Tag Archives: Finance

Multiplier Isn’t Reason Not To Wait

On the issue of whether to help now vs. later, many reasonable arguments have been collected on both sides. For example, positive interest rates argue for helping later, while declining need due to rising wealth argues for helping now. But I keep hearing one kind of argument I think is unreasonable, that doing stuff has good side effects:

Donating to organizations (especially those that focus on influencing people) can help them reach more people and raise even more money. (more)

Giving can send a social signal, which is useful for encouraging more giving, building communities, demonstrating our generosity, and coordinating with charities. (more)

Influencing people to become effective altruists is a pretty high value strategy for improving the world. … You can do more good with time in the present than you can with time in the future. If you spend the next 2 years doing something at least as good as influencing people to become effective altruists, then these 2 years will plausibly be more valuable than all of the rest of your life. (more)

Yes doing things now can have good side effects, but unless something changes in the side-effect processes, doing things later should have exactly the same sort of side effects. And because of positive interest rates, you can do more later, and thus induce more of those good side effects. (Also, almost everyone can trade time for money, and so convert money or time now into more money or time later.)

For example, if you can earn 7% interest you can convert $1 now into $2 a decade from now. Yes, that $1 now might lend respectability now, induce others to copy your act soon, and induce learning by the charity and its observers. But that $2 in a decade should be able to induce twice as much of all those benefits, just delayed by a decade.

In math terms, good side effects are multipliers, which multiply the gains from your good act. But multipliers are just not good reasons to prefer $1 over $2, if both of them will get the same multiplier. If the multiplier is M, you’d just be preferring $1M to $2M.

Now it does seem that many people are arguing that these side-effect processes are in fact changing, and changing a lot. They suggest that that if you work with or donate to them or their friends, then these efforts today can produce huge gains in inducing others to copy you, or in learning better how to do things, gains that won’t be available in the future. Because they and you and now are special.

I think one should in general be rather suspicious of investing or donating to groups on the basis that they, or you, or now, is special. Better to just do what would be good even if you aren’t special. Because usually, you aren’t.

Now one very believable way in which you might be special now is that you might be at a particular age. But the objectively best age to help is probably when you have peak abilities and resources, around age 40 or 60. If you are near your peak age, then, yes, maybe you should help now. If you are younger though, you should probably wait.

Added 14Apr: Every generation has new groups with seemingly newly urgent or valuable causes. So you need some concrete evidence to believe that your new cause is especially good relative to the others. I am not at all persuaded that today is very special just because some people throw around the phrase “effective altruism.”

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Hidden Asset Taxes Must Be Huge

Paul Krugman:

Piketty’s big idea is that we are in the early stages of returning to a society dominated by great dynastic fortunes, by inherited wealth. … Imagine a wealthy family that has managed, somehow or other, to guarantee that a large fraction of its income is used to accumulate more wealth. Can this family thereby acquire a dominant position in society?

The answer depends on the relationship between r, the rate of return on assets, and g, the overall rate of economic growth. If r is less than g, dynasties are doomed to erode: even if all income from a very large fortune is devoted to accumulation, the family’s wealth will grow more slowly than the economy, and it will slowly slide into obscurity. But if r is greater than g, dynastic wealth can indeed grow to gigantic size. …

Piketty tells us something remarkable: historically, r has almost always exceeded g – but there was an exceptional period in the 20th century, a period of rapid labor force growth and technological progress, when r was less than g. And he asserts that the kind of society we consider normal, in which high incomes reflect personal achievement rather than inherited wealth, is in fact an aberration driven by this exceptional period. … A couple of questions:

1. How much of the decline in r relative to g in the 20th century reflected fast growth, and how much reflected policies that either taxed or in effect confiscated inherited wealth? In other words, how much was destiny, how much wars and political upheaval? Piketty stresses both factors, but never gives us a relative quantitative assessment. (more from Piketty here, here)

This rate of return on assets r that Krugman and Piketty discuss is something like the ratio of rental to purchase price of land. I don’t have access to Piketty’s book, but I’ve been pondering this question for a few months, and I’ve concluded that the usual estimates of asset returns r must fail to include many taxes that in practice reduce the actual rate of return r that growing dynasties can achieve. And I think that once we include all hidden taxes, the actual rate of return r that dynasties could achieve in practice must have usually be no more than the economic growth rate g. Let me explain.

