Discrete Actions and Inverted Incentives

I remember, about a year or so back, the US weekly non-farm payroll data had shown an uptick in unemployment. Intuitively, a higher unemployment rate indicates lower economic activity, since (among other things) the average purchasing power goes down and fewer things are getting produced (since fewer people are at work). So you would expect the stock market to react to this by going down.

The exact opposite happened. The higher unemployment was greeted with a big rise in the S&P 500. I remember tweeting about it but can’t find it now. But I can find some research someone has done about this:

But here’s the kicker: the S&P500 is inversely related to the unemployment rate, and thus the market actually goes up as a response to a release of a higher than expected unemployment rate. This may seem illogical conceptually, but historical analysis and statistics show that it is true.

In the last 3 years, the unemployment rate in the United States has been surprisingly higher than expected 11 times. The result? The S&P500 went up 80% of those times within a time-frame of 90 minutes (see Fig. 2, click to enlarge the image).

The basic issue (as I see it) is that higher unemployment means lesser likelihood that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates. Which means lower rates for the longer foreseeable future, which translates to higher stock prices.

The kicker here is the “discrete action” on part of the Fed. Because their decision (on whether to hike rates or not) is binary, news that decreases their odds of hiking rates, even if it (the news) is bad for the market, leads the market to go up.

You can see this in action elsewhere as well. Let’s say you are the number two at a manufacturing plant, and you are not happy with the way things have been run. However, you know that with the current level of production, the company management will not bother – they only see the numbers and see that the plant is being run well, and they won’t listen to you.

However, if the production drops below a certain level, the management is certain to review the operations, at which point you will be able to make your point to them and be heard, and you will be able to hopefully better influence how the plant is run.

Normally, your incentive is in keeping production as high as possible. But now, with this discrete action (management’s review of your operations) in the picture, your incentives get reversed. It suddenly becomes rational for you to not work so hard to increase production, since lower production means higher chance of a management review.

The problem with a lot of standard economics teaching is that it abstracts away the messiness of real world “step functions” and instead uses a deceptively simple continuously increasing or decreasing demand and supply curves. And so we are conditioned to think that incentives are linear as well.

However, given the step functions inherent in everyday business (which are only made worse (steps become steeper) with discrete actions), the incentives are not linear at all, and there are points in the curve where incentives are actually inverted! And this is everywhere.

I’m writing this on a lazy Sunday morning, having postponed this for over a week, so no enthu da to make pictures and explain my point. However, I guess I’ve explained sufficiently for you to catch my pOint.

Actually – since I have an iPad with a pencil, I did make a simple sketch. Limited by my drawing (and mentally adding curves) skillsBasically normal incentives is like the red line, but the discrete action (modelled here like a negative sigmoid) means that there is a region where the overall payoff is massively downward sloping. Which means your incentives are inverted.

Gamification and finite and infinite games

Ok here I’m integrating a few concepts that I learnt via Venkatesh Guru Rao. The first is that of Finite and Infinite games, a classic if hard to read book written by philosopher James Carse (which I initially discovered thanks to his Breaking Smart Season 1 compilation). The second is of “playflow”, which again I discovered through a recent edition of his newsletter.

A lot of companies try to “gamify” the experiences for their employees in order to make work more fun, and to possibly make them more efficient.

For example, sales organisations offer complicated incentives (one of my historically favourite work assignments has been to help a large client optimise these incentives). These incentives are offered at multiple “slabs”, and used to drive multiple objectives (customer acquisition, retention, cross-sell, etc.). And by offering employees incentives for achieving some combination of these objectives, the experience is being “gamified”. It’s like the employee is gaining points by achieving each of these objectives, and the points together lead to some “reward”.

This is just one example. There are several other ways in which organisations try to gamify the experience for their employees. All of them involve some sort of award of “points” for things that people do, and then a combination of points leading to some “reward”.

The problem with gamification is that the games organisations design are usually finite games. “Sell 10 more widgets in the next month”. “Limit your emails to a maximum of 200 words in the next fifteen days”. “Visit at least one client each day”. And so on.

Running an organisation, however, is an infinite game. At the basic level, the objective of an organisation is to remain a going concern, and keep on running. Growth and dividends and shareholder returns are secondary to that – if the organisation is not a going concern, none of that matters.

And there is the contradiction – the organisation is fundamentally playing an infinite game. The employees, thanks to the gamified experience, are playing finite games. And they aren’t always compatible.

Of course, there are situations where finite games can be designed in a way that their objectives align with the objectives of the overarching infinite game. This, however, is not always possible. Hence, gamification is not always a good strategy for organisations.

