A new paper in the American Economic Review (abstract; PDF), summarized here, finds that Americans aren’t very consistent when thinking about financial risk. Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, Iuliana Pascu, and Mark R. Cullen, analyzing how people choose health insurance and 401(k) plans, found that “at most 30 percent of us make consistent decisions about financial risk across a variety of areas.” Their data set includes 13,000 Alcoa employees:
Because employees were making decisions in both the health-care and retirement domains, the researchers had the opportunity to see how the same individuals handled different types of choices. Or, as Finkelstein puts it, the economists could ask: “Does someone who’s willing to pay extra money to get comprehensive health insurance, who doesn’t seem willing to bear much financial exposure in a medical domain, also tend to be the one who, relative to their peers, invests more of their 401(k) in [safer] bonds rather than stocks?”
Our latest Freakonomics podcast, “The Season of Death,” explored the relative danger of some favorite summertime activities — all of which claim many more lives than the much-feared shark attack. Foreign Policy has compiled a list of 10 things that kill more people than sharks. Our favorites: trampolines, roller coasters, and vending machines. Also on the list: aggressive TVs or furniture:
Crushed by television or furniture:26.64 deaths per year. As I’ve noted, this is a bigger killer of Americans than terrorism, which led to this Colbert Report Threat Down warning against the perils of “terrorist furniture.”
According to new research from psychologist Heath Demaree, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, people who’ve experienced surprising outcomes in various situations — whether those outcomes were good or bad — are less likely to take risks in the future. In other words, it’s not whether you win or lose, but whether the outcome is expected. People appear to decrease their risk-taking levels after experiencing any surprising outcome — even positive ones.
“Surprising events are known to cause animals to stop, freeze, orient to the surprising stimulus and update their schemas of how the world works,” Demaree said. “Our recent research suggests that surprising events also cause people to temporarily reduce risk-taking.”
New research (summarized in the BPS Research Digest) from psychologists Jonathan Weaver, Joseph Vandello, and Jennifer Bosson indicates that men whose masculinity is threatened become “myopic and more prone to take risks.” Here’s the abstract:
Among the conjectured causes of the recent U.S. financial crisis is the hyper-masculine culture of Wall Street that promotes extreme risk-taking. In two experiments, we found that threats to their manhood motivated men to take greater financial risks and favor immediate (vs. delayed) fiscal rewards. In Experiment 1, men placed larger bets during a gambling game after a gender threat as compared to men in an affirmation condition. In Experiment 2, after a gender threat, men pursued an immediate financial payoff rather than waiting for interest to accrue, but only if they believed their decision was public. When the decision was private, gender-threatened men did not show the same desire for immediate reward. These results suggest that gender threats may shift men’s financial decisions toward more risky and short-sighted public choices.
Economists would describe hostage negotiation as a bilateral monopoly price negotiation that is structurally just a special case of chicken. That is, unlike a barrel of oil or a freight car full of soybeans which can trade on an extremely liquid market with innumerable buyers and sellers, a hostage has exactly one seller (the kidnappers) and exactly one buyer (the employer and/or family of the hostage). When there is only one buyer, the opportunity cost for ransoming the hostage is zero.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio onMarketplace podcast is called “The Season of Death.” The gist: Summertime brings far too many fatal accidents. But the numbers may surprise you.
(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
If you’re a longtime reader, you probably already have an idea of what we’re talking about. Human beings are, in general, quite bad at assessing risk. We tend to be scared of big, noisy, anomalous events – like shark attacks, which in an average year kill fewer than five people worldwide — while overlooking the seemingly quotidian reality of, say, drowning deaths (about 4,000 per year in the U.S. alone) and motorcycle fatalities (about 4,500 U.S. deaths annually). We have been exploring this idea since Freakonomics, where we asked whether a gun or a swimming pool is more “dangerous.”
A reader we’ll call H., who’s in the rental-property business, writes in with a bizarre story about his bank. Assuming it is at least 60% true from both sides (his side and the bank’s), what are we to make of this?