Some taxes are explicit, like property taxes. Other taxes are implicit in the property destruction and transfer that result from wars, political upheavals, and legal corruption, and in the costs of reasonable efforts to prevent such losses. Finally, there are implicit taxes resulting from local legal limits on who one may use to manage a dynastic fund. For example, if a dynasty must give its eldest living male wide discretion over spending and investment choices, and if such males often turn out to be spent-thrift fools, this will greatly limit this dynasty’s ability to grow over the long run. An ideal might be to delegate dynasty management to a reputed professional trust that is legally obligated to follow explicit instructions to grow the fund as fast as possible over the long run. But, as I’ve discussed before, most societies have put substantial legal obstacles before solutions like this.

I argue that the net effect of all these hidden taxes on dynastic funds must have been to usually reduce asset returns to below growth rates. My argument is simple: If asset returns had typically been above growth rates, then if any dynastic funds had chosen to grow at the maximum possible rate, then even if those funds had started small they would have come to dominate investments worldwide. And they would have done so on a timescale short compared to the time period over which historical records suggest that asset returns have exceeded growth rates. By competing with each other, such dominating dynastic funds would then have increased the supply of investment so much as to drive down asset returns to or below the sustainable level, which is the economic growth rate.

I conclude that consistently across space and time, the net effects of all forms of taxes on dynastic investment funds, including taxes implicit in limiting who one may trust not to pilfer those funds, has been to reduce real assets returns to below growth rates. Perhaps well below.

Of course, if the main hidden tax in history has been pilfering by dynasty managers, that can result in a world where such pilferers spend a large fraction of world income, without much social value to show for it. One might easily dislike such a scenario, and want to prevent it. But instead of adding more explicit taxes to prevent the growth of dynastic funds, it seems to me better to cut the pilfering tax. Because this should encourage much more investment overall, which seems a good thing. This includes investment in helping and protecting the future, including protection from disasters, including existential risks. Which also seem like good things.

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Speculators Foresee No Catastrophe

In the latest American Economic Journal, Pindyck and Wang work out what financial prices and their fluctuations suggest about what speculators believe to be the chances of big economic catastrophes. Bottom line: [simple models that estimate the beliefs of] speculators see very low chances of really big disasters. (Quotes below.)

For example, they find that over fifty years speculators see a 57% chance of a sudden shock destroying at least 15% of capital. If I apply their estimated formula to questions they didn’t ask in the paper, I find that over two centuries, speculators see only a 1.6 in a hundred thousand chance of a shock that destroys over half of capital. And a shock destroying 80% or more of capital has only a one in a hundred trillion chance. Of course these would all be lamentable, and very newsworthy. But hardly existential risks.

The authors do note that others have estimated a thicker tail of bad events:

We obtain … a value for the [power] α of 23.17. … Barro and Jin (2009) … estimated α [emprically] for their sample of contractions. In our notation, their estimates of α were 6.27 for consumption contractions and 6.86 for GDP.

If I plug in the worst of these, I find that over two centuries there’s an 85% chance of a 50% shock, a 0.6% chance of an 80% shock, and one in a million chance of a shock that destroys 95% or more of capital. Much worse chances, but still nothing like an existential risk.

Of course speculative markets wouldn’t price in the risk of extinction, since all assets and investors are destroyed in those events. But how likely could extinction really be if there’s almost no chance of an event that destroys 95% of capital?

