Sunday, 3 May 2015

Risk aversion and the firm

A bit over a week ago in the comments to a post James asked,
Can I make a request for a topic? Since you're the resident expert on the theory of the firm, can you write something about any work that's been done on risk averse firms? (I.e. in contrast to the standard assumption about risk neutral firms). Does the risk neutrality assumption have any major implications for standard economic theory?
I've been away but now I'm back at home I can attempt a rough answer. Better late than never, I hope.

Back in 1974 when discussing the topic of 'risk, uncertainty, and the firm' Michael Crew wrote,
Like growth theory of the firm, the theory of the firm under uncertainty is not highly developed. Much of it is speculative.
And not much has changed since then, the theory still isn't that well developed. Knightian uncertainty rather than risk has become more important to the modern theories of the firm.

While little has been written on the topic of risk and uncertainty to do with the firm, the amount is not zero. Back in 1970, for example, Lintner wrote a paper in which pricing decisions of the firm are made on a fully rational profit maximising basis subject to risk aversion with respect to the uncertain profits involved. Assume the uncertainty is due to uncertainty to do with demand. It is uncertainty about the quantity that will be sold. Under the assumptions Lintner makes he can show, not surprisingly, that for a given price change the higher the degree of risk aversion the greater is the increase in expected profits profits requires by a firm (decision maker) in order to induce it to accept greater profits uncertainty. Also the effects of risk aversion on price and output are such that prices are lower when (1) the greater the uncertainty and (2) the greater the risk aversion the closer the price gets to marginal cost and thus the further a firms gets from the monopoly outcome. In addition Lintner can show that the greater the uncertainty about sales and volumes and the greater the risk aversion of the decision maker the greater will be the expected quantity sold.

Different forms of uncertainty can deliver different results. If uncertainty is about realised prices, rather than quantities, then Day, Aigner and Smith show that price is set higher than the monopoly outcome, the greater the degree of risk aversion.

Marcus Asplund has a 2002 paper on 'risk-averse firms in oligopoly'. Does risk aversion lead to softer or fiercer competition? This paper provides a framework that accommodates a wide range of alternative assumptions regarding the nature of competition and types of uncertainty. It shows how risk aversion influences firms' best-response strategies. Only in the case of marginal cost uncertainty does higher risk aversion make competition unambiguously softer. The risk-averse best response strategies depend on the level of fixed costs. This fact is used to analyse strategic investments in capacity and the importance of accumulated profits. The paper concludes with a discussion of ways of empirically testing for risk-averse behaviour in oligopoly.

In more modern approaches to the firm the work of Frank Knight on risk and the firm has been developed. The standard view of Knight’s rationale for the existence of the firm doesn't depend on profit, but on risk, or more accurately, risk distribution. The entrepreneur forms a firm as a way of specialising in risk-taking. Employees receive a stipulated income and the entrepreneur takes the residual income of the firm and thereby bears most of the risk associated with uncertainty about the future. The advantage of the firm, according to the standard view, is that there are gains to be made from this distribution of risk between the entrepreneur and the firm’s employees. The profit and loss consequences of fluctuations in the business outcomes can be better absorbed by the entrepreneur than the employees. The entrepreneur contracts to pay a fixed wage to workers, thereby protecting them from the fluctuations in business outcomes. Knight sees this as efficient since the entrepreneur is less averse to bearing risk. Presumably, risk is not handled as well without firms.

Other views of Knight have been put forward in papers by Barzel and McManus. Each puts forward a moral hazard explanation for the Knightian firm. The firm arises here because, for certain kinds of risks, the functions of risk taking and management are inseparable due to the prohibitively high costs of enforcing constraints that would induce one individual, the manager, to maximise the wealth of another, the risk-taker. As noted in the distribution of risk story above, firms are one way of specialising in risk-taking. Knight was aware of contractual and insurance arrangements as alternatives to the firm as ways of specialising in risk-taking but thought, because of the moral hazard problems, they were particularly costly to enforce in the case of risks of enterprise and hence the need for the creation of a firm. Presumably monitoring the manager is easier for the risk-taker in a firm that it is on the market.

