The 2018 Fields Medal and its Surprising Connection to Economics!

The Fields Medal and Nevanlinna Prizes were given out today. They represent the highest honor possible for young mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists, and are granted only once every four years. The mathematics involved is often very challenging for outsiders. Indeed, the most prominent of this year’s winners, the German Peter Scholze, is best known for his work on “perfectoid spaces”, and I honestly have no idea how to begin explaining them aside from saying that they are useful in a number of problems in algebraic geometry (the lovely field mapping results in algebra – what numbers solve y=2x – and geometry – noting that those solutions to y=2x form a line). Two of this year’s prizes, however, the Fields given to Alessio Figalli and the Nevanlinna to Constantinos Daskalakis, have a very tight connection to an utterly core question in economics. Indeed, both of those men have published work in economics journals!

The problem of interest concerns how best to sell an object. If you are a monopolist hoping to sell one item to one consumer, where the consumer’s valuation of the object is only known to the consumer but commonly known to come from a distribution F, the mechanism that maximizes revenue is of course the Myerson auction from his 1981 paper in Math OR. The solution is simple: make a take it or leave it offer at a minimum price (or “reserve price”) which is a simple function of F. If you are selling one good and there are many buyers, then revenue is maximized by running a second-price auction with the exact same reserve price. In both cases, no potential buyer has any incentive to lie about their true valuation (the auction is “dominant strategy incentive compatible”). And further, seller revenue and expected payments for all players are identical to the Myerson auction in any other mechanism which allocates goods the same way in expectation, with minor caveats. This result is called “revenue equivalence”.

The Myerson paper is an absolute blockbuster. The revelation principle, the revenue equivalence theorem, and a solution to the optimal selling mechanism problem all in the same paper? I would argue it’s the most important result in economics since Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie, with the caveat that many of these ideas were “in the air” in the 1970s with the early ideas of mechanism design and Bayesian game theory. The Myerson result is also really worrying if you are concerned with general economic efficiency. Note that the reserve price means that the seller is best off sometimes not selling the good to anyone, in case all potential buyers have private values below the reserve price. But this is economically inefficient! We know that there exists an allocation mechanism which is socially efficient even when people have private information about their willingness to pay: the Vickrey-Clarke-Groves mechanism. This means that market power plus asymmetric information necessarily destroys social surplus. You may be thinking we know this already: an optimal monopoly price is classic price theory generates deadweight loss. But recall that a perfectly-price-discriminating monopolist sells to everyone whose willingness-to-pay exceeds the seller’s marginal cost of production, hence the only reason monopoly generates deadweight loss in a world with perfect information is that we constrain them to a “mechanism” called a fixed price. Myerson’s result is much worse: letting a monopolist use any mechanism, and price discriminate however they like, asymmetric information necessarily destroys surplus!

Despite this great result, there remain two enormous open problems. First, how should we sell a good when we will interact with the same buyer(s) in the future? Recall the Myerson auction involves bidders truthfully revealing their willingness to pay. Imagine that tomorrow, the seller will sell the same object. Will I reveal my willingness to pay truthfully today? Of course not! If I did, tomorrow the seller would charge the bidder with the highest willingness-to-pay exactly that amount. Ergo, today bidders will shade down their bids. This is called the “ratchet effect”, and despite a lot of progress in dynamic mechanism design, we have still not fully solved for the optimal dynamic mechanism in all cases.

The other challenging problem is one seller selling many goods, where willingness to pay for one good is related to willingness to pay for the others. Consider, for example, selling cable TV. Do you bundle the channels together? Do you offer a menu of possible bundles? This problem is often called “multidimensional screening”, because you are attempting to “screen” buyers such that those with high willingness to pay for a particular good actually pay a high price for that good. The optimal multidimensional screen is a devil of a problem. And it is here that we return to the Fields and Nevanlinna prizes, because they turn out to speak precisely to this problem!

What could possibly be the connection between high-level pure math and this particular pricing problem? The answer comes from the 18th century mathematician Gaspard Monge, founder of the Ecole Polytechnique. He asked the following question: what is the cheapest way to move mass from X to Y, such as moving apples from a bunch of distribution centers to a bunch of supermarkets. It turns out that without convexity or linearity assumptions, this problem is very hard, and it was not solved until the late 20th century. Leonid Kantorovich, the 1975 Nobel winner in economics, paved the way for this result by showing that there is a “dual” problem where instead of looking for the map from X to Y, you look for the probability that a given mass in Y comes from X. This dual turns out to be useful in that there exists an object called a “potential” which helps characterize the optimal transport problem solution in a much more tractable way than searching across any possible map.

Note the link between this problem and our optimal auction problem above, though! Instead of moving mass most cheaply from X to Y, we are looking to maximize revenue by assigning objects Y to people with willingness-to-pay drawn from X. So no surprise, the solution to the optimal transport problem when X has a particular structure and the solution to the revenue maximizing mechanism problem are tightly linked. And luckily for us economists, many of the world’s best mathematicians, including 2010 Fields winner Cedric Villani, and this year’s winner Alessio Figalli, have spent a great deal of effort working on exactly this problem. Ivar Ekeland has a nice series of notes explaining the link between the two problems in more detail.

