This year I stand to make $200 million more than Elon Musk

Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, recently announced his company had bought US$1.5 billion (almost A$2 billion) of Bitcoin. The announcement led to a flurry of enthusiasm and a quick surge in price for the controversial cryptocurrency.

This price bump has been good news for Musk in the short term. At one point, Tesla’s Bitcoin investment had gained more than US$1 billion in value. But can the enthusiasm be sustained? I think there is a good chance that over the next year the price of Bitcoin will drop towards its fundamental value, which is nothing.

If Bitcoin were to lose half its present value — which is not unlikely, given its extremely volatile past behaviour — Tesla will lose around A$1 billion. As Elon Musk owns about a fifth of Tesla, he would then be down A$200 million. In contrast, I own no Bitcoin so I will lose nothing, which means I will have done A$200 million better than Musk.

Why Musk’s decision is a bad thing
Musk is not doing Tesla’s shareholders any favours. If they wanted to be exposed to the rise and fall of Bitcoin they could just buy some themselves. Now they have no choice; if they want to invest in Tesla electric vehicles, they are also vulnerable to the vagaries of Bitcoin.

The usual justification for making investments more diverse is that it can reduce risk. But buying the extremely volatile Bitcoin will make Tesla’s earnings even more uncertain.

Nor is Musk doing his fans any favours. As a “rock star CEO” with more than 40 million followers on Twitter, his musings are widely reported in other media.

By publicly endorsing Bitcoin, Musk may lead some of his fans to invest in this highly risky speculative asset. They may not be as well placed as a multibillionaire to absorb any losses on their investment. (To be fair, Musk has warned them not to invest their life savings.)

Nor is he doing the inhabitants of this planet any favours. The generation of Bitcoins (known as “mining”) uses vast amounts of energy to power specialised computers solving complex but useless mathematical problems.

Why the competitive spirit can take over in auctions

Despite the pandemic, Australia is in the midst of a hugely competitive auction market. Sydney, in particular, is experiencing dizzying auction clearance rates and the Reserve Bank’s decision this week to keep interest rates extraordinarily low will no doubt keep auctioneers busy.

If you’ve ever taken part in an auction, you’ll know emotions can run high, and sometimes drive us to bid more than originally intended.

Our paper, published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, found the way auctions are designed and run can vastly increase competitive arousal in bidders.

That’s obviously valuable information for sellers. But if you’re a buyer, the good news is there’s a lot you can do to ensure your competitive spirit doesn’t leave you with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

To see just how far people were willing to go to win, we studied people’s behaviour in one of the most competitive bidding environments possible: a Dutch auction.

What is a Dutch auction?
Dutch auctions are a special auction format where the price starts unrealistically high and then comes down in increments and the first person to bid wins.

Originating in the Netherlands for the rapid sale of perishable goods such as flowers, these auctions are fast, exciting and ultra-competitive. Bidders put everything on the line with the timing of a single bid.

Bidders must trade-off between certainty and price: bid early to secure the item and you pay top dollar; bid later at a lower price and you risk losing to another bidder.

Dutch auctions run this way are not common in the Australian property market, but by studying how people behave in them we can learn a bit about how competitive spirit influences decision-making in other settings.

A strong sense of competitive spirit may be a human trait honed by years of evolution, but in a heightened competitive environment you may become more willing to take risks you otherwise would not.

You might find your focus drifting toward a different (and possibly dangerous) form of motivation — the desire to win at all costs.

In the battle over interest rates, it’d be unwise to bet against the RBA

After years of repeatedly missing its inflation target through too timid monetary policy, in the past week the Reserve Bank has decided to get tough.

Not only did it hold its closely watched cash rate target steady at 0.10% at Tuesday’s board meeting, it ramped up its efforts to defend its separate 0.10% target for the three-year government bond rate in the face of a mini-revolt by bond traders.

A few weeks back, some of the traders in Australia and elsewhere got it into their heads that big borrowing by governments would force up bond rates – a relationship that was once thought to be clear cut but hasn’t held for some time.

The traders sold government bonds issued by Australia and other nations, which in the case of the bond market, forces up the bond interest rate.

Then other traders piled on, partly because economic outlooks are improving and they thought governments might soon be issuing fewer bonds, and partly because they thought other traders might agree with the traders.

That’s right: “thought other traders might agree with the traders”.

Beauty contests can make markets mad

In financial markets you don’t make money by correctly guessing what will happen, you make it by correctly guessing what other traders think will happen.

One of the founders of modern economics, John Maynard Keynes, described it as a beauty contest in which judges are rewarded not for picking the most beautiful face, but for picking the face other judges will think is the most beautiful.

It’s like the rules in Family Feud.

The yield on Australian Commonwealth 10-year bonds climbed from 0.98% at the start of the year to 1.11% a month later, to an extraordinary 1.87% a month after that – a near-doubling in a matter of weeks.

Even the yield on three-year bonds, which the Reserve Bank has pledged to keep at 0.10% crept up to 0.13%.

Last Friday, the Reserve Bank fought back.

It bought extra bonds a day after completing its usual purchases on Thursday.

This Tuesday, in its statement after its monthly board meeting, it added nine words to its usual acknowledgement that “wage and price pressures remain subdued”.

Those words were: “and are expected to remain so for some years”.

Why do women get paid less than men? Hours and commuting provide clues

That Australian women earn less than Australian men is well-known. The latest calculation put the gap – the extent to which the average female full-time wage is less than the average male full-time wage – at 13.4%.

Women are also less likely to be employed than men, about 14% less likely, in part because women give birth to and are more likely to care for children.

What is less well known is that women are 32% less likely to work full-time than men and have an average commute that is 20% shorter.

Could women’s shorter hours (even when working full-time), and shorter commutes be part of the reason for the gender gaps in wages and employment?

If women are willing to endure longer periods of unemployment and lower rates of pay in order to get a job that provides their preferred working hours and commuting distances, it could be.

The Netherlands has similar gaps to Australia on all of these metrics.

Women commute shorter distances
In a study with Wolter Hassink of Utrecht University I used ten years of administrative micro data from Statistics Netherlands to examine differences in the experiences of men and women who had lost their jobs.

We limited the analysis to people who had lost their jobs when their employer went bankrupt, an event that affects men and women equally, and further limited it to workers with a job tenure of at least three years who had worked at least 20 hours a week before job loss.

The data covered the entire population of Dutch individuals, households and firms, providing precise information on the dates that jobs ended and the employment experience that followed.

Getting reemployed takes longer
We followed each individual worker for 61 months: two years before until three years after they lost their jobs. We defined workers who lost their jobs as a result of bankruptcy as those who lost their jobs between six months before and one year after a Dutch court declared their employer bankrupt.

Only six in 10 women were re-employed six months after losing their job, compared to seven in 10 men. Encouragingly, the women who did regain employment did it at no lower hourly wages relative to men than before.

Intriguingly, after the sacked workers were reemployed, the gender difference in both their hours of work and commuting distance became larger.