In 1991 Holmström and Milgrom made two observations to do with the firm and its (risk-averse) employees. First, they note that there are a number of ways that an employee can spend their time, many of which can be of value to an employer. But if these multiple activities compete for the worker’s attention then the incentives offered for each of the activities must be comparable. Otherwise, the employee will put most effort into those things that are most well compensated and put less effort into the others activities. The second observation relates to the provision of strong incentives to a risk-averse employee. Providing strong financial incentives is costly because it loads extra risk into the worker’s pay. In addition, the cost is greater the more difficult it is to measure performance. This means that, other things being equal, tasks where performance is hard to measure should not be given as intense incentives as ones that are more accurately observed. But having low-powered incentives means that the employer needs to be able to exercise authority over the use of the employee’s time, since the employee will not have the proper incentives to be productive.

The above are all partial equilibrium models but a general equilibrium approach is taken in a 1979 paper by Kihlstrom and Laffont. They construct a theory of competitive equilibrium under uncertainty using an entrepreneurial model with historical roots, again, in the work of Knight in the 1920s. Individuals possess labour which they can supply as workers to a competitive labour market or use as entrepreneurs in running a firm. All entrepreneurs have access to the same risky technology and receive all profits from their firms. In the equilibrium, more risk averse individuals become workers while the less risk averse become entrepreneurs. Less risk averse entrepreneurs run larger firms and economy-wide increases in risk aversion reduce the equilibrium wage. A dynamic process of firm entry and exit is stable. The equilibrium is efficient only if all entrepreneurs are risk neutral. Inefficiencies in the number of firms and in the allocation of labour to firms are traced to inefficiencies in the risk allocation caused by institutional constraints on risk trading. In a second best sense which accounts for these constraints, the equilibrium is efficient.

Well this will make things better .......... not!

Just when you thought things in Venezuela couldn't possibly get any worse, they do. This from Yahoo! News:
Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has promised to nationalize food distribution in the South American nation beset with record shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation and an escalating economic crisis.

During a rally Friday, on International Workers' Day, the socialist leader allowed a union activist to ask for the nationalization of food and essential-item distribution.

Citing new decree-making powers recently granted by the National Assembly, Maduro said he would carry out such a measure "in the coming days and weeks."

Maduro had pledged earlier in the week to announce economic reforms.

Various estimates suggest the government already controls about half of the country's food distribution, but that hasn't stopped record shortages in shops and markets.
Has no one in the Venezuelan government not looked around the world or looked at history and asked, Under what system does food distribution work best. Under a market system being the answer. Just think about the stories of shopping in the old Soviet Union to get the point.
On any given day, people in Venezuela can wait hours to get some subsidized milk, cooking oil, milk or flour -- if they can be found at all.
And does Madura really think nationalising the rest of the food distribution system will help. Market reforms are needed to get the economy going again. What is needed is the use of the price system to allocate resources giving consumers and producers the right incentives and information about scarcities. This would counter the black market and smuggling of goods out of the country.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Does vertical integration decrease prices?

The double marginalization problem is a classic problem with applications in industrial organization, innovation policy and development. The problem is what happens to social welfare, prices, and profits when one monopoly sells to another monopoly. Below is a video discussion of the double marginalization problem by Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University from MRUniveristy,

The double marginalization problem makes the (monopoly) producers worse off as well as making consumers worse off.

Now as noted in the video combining the seller monopoly with the buyer monopoly into one will, in theory, make both the producers and consumers better off. But does it do so in practise? At least as far as consumers are concerned.

This is where a new paper Does Vertical Integration Decrease Prices? Evidence from the Paramount Antitrust Case of 1948 by Ricard Gil in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 2015, 7(2): 162–191, helps us. Gil finds, utilising data from the Paramount antitrust case of 1948, that vertical integration, i.e. combining the two monopolies, does in fact decrease prices, and thus increases consumer welfare, in a manner consistent with the elimination of the double marginalization problem.