Organisations have figured out the solution to this, of course. There is a simple way to make employees play the same infinite game as the organisation – by offering employees equity in the company. Except that employees have the option of converting that to a finite game by selling the said equity.

Whoever said incentive alignment is an easy task..


Cafe Coffee Day doesn’t serve Espresso!

Yeah, you read that right!

A weird thing happened this evening. I was at the Cafe Coffee Day outlet on Richmond Road this evening meeting someone, and asked for an espresso. The lady at the counter said that espresso wasn’t available, and if I could have Americano instead.

Now, while the coffee at CCD is generally not of the highest quality (it’s basically a meeting space for rent, and the coffee is incidental), I like to have coffee that is of at least somewhat reasonable quality, and on that count their espresso generally does well. When they have it of course.

When the lady told me that espresso wasn’t available, it was hard to believe, and I pressed to find out why that was the case. They could serve Americano (which is Espresso with hot water), or Cappuccino (Espresso with steamed and foamed milk), but not Espresso.

How were they able to make Americano or Cappuccino without the ability to make Espresso. It turned out that the coffee machine was working fine, and they could turn out an Espresso, except that the cup in which Espresso is served was out of stock.

A short argument later (they agreed to make a “cappuccino without milk” but they’d charge the cappuccino price for that), I demanded to see the manager. And then I decided to take down the name of the person at the counter on my phone. At which point an even more bizarre thing happened.

She suddenly fled to take cover behind the counter! She just wouldn’t let me see her name tag, and she wouldn’t come out from behind the counter. And that also effectively meant that the cafe was refusing to serve us, since nobody was willing to take our order – thus forcing us to deny them of their business!

The person I was meeting presently mentioned that there was a Barista not far from there, and a quick walk later, I was sitting down with a cup of double shot espresso there (it’s one of the very few Baristas still operational in Bangalore).

The funny thing is that Barista served me the espresso in a mug that is not normally used to serve Espresso! Maybe there’s really a shortage of Espresso cups in Richmond town!

If anybody from the company is seeing this, this happened today (15th June 2016) at around 5:30 in the evening at the Richmond Road outlet (opposite HDFC Bank). It seems like it’s the result of some messed up incentive structure for employees. 

I have experience in designing salesperson compensation structures, and would be happy to structure a better incentive scheme for the company (for a fee of course)! 

Baptists and Bootleggers: Karnataka Edition

“Baptists and bootleggers” is a popular concept in economics. It is used to illustrate that in the absence of sound economic thinking, good intentions don’t count for much. According to this concept, baptists want to ban the sale of alcohol on Sundays because it is the day of the lord, and they don’t want people to be drinking that day. And this plays out directly into the hands of bootleggers – who make a living supplying people their booze on Sundays.

So by calling for the sale of liquor to be banned on Sundays, baptists are essentially encouraging an illegal activity and an illegal trade. If not for the baptists, people would be able to buy their liquor legally on Sundays, and bootleggers would be out of business.

There is also a social cost to policies like this – by pushing an activity (such as the sale of liquor on Sundays) underground, you encourage nefarious elements to get into business, rather than keeping it in clean hands. And this is likely to increase the overall rate of crime.

Thus, by their supposedly moral position that alcohol should not be sold on Sundays, baptists actually end up unintentionally encouraging crime!

A similar story to this has been playing out in Karnataka in the last twenty years. For whatever reason, in 1993, the government of Karnataka decided to freeze the total number of liquor licenses in the state. Since 1993, if you want to open a bar or a liquor shop, you need to purchase a license from the secondary market. Effectively, for every new liquor outlet, some outlet somewhere in the state has to close down (whether such closure is usually voluntary or not is left as an exercise to the reader). This increases the cost of liquor intermediation in the state and leads to higher prices for the consumer.

While higher prices may be desirable for “sin goods” such as liquor, there is a better way for the government to increase consumer prices – by levying higher taxes, which ensures that the additional money thus paid by the consumer flows into the government coffers. By limiting the number of licenses, however, the government doesn’t get extra revenue.

Instead what this encourages is illegal sale of liquor! That there is a limit on the number of liquor licenses doesn’t push down people’s need for liquor. And they end up buying liquor from illegal sources and bootleggers, and it becomes difficult to maintain quality and hygiene standards on such sales. And with a bar having to close down for every new one that needs to open, you might imagine the kind of characters that might get involved in the process.

Back in 2008, a friend was trying to start a lounge bar, and he mentioned that he had to pay up to the tune of Rs. 30 lakh to get his license, while the official price is about a tenth of the amount. It is obvious that not all the money he paid for his license went to the government’s coffers.

