Monday, July 12, 2010

Behavior and rationality

In a very interesting post on the winners curse, Rajiv Sethi describes the following based on Thaler:

The winner's curse is a concept that was first discussed in the literature by three Atlantic Richfield engineers, Capen, Clapp, and Campbell (1971). The idea is simple. Suppose many oil companies are interested in purchasing the drilling rights to a particular parcel of land. Let's assume that the rights are worth the same amount to all bidders, that is, the auction is what is called a common value auction. Further, suppose that each bidding firm obtains an estimate of the value of the rights from its experts. Assume that the estimates are unbiased, so the mean of the estimates is equal to the common value of the tract. What is likely to happen in the auction? Given the difficulty of estimating the amount of oil in a given location, the estimates of the experts will vary substantially, some far too high and some too low. Even if companies bid somewhat less than the estimate their expert provided, the firms whose experts provided high estimates will tend to bid more than the firms whose experts guessed lower... If this happens, the winner of the auction is likely to be a loser.

In Thaler's description, the winner's curse arises despite the fact that bidder estimates are unbiased: their valuations are correct on average, even though the winning bid happens to come from someone with excessively optimistic expectations. Someone familiar with this phenomenon would therefore never conclude that all bidders are excessively optimistic simply by observing the fact that winning bidders tend to wish that they had lost.

Sethi then goes on to argue that the reason for the crisis is not so much behavioral but can be seen as a rational response to ecological factors. He claims that there is herding due to what other firms/actors are doing rather than interdependent preferences (or cognitive limitations) as quoted by Kindleberger:

Overestimation of profits comes from euphoria, affects firms engaged in the production and distributive processes, and requires no explanation. Excessive gearing arises from cash requirements that are low relative both to the prevailing price of a good or asset and to possible changes in its price. It means buying on margin, or by installments, under circumstances in which one can sell the asset and transfer with it the obligation to make future payments. As firms or households see others making profits from speculative purchases and resales, they tend to follow: "Monkey see, monkey do." In my talks about financial crisis over the last decades, I have polished one line that always gets a nervous laugh: "There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich."

My only thought to all this was: If agents are rational can they also be optimistic (or pessimistic)? I would tend to argue that optimism is a cognitive or behavioral trait rather than part of rationality. Some previous thoughts here.

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