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The Winner’s Curse: An Economic Anomaly

May 27, 2013 Leave a comment

My grandfather, William Campbell (1927-2013), played a large roll in theorizing the Winner’s Curse by applying physics equations to economics. The winner’s curse, in simplest terms, is the idea that the winner of a common value auction tends to overpay. Within competitive bidding, the winner’s chances of overbidding increase as the number of bidders, or consumers demanding the item, increases (Investor words).  Each bidder estimates a certain price; some overestimate and others underestimate. The one who overestimates usually wins, and therefore is “cursed” with an item that is not truly worth what he or she estimated for. Such a curse can occur in two similar, yet slightly different ways: the winning bid exceeds the value of the tract, so the firm loses money; or the value of the tract is less than the expert’s estimate so the winning firm is disappointed (Anomalies: The Winner’s Curse).

ImageWhile working for the Atlantic Richfield Company, otherwise known as Arco, my grandfather was summoned to his boss’s office and asked a simple question with a complex answer: how can we save money? After strenuous research and collaboration, the team of engineers and physicists discovered that competition within bidding creates an atmosphere that does not usually allow the winner to truly win. In order to understand such a concept, consider an auction of a piece of land that has five million barrels of oil beneath it. No one actually knows the value of the land; so, some engineers will overestimate the value of the property and others will undervalue it. Most likely, the company that overrated the property will be willing to pay more and thus win the auction. So, we can conclude that within “competitive bidding, the winner tends to be the player who most overestimates the true tract value” (Competitive Bidding in High-Risk Situations). The variable cost of oil does fluctuate as supply and demand increase and decrease, which creates even more risk in an already dicey oil business.

At the same time, the winner’s curse does not necessarily apply to an auction marketplace like eBay. The winner’s curse only applies to competitive lease sales, or an auction with limited supply and excess demand. Marketplaces like eBay and Craig’s List have more supply than demand, allowing consumers to search for the lowest possible price before purchasing an item; thus, producers compete and lower prices. The prices approach equilibrium. Within competitive bidding for a single item, the price cannot approach equilibrium because excess demand disallows such a balance.

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Not so fast

By no means is the winner’s curse a bid strategy; it is a mere analysis on what not to do. However, three simple rules can be followed to avoid being that guy who enthusiastically wins an auction only to watch his property slowly diminish in value: the less information one has compared with what his opponents have, the lower he ought to bid; the more uncertain one is about his value estimate, the lower he ought to bid; and the more bidders (above three) that show up on a given parcel, the lower one should bid.

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