Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers. As the Livemint article below states, “According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.” Instead, rationality is bounded: people use simple rules of thumb in making decisions – rules they have developed over time in the light of experience.
So can people’s behaviour be altered by understanding their limited rationality? Advertisers are only too well aware of a number of psychological ‘tricks’ to change people’s purchasing behaviour. For example, wanting to be approved of by your friends is used by advertisers to sell various fashion products and toiletries. Often, people need only a relatively small ‘nudge’ to change the way they behave.
And it is not just advertisers who are using the insights of behavioural economics. Governments are increasingly trying to find ways of nudging people to behave in ways that are better for themselves or for society.
In 2010, David Cameron set up a ‘Nudge Unit’, formally know as ‘The Behavioural Insights Team‘. It has produced a number of academic papers on topics as diverse as tax compliance, incentives for university attendance, charitable giving in the workplace and using SMS reminders to reduce missed hospital appointments. The academic evidence can then be use as the basis for policy.
Another nudge unit has been set up in Australia (see second article below). The USA, Singapore and various other countries are increasingly using the insights of behavioural economics to devise policy to affect human behaviour.
Two recent pieces of work by the UK team concern ways of discouraging doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics and using encouraging text messages to FE students to reduce dropout rates. Another nudge has been used by the tax authorities (HMRC) who have been sending out texts to remind people to pay their taxes on time and to make them aware that they are being monitored. The message read, “Most people pay on time to avoid penalties”.
The articles below look at these recent initiatives and how human behaviour can be changed in a relatively low-cost way. In most cases this involves a simple nudge.
Nudge-unit trials reveal best ways to prod people Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (29/8/15)
Government ‘nudge unit’ to attempt to change people’s behaviours Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (15/9/16)
New frontiers of human behaviour Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
Doctors ‘nudged’ into prescribing far fewer antibiotics New Scientist (15/9/16)
GPs handing out fewer antibiotics after warning of over-prescribing, says study BT (15/9/16)
Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates FE Week, Paul Offord (22/7/15)
The text messages getting teenagers better grades BBC Today Programme, David Halpern and Fiona Morey (15/9/16)
Ping! Pay your tax now or face a penalty. HMRC sends out ‘threatening’ SMS texts to taxpayers The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (15/9/16)
Publications of Behavioural Insights Team
Publications list BIT
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16: overview BIT (15/9/16)
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16 BIT (15/9/16)
- Explain what is meant by bounded rationality.
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded nudging? Explain.
- Why, do you think, the message by an Australian hospital, “if you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not turn up” was successful in reducing missed appointments by 20%, while the message, “if you do not attend, the hospital loses $125” was not as effective?
This time last year bookmakers Ladbrokes and Coral announced their intention to merge. This was closely followed by a merger between Betfair and Paddy Power. This wave of consolidation appears to have been partly motivated by the rise of online gambling, stricter regulation and increased taxation.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) commenced an initial investigation into the Ladbrokes-Coral merger in late 2015 and, at the request of the merging parties, agreed to fast track the case to a detailed phase 2 investigation.
Despite the growth in the online market, the CMA’s investigation recognised the continued importance of high-street betting shops:
Although online betting has grown substantially in recent years, the evidence we’ve seen confirms that a significant proportion of customers still choose to bet in shops – and many will continue to do so after the merger.
The CMA identified almost 650 local markets where it believed there would be a substantial lessening of competition. It concluded that this could have both local and national effects:
Discounts and offers of free bets to individual customers are 2 of the ways betting shops respond to local competition which could be threatened by the merger. Such a widespread reduction in competition at the local level could also worsen those elements that are set centrally, such as odds and betting limits.
Therefore, earlier this week the CMA announced that before it is prepared to clear the merger, the parties must sell around 350 stores in order to preserve competition in the problem markets (many of these overlap so the number of store sales required is less than the number of problem markets). This divestment represents around 10% of the total number of stores currently owned by the two merging parties. It appears that rivals Betfred and Boylesports, plus a number of private equity investors, are already interested in purchasing the stores.
This may also not be the last consolidation in the industry with the struggling leading bookmaker William Hill apparently attracting merger interest from rival 888 in combination with a casino and bingo hall operator.
BHA warns CMA over Coral-Ladbrokes merger Racing Post, Bill Barber (7/7/16)
Ladbrokes-Gala Coral must sell 350-400 shops to clear merger BBC, (26/7/16)
William Hill is lukewarm on ambitious three-way merger deal The Telegraph, Ben Martin (25/7/16)
- Why might the merging parties in this case have been so keen to fast track the case to phase 2?