Added 11a: They use a power law to fit price changes, and so would miss ways in which very big disasters have a different distribution than small disasters. But to the extent that this does accurately model speculator beliefs, if you disagree you should expect to profit by buying options that pay off mainly in the case of huge disasters. So why aren’t you buying?

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Speculators Foresee No Catastrophe" »

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Graeber’s Debt book

About a year ago I finished David Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years. Since he’s an Occupy Wall Street anthropologist, you might expect me to dislike the book. But I enjoyed it, and learned a lot, even though it does ramble, and his economics is weak.

Graeber’s overall mood is anti-debt:

For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors – of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destructions of the debt records – tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.” (p.8)

That is sure a dramatic image, and makes one’s opinion on debt seem pretty fundamental. Oddly, Graeber never actually comes out directly against debt. He doesn’t seem to want to forbid it. Instead he seems to just want to set a low bar for forgiving the debts of the poor, mainly because helping the poor is a good thing. The closest thing to an argument I found:

The remarkable thing about the statement “one has to pay one’s debts” is that even according to standard economic theory, it isn’t true. A lender is supposed to accept a certain degree of risk. If all loans, no matter how idiotic, were still retrievable – if there were no bankruptcy laws, for instance – the results would be disastrous. What reason would lenders have not to make a stupid loan? (p.3)

Actually standard economic theory doesn’t say that the results without bankruptcy laws would be disastrous. Yes, the more stuff people can promise as collateral to support loans, or promise to suffer if they fail to pay, the more loans will be made, and the more people there will end up poorer or suffering because they can’t pay loans. But economists can’t say this is bad without adding assumptions about why such poverty is inefficient.

You might say that poverty is economically inefficient because it makes other people feel bad to know it exists, or because it keeps investments from being made in poor folks’ human capital. It could make sense to support general redistribution to deal with such problems. But debt forgiveness is not general redistribution. A policy of forgiving the debts of the especially poor mainly keeps the nearly poor from taking out loans from which they expect to gain overall, and raises the loan interest rates they pay.

Standard economic theory says that such debt forgiveness redistributes to the very poor, but not by taxing the rich. Anticipated future debt forgiveness instead taxes the nearly poor who take out loans and then do well, by raising the interest rates at which they repay their loans.

Yes debts are one of the ways by which people take chances with their wealth level, sometimes rising and sometimes falling. And yes if we stopped the nearly poor from taking such chances we might reduce the numbers of the very poor. But why pick only on loans? There are lots of other ways in which the nearly poor take chances with their wealth level, such as by trying new careers, jobs, neighborhoods, and social groups. Should we try to stop these risky behaviors as well?

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Beware Extended Family

In the last few weeks I’ve come across many sources emphasizing the same big theme that I hadn’t sufficiently appreciated: our industrial world was enabled and has become rich in large part because we’ve reduced the power and importance of extended families. This post ends with a long list of quotes, but I’ll summarize here.

In most farmer-era cultures extended families, or clans, were the main unit of social organization, for production, marriage, politics, war, law, and insurance. People trusted their clans, but not outsiders, and felt little obligation to treat outsiders fairly. Our industrial economy, in contrast, relies on our trusting and playing fair in new kinds of organizations: firms, cities, and nations, and on our changing our activities and locations to support them.

The first places where clans were weak, like northern Europe, had bigger stronger firms, cities, and nations, and are richer today. Today people with stronger family cultures are happier and healthier, all else equal, but are less willing to move or intermarry, and are nepotistical in firms and politics. Family firms do well worldwide, but by having a single family dominate, and by being smaller, younger, and less innovative.

Thus it seems that strong families tend to be good for people individually, but bad for the world as a whole. Family clans tend to bring personal benefits, but social harms, such as less sorting, specialization, agglomeration, innovation, trust, fairness, and rule of law.