Where do the baptists come here? Because every time there is a proposal to increase the number of liquor licenses, you will have a wave of morality which protests this decision. They are the baptists who keep Karnataka’s bootleggers in business.

Also read this piece on the funny rules of Karnataka’s liquor licensing regime.

FDI in retail

I’m trying to figure why that is turning out to be a big deal. Given that we have over 5 years of history of “organized retail” in India, and that it hasn’t performed particularly well on a lot of factors, I don’t know how permitting FDI in multi-brand retail is going to make a difference.

In my personal experience, the performance of “modern retail” over the last 5 years has been underwhelming at best. I can’t recall a single time when I’ve gone to one of these chain stores (Big Bazaar/ Reliance Fresh / More) and come back without getting annoyed with the checkout staff. While the variety available at these stores is massive, which is why I go there at times, the stores are all staffed with a bunch of imbeciles. Yes, all of them. They have made an attempt to overcome the unskilled staff by means of “software systems” and that has only added to the problem, rather than helping solve it.

On countless occasions, staff at modern retail outlets have refused to sell me something that I wanted to buy because “the item code wasn’t found in the system”. The other day the customer in front of me wanted to cancel an item midway through checkout, and the checkout staff had to call the store manager to reverse the transaction. I don’t know why the systems have been designed so badly. The fundamental problem with most of these “modern retail” outlets is that the staff there have no real incentive to actually sell you stuff, and the impression one gets is that the only thing staff strive to do is to avoid mistakes. Perhaps their incentives are structured thus. I know of a case from some 4-5 years back, when a family-owned opened across the road from a More outlet and in the course of a year, the latter had shut down.

Given this lacklustre performance of modern retail, I don’t know how much of a difference permitting FDI in the sector will achieve. Yes, it is argued that if Walmart invests directly the “know-how” it has accumulated over the years will be introduced to India. However, there is no reason to believe that this “know-how” has not already been implemented. Major players in organized retail such as Reliance and the Aditya Birla Group (More) have demonstrated in other sectors of their willingness to acquire know-how from across the globe, and implement it better than their global counterparts. Then, most major management consultants in India have established retail practices, which is another route for “knowledge import”. It is also not an issue of capital – Indian investors in various sectors have time and again shown that they are willing to invest in companies with strong business practices.

The problem with modern retail lies not with either know-how or investment. The problem is one of implementation, and I don’t see how bringing in Walmart (who have little idea of Indian markets) can make a difference there. FDI in retail is not going to solve this problem.

The real problem lies in bottlenecks higher up the food supply chain. Various states are yet to repeal the archaic APMC Act which gives certain people monopoly over food trade in certain areas. There are various restrictions on movement of goods across states (though this should be lesser of a problem once the GST (Goods and Service Tax) Regime comes into play). Time and again, the government acts arbitrarily in changing the rules concerning movement, import, export and “support price” of commodities, and this creates uncertainty in the market and scares away investors.

It is reforms higher up the supply chain that are crucial in order to make the food supply chain more efficient and reduce wastage. The government would do well to put the topic of retail FDI on the backburner (especially since it’s controversial) and instead focus on enabling the rest of the supply chain to become more efficient.

Partners and Associates

Last week I’d written this post about managing studs, and while discussing that with some colleagues the other day, I realized that I could reformulate it without touching upon the studs and fighters theory. So let us consider a consulting firm. There is a partner, whose sole job is to solicit business for the firm, and to get the lion’s share of the benefits. And there are associates, trying hard to get noticed and promoted, and working for this partner. It’s the associates who do most of the work. Let’s assume that the firm is in “steady state”, where as long as they don’t mess up, there is a steady stream of business assured.

Under this assumption, all that the partner needs to do is to ensure he and his team don’t “mess up”. He knows that he has the relationships to keep the work flowing, and given that he doesn’t really do any work himself, he doesn’t care about the nature of work, or whether his associates find the work challenging, or interesting, and stuff. As long as the tap is open, and he makes his “partner’s cut”, he’s happy.

Given this, his incentives are towards work that is hard to go wrong. “Steady” work, where expectations are likely to be high, but the downside risk is quite low suits him absolutely fine, and he seeks to find more and more of that kind of stuff. There is little chance that his relationships with his steady clients can go wrong in this kind of a situation, right? So he goes about trying to find work with a “short deep-out-of-money option” payoff.

What about the associates? There will be some of them that are already established, and known to these steady clients. They know that it’s only a matter of time before they get promoted and hit the partnership pot of gold. They’ve made their mark, at a time when they had the opportunity to do so, and now they only need to hold fort till the end of the rainbow. And they hold on, perfectly happy to do work in which things can’t go wrong.