My partner and I were looking to obtain a small business loan. Our banker told us that loans are very hard to obtain because banks are being very stringent. Not like we were going to shut down without a loan, but we figured it could help us grow the business. So, in an effort to build credit (and a good relationship) for our business with a major U.S. bank, my partner and I proposed to our banker that we would give him $50,000 cash to hold onto and in return, have the bank loan us $50k for 5 years. Basically we were securing the loan with cash as collateral. This way, we could prove to the bank that we are a responsible business and were hoping that after this first loan, the bank will be willing to lend to us in the future with more favorable terms.
The rogue trader is a recurring character in the story of finance over the last 20 years. This is the guy who makes secret, unauthorized bets with his bank’s money, driven by some seeming combination of inadequacy and a huge appetite for risk, and abetted at times by an amazing lack of internal controls.
The deeper he goes, the harder he has to work to conceal his deception until one day, it inevitably comes crashing down. The bank loses billions, the trader (sometimes) goes to jail. The story is repeated every several years. The latest version broke in September when UBS announced it had lost more than $2 billion as a result of rogue trader Kweku Adoboli.
In his new e-book, How to Be a Rogue Trader, Financial Times columnist John Gapper explains why this story has become so familiar over the years. As he puts it, the rogue trader is a species of sorts within the world of finance, a special breed with certain behaviors and characteristics that are consistent through time. Gapper delves into evolutionary biology and the research of Daniel Kahneman to better understand the nature of men like Nick Leeson, Joe Jett, and Jerome Kerviel.
Sandman breaks his work into three areas: scaring people who are ignoring something that is legitimately dangerous and risky; calming down people who are freaking out over something that’s not risky; and guiding people who are freaking out over something that is legitimately risky. To accomplish all this, Sandman came up with a useful equation: Risk = Hazard + Outrage. Here are some excerpts from Stephen Dubner’s interview with Sandman, which ranges from the perceived risk of WMD’s in Iraq to the debate over climate change.
Last week we got an email from a reader named Daniel Herrington. He had just finished listening to our podcast, “The Upside of Quitting,” and wanted to tell us about a big quit he’s been pondering recently.
Daniel is a 25 year-old race car driver. He’s also an engineering graduate student at Duke. On the race track, he’s had enough success to keep at it: he’s won at Chicagoland Speedway, and had multiple top ten finishes. But it’s not quite enough to convince him that racing’s the right path. The sport is super expensive; plus, Daniel’s success has been a bit spotty. He’s only completed 2 full seasons in the last 7 years. Keep at it, and he might wind up a star. But he could also end up a middle-aged, burned-out race car driver with no other career to fall back on. So Daniel is hedging and pursuing a graduate degree.
Daniel agreed to answer some of our questions. The result is an honest, revealing piece, one that (especially given the tragic death of Indy Car driver Dan Wheldon last weekend) sheds light on the tough decisions many young drivers face, where they have to weigh the considerable risks of the sport against its obvious thrill.
Did you know that vending machines, not a major danger in most of our minds, are twice as likely to kill you as a shark? I heard this statistic at the new shark-and-ray touch tank of the New England Aquarium, which I try to visit weekly with my daughters. You stand at a large, shallow tank with plexiglass walls and can lay your hand in the water, gently feeling the sharks and sting rays swimming by.
The aquarium probably wants to convince visitors that sharks are not the fierce predators of Jaws fame, and thereby help protect sharks from hunting and extinction. Although I could admire this motive, the comparison always surprised me. My number sense complained that sharks simply must be more dangerous than vending machines.
However, upon looking up the risks, I found that the comparison was correct. The yearly risk (in the United States) of dying from a shark attack is roughly 1 in 250 million. In contrast, the yearly risk of dying from a vending machine accident is roughly 1 in 112 million. The vending machine is indeed roughly twice as lethal as the shark!
