters fail to find their optimal routes. They come to this conclusion by comparing the journeys of the people in their data set before and after the strike.

Of course, for many journeys the best route is trivially easy to discover. If you live in Richmond and work in Hammersmith, there is only the District Line. Other journeys have more options. Larcom notes that there are 13 potential ways to travel between Waterloo and King’s Cross.

The authors point out that many decisions faced by consumers are more complex and less repetitive than the commuter problem they analyse. So, in an excellent example of jargon, they state that “our estimate of suboptimal habits may be a lower bound to the problem in other contexts”.

In other words, systematic and persistent deviations from rational choice are an important feature of the real world.

Economists of course like to value everything, and there is a standard way of valuing time. The academics estimate that the time gains subsequently achieved by those who switched routes outweighed the time losses incurred by everyone else during the strike. So Londoners were better off as a result of the strike.

Bizarre though it may seem, the article is a good example of how economics is becoming much more empirical when thinking about individuals’ behaviour and less reliant on pure theory.

As published in City AM Wednesday 15th November 2017

Image: Underground by By Elliott Brown is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Last week we saw yet another major reversal of opinion by experts. For years we have all been lectured severely on the need to finish every single course of prescription drugs.

But the latest wisdom is that this is not necessary.

The announcement that petrol and diesel cars will be banned by 2040 only serves to remind the millions of diesel car owners that they were told only a few years ago that diesel was a Good Thing.

These stories have been very prominent in the media. But they are by no means isolated examples. Such reversals of opinion are all too common in the softer social and medical sciences. The “evidence base”, a phrase beloved of metropolitan liberal experts, is often built on sand.

This is neatly illustrated by psychology. Science is probably the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. At the end of 2015, a group of no fewer than 270 authors published a paper in it. They were all part of the teams which had published 100 scientific articles in top psychology journals.

In only 16 out of the 100 cases could the experimental results be replicated sufficiently closely to be confident that the original finding was valid.

The papers had been published in top psychology journals, and the original authors were involved in the replication experiment. So the replication rate should have been high.

Instead, it was so low that the lead author of the Science piece points out that they effectively knew nothing. The original finding could be correct, the different result in the attempted replication could be. Or neither of these could be true.

There is no suggestion at all that any sort of fraud or misrepresentation was involved when the original results were submitted for publication. But economic theory helps us understand how this absurd situation came about.

The great insight of economics is that people react to incentives.

Academics now face immense pressure to publish research papers. If they do not, they get more burdensome teaching loads, miss out on promotions, and might even get sacked. Their incentive is to publish.

Academic journals will only very rarely accept a paper which contains negative results. The whole culture is to find positive ones. So experiments will be re-designed, run with different samples, until that sought-after positive finding is obtained.

More and more academics are now desperate to publish more and more research papers. To meet this increase in demand, there has been a massive increase in the supply of journals willing to publish. Many of these are highly dubious, prepared to accept papers on payment of a fee by the authors.

For all except a small elite of individuals and institutions, academic life has become increasingly proletarianised. In the old Soviet Union, workers could get medals for exceeding the quota of, say, boot production. It did not matter if all the boots were left footed.

Many universities are now similar, with useless articles being churned out to meet the demands of bureaucrats. Time for a big purge, both of academics and their institutions.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd August 2017

Image: Sand Castle by Gregor is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

One of the most remarkable features of the Conservative election campaign was the dog which did not bark.

There was no systematic attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s wholly implausible economic narrative. Magic Money Tree comments aside, Labour’s economic incompetence was allowed to pass almost unchallenged.

One part of Labour’s economic offer which really did strike a chord with the electorate was the promise to nationalise industries such as rail and water. To anyone with direct experience of the old British Rail or the Post Office (which made you wait six months to get a phone installed) this almost defies belief. But only those over 55 can remember.

The fact is that for a number of years there has been strong and consistent support in surveys for taking industries such as rail into public ownership.

