Of Exams, Luck and the Paradox of Skill

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In last week’s column, I wrote about the role that luck, skill and hard work, play in exams. In this column, I plan to get into a little more detail on the issue.

Over the last few years, the media has made it a habit to splash the pictures of toppers of competitive exams as well as board exams (10th and 12th standards). Other than the fact that any sort of success needs to be recognised, such columns make for an inspirational read, particularly in cases where the toppers come from a poor family.

When it comes to competitive exams (from engineering exams to UPSC exams), there are magazines which interview toppers, in the hope of finding out the formula for success, so that their readers can benefit. And typically, most such news stories and interviews have more or less standard reasons being offered for success. These are hard work, family support and following a regular routine.

Of course, topping exams needs hard work and family support. But are these the only reasons? And if that is the case, how come two equally intelligent candidates, putting in the same amount of hard work and having the same level of family support, don’t perform at the same level in any exam? Because there is something known as the paradox of skill at work.

As Michael Mauboussin writes in The Success Equation—Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports and Investing: “As skill improves, performance becomes more consistent, and therefore luck becomes more important… In other words, if everyone gets better at something, luck plays a more important role in determining who wins.”

Mauboussin offers the example of a company. As he writes: “A company can improve its absolute performance, for example but it will remain at a competitive parity if its rivals do the same.” In this situation whether the company does better than its rivals, depends on luck. As Mauboussin writes: “When everyone in business, sports, and investing copies the best practices of others, luck plays a greater role in how well they do.”

How does this apply in the context of exams? Most people prepare for exams these days by going to coaching institutes and if not that, at least using study material provided by coaching institutes. This is typically true more for competitive exams. But it is also true for board as well as BA/BSc/BCom exams in many states.

Given this, a significantly large pool of candidates which has access to the same study material and is also more or less equal on other parameters, faces the paradox of skill. In this situation, who comes out on top or even qualifies in a competitive exam, depends on their luck on the day of the exam.

Let me give you an example from my life. When I first wrote the Common Aptitude Test (CAT) for admission into the IIMs and other MBA colleges, I had prepared decently for the exam. The city that I grew up in did not have a CAT exam centre. So, I had to go to another city to write the exam. I spent a sleepless night in the hotel overnight. And this clearly had an impact on my performance in the exam.

If the examination centre had been in the same city that I grew up in, my performance in the exam would have been significantly better. But this was how the luck of the draw turned out.

The same logic applies to toppers as well. Of course, they need to work hard, but they also need to be lucky on day of the exam. This could mean anything from sleeping well overnight to being able to reach the exam centre on time to not becoming obsessed with a question they are not able to solve.

The media focus on the toppers does injustice to many others who do not come out on top, but are equally intelligent. It’s just that on the day of the exam things didn’t work out as well for them, as they did for the toppers. And there is no second chance.

The column originally appeared on June 28, 2017 in the Bangalore Mirror.

 

 

Luck, Skill or Something Else?

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This is that time of the year when various examination results get published. And I happen to be in Delhi, where my parents and a bulk of my relatives live. So, I have been listening to a few interesting stories around examination results.

More than the individuals writing the exams, it is interesting to see how their parents react, once the results are out. If a child does well, it is always because of his hard work and the adjustment his or her parents had to make in order to ensure that he or she could totally concentrate on studies.

If a child doesn’t do well, then it is almost always because circumstances beyond their control. Excuses start to spring up. Here are a few that I have heard over the years: He or she wasn’t keeping well through the period of the examination; there was a power cut the night before the Maths exam and he couldn’t do well; the invigilator took away his paper five minutes before the time got over (this seems to be a favourite with parents).

As Robert H. Frank writes in Success and Luck—Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy: “[A] disconnect between evidence and belief is people’s tendency to underestimate good fortune’s role in success, while being too quick to embrace bad luck as an explanation of failure… People want to feel good about themselves, and they’re more likely to enjoy the warm glow of a positive self-image if they think of themselves as highly competent and attribute their failures to events beyond their control.”

But the point is that luck plays a role both ways—in success as well as failure in exams, even though we like to bring only bad luck into the picture. Let me share a few personal examples here even though it has been a long time since I wrote an exam.
When I was doing my MBA, there were two papers, Macroeconomics and Microeconomics, which were deemed to be the toughest of the lot. As luck would have it, I never got around to studying either of the subjects but passed both of them.

How did that happen? Before the Microeconomics exam, a friend took pity and taught me one chapter 30 minutes before the exam. A bulk of the questions came from that chapter. I scored all of them correctly and got more than the required 50 per cent. Hence, luck played a huge role there.

Luck, in the form of bad luck, also played a huge role for many of my friends who had studied everything else but missed out on that particular chapter.

When it came to macroeconomics, due to some organisational hassles, there was a holiday of four days before the exams. And that was enough for me to read large sections of the prescribed text book and pass the exam. Without the holidays, there was no way I could have passed the exam by just studying overnight.

These were two examples from my end. But all of us have such lucky streaks when we write exams over a long period of time from our childhood till our early twenties.
The issue is how should parents approach this. Should they tell their children about the role of luck? Or should they keep harping on the benefits of hard work? Or should they take the middle path, and tell their children that while hard work is important, luck has a huge role to play as well? And if they do this, will the children be able to understand this?

As Frank writes: “Parents who teach their children that luck doesn’t matter may for that every reason be more than likely to raise successful children than parents who tell their children the truth. When the going gets tough, as it inevitably does along almost every career path, someone who’s keenly sensitive to luck’s importance may be more tempted just to sit back and see what happens.” And no parent would want that to happen.