The paper's abstract reads:
I empirically examine the impact of the 1948 Paramount antitrust case on ticket prices using a unique dataset collected from Variety magazine issues between 1945 and 1955. With information on prices, revenues, and theater ownership for an unbalanced panel of 393 theaters in 26 cities, I find that vertically integrated theaters charged lower prices and sold more admission tickets than nonintegrated theaters. I also find that the rate at which prices increased in theaters was slower while integrated than after vertical divestiture. These findings together with institutional details are consistent with the prediction that vertical integration lowers prices through the elimination of double marginalization.

Britain's housing crisis

This short video comes from The Economist magazine:

Rocketing prices and limited construction are putting home ownership out of reach for many young Britons. As the election nears, few politicians have a realistic solution.

Obviously the particulars in the video pertain to the situation in the U.K. but the general problems are more universal. Just think of the housing problems in Auckland.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Pope Francis says it's 'scandalous' that women earn less than men for the same job

From Fox News Latino,
Pope Francis has added his voice to the feminist anthem of equal pay for equal work, saying it's "scandalous" that women earn less than men for doing the same job.

Francis also lambasted the attitude of some who blame the crisis in families on women getting out of the house to work. He says such attitudes are a form of "machismo" that shows how men "want to dominate women."
Francis says husband and wife must be complementary: "We should support with decisiveness the right to equal pay for equal work. Why is it a given that women must earn less than men?"
Good to see him making a stand. After all if there is one job with complete equality of the sexes its that of being Pope!

Peer review in one picture

We all know how this feels

(HT: Organizations and Markets)

Venezuela powers down

Things just keep on getting worse in Venezuela. From the BBC we get this bit of news,
Venezuela says it will cut the working day for public sector workers to five-and-a-half hours to conserve energy, down from eight to nine hours.

The initiative is part of a nationwide electricity rationing plan.

Vice-President Jorge Arreaza said there had been a surge in energy demand due to extremely hot weather. He said state employees would now work from 07:30-13:00 to save on air conditioning.On Monday, local media reported blackouts across the country.

Mr Arreaza said private companies would be asked to use their own generators to reduce pressure on the national grid.

But he said it was private homeowners who consumed the most energy, and he called for everyone to turn the dial down on their air conditioners.

"We are appealing to everyone's conscience, to use energy efficiently."

Last week the government claimed that energy problems were due to maintenance issues, but the opposition criticised the government for not investing enough in the energy sector, BBC Venezuela correspondent Daniel Pardo reports.

Power outages are common in Venezuela, which is a big oil producer but depends heavily on hydro-electric power.
More evidence that command and control equals chaos when implemented at the macro level. Why not let prices adjust to reflect increased demand? Higher prices would give consumers an incentive to reduce quantity demanded while the revenues generated could help provide funds to invest in the energy sector.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Harford on inequality

At his blog Tim Harford has been writing on The truth about inequality. He says,
How serious a problem is inequality? And if it is serious, what can be done about it?

Myths abound. Many people seem to believe that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century showed that wealth inequality is at an all-time high; instead, his data show that wealth inequality has risen only slowly since the 1970s, after falling during the 20th century. In Europe we are thankfully nowhere near the wealth inequality of the past.

Another common belief is that the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population own half the world’s wealth (almost true) and that their share is inexorably increasing (not true). The richest 1 per cent had 48.2 per cent of the world’s wealth in the year 2014, according to widely cited research from Credit Suisse, but that share has fallen and risen over the past 15 years. It is lower now than in 2000 and 2001.

Neither is it clear that global inequality is rising. Average incomes in China and India have risen much faster than those in richer countries; this is a powerful push towards equality of income. But inequality within many countries is rising. Research from Branko Milanović, author of The Haves and the Have-Nots, suggests that the two forces have tended to balance out roughly over the past generation.