In 2013, for example, the moderate Labour website Labour List commissioned an analysis by the poll company Survation. In terms of rail nationalisation, 42 per cent thought fares would be cheaper, compared to only 12 per cent who thought they would go up. Those believing the quality of the services would improve easily outnumbered those who thought it would get worse, by 38 to 14 per cent. There are many similar examples.

Economists are pretty dismissive of the results of surveys about hypothetical situations or choices. A key foundation of economic theory is the concept of revealed preference, to use the jargon phrase. Individuals are assumed to have reasonably stable tastes and preferences. These preferences are revealed not through answers to hypothetical questions, but through how they actually respond to changes in the set of incentives which they face.

In the National Passenger Survey, for example, 80 per cent of respondents routinely express satisfaction with their journey, compared to fewer than 10 per cent who are dissatisfied. But how does this translate into actual decisions?

Prior to rail privatisation just after the 1992 election, the peak number of passenger journeys made each year was some 1.1bn in the mid-1950s. Faced with rapidly rising road competition, the rail industry saw journeys fall steadily, to a trough of around 750m in the mid-1990s.

After privatisation, massive investment programmes have been carried out and, in the form of the train operating companies, there is now a distinct part of the industry whose priority is the consumer. Journey numbers rose, passing the 1bn mark in 2003, to the current level of 1.7bn, a figure not seen since the early 1920s, when road competition was weak.

So the revealed preference of consumers seems to be that they rather like the current structure. They actively choose to use rail in massive numbers.

Rather like a good Party member in George Orwell’s book 1984, the electorate seems capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time. This reinforces the importance of narratives in politics. Trying to treat voters as rational agents often ends in tears, as both Cameron and May have discovered.

As published in City AM Wednesday 14th June 2017

Image: Jeremy Corbyn by Garry Knight is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

The two main manifestos have been published. Initially at least, the Labour one seems the more popular. Many people are susceptible to being bribed with other people’s money.

Labour claims that their plans to spend an additional £49 billion have been fully costed. At one level, this is true. A set of tax changes and estimates of the additional revenue they will bring is presented. These numbers do add up to the same sum as the extra spending.

It would be pure nit picking to ask where the money is to come from to pay for the nationalisation of the rail, water and mail industries. Labour says the shareholders would receive government bonds in exchange for their equity. This extra borrowing would foot the bill.

Perhaps it would be even more trivial and tendentious to draw attention to the proposed National Transformation Plan, which will spend an extra £250 billion over ten years on infrastructure. This, too, would be financed by additional government borrowing.

After all, Labour says: “we will take advantage of near-record low interest rates”. Indeed, longer term UK government bonds are currently trading at a yield of around 1 to 1.5 per cent.

But this is the essence of the problem. In economics-speak, the bond yield may not be invariant to the size of the deficit. In English, if borrowing rises sharply, interest rates might also go up.

Keynes is often regarded as the intellectual inspiration of those who want to see government borrowing increased. He himself was far more cautious. True, in his magnum opus the General Theory, he did advocate higher government spending to try and solve the depression of the 1930s. But he was very careful to point out that the potential benefits of a bigger deficit could be cancelled out if, as a result, interest rates rose sharply.

This is not a mere theoretical abstraction. In the Mediterranean economies in recent years, interest rates have regularly risen to 6 or 7 per cent, and sometimes higher still, in one of the many crises in confidence in government prudence which have taken place. The idea that Labour could borrow hundreds of billions of pounds with no consequence for interest rates is stretching credibility to breaking point.

More generally, the whole of Labour’s manifesto is costed on the naive assumption that tax and spending changes would not lead to any changes in how individuals and companies behave.

An additional £23 billion is planned from the corporate sector. It is possible that the tax will be passed onto consumers and this amount will be raised. But it may well be that companies will be deterred from operating in the UK at all, and corporation tax receipts will fall rather than rise.

Ex-President Hollande in France raised the top tax rate to 75 per cent. As a result, large numbers of highly skilled young French people moved to London.

The Left is very good at drawing up well intentioned detailed plans. But they usually fail because people change their behaviour in response to them.

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th May 2017

Image: Labour Party General Election Launch 2017 by Sophie Brown is licensed under CC by 2.0
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