All those promised quotes: Continue reading "Beware Extended Family" »

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Real Real Estate Agents

A real-estate agent keeps her own home on the market an average of ten days longer [than she would for a client] and sells it for an extra 3-plus percent, or $10,000 on a $300,000 house. When she sells her own house, an agent holds out for the best offer; when she sells yours, she encourages you to take the first decent offer that comes along. (more)

Lecturing on incentives on Wednesday, I used the classic example of the bad incentives of real estate agents. They usually get a fixed percentage (3%) of the sale price, which mostly makes them want to close a deal as fast as possible, regardless of the sale price. This is bad for seller’s agents and positively perverse for buyer agents – they worse the deal they get for you, the more they get paid. And the scope for individual agent reputations is pretty limited, because most people only ever buy or sell a few houses in their lifetime, usually in geographically separated places.

Alex just posted on the continuing puzzle of why this fixed percentage doesn’t seem to respond to changing market conditions, arguing that neither monopoly nor signaling explains it, and suggests:

Part of the problem in the realtor market is that other realtors can easily discriminate against discount brokers by pushing their clients one way or the other. (more)

That may be why we won’t see something better soon, but my lecture prompted me to think about the still interesting question: what exactly would be a better contract between you and your real estate agent, one that would better align their interests with yours?

Searching I found this paper from 2000, which proposes that selling homeowners sell their home to the selling agent, but also give that agent an option to sell the home back at the same price, to give that homeowner an incentive to help sell. They make no suggestion about how to contract with a buyers agent.

Here is what I came up with after my lecture. On the sell side, have the homeowner sell a 20% stake in their house to the selling agent, for an agreed-on cash price. The homeowner might hold an auction to find the local agent willing to pay the highest price to take on this role. The agent turns that back into cash when the house actually sells, or if it doesn’t sell the agent can sell their 20% stake back for the same price they paid if they want to give up on the process for now. If the homeowner wants to give up on the process, a similar reverse sale would happen, but perhaps the homeowner should suffer a penalty, such as 10% of that price paid for the 20% stake.

On the buy side, I’d have the buyer agent agree to pay (20-X)% of the house purchase price to gain a 20% stake in the house at the time of the home purchase. The X% number would be the agent’s fee, which might be chosen by an auction among the local agents. Unless they could find someone else who agreed to buy this stake after the purchase, they’d have to hold on to it until the house is next sold. Perhaps for many years. Because the buyer would get to live in the house or rent it, while the agent would not, the homeowner would owe the agent 20% of some assigned rental price each month until the house was again sold. This rental price could come from a simple regression of rental prices on local home features. People would know this price wasn’t exactly right, but they could take deviations into account in setting the price X.

The 20% number in the above is obviously arbitrary. It is probably a better place to start than the 100% number in the other proposal I mentioned, being a less radical change from the status quo. But my proposal is really to have some percentage number like that, not the exact 20% number.

This proposal clearly requires the agents to take on more financial risk than they do today, and so would encourage them to organize into agent firms that jointly take on the risk together. But that seems pretty reasonable.

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If More Now, Less Later

On Thursday I talked, together with Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell, at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club on Effective Altruism (audio here). Scott Alexander wrote a thoughtful report, which Tyler blogged. One claim I made that I’ve before (here, here, here) is that because real interest rates (i.e., average investment rates of return) tend to be positive, it is more effective to wait, investing now and then donating later. Since many continue to question that claim, I thought I’d elaborate a bit.

In the past I’ve used Ben Franklin as an example of the possibility of using trusts to save for a very long time. But I think that distracted from my basic point, which can be made just by suggesting that you wait until the end of your life to donate. Waiting longer might in fact be better, but it has more tax and agency issues; you can’t as easily ensure your money is spent the way you want.

I admit that a good reason to donate now is if you believe that we are quickly running out of worthy recipients of charity, either because the world is getting richer and nicer, the charity world is getting more effective, or we happen to live in an unusual time of great need or danger. People who think that global warming and ecological collapse will soon make the world a hell can’t believe this, nor can those who fear great disruption in an em transition. But others may.