One final myth is that inequality in the UK has risen since the financial crisis. In fact, it has fallen quite sharply. “Inequality remains significantly lower than in 2007-08,” said the Institute for Fiscal Studies last summer. That conclusion is based on data through April 2013. The IFS did add, though, that “there is good reason to think that the falls in income inequality since 2007-08 are currently being reversed.”
Harford then makes an important point about the need to take income redistribution into account when looking at inequality.
The UK already redistributes income extensively. As Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics points out, the UK’s richest fifth had 15 times the pre-tax income of the poorest fifth, but after taxes and benefits they had just four times as much.
I would think that if we were to look at consumption, which to me seems the important thing, the gap between "rich" and "poor" would decrease even more.

Of course there are those who would have the government redistribute even more but my previous post on To eat the rich, first they must stay still should act as a warning as to what could happen when the top income rates are raised.

I would suggest there is one addition question Harford did not ask: Is inequality a problem at all? Only after having answered that question yes should we ask how big the problem is and what can we do about it.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

To eat the rich, first they must stay still

Taxation is always a problematic issue but the taxation of very high income earners is becoming an even more controversial subject in a number of countries. One problem with high tax rates is that it could lead high earners to move abroad. A new column at suggests that top-tier inventors are significantly affected by top tax rates when deciding where to live. It is argued that the loss of such highly skilled agents could entail significant economic costs in terms of lost tax revenues and less overall innovation.

There is much debate, but little evidence, about the effects of high tax rates on high earners. The anti-tax side argue that higher top tax rates will cause an exodus of valuable, high income and highly skilled economic agents. They claim that high tax rates will unavoidably lead to a brain drain and an exodus of the most qualified people, especially as barriers to labour mobility between developed countries are reduced. The pro-tax side maintain that migration decisions are driven by other (possibly non-economic) considerations and would not respond very much to higher taxes.

It is generally acknowledged that non-human capital is highly mobile in a globalised world. This fact is used to justify lower taxation on capital. Much less is known about the mobility of human capital in response to taxation.

In their article, The effects of top tax rates on superstar inventors, Ufuk Akcigit, Salome Baslandze and Stefanie Stantcheva argue that inventors are highly valuable economic agents as creators of innovations and potential drivers of technological progress.
A group of highly valuable economic agents that policymakers perhaps might worry about is inventors, the creators of innovations and potential drivers of technological progress. Inventors may well be important factors for a country’s development and competitiveness – highly skilled migration has been shown to be both beneficial for a receiving country’s economy and to disproportionately contribute to innovation [...].

Consider Alexander G Bell, the inventor of the telephone; James L Kraft, who patented a pasteurisation technique and founded Kraft Foods; Ralph Baer, the inventor of the first home video gaming console that contributed to the expansion of the video gaming industry; or Charles Simonyi, a successful product developer at Microsoft. In addition to being very prolific inventors, they had something else in common: they were all immigrants. This is not very surprising given that migration rates increase in skill [...] and inventors are ranked very highly in the skill distribution.
It’s true, however, that inventors vary vastly in their quality and innovativeness. The big question is to do with the behaviour of the 'superstars': Do 'superstar' inventors respond to top tax rates?
In recent research (Akcigit, Baslandze, and Stantcheva 2015) we study the international migration responses of superstar inventors to top income tax rates for the period 1977-2003 using data from the European and US Patent offices, as well as from the Patent Cooperation Treaty [...]. Our focus is on migration across eight technologically advanced economies: Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, and the US. To abstract from capital and corporate taxes as much as possible, we restrict our attention to inventors who are company employees and are not the owners (‘assignees’) of their patents.

Superstar inventors are those in the top 1% of the distribution of citations-weighted patents in a given year and ‘stars’ are inventors who are just below superstars in terms of quality and are in the top 1-5% of the citations-weighted patent distribution.

From outside survey evidence, we know that superstar inventors are highly likely to be in the top tax bracket and, hence, directly subject to top tax rates. Stars or inventors of lower quality are much less likely to be in the top bracket. The top tax rate, which can also be viewed as a ‘success tax’ can also have either an indirect motivating or discouraging effect on inventors in general, even on those who are not yet in the top bracket.

