Nobel and other Prizes

Explained: Auction theory

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Auction Theory, Nobel Prizes

Mains level : Auction theory and its utility

This year, the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Paul R Milgrom and Robert B Wilson for “improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats”.

Do you remember the 2G spectrum scam, Coalgate scam etc. that rocked the nation? Can you relate this auction theory for bidding public assets to private entities?

What is Auction?

  • Essentially, it is about how auctions lead to the discovery of the price of a commodity.
  • Auction theory studies how auctions are designed, what rules govern them, how bidders behave and what outcomes are achieved.
  • When one thinks of auctions, one typically imagines the auction of a bankrupt person’s property to pay off his creditors.
  • Indeed, this is the oldest form of auction. This simple design of such an auction — the highest open bidder getting the property (or the commodity in question) — is intuitively appealing as well.

Evolving definitions of auction

  • Over time, and especially over the last three decades, more and more goods and services have been brought under auction.
  • The nature of these commodities differs sharply. For instance, a bankrupt person’s property is starkly different from the spectrum for radio or telecom use.
  • Similarly, carbon dioxide emission credits are quite different from the spot market for buying electricity, which, in turn, is quite different from choosing which company should get the right to collect the local garbage.
  • In other words, no one auction design fits all types of commodities or seller.

The Auction Theory

Three key variables need to be understood before we move to actual propositions.

(1) Rules of the auction

  • Imagine participating in an auction. Your bidding behaviour is likely to differ if the rules stipulate open bids as against closed/sealed bids.
  • The same applies to single bids versus multiple bids, or whether bids are made one after another or everyone bids at the same time.

(2) Commodity or service

  • The second variable is the commodity or service being put up for auction. In essence, the question is how each bidder values an item.
  • This is not always easy to ascertain. In terms of telecom spectrum, it might be easier to peg the right value for each bidder because most bidders are likely to put the spectrum to the same use.
  • This is called the “common” value of an object.

(3) Uncertainty

  • The third variable is uncertainty.
  • For instance, which bidder has what information about the object, or even the value another bidder associates with the object.

The theory

  • Wilson developed the theory for auctions of objects with a common value — a value which is uncertain beforehand but, in the end, is the same for everyone”.
  • Wilson showed what the “winner’s curse” is in an auction and how it affects bidding.
  • As shown in the illustration, it is possible to overbid — $50 when the real value is closer to $25. In doing so, one wins the auction but loses out in reality.
  • Milgrom “formulated a more general theory of auctions that not only allows common values but also private values that vary from bidder to bidder”.
  • He analysed the bidding strategies in a number of well-known auction formats, demonstrating that a format will give the seller higher expected revenue when bidders learn more about each other’s estimated values.

Significance of Auction theory

  • Throughout history, countries have tried to allocate resources in various ways.
  • Some have tried to do it through political markets, but this has often led to biased outcomes. For Ex: The rationing of essential goods worked in State-controlled economies. People who were close to the bureaucracy and the political class came out ahead of others.
  • Lotteries are another way to allocate resources, but they do not ensure that scarce resources are allocated to people who value it the most.
  • Auctions, for a good reason, have been the most common tool for thousands of years used by societies to allocate scarce resources.
  • When potential buyers compete to purchase goods in an auction, it helps sellers discover those buyers who value the goods the most.
  • Further, selling goods to the highest bidder also helps the seller maximise his or her revenues. So, both buyers and sellers benefit from auctions.
  • Whether it is the auction of spectrum waves or the sale of fruits and vegetables, auctions are at the core of allocation of scarce resources in a market economy.

What are the criticisms levelled against auctions and what are the economists contribution?

1.Issue of Winner’s Curse

  • The most common one is that auctions can lead buyers to overpay for resources whose value is uncertain to them.
  • This criticism, popularly known as the ‘winner’s curse’, is based on a study that showed how buyers who overpaid for U.S. oil leases in the 1970s earned low returns. Dr. Wilson was the first to study this matter.
  • The rational bidders may decide to underpay for resources in order to avoid the ‘winner’s curse’, and Dr. Wilson argued that sellers can get better bids for their goods if they share more information about it with potential buyers

2.Auction formats

  • Economists traditionally working on auction theory believed that all auctions are the same when it comes to the revenues that they managed to bring in for sellers. The auction format, in other words, did not matter.
  • This is known as the ‘revenue equivalence theorem’.
  • But Dr. Milgrom showed that the auction format can actually have a huge impact on the revenues earned by sellers.
  • The most famous case of an auction gone wrong for the seller was the spectrum auction in New Zealand in 1990.
  • In what is called a ‘Vickrey auction’, where the winner of the auction is mandated to pay only the second-best bid, a company that bid NZ$1,00,000 eventually paid just NZ$6 and another that bid NZ$70,00,000 only paid NZ$5,000.
  • In particular, Dr. Milgrom showed how Dutch auctions, in which the auctioneer lowers the price of the product until a buyer bids for it, can help sellers earn more revenues than English auctions.
  • In the case of English auctions, the price rises based on higher bids submitted by competing buyers. But as soon as some of the bidders drop out of the auction as the price rises, the remaining bidders become more cautious about bidding higher prices.

Conclusion

  • The contributions of Dr. Milgrom and Dr. Wilson have helped governments and private companies design their auctions better.
  • This has, in turn, helped in the better allocation of scarce resources and offered more incentives for sellers to produce complex goods.
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