The column was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror/Mumbai Mirror/Pune Mirror on June 21, 2017.

The Mother Economy

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Gross domestic product or GDP, is one of the most used or perhaps abused terms in economics. The trouble is that too many people use it without realising that it is ultimately a theoretical construct and not a real number.

In the simplest terms GDP is defined as the value of goods and services produced in a country during the course of a year. The trouble is in defining what has a value and what doesn’t. As the old GDP joke goes, when a man or a woman marries his or her housekeeper, the GDP of the country goes down. This happens simply because the housekeeper was paid for doing the house work. The spouse clearly won’t be.

On a serious note, this joke shows a big loophole in the way the GDP is calculated. The calculation takes only paid work into account. The trouble is that unpaid work forms a very important as well as large part of the economy, though this is something that most people do not realise.

As Kate Raworth writes in Doughnut Economics—Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist: “If you have never really thought of it before, then it’s time you met your inner housewife (because we all have one). She lives in the daily dealings of making breakfast, washing the dishes, tidying the house, shopping for groceries, teaching the children to walk and to share, washing clothes, caring for elderly parents, emptying the rubbish bins, collecting kids from school, helping the neighbours, making the dinner, sweeping the floor, and lending an ear.”

Most of us do these things and don’t get paid for it. Nevertheless, they are a very important part of the lives that we live.

Raworth is British and hence, invocates the term inner housewife. In India, there are real housewives (not that they are not there in Britain) who just take care of the home. As per the National Sample Survey (NSS), for women in the age of 25-54, the labour force participation rate varies between 26 to 28 per cent in urban areas and 44 per cent in rural areas. Hence, most Indian women don’t work, in the conventional sense of the term. But they run their homes. Even young girls who are not married are expected to contribute towards house work.

All this never gets counted towards the GDP. As Raworth writes: “In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia… when the state fails to deliver, and the market is out of reach, householders have to make provisions for many more of their needs directly. Millions of women and girls spend hours walking miles each day, carrying their body weight in water, food or firewood on their heads, often with a baby strapped to their back – and all for no pay.” And given that there is no pay, the work does not reflect in the GDP.

In fact, economists have even put numbers to this unpaid work. “A 2014 survey of 15,000 mothers in the USA calculated that, if women were paid the going hourly rate for each of their roles – switching between housekeeper and daycare teacher to van driver and cleaner – then stay-at-home mums would earn around $120,000 each year. Even mothers who do head out to work each day would earn an extra $70,000 on top of their actual wages.”

This unpaid work which is a very important part of a running a household smoothly as well as bringing up a child, is not reflected in the GDP. And that is a real problem. This patriarchal attitude of economics as it is practiced, needs to be corrected in the years to come.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on June 9, 2017.

Which is the Biggest Hit of Them All?

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The race is on. Is it Bahubali 2? Or is it Dangal? Which is the biggest Indian hit film of all time?

For a brief period, it looked that Bahubali 2 with a worldwide business of more than Rs 1,500 crore, would take the top slot. Until Dangal opened in China. The movie has done a worldwide business of close to Rs 1,700 crore, with around Rs 900 crore coming from China alone.

This means that Dangal is the biggest Indian hit film of all time. Ironically, Bahubali 2 with collections of close to Rs 500 crore in Hindi, is the biggest hit in Hindi cinema (originally made in Telugu it has been dubbed into Hindi) of all time. Dangal made a little over Rs 387 crore in Hindi. On an all India basis Bahubali 2 did greater business than Dangal. Hence, within India Bahubali 2 is the biggest hit of all time.

There are many things that this analysis does not take into account. The first and foremost is the fact that no one is looking at the return on investment.

If a film made on a budget of Rs 15 crore does a business of Rs 60 crore, it earns a return of 300 per cent. In comparison, if a film made on a budget of Rs 100 crore does a business of Rs 200 crore, it makes a return of only 100 per cent, even though the overall business that it does is certainly more.

Hence, just measuring the revenue of a film gives a misleading picture. But this is the way analysis happens.  This convolutes the overall picture in favour of films doing big business, even though their return on investment may not be necessarily high.

The second point is inflation. The value of the rupee today is not the same as it was 50 years back or 20 years back or even a year back. Ticket prices have gone up over the years. In fact, in large parts of the country, film ticket prices have gone up much faster than the overall rate of inflation. When I was in college in the mid to late 1990s, the most expensive ticket was around Rs 11. Even if we assume a rate of inflation of 8 per cent per year over the last two decades, Rs 11 then is now worth around Rs 51.

In the big cities, where much of the film business happens, Rs 51 is simply not enough to buy a film ticket. Hence, films now make much more money than they did in the past because tickets even after adjusting for inflation are more expensive than they used to be.

As Diptakirti Chaudhuri writes in Written by Salim-Javed—The Story of Hindi Cinema’s Greatest Screenwriters: “In the first run, Ramesh Sippy [the director of Sholay] estimates Sholay made a staggering Rs 25 crore. To put this in perspective, it made more than eight times the production cost—which was the highest ever at that time.”

How does this number look if we were to take inflation into account? Chaudhuri estimates the prices have gone up eighteen times since 1975. This “would put just the domestic gross collection of Sholay at Rs 450 crores.” A price increase of 18 times over four decades means a rate of inflation of around 5.3 per cent.

This is just adjusting for inflation. If we take into account the