There has is a strong and significant correlation between top tax rates and those inventors who remain in their home countries. The relation is strongest for superstar inventors. [Results] show that superstar inventors are highly sensitive to top tax rates. The elasticities imply that for a ten percentage point reduction of top tax rates from 50% to 40%, a country would be able to retain on average 3.3% more of its top 1% superstar inventors. This relation weakens as one moves down the quality distribution of inventors – the top 25-50% or the bottom 50% of inventors are no longer sensitive to top tax rates.


At the individual inventor level, we have developed a detailed model for location choice. This wasn’t easy for two reasons. First, location choices are clearly also driven by factors other than taxes – such as language, distance to one’s home country, and career concerns – for which we include controls. Second, inventors may earn different pre-tax wages in different countries. This is a counterfactual we cannot observe and have to control for through a detailed set of proxy measures.

The results highlight that superstar top 1% inventors are significantly affected by top tax rates when deciding where to live. For instance, our results suggest that, given a ten percentage point decrease in top tax rates, the average country would be able to retain 1% more domestic superstar inventors and attract 38% more foreign superstar inventors.


We also consider long-term mobility, defined as a one-way move abroad. It turns out that long-term mobility is still affected by taxes, but to a lesser extent. This seems to imply that there are some adjustment costs to moving that might prevent inventors from moving back once they leave due to higher taxes.
What is the influence of companies on inventors’ migration responses to taxes?
One would expect companies to have an important influence on the inventor’s decision to move abroad. For instance, working for a multinational company might facilitate an international move, both directly within the company and indirectly by providing international exposure. Depending on the bargaining power between employer and employee, the relocation decision might well be driven by the former rather than by the latter. In that case, and if the employer has other considerations than personal income tax, we would observe a dampened migration effect of taxes in the data. Note, nevertheless, that employers should take personal income taxes into account to some extent, if competition for superstar inventors forces them to pay higher wages as a compensation for higher taxes.

We find that inventors who have worked for a multinational company are more sensitive to tax differentials in their location choice. On the other hand, inventors whose company has a significant share of its innovative activity in a given country are less sensitive to the tax rate in that country. This seems to suggest that career concerns can outweigh tax considerations. It could also signal that companies with very geographically localised research and development activities will strongly prefer to keep their superstar inventors at the main research location and dissuade them from moving to lower tax countries.
The upshot of all of this is that labour, like capital, might be internationally mobile and respond to tax incentives. The loss of highly skilled agents such as inventors might entail significant economic costs, not just in terms of tax revenues lost but also in terms of reduced positive spillovers from inventors and, ultimately, less innovation in a country.

  • Akcigit, U, S Baslandze and S Stantcheva (2015), “Taxation and the International Mobility of Inventors”, Working Paper 21024, National Bureau of Economic Research.

EconTalk this week

Leonard Wong of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about honesty in the military. Based on a recent co-authored paper, Wong argues that the paperwork and training burden on U.S. military officers requires dishonesty--it is simply impossible to comply with all the requirements. This creates a tension for an institution that prides itself on honesty, trust, and integrity. The conversation closes with suggestions for how the military might reform the compliance and requirement process.

A direct link to the audio is available here.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Real wage inequality

Inequality is the trendy topic of the moment. Wage inequality being part of the story. We hear about differences in wage between males and females, skilled and unskilled workers, different racial groups, age groups etc. One point to keep in mind when looking at such results it that they normally involve looking at nominal wages of some kind: hourly, weekly, annual or whatever. But our well being is dependent not on nominal wages but on real wages. What we can buy with our wage is what is important. So what has happened to real wages?

Enrico Moretti has a 2013 paper ("Real Wage Inequality", American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 5(1): 65-103) that looks at real wage inequality between skilled and unskilled workers. Where you live and the housing costs that come with your city of choice are a large factor in determining just how much a dollar of wages will buy. While nominal wage differences between skilled and unskilled workers have increased since 1980, skilled workers have trended to be employed in cities with high housing costs. This fact means that the increase in real wages between skilled and unskilled works is significantly less than the increases in nominal wages. Thus the differences in well being of the two groups is much less than nominal wages would suggest. It would be interesting to see such an analysis done for New Zealand, in particular with regard to housing costs in Auckland.

