Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Behavioural Economics and Regulation

Below is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the irisheconomy.ie blog.

I have blogged before on the potential applications of behavioural economics to public policy in Ireland. A lot of attention has been given to policies that change individual behaviour in potentially welfare promoting directions (See Tim Harford’s summary of this in the FT). An interesting question is the implications of moving to a model of consumers with bounded rationality and self-control for regulation and competition policy. A number of recent documents in the UK and US are relevant for this.

This excellent FCA occasional paper examines the potential implications of behavioural economics for financial regulation. It should be noted that “nudging” is a subset of the policies that might follow behavioural market tests. Many of the potential policies discussed in this document are hard interventions rather than soft nudges. They also extend across regulators. For example, on page 45 they outline recent moves by Ofcom to ban autorenewal of internet contracts and OFT to ban certain types of gym membership contracts.

In some senses a more radical document by Barr, Mullainathan and Shafir from 2008 outlines a new approach to consumer regulation based partly on the notion of “sticky defaults” whereby firms would be required to default people into the most desirable option based on their characteristics and only move them if they make choices following being provided with clear information. Such models are discussed in relation to two markets fraught with behavioural bias and consumer exploitation, namely credit cards and mortgages. The document also sets out proposals for changing the incentives of brokers.

Far from the collection of isolated “nudges” that forms much of the public debate around behavioural economics, what has unfolded in recent years is a body of theoretical and empirical work that simply gives better predictions and foundations for regulation than what preceded. There are clearly many insights in this literature that have implications for Irish regulators and are worth debating further.

Examples of the applied questions raised by the recent literature include:

Should credit card variable and teaser rates be banned or at least taken out of the regular offers made to consumers?

Should mortgage providers be forced to disclose better deals available to their customers?

Should pay-day lenders be granted full access to the Irish market? If so, how do you regulate them?

Should autoenrolment proceed in Ireland, what provisions should be put in place so that companies do not exploit naïve consumers by charging fees well in excess of regular rates?

Do behavioural biases prevent annuities markets from functioning optimally?

Clearly, many of the above questions are more than just empirical questions or issues of economic theory. They also relate to political issues and wider issues of freedom of choice. Policies such as pension autoenrolment have proved quite popular as they are, in some sense, a win-win in encouraging savings among non-traditional savers and providing extra customers for financial providers. However many of the above policies are likely to be far more contested by interest groups and it will be good to have an open debate on their merits.


A reading list from my research blog here.

A short blogpost I prepared summarising the FCA document with some other readings on regulatory and consumer exploitation issues.

Pete Lunn at ESRI has written about policy implications in a number of documents (see recent OECD review paper here).

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