- What are the key factors in defining the market in this case? How do you think these would have affected the decision?
- Are there arguments that wider social issues in addition to the effect on competition should be taken into account when considering mergers in this market?
- Which of the potential purchasers of the divested stores do you think might be best for competition?
- How do you think this market will evolve in the future?
Short-termism is a problem which has dogged British firms and is part of the explanation of low investment in the UK. Shareholders, many of which are large pension funds and other financial institutions, are more concerned with short-term returns than long-term growth and productivity. Likewise, senior managers’ rewards are often linked to short-term performance rather than the long-term health of the company.
But the stakeholders in companies extend well beyond owners and senior managers. Workers, consumers, suppliers, local residents and the country as a whole are all stakeholders in companies.
So is the current model of capitalism fit for purpose? According to the new May government, workers and consumers should be represented on the boards of major British companies. The Personnel Today article quotes Theresa May as saying:
‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions. In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.
We’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.’
This model is not new. Many countries, such as France and Germany, have had worker representatives on boards for many years. There the focus is often less on short-term profit maximisation and more on the long-term performance of the company in terms of a range of indicators.
Extending this model to stakeholder groups more generally could see companies taking broader social objectives into account. And the number of companies which put corporate social responsibility high on their agenda could increase significantly.
And this approach can ultimately bring better returns to shareholders. As the first The Conversation article below states:
This is something that research into a ‘Relational Company’ model has found – by putting the interests of all stakeholders at the heart of their decision making, companies can become more competitive, stable and successful. Ultimately, this will generate greater returns for shareholders.
While CSR has become mainstream in terms of the public face of some large corporations, it has tended to be one of the first things to be cut when economic growth weakens. The findings from Business in the Community’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Index suggest that many firms are considering how corporate responsibility can positively affect profits. However, it remains the case that there are still many firms and consumers that care relatively little about the social or natural environment. Indeed, each year, fewer companies take part in the CR Index. In 2016 there were 43 firms; in 2015, 68 firms; in 2014, 97 firms; in 2013, 126 firms.
In addition to promising to give greater voice to stakeholder groups, Mrs May has also said that she intends to curb executive pay. Shareholders will be given binding powers to block executive remuneration packages. But whether shareholders are best placed to do this questionable. If shareholders’ interests are the short-term returns on their investment, then they may well approve of linking executive remuneration to short-term returns rather than on the long-term health of the company or its role in society more generally.
When leaders come to power, they often make promises that are never fulfilled. Time will tell whether the new government will make radical changes to capitalism in the UK or whether a move to greater stakeholder power will remain merely an aspiration.
Will Theresa May break from Thatcherism and transform business? The Conversation, Arad Reisberg (19/7/16)
Democratise companies to rein in excessive banker bonuses The Conversation, Prem Sikka (14/3/16)
Theresa May promises worker representatives on boards Personnel Today, Rob Moss (11/7/16)
If Theresa May is serious about inequality she’ll ditch Osbornomics The Guardian, Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs (19/7/16)
Theresa May should beware of imitating the German model Financial Times, Ursula Weidenfeld (12/7/16)
- To what extent is the pursuit of maximum short-term profits in the interests of (a) shareholders; (b) consumers; (c) workers; (d) suppliers; (e) society generally; (f) the environment?
- How could British industry be restructured so as to encourage a greater proportion of GDP being devoted to investment?
- How would greater flexibility in labour markets affect the perspectives on company performance of worker representatives on boards?
- How does worker representation in capitalism work in Germany? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model? (See the panel in the Personnel Today article and the Financial Times article.)
- What do you understand by ‘industrial policy’? How can it be used to increase investment, productivity, growth and the pursuit of broader stakeholder interests?
Evidence of widespread tax avoidance has featured heavily in the news recently. Furthermore, recent developments also suggest that avoiding taxes has become an important motivation for merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. For example, Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant that producers Viagra, has for a while been looking to expand through M&A. Following a failed attempt to merge with the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in 2014, it instead agreed late last year to merge with a company called Allergan. This was set to be the largest healthcare merger ever, worth over £100bn.
What is key about Allergan is that, whilst it is run from the USA, it is legally registered as being based in Ireland. It has been strongly argued that the key motivation for the merger was tax avoidance with Pfizer’s strategy described in this way:
They look for a likely partner based in a country with a lower corporate tax regime and suggest a merger. When the merger goes through, the company based in the US moves its HQ – but not the bulk of its operations – to the low-tax jurisdiction, where it books the bulk of its profits. At a stroke, the company’s tax bill is cut.
This practice is sometimes referred to as an inversion. It has been suggested that over the past five years around 40 completed mergers have been motivated by similar objectives.
