Richard Davies


Silicon Valley

The rise of microeconomics

The Economist

Microeconomics, eBay, Google, economists, reform

ON THE face of it, economics has had a dreadful decade: it offered no prediction of the subprime or euro crises, and only bitter arguments over how to solve them. But alongside these failures, a small group of the world’s top microeconomists are quietly revolutionising the discipline. Working for big technology firms such as Google, Microsoft and eBay, they are changing the way business decisions are made and markets work.

Take, for example, the challenge of keeping costs down. An important input for a company like Yahoo! is internet bandwidth, which is bought at group level and distributed via an internal market. Demand for bandwidth is quite lumpy, with peaks and troughs at different times of the day. This creates a problem: because spikes in demand must be met, firms run with costly spare capacity much of the time.

This was one of the first questions that Preston McAfee, a former California Institute of Technology professor, looked at when he arrived at Yahoo! in 2007. Mr McAfee, who now works for Google, found that uses of bandwidth fall into two categories: urgent (displaying a web page) and delayable (backups and archiving). He showed how a two-part tariff (high prices when demand peaks, low ones otherwise) could shift less time-sensitive tasks to night-time, allowing Yahoo! to use costly bandwidth more efficiently.

The solution—two types of task, two prices—has intuitive appeal. But economists’ ideas on how to design markets can seem puzzling at first. One example is the question of how much detail an online car auctioneer should reveal about the condition of the vehicles on offer. Common sense would suggest some information—a car’s age and mileage—is essential, but that total transparency about other things (precise details on subpar paintwork) might deter buyers, lowering the auctioneer’s commissions. Academic theory suggests otherwise: in some types of auction more information always raises revenues.

Read more at The Economist.