In a 2017 Econometrica, this year’s Nevanlinna winner Daskalakis and his coauthors Alan Deckelbaum and Christos Tzamos, show precisely how to use strong duality in the optimal transport problem to solve the general optimal mechanism problem when selling multiple goods. The paper is very challenging, requiring some knowledge of measure theory, duality theory, and convex analysis. That said, the conditions they give to check an optimal solution, and the method to find the optimal solution, involve a reasonably straightforward series of inequalities. In particular, the optimal mechanism involves dividing the hypercube of potential types into (perhaps infinite) regions who get assigned the same prices and goods (for example, “you get good A and good B together with probability p at price X”, or “if you are unwilling to pay p1 for A, p2 for B, or p for both together, you get nothing”).

This optimal mechanism has some unusual properties. Remember that the Myerson auction for one buyer is “simple”: make a take it or leave it offer at the reserve price. You may think that if you are selling many items to one buyer, you would likewise choose a reserve price for the whole bundle, particularly when the number of goods with independently distributed values becomes large. For instance, if there are 1000 cable channels, and a buyer has value distributed uniformly between 0 and 10 cents for each channel, then by a limit theorem type argument it’s clear that the willingness to pay for the whole bundle is quite close to 50 bucks. So you may think, just price at a bit lower than 50. However, Daskalakis et al show that when there are sufficiently many goods with i.i.d. uniformly-distributed values, it is never optimal to just set a price for the whole bundle! It is also possible to show that the best mechanism often involves randomization, where buyers who report that they are willing to pay X for item a and Y for item b will only get the items with probability less than 1 at specified price. This is quite contrary to my intuition, which is that in most mechanism problems, we can restrict focus to deterministic assignment. It was well-known that multidimensional screening has weird properties; for example, Hart and Reny show that an increase in buyer valuations can cause seller revenue from the optimal mechanism to fall. The techniques Daskalakis and coauthors develop allow us to state exactly what we ought do in these situations previously unknown in the literature, such as when we know we need mechanisms more complicated than “sell the whole bundle at price p”.

The history of economics has been a long series of taking tools from the frontier of mathematics, from the physics-based analogues of the “marginalists” in the 1870s, to the fixed point theorems of the early game theorists, the linear programming tricks used to analyze competitive equilibrium in the 1950s, and the tropical geometry recently introduced to auction theory by Elizabeth Baldwin and Paul Klemperer. We are now making progress on pricing issues that have stumped some of the great theoretical minds in the history of the field. Multidimensional screening is an incredibly broad topic: how ought we regulate a monopoly with private fixed and marginal costs, how ought we tax agents who have private costs of effort and opportunities, how ought a firm choose wages and benefits, and so on. Knowing the optimum is essential when it comes to understanding when we can use simple, nearly-correct mechanisms. Just in the context of pricing, using related tricks to Daskalakis, Gabriel Carroll showed in a recent Econometrica that bundling should be avoided when the principal has limited knowledge about the correlation structure of types, and my old grad school friend Nima Haghpanah has shown, in a paper with Jason Hartline, that firms should only offer high-quality and low-quality versions of their products if consumers’ values for the high-quality good and their relative value for the low versus high quality good are positively correlated. Neither of these results are trivial to prove. Nonetheless, a hearty cheers to our friends in pure mathematics who continue to provide us with the tools we need to answer questions at the very core of economic life!

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5 thoughts on “The 2018 Fields Medal and its Surprising Connection to Economics!

  1. Patrick Carter says:

    Sorry for being dim but I don’t understand this “Note that the reserve price means that the seller is best off sometimes not selling the good to anyone, in case all potential buyers have private values below the reserve price. ” IIRC setting the reserve price as function of F is a way of maximising revenue. But if the seller merely wishes to make themselves better off by selling something for a higher price than they value it themselves (i.e. not maximising revenue) why would the seller not just set a reserve price some distance above their private valuation of the good? I don’t see how you’re “best-off not selling the good to anyone” if there is a buyer who will pay more than your private valuation. Of course if nobody will pay more than your private valuation, you don’t want to sell but that’s not inefficient.

    • drive-by commenter says:

      basically, in the second price auction, the winner pays the second-highest valuation. with a reserve price, the seller must commit to sometimes not selling and losing potential revenue, but in exchange they raise the selling price for situations when there’s some distance between the highest and second-highest valuations and the reserve price falls in between. remember that also the foregone revenue is at the bottom of the value distribution, not randomly plucked!

      • drive-by commenter says:

        also, if the seller has some reserve valuation, then there should be a reserve price at least at that valuation anyway! so the optimal reserve price *is* “some distance above their private valuation.” It’s just that, in the revenue-maximizing auction, sometimes you don’t sell even when there’s someone with valuation above yours.

      • Patrick Carter says:

        ah, thanks. So it’s something you do if you wish to follow a revenue maximising strategy

  2. The Myerson paper (1981) ended with a doubt whether buyer actions are independent, in industrial and business applications, they are not. For example an auction for Slag, which comes as a waste product from Steel is auctioned for the Cement buyers and each buyer has a different utility function and therefore different value proposition given that the product mix could be different (PPC Cement uses Fly Ash, Slag Cement uses Slag and Composite Cement uses a mix of varying percentage of Fly Ash and Slag depending upon their relative cost structure based on availability that also changes over time).

    This leaves us with an unsolved problem that when buyers can shift around their mix depending on the outcome of the auction, how would a repetitive auction design maximize revenue for the seller? A high reserve price in the first round could be detrimental to such a shift in the mix that in the second round there will be lukewarm response to the auction.

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