I also agree that tax considerations will change the rate of return you can expect, and that by giving over a period of time you may learn from your early gifts to better pick later gifts. But it should be enough to start this learning process when you are older; your life experience will help you learn faster then.

The issue I want to focus on in this post is: how high do interest rates have to be to justify saving to donate later? I’ve sometimes said that interest rates need to be higher than growth rates, and some have questioned if interest rates are in fact higher than growth rates. Others, like my co-speaker Ellie Hassenfeld and his college Holden Karnofsky at Givewell, argue that giving now to help people who are sick or under-schooled creates future benefits that grow faster than ordinary growth rates. But now I think I was mistaken – if real charity needs are just as strong in the future as today, then all we really need are positive interest rates. Let me explain.

When a person chooses to save financially, they choose to spend a bit less in their usual ways, in order to give money to someone else, in the expectation of getting money back from that someone else at a later date. If they had instead not saved, and spent the money instead, that spending may well have also indirectly benefited them in the future. They might buy some medicine, get more exercise, get more sleep, try out some new products, make some new friends, or learn some new skills, any of which might help their future self.

But at the margin, a person who saves another dollar, or chooses not to borrow another dollar, must typically expect the financial returns from their investments will help them more in the future than will such indirect effects of spending today. In fact, they should expect this savings will benefit their future self more than any of these other ways of spending today. After all, why give up money today if that both gives you less to spend today, and gives you less in the future? So there wouldn’t be any savings, or less than maximal borrowing, if people didn’t expect more gains later from saving than from spending today.

This implies that unless charity recipients are saving nothing and borrowing as much as they possibly can, they must expect that you would benefit them more in the future by saving and giving them the returns of your savings later, than if you had given them the money today, even after taking into account all of the ways in which their spending today might help them in the future. So there really must be a tradeoff between helping today and helping later; if you help more today, you help less in the future. At least if you help them in a way they could have helped themselves, if only they had the money.

Of course you might not care as much about future suffering, or future folks might suffer less. But if you do care as much, and there is as much future need to help, then if interest rates are positive you can obtain more real resources with which to give more real help if you will save now, and donate later.

You might wonder: what if a deserving charity recipient is borrowing, and at a higher interest rate than you can get from by investing? This implies that you might benefit them and yourself by loaning them money, if you could overcome the barriers that have prevented others from doing so. It also implies that if you were going to help them, you might want to do it now rather than later. But this doesn’t change the fact that there is a tradeoff between helping today vs. tomorrow. And if there will be people later in a similar situation of need, you can do more good by waiting to help them later.

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In the long run, we’re all still exposed to risk

Many of you will be familiar with the fact that past returns from notable stock indices, such as those in the US, are a biased indicator of the likely future returns to investing in equities. The problem is that due to war, government interference, and financial collapse, some stock markets disappeared altogether, wiping out investors. In some countries this has even happened multiple times. Historical stock indices that went to zero tend not to be remembered, and so are under-sampled. The result is ‘survivorship bias‘, a problem that shows up in many other research questions as well. When these defunct investments are put back in the sample, average returns are quite a bit lower than when you look at just, for example, the NY stock exchange.

A lesser known result is that a broader and representative sample of stock histories shows that investing over long time horizons doesn’t reduce the variability of your return. Contrary to convention wisdom, even young savers need to diversity across different assets types and countries in order to get that effect and be confident of retiring in comfort:

“One of the most enduring question in finance is the persistence of investment risk across time horizon. This issue of time diversification is crucial to long-term asset allocation decisions.

There is a widespread view that the longer the horizon, the more investors benefit from investing in equities. Young investors, for instance, are typically advised to allocate more to equities than those whose retirement is imminent, on the grounds that equities are less risky over long horizons. A common rule of thumb is that the percentage of stock allocation should equal 100 minus an investor’s age.

Some researchers claim to have found empirical evidence that equities are less risky over long horizons because of mean reversion. Mean reversion implies that the variance of stock retums does not grow linearly with time, contrary to a random walk. As a result, several authors have claimed that greater equity allocations are justified on the grormds that shortfall risk lessens as the horizon is extended.

