The Politics of Auctions

Over at Economic Principals, David Warsh has a nice post about how political considerations often limit the use of auctions in solving public policy challenges.

In principle, auctions are a powerful tool for allocating public assets in an efficient and transparent manner.  The FCC has had great success auctioning off portions of the radio spectrum, for example, and the Treasury uses auctions every week to sell the debt necessary to finance our government.  But other uses of auctions — e.g., to allocate landing slots at congested airports or to distribute allowances under a climate cap-and-trade program — face strong opposition from some businesses and some politicians. (ht: Marginal Revolution)

Google: Master of the Auction

People usually think of eBay as the master auctioneer of the internet age. As this month’s Wired points out, however, Google is the real master.

People usually think of eBay as the master auctioneer of the Internet age.  As this month’s Wired points out, however, Google is the real master.

Google famously uses auctions to decide which ads appear in which positions when you do a search.  But Google takes auctions much further:

Google even uses auctions for internal operations, like allocating servers among its various business units. Since moving a product’s storage and computation to a new data center is disruptive, engineers often put it off. “I suggested we run an auction similar to what the airlines do when they oversell a flight. They keep offering bigger vouchers until enough customers give up their seats,” [Google Chief Economist Hal] Varian says. “In our case, we offer more machines in exchange for moving to new servers. One group might do it for 50 new ones, another for 100, and another won’t move unless we give them 300. So we give them to the lowest bidder—they get their extra capacity, and we get computation shifted to the new data center.”

Auction the TARP Warrants

Treasury should give up on negotiated sales and simply auction the bank warrants it received through its TARP investments. Auctioning the warrants will enhance the transparency of the process, ensure that taxpayers get a fair return on their investment, free banks from the nuisance of government involvement, and allow banks, if they choose, to preserve needed capital.

Summary: Treasury should give up on negotiated sales and simply auction the bank warrants it received through its TARP investments.  Auctioning the warrants will enhance the transparency of the process, ensure that taxpayers get a fair return on their investment, free banks from the nuisance of government involvement, and allow banks, if they choose, to preserve needed capital.

Healthy banks are anxious to escape from the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program.  TARP capital seemed cheap at first since the government offered more generous financial terms than were available from private investors.  But now the hidden costs of government investments – compensation limits, tighter regulatory scrutiny, and a public backlash against financial bailouts – have become apparent.  As a result, many banks want to pay off Uncle Sam and free themselves from the TARP.

Repayment sounds simple.  Subject to regulatory approval, banks can simply write a check to Treasury that covers the amount of money they received (by selling preferred stock) plus any outstanding dividends.  But there’s a complication.  When Treasury purchased the preferred shares, it also received warrants to purchase common stock in the future.  To fully escape the burden and stigma of TARP, the banks thus need a way to get Treasury to relinquish those warrants.

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