As for the other associates, who are still looking to establish themselves? What they’d ideally like would be the opportunity for “big wins”, which will make them be seen, and noticed, and enable them to make the move up the ladder when the time is right. Given their current standing, they don’t mind taking the risk – they have little to lose in terms of lost reputation. On the other hand they have everything to gain from pulling off improbable big wins. Basically they ideally like the “long deep-out-of-money option” payoff.  But the stream of projects the partners and other associates prefer doesn’t give them the opportunity to go for this kind of payoff! So they are stuck.

So, if you are working in a consulting firm, which is in reasonably steady state, where the partners don’t take part in day-to-day work, and where you are not yet established, you need to think if you’re in the right place.

Maruti Worker’s Stupidity

I just read a long article in today’s Business Standard (how I used to miss the paper until I resubscribed to it last week!) about the ongoing labour struggles at the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar. So the workers there want to form a new union, and allow a whopping 33% of the new union’s members to come from outside the factory. And the management is understandably not accepting it.

That workers need a union is understandable. That the Manesar unit wants its own union disjoint from that in Gurgaon is understandable. But a third of its members from outside? What is the average worker in the factory who is supporting this new demand even thinking? How the hell is such a union going to represent him in any way?

Some simple arithmetic. Considering that the “outside third” is going to come from the CPI/AITUC, it can be assumed that they’ll vote in one bloc. So to get something passed, they need a further 1/6 of the total votes in the union. Which amounts to a fourth of the actual workers in the union. So, as long as something is supported by this “outside bloc”, it takes the support of only a fourth, a measly one fourth, of the “real members” to go through.

I understand that the “worker leaders” who are championing this ongoing strike will have some incentives in bringing in AITUC/CPI. But what’s in it for the average worker? If he were to think rationally, this new proposed union makes absolutely no sense for him. I guess (and hope) that the Maruti management knows this, that it is not in the interest of the average worker to join this union. And I hope they’re somehow using this fact in their ongoing negotiations.

Will be fun if the guys who tried to consolidate their own power by bringing in outside representation into the union get shafted.

Budget Analysis

So I finally finished going through today’s Mint and noticed that most of it was filled with analysis of the budget. I tried reading most of them, and didn’t manage to finish any of them (save Anil Padmanabhan’s I think). Most of them were full of globe, each had an idea that could have been expressed in a few tweets, rather than a full column.

Thinking about it, I guess I was expecting too much. After all, if you are calling captains of the industry and sundry bankers and consultants to write about the budget, I don’t think you can expect them to come out with much honest analysis. Think about their incentives.

As for corporate guys, you will expect them to make the usual noises and perhaps be partisan in their judgment. You can expect them to crib about those parts of the budget that shortchanged their company or industry or sector or whatever. But you don’t need them in an op-ed to tell you that – it is obvious to you if you read the highlights, or some rudimentary analysis that the paper anyway provides.

However, these guys won’t want to rub the ruling party the wrong way, so they fill up the rest of their essays with some globe about how it is a “progressive” budget or a “pro-poor” budget or some such shyte. So far so good.

The think tank guys are probably better. At least they don’t have any constituency to pander to, and they can give a good critical analysis. However, as academics (and most likely, not being bloggers) what they write is usually not very easy to read, and so what they say (which might actually contain something useful) can be lost to the reader.

The worst of all are the fat-cat consultants and bankers. The reason they write is primarily to gain visibility for themselves and for their firm, and given how lucrative government business is for these guys (look at the ridiculously low fees these guys charge for government IPOs, and you’ll know) they have absolutely no incentive to tell something useful, or honest. Again these guys aren’t used to writing for a general audience. So you can expect more globe.

All that I needed to learn about the budget I learnt by way of a brief unopinionated summary sent in an internal email at work yesterday (it took me 2 mins to read it on my blackberry). And also Anil Padmanabhan’s cover page article in today’s Mint.


I must mention I wrote this post after I’d read the main segment of today’s Mint. Starting to read the “opinion” supplement now, and it looks more promising


So on Sunday we went to this temple on the outskirts of Bangalore where the in-laws performed Satyanarayana Pooja. There was a small number relatives there, and a large gang on unknown people (it was essentially a public function). It’s a nice temple, dedicated to Shiva, and built in the Kerala style. I think it’s still work-in-progress, and there’s stuff to be done in terms of carvings and stuff. And it’s in a nice secluded spot which adds to the peace of the place.

So the temple has this policy of “annadaana” (rice donation), where they serve lunch to everyone who visits them around lunch time. I’ve written about temple meals before, and you know I’m not a big fan of them. That aside, there was this little act of forced idealism in this temple around meal time, which I wasn’t too happy about.