The abstract for the paper reads:
While nominal wage differences between skilled and unskilled workers have increased since 1980, college graduates have experienced larger increases in cost of living because they have increasingly concentrated in cities with high cost of housing. Using a city-specific CPI, I find that real wage differences between college and high school graduates have grown significantly less than nominal differences. Changes in the geographical location of different skill groups are to a significant degree driven by city-specific shifts in relative demand. I conclude that the increase in utility differences between skilled and unskilled workers since 1980 is smaller than previously thought based on nominal wage differences.

The machines are coming, do we care?

Man has been inventing labour saving technology ever since, well, man has been man. And it has yet to lead to long-term mass unemployment. And yet the Luddite type fear that machines will take over all the jobs in the economy is making something of a come back.

Economist Donald J. Boudreaux has written a letter to the editor of the New York Times to make the point that all known examples of labour-saving technology have lead to greater well being for the masses, not mass suffering. So why do people think this time will be different?
Warning that modern labor-saving technology is making humans expendable, Zeynep Tufekci writes that “[o]ptimists insist that we’ve been here before, during the Industrial Revolution, when machinery replaced manual labor, and all we need is a little more education and better skills. But that is not a sufficient answer. One historical example is no guarantee of future events, and we won’t be able to compete by trying to stay one step ahead in a losing battle” (“The Machines are Coming,” April 19).

Ms. Tufekci is mistaken to insist that the Industrial Revolution is the lone historical example of humans having had to adjust to labor-saving technology. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey notes, while the introduction of such technological improvements greatly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution, these have occurred throughout all of human history.

Examples of labor-saving technology that were created before the Industrial Revolution include the wheel, the lever, the pulley, the bucket, the barrel, the knife, the domesticated ox and horse, the fishing net, and moveable type. Examples of such technology created after that revolution are even more numerous; they include the harnessing of electricity, the internal-combustion engine, the assembly line, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, refrigeration, and, of course, today’s many IT marvels. Yet history knows no example of the introduction of labor-saving technology that caused permanent and widespread increases in involuntary human idleness. And at least since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, all advances in such technology in market economies have been followed by improvements in the living standards of the masses - including (contrary to Ms. Tufekci’s suggestion) those advances introduced during the past few decades.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Yes economists do agree

And one topic on which they do agree is the case for free trade. As Gregory Mankiw has recently written in The New York Times,
Among economists, the issue is a no-brainer. Last month, I signed an open letter to John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. I was joined by 13 other economists who have led the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, a post I held from 2003 to 2005. The group spanned every administration from Gerald Ford’s to Barack Obama’s.

We wrote, “International trade is fundamentally good for the U.S. economy, beneficial to American families over time, and consonant with our domestic priorities. That is why we support the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to make it possible for the United States to reach international agreements with our economic partners in Asia through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and in Europe through the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).”
Mankiw also notes that
Politicians and pundits often recoil at imports because they destroy domestic jobs, while they applaud exports because they create jobs.

Economists respond that full employment is possible with any pattern of trade. The main issue is not the number of jobs, but which jobs. Americans should work in those industries in which we have an advantage compared with other nations, and we should import from abroad those goods that can be produced more cheaply there.
Even Paul Krugman is on board with this one,
It should be possible to emphasize to students that the level of employment is a macroeconomic issue, depending in the short run on aggregate demand and depending in the long run on the natural rate of unemployment, with microeconomic policies like tariffs having little net effect. Trade policy should be debated in terms of its impact on efficiency, not in terms of phony numbers about jobs created or lost.
Trade economist Douglas Irwin has put it
The claim that trade should be limited because imports destroy jobs has been around at least since the sixteenth century. And imports do indeed destroy jobs in certain industries: [...]

But just because imports destroy some jobs does not mean that trade reduces overall employment or harms the economy. [...]