This conclusion seems hardly justified. Previous findings of mean reversion have considered seventy years or so of U.S. data. For long-horizon retums, say ten years, this implies only seven truly independent observations, which seems insufficient to support robust conclusions about the risk of ten-year equity investments. The problem is that, with a fixed sample size, the number of efiective observations diminishes as the investment horizon lengthens. Another problem is that markets with long histories may not represent investment risk for reasons of survivorship bias.

One solution is to expand the sample by adding cross-sectional data. We describe the distribution of long-term returns for a sample of thirty countries for which we have long series of equity prices. The empirical evidence expands on the work of Jorion and Goetzmann (1999) and substantially extends results described by Dimson, Marsh, and Staunton (2002), who analyze a century of stock market returns in fifieen countries.

The results are not reassuring. We find no evidence of long-term mean reversion in the expanded data sample. Downside risk declines very little as the horizon lengthens. In addition, U.S. equities appear systematically less risky than equities of other markets.

Mean reversion is analyzed first in terms of variance ratio tests. There is no evidence of mean reversion from variance ratio tests across this sample, taking into account statistical properties of these tests. Furthermore, markets that sufiered interruption displayed mean aversion, or the opposite of mean reversion. Therefore, statistical properties such as high average retums and mean reversion may be an artifact of survival. Probabilities of losses on equities are reduced very slowly, if at all, with the horizon. In fact, shortfall measures such as value at risk (VAR) sharply increase with the horizon.

There is, however, some positive news. Diversification across assets pays. Over this century, a global stock market index would have displayed less downside risk than any single market. The conclusion is that across-country diversification is more effective than time diversification.” (HT Ben Hoskin)

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Beware Life Insurance

Life insurance is bought more because it sounds like a good idea than because it is actually needed. In fact, most people who buy life insurance never actually get paid when they die:

Almost 85% of [US life insurance] term policies fail to end with a death claim; nearly 88% of universal life policies ultimately do not terminate with a death benefit claim.  In fact, 74% of term policies and 76% of universal life policies sold to seniors at age 65 never pay a claim. …

We document the following core facts about the U.S. life insurance industry, which has over $10 trillion of individual coverage in force …:

  •  A death benefit is not paid on most policies. For “term policies” that offer coverage over a fixed number of years, most are “lapsed” prior to the end of the term; a majority of permanent (e.g., “whole life”) policies are “surrendered” (i.e., lapsed and a cash value is paid) before death.
  • Insurers make substantial amounts of money on clients that lapse their policies and lose money on those that do not. Insurers, however, do not earn extra-ordinary profits. Rather, lapsing policyholders cross subsidize households who keep their coverage.
  • Real premiums decrease over time (i.e., policies are “front loaded”) rather than increasing with age in a manner more consistent with either actuarially fair pricing or optimal insurance in the presence of reclassification risk where new information about mortality risk is revealed.
  • As an industry, insurers lobby intensely to restrict the operations of secondary markets. In other markets (e.g., initial public offerings or certificates of deposit), the ability to resell helps support the demand for the primary offering. …

While consumers correctly account for mortality risk when buying life insurance, they fail to sufficiently weight the importance of background risks. … Since consumers do not anticipate the need to lapse, this front-loaded policy appears to be cheaper than a policy that is actuarially fair each period. … The introduction of a secondary market undermines this cross-subsidy by offering lapsing households better terms relative to surrendering. (more)

We cryonics patients are hopefully an exception – we really do need the money to pay for the cryonics treatment. More info on cheating insurance agents:

We construct a rich dataset describing individual insurance agents operating in Texas. We match licensing data with company affiliations and detailed sales practice complaint records from the state regulator. From the company affiliation data, we identify two types of experts: monitored agents from large, branded companies, and unmonitored agents working as independents. We fid that the odds of monitored experts from large, branded companies taking advantage of their customers are 21 to 98% greater than the odds for unmonitored independent experts. In a supplemental analysis, we use national sale practice complaints data to confirm our results. Finally, we find that more experienced agents are significantly more likely to mislead their customers. … Company agents may earn 50 to 70% of the gross commissions of their sales, depending on the type of insurance product. (more)

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Was Intrade being manipulated over the last month?

