Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rational Irrationality?

Ori and Rom Brafman, in their fascinating book: “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior” write about an experiment used by a business school professor on the first day of each new semester.

He auctions off a $20 bill to the students in his class.

Sound simple? At the time the book was written the highest price paid in those auctions had been $204!

Now there’s nothing special about the bills themselves; there’s no rarity value involved. So why would anyone be willing to pay any more than $20 for a $20 bill?

The answer lies in the motivation of the bidders, which reflects the rules of the auction.

In these auctions the winner gets the $20 bill BUT BOTH the winner and the runner-up have to pay what they’ve bid.

The bidder who comes in second has to make good on his bid, but he gets nothing in return; while the bidder who “wins” has to pay up, but at least he gets the $20.

So the motivation is not actually winning the auction, it’s avoiding the greater cost of losing the auction!

When I find myself unable to explain in any rational terms the actions of an auction participant I have to step back and remind myself that what appears to be irrational might be irrational only from my own frame of reference. The “winning” bidder might be operating under rules or influences, unknown to me, that explain his actions quite clearly.

At this stage in the life of The Receivables Exchange there are too few auctions involving too few Buyers to allow us to confidently equate value and price. And it is certainly too early to assert that price and risk are in any way firmly associated.

As we wrote in our post of August 19: “One Buyer with a perceived ‘need’ to put money to work in any significant quantity could easily … create a pricing environment that is not informed by any real risk assessment.”

The actions of such a Buyer might be primarily motivated by the desire to avoid the perceived “loss” incurred by not deploying allocated funds. In that case the loss avoidance behavior is captured in winning a certain quantity of auctions essentially regardless of price or quality. The perceived “loss” of failing to win is greater than the potential loss created by paying essentially whatever is asked or failing to assess the risk assumed.

In that type of environment, the price at which auctions are won is not a valid measure of value. Bidder behavior is driven by something other than the value of the item being auctioned.

The professor in the Brafmans’ book found that in almost every $20 bill auction, most participants realized when the bidding got to the $12 to $16 range that the correct decision, even at a level still below $20, was to withdraw from the auction.

While either unknown motivations or non-economic motivations control market action, the rational response is just to “hide and watch”.

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