However, policy makers, in particular in the USA, where corporation tax is high, have increasingly become aware of the practice. President Obama recently made clear that:
If corporations are paying less tax, only one of two things can happen. The US will have less to spend on schools, roads and public health, or taxes will have to be raised on the country’s middle class.
In 2014 some tightening of the tax rules took place, but with limited effect. Then, earlier this month President Obama implemented a series of new rules to attempt to prevent the practice. He stressed that these new rules would help to deter companies from taking advantage of:
one of the most insidious tax loopholes out there, fleeing the country just to get out of paying their taxes.
Almost immediately the Pfizer-Allegan merger was abandoned and Pfizer was required to pay a break-up fee of $150m to Allegran. The parties involved were far from happy and the chief executive of Allegran stated that:
For the rules to be changed after the game has been played is a bit un-American.
However, a spokesman for the White House responded that:
I think it is difficult to have a lot of patience for an American C.E.O. trying to execute a complicated financial transaction to avoid paying taxes in America, talking about what it means to be a good citizen of the United States.
As has been highlighted, the decision to immediately abandon the merger provides a clear indication that the business case and potential synergies arising from combining the two companies were far less important than the benefits from tax avoidance.
Where does the abandoned merger leave Pfizer? One option will be to consider alternative mergers. Perhaps reflecting this possibility, the share prices of foreign rivals such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline increased following the announcement that the Allegran deal had been abandoned. However, an alternative under serious consideration appears to be the opposite strategy of shrinking Pfizer’s operations. It has been argued that this would allow the company to be become more focused.
It remains to be seen in which direction Pfizer will go. However, what this example clearly illustrates is the impact changes in regulatory policy can have on firms’ strategic decisions.
Collapse of $160bn Pfizer and Allergan merger shocks corporate US Financial Times, Barney Jopson, David Crow, James Fontanella-Khan and Arash Massoudi (6/4/16)
It’s off: the end of Pfizer’s $160 billion Allergan merger The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur (6/4/16)
Pfizer and Allergan terminate $160bn merger following US tax crack-down The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (6/4/16)
- Who do you think will be the big winners and losers from the merger being abandoned?
- Why do you think break-up fees are used in merger deals?
- What are the pros and cons for Pfizer of continuing to pursue M&As rather than downsizing?
- Are there any alternative strategies it might consider?
There has been a link between Sainsbury’s and Argos, with Sainsbury’s offering Argos concessions in some stores. But now, we’re looking at a much more significant link, with Sainsbury’s offering £1.3 billion for control of Home Retail Group’s Argos.
Many have questioned the sense of this offer, wondering what Sainsbury’s will gain from purchasing Argos, but Sainsbury’s has indicated it will boost sales, give itself access to a more advanced delivery network and Argos customers. Argos has worked hard to update its image, moving towards a more technology based catalogue and promising same day delivery in a bid to compete with companies, such as Amazon.
Online delivery is a costly business, with suggestions that retailers make losses on each delivery and hence pay customers to shop online. This move by Sainsbury’s may therefore be an investment in expanding its online delivery services and using the infrastructure that Argos already has. This will therefore help Sainsbury’s to invest in this sought after customer service, without having to invest millions into providing the infrastructure in the first place. This move may give Sainsbury’s a first mover advantage in the grocery sector, which may force other competitors to follow suit.
We could write for hours on the ins and outs of this potential deal and undoubtedly commentators will argue both for and against it. The following articles consider the good and bad sides and the future of grocery retailers in the UK.
Why does Sainsbury’s want to buy Argos? BBC News, Katie Hope (01/02/16)
Sainsbury’s agrees terms to buy Home Retail Group in £1.3bn deal The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Sarah Butler (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s bets on Argos takeover for digital age Reuters, James Davey and Kate Holton (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s returns with £1.3bn offer for Argos The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans and Ashley Armstrong (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s could shut up to 200 Argos stores Sky News (12/01/16)
Sainsbury’s strikes deal to buy Home Retail Group Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Arash Massoudi and Josh Noble (02/02/16)
- What are the benefits to Sainsbury’s of taking over Argos?
- Why have many critics been surprised by this take-over?
- What is meant by a first mover advantage?
- Do you think that grocery retailers should diversify further or focus on their core business?
- Commentators suggest that delivery costs more to retailers than the price charged to consumers. Can you illustrate this using cost and revenue curves?
- Online delivery infrastructure is a big fixed cost for a firm. How will this change the shape of a firm’s cost curves and what impact will this have on profits following changes in market output?
- Do you think this take over will cause any concerns by competition authorities?