Intrade’s betting odds on the 2012 presidential election have differed significantly from those available elsewhere. For the 48 hours preceding the election, the difference in the implied probability of Obama winning on Intrade relative to other betting agencies like Betfair, was 8 to 15 percentage points. This persisted until a large share of Ohio votes had been counted and Colorado and New Mexico were starting to count, at which point the difference quickly evaporated. Over the previous 3 weeks or so, the difference had moved in the range of 5 to 10 percentage points.  The same distortion was observed in favour of McCain during the election in 2008, though to a lesser extent.

This provided an opportunity to make substantial money by betting on Obama on Intrade and Romney elsewhere – a so called dutch book, or ‘arbitrage‘. I joined some colleagues at 80,000 Hours doing this yesterday to earn money for our favourite cost effective charities. We each walked away with about $500 after all of the associated fees. Eyeballing it, a dutch book is profitable, ignoring the cost to your time, if the probability gap is larger than 3 percentage points; below that, the fees involved will eat up your winnings.

Why was this possible? I don’t have a good answer, but I can suggest one possibility. Some noteworthy aspects of the situation are:

  • Americans can’t deposit money into Intrade using credit and debit cards – they have to use bank transfers.
  • Bank transfers take at least two days to arrive and cost over $20.
  • Everyone else can choose between cards and bank transfers.
  • Cards are instantaneous and free (if denominated in US dollars anyway) but have a $2,000 deposit limit in the first month, and $5,000 thereafter.
  • It takes at least a day, probably two, to open a new Intrade account and have it approved.
  • There are other significant barriers to entry – knowing about the issue, learning about the fees, opening an account with another betting agency and finally having the time and confidence to correctly place the hedge.
  • Intrade seems very widely covered by the US media.

A single person with a huge amount in their account from a wire transfer could manipulate the market by selling Obama’s shares down, or buying Romney’s up. This appeared to be happening in the 67-72% likelihood range in which Obama was stuck for a long period of time, while other larger agencies were placing him around 82%. Several people on Intrade’s forum spotted what they thought were abnormally large bids for Romney’s stock.

Once someone started doing this, it would take at least two days, probably three, for a wealthy or ambitious person to respond by wiring in enough money to bet against them. They would have to hope that the manipulation persisted long enough for them to profit from it. Until then, people outside the USA would be limited to putting at most $2000 or $5000 into their accounts, which is barely worth the effort for someone with the required skill. Someone could plan to do this over the last few days of the election without generating much resistance.

The volume yesterday on Obama’s Intrade shares was about 600,000. If all of those trades involved one person, who was losing 10 percentage points on each share, they would have blown $600,000 to keep Obama’s odds down. The volume over the previous three weeks is hard to read from Intrade’s graphs, but looks to be about the same again. So a single cunning person willing to lose $1 million could have singlehandedly driven the price difference, if they wanted to influence perceptions of the race and encourage voter turnout. Out of the $6 billion spent on the election so far, that’s not a big investment. Intrade will face the risk of this until they make it easier for wolves to fund their accounts and go out hunting sheep.

Weaknesses of this theory are:

  • Why didn’t manipulation over the previous three weeks prompt someone to move a large sum onto Intrade in anticipation?
  • Why haven’t wealthy Obama supporters attempted the same trick?

Nonetheless, I think this is more likely than a broad pool of Intrade participants being enthusiastic about Romney against all the evidence, and unaware that they could get better odds elsewhere.

If I were a Democrat supporter with a lot of money, I would plan to profit from similar situations in the future while simultaneously improving Intrade’s performance.

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