Why then was I still troubled by the comparison? Maybe my number sense needed a tune up, and I should just accept the statistical facts of life. I then started thinking about it using the method of easy cases.
Beekeepers transport their hives from field to field and make money helping farmers, orchardists and others pollinate their crops. (See the wonderful old paper by Steven N.S. Cheung, “The Fable of the Bees: An Economic Investigation,” Journal of Law and Economics, 1973.)
There are now indications that colony collapse, the current plague of the industry, may result from too-frequent moves of hives and the resulting greater exposure to more varieties of pathogens. The beekeeper thus faces a trade-off: increase revenue by moving hives around, but incur a potential cost of collapse; or move hives less and make less revenue, but reduce the potential risk. From what I’ve been told, different beekeepers make different choices, depending in part on their assessments of the risk of colony collapse and their degree of risk aversion.
At Columbia last year I took a class called “Modern Political Economy” from Ray Horton. One of Horton’s favorite things to say was that sooner or later, if the U.S. didn’t solve its debt issues through the political process, the world’s capitalists would do it for us — as in the debt markets would punish us for our profligate ways, and raise the cost of borrowing.
And yet, here we are: a ratings agency has downgraded our credit for the first time ever. But on the first day of trading, rather than going up, rates on our government debt fell to near record lows as money poured out of riskier assets in a flight for safety. When the markets closed last Friday, and the U.S. still had a AAA rating from S&P, the yield on the 10-year Treasury was 2.55%. It ended Monday down to 2.34%. The same thing happened during the stock market sell-off in the fall of 2008, when the rate on the 10-year Treasury went from around 4% to less than 2.5%. U.S. government debt is still the safest, most liquid market in the world. The S&P downgrade doesn’t change that. In fact, the immediate effect has been to make it safer. How strange.
The answer is a firm yes, at least according to three IMF economists who studied the correlation between firms’ lobbying efforts, financial risk-taking, and default rates. Their findings (abstract here; full report here) show that:
[L]obbying was associated with more risk-taking during 2000-07 and with worse outcomes in 2008. In particular, lenders lobbying more intensively on issues related to mortgage lending and securitization (i) originated mortgages with higher loan-to-income ratios, (ii) securitized a faster growing proportion of their loans, and (iii) had faster growing originations of mortgages. Moreover, delinquency rates in 2008 were higher in areas where lobbying lenders’ mortgage lending grew faster.
From the Soapbox Science blog on Nature.com, here’s an interesting piece by risk consultant David Ropiek on the ways in which we perceive and react to risk. His basic thesis is that our interpretation of risk is almost always subjective rather than fact-based, which gets us into trouble.
We worry about some things more than the evidence warrants (vaccines, nuclear radiation, genetically modified food), and less about some threats than the evidence warns (climate change, obesity, using our mobiles when we drive). That produces what I have labeled the Perception Gap, the gap between our fears and the facts, which is a huge risk in and of itself.
On page 9 of Lifecycle Investing, Barry Nalebuff and I write:
“[B]efore you invest in stocks, first pay off all your student loans and credit card debts.”
On reflection, we were only half right. You should pay off your high-interest-rate credit card loans before investing in stock. But in this post from our Forbes blog, Barry and I show why young investors need not pay off their student loans before investing in stock.
What’s the most embarrassing thing about human decision-making? It’s not that we make cognitive mistakes, says Yale cognitive psychologist Laurie Santos, in this recent TED talk. It’s that we seem doomed by our biology to make the same predictable mistakes over and over.
A few years ago, I hurried to catch a Berlin subway and forgot to buy the $2.10 ticket. Usually nobody checks tickets, although every once in awhile checkers pass through the subway-which they did on that trip! I paid an instant cash fine of $40 and was completely embarrassed and chagrined.
I expect to have a conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, in the next couple of days. He’s a very smart and talkative fellow, and I suspect he would fit into a Freakonomics Radio podcast very well.