Since trade both creates and destroys jobs, a frequently asked question is whether trade has any effect on overall employment. Unfortunately, attempts to quantify the overall employment effect of trade are I exercises in futility. This is because the impact of trade on the total number of jobs in an economy is best approximated as zero.
But perhaps Laura LaHaye puts it best
Of the false tenants of mercantilism that remain today, the most pernicious is the idea that imports reduce domestic employment. This argument is most often made by American automobile manufacturers in their claim for protection against Japanese imports. But the revenue that the exporter receives must be ultimately spent on American exports, either immediately or subsequently when American investments are liquidated.
So, one may wonder, why is it that, if economists are so much in agreement, the public and their elected representatives often so skeptical? Mankiw notes Bryan Caplan's answer,
In the case of international trade, three biases that he identifies are most salient.

The first is an anti-foreign bias. People tend to view their own country in competition with other nations and underestimate the benefits of dealing with foreigners. Yet economics teaches that international trade is not like war but can be win-win.

The second is an anti-market bias. People tend to underestimate the benefits of the market mechanism as a guide to allocating resources. Yet history has taught repeatedly that the alternative — a planned economy — works poorly.

The third is a make-work bias. People tend to underestimate the benefit from conserving on labor and thus worry that imports will destroy jobs in import-competing industries. Yet long-run economic progress comes from finding ways to reduce labor input and redeploying workers to new, growing industries.
The reaction by politicians and many commentators to international trade is an excellent case in point of Blinder's Law:
"Economists have the least influence on policy where they know the most and are most agreed; they have the most influence on policy where they know the least and disagree most vehemently.”

Things just keep on getting worse in Venezuela

From the Financial Times,
Mr Maduro’s escalating nationalist agitprop — including the unveiling of Venezuela’s longest flag — comes as he faces accusations of mishandling the economy. Two years since he took office, even former officials call the country “a laughing stock”.

“It’s as if we have the Midas touch in reverse,” said former finance and planning minister Jorge Giordani earlier this year. The country, which sits on the largest oil reserves in the world, suffers from “fiscal nymphomania”.

Venezuela’s economy is forecast to shrink by 7 per cent this year. Inflation is expected to top 150 per cent, fuelled by printing money to fund a fiscal deficit estimated at 20 per cent of gross domestic product.

Asdrúbal Oliveros, head economist at local consultancy Ecoanalítica, estimates the drop in government revenues caused by the collapse in oil prices squeezed imports by 22 per cent last year and will slice another 31 per cent off imports this year, crushing supplies of essential goods. “It is going to be a very tough year,” said Mr Oliveros. “The crisis is hitting all social classes.”
A large reason behind Venezuela’s topsy-turvy economy is its system of parallel markets and multiple exchange rates.

The minimum wage, for example, is 5,620 bolívars a month — worth $892 at the main official exchange rate, or just $21 at black market rates. Government stores sell food at regulated prices, but shortages mean many consumers must turn to the black market.

“Everyone is hustling,” said Luis Vicente León of Datanálisis, a local pollster. “Some 70 per cent of people queueing at state stores simply resell their goods on the black market. There are arbitrages everywhere.”
Yes price controls do drive black markets since people see the obvious arbitrage opportunities and take them. No amount of enforcement of price regulations will stop this. Deregulating and allowing the law of one price to take effect will. Such adjustments will, in the short term, be painful but the longer reform is delayed the more painful the adjustment be.

Is competition policy outdated?

As the economy changes so should competition policy. But does it? The "new economy" or the "information economy" or the "knowledge economy" or whatever you want to call it has altered the way the economy works. Changes in technology, in particular information and communication technology (ICT), have become the major drivers of change in the economy and of economic growth. But has competition policy kept up with this change? May be not.

The European Commission’s antitrust case against Google is the latest in a series of attempts to prevent tech giants from "monopolising" EU markets, or so we are told. But it can be argued that past cases against Intel and Microsoft demonstrate the need review what may be an outdated competition policy in the EU. And not only in the EU.

The European Commission has formally charged Google with anti-competitive practices, the latest twist in a case that was first launched way back in 2010. The EU’s competition watchdog accuses the US tech giant of systematically favouring results from its own specialist search engine, Google Shopping, over competitors like Amazon and eBay. And this, it is alleged, has had an adverse impact on competition and consumer well-being.