So the temple doesn’t invest in professional cleaners to clean the plates (I don’t understand why temples insist on serving meals in steel plates – the same is the case in Sringeri and Horanadu also). Instead, you are supposed to wash your plate and tumbler after you’re done eating. In theory this is a fine idea – if we are giving you free food, you might as well do this small help in terms of cleaning up after you. But the problem is this creates huge incentive problems.

There is a reason that public loos are seldom clean – there is no incentive for a user to keep the loo clean for the person who uses it after them. The only way a public loo can be kept clean is by employing paid labour to clean it, where it isn’t hard to align incentives of the cleaners with cleanliness of the loo. Similarly, why would you want to make a special effort into cleaning your plate when some unknown person who you’ll probably never meet in life is going to eat out of it next?

I appreciate the idealism  but the economics simply don’t work. To put it simply – cleaner plates implies greater satisfaction among people who are there at the temple to eat, which encourages repeated visits, which results in greater donations. I’m sure the little investment in people to clean the plates can be recovered many times over in terms of increase in donation. Still, they insist on imposing ideals on people..

I’m not really going to talk about the food. However, I want to briefly mention about the pooja itself, which went on for about double the time as a normal Satyanarayana Pooja (my wife and I performed one such the day after our wedding, so I know the “standard”). The pujari (who is responsible for building the temple) put in a lot of extra fittings, and a lot of the crowd (mostly people unknown to me – it was a public event) seemed to rather enjoy it. I think there is this misplaced notion somewhere that more rituals implies more good karma.

And on a related note, I fail to understand what people mean when they say “pooje is going on well” (I’ve heard this phrase too many times to not comment on it). Does it simply mean “there have been no disasters so far during the pooje” (I can’t think of any other meaning for it)?

Teaching Sustainability

So I was at an aunt’s place last night to celebrate Diwali, and we were celebrating with fireworks. Don’t raise a stink about my carbon footprint here since that’s besides the point. Also besides the point is that I spent a long time playing on the swing in my aunt’s house and thoroughly enjoyed himself.

So the deal is that most “night fireworks” are lit with sparklers (sursurbatti in Kannada). So in order to keep the fireworks going, it is important that there is at least one burning sparkler at any point in time. Now, it is a big pain to light a sparkler directly, using something like a matchstick or a candle. The easiest way to light a sparkler is from another sparkler. I’m reminded of the technical definition of a chain-smoker, who is defined as a smoker who uses only one matchstick a day – the rest of his cigarettes being lit from other cigarettes.

Anyways the point is that in order to light fireworks “sustainably” it’s important to keep a chain of sparklers going. It is important that before a sparkler burns out, you use it to light another, and so forth. That way you end up wasting little time in terms of lighting new sparklers from candles. So it is usually the duty of an “elder” (a role that I took upon myself last night) to keep the chain of sparklers going, so that the rest can have uninterrupted fun.

So what I found last night was that my niece and nephew, in their eagerness to play with fireworks, would end up taking sparklers from my hand faster than I could build the chain. It happened way too frequently. I would have just lit a sparkler when they would take it from my hands and not return it, thus preventing me from keeping the chain going. Clearly, they didn’t know how to light fireworks “sustainably”. They prioritized immediate gain to the “loss” in terms of time wasted in lighting new sparklers.

So it was down to incentives. Whenever the chain of sparklers was broken, it was up to either me or one of my cousins to make the effort to light a new sparkler “from scratch” and start a new chain. The kids weren’t involved in this, and were oblivious of the pain that their unsustainable practices caused. And got me thinking about how I could “safely” align the kids’ incentives with sustainability.

Soon the lamps in the garden ran out of oil, and that changed the whole ball game. Now, every time the chain got broken, someone had to go into the house to light a new sparkler and restart the chain. And being one of the younger ones around, it fell to my niece to go in each time the chain was broken and get her mother to light a sparkler. The incentives had changed.

Suddenly there was change in my niece’s behaviour. She suddenly became active in terms of keeping the sparkler chain going. She never took sparklers from me when I didn’t have a spare that would keep the chain going. When she saw sparklers in my hand burning out, she would bring new sparklers to me so that I continued the chain. Her change in behaviour was sudden, and significant. Her brother, who was deemed to be too young to run in to get new sparklers lit to start new chains, however continued in his profligate ways.

So this is like one of those posts that I call as “management guru” posts. Where I tell a long-winded story to describe a simple concept. The concept here being one of sustainability, and aligning incentives. So the point is that if you want to encourage sustainable use of natural resources, users’ interests should be aligned to sustainability. They need to be punished in the short run for drawing too much.