Diego Zuluaga has been looking at the case and argues, in an article at, that,
Superficially, it would indeed seem that Google holds a dominant position online, with a 92 per cent share of the EU market for general (known as ‘organic’ or ‘horizontal’) search. Google has also been expanding its offering of specialist (a.k.a. ‘vertical’) search engines for items like flights and consumer products. Does this mean that competition online is being undermined, and that regulatory authorities should intervene to put it right?
It could of course be that they are dominant simply because they are better than the competition.

Zuluaga goes on to say that the answer to his question is, Not necessarily.
The test for any antitrust investigation must be whether competition, not individual competitors, are being harmed. And by any available measure, competition and specialisation in online search services is thriving. New players focusing on specific market niches, from SkyScanner for flights to DuckDuckGo for greater privacy, have emerged in recent years. In the specific case of comparison shopping which the Commission is worried about, it does not look like Google Shopping is catching on, despite the tech giant’s best efforts: In three key EU markets – Germany, France and the UK – Google’s own product search engine is a marginal player, with Amazon, eBay and local competitors (Idealo in Germany, Fnac in France) boasting multiple times the number of user visits of Google Shopping. What is more, the gap between Google’s own service and its leading competitors is growing, if anything.

Intuitively, this makes sense. If I want to purchase Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller, I am much more likely to browse for it on Amazon, as the latter is reputed for its excellent catalogue, user reviews and related recommendations. Rather than search for it on Google and then look for the best result, I will go to the Amazon website directly. The same goes for flights, hotels, restaurants and any other topic where there is a wealth of specialist search services. Even for those who tend to go through Google, competing options are still there – one only need scroll down to see them. This makes it hard for Google to divert large amounts of traffic to its own services – and it helps explain why Google Shopping has not taken off, as we might have expected it to.
A question one could ask is, Have past actions by competition authorities in previous digital cases been appropriate? May be not, just think of the Intel and Microsoft cases.
In 2009, the Commission fined chip-maker Intel more than €1bn for offering ‘predatory discounts’ to computer manufacturers, which allegedly harmed Intel’s competitors. Yet, by all measures, competition in the chip sector was fierce during the period of Intel’s anti-competitive behaviour. Chip prices declined by up to 75 per cent, while performance grew tenfold. Far from increasing at the expense of competitors, Intel’s market share remained stuck at 80 per cent, and the fluctuations in its share are strongly correlated with new product launches, both by itself and by rivals like AMD.

How about the other previous high profile digital probe, the 2004 ruling against Microsoft? Commission officials worried at the time that the company founded by Bill Gates was strengthening its grip on all PC-related products and services, thanks to its dominance of computer software. Barely a decade later, it is astonishing how things have changed: Microsoft still provides software for a lot of the world’s PCs, but the rise of smartphones – where Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS prevail – has made its share of the overall software market (for smartphones, tablets as well as PCs) shrink to as low as 20 per cent, according to Goldman Sachs research from 2012. Innovation killed the software star.

Both the Intel and Microsoft cases illustrate the shortcomings of EU competition policy when it comes to the digital sector: Despite Intel’s large market share in the chip market, competition was no less aggressive, and consumers still benefited from steadily dropping prices and ever better performance. And even though Windows was the dominant player in software in 2004, innovation outside the PC market – which no one, least of all Microsoft, foresaw – has turned it into one among several competitors in a much larger market.
Aa obvious point is that competition policy rulings should be grounded in sound economic analysis. It is not clear that they have been.
DG Competition has enormous powers to intervene in the internal market, acting as judge, jury and enforcer of antitrust proceedings in the EU. This makes it imperative that its rulings be rooted in sound, convincing economic analysis. Such analysis seems to be lacking in the case of Google Shopping, as it was in the Intel and Microsoft rulings. The digital economy lies at the heart of economic growth in the 21st century, so getting antitrust wrong in this sector will have a longstanding negative impact on innovation and growth in Europe.
A lesson from this is that the new technology underlying the new economy has changed the way companies do business in all sorts of sectors, and competition policy, in all countries, must evolve with it. Is not clear that it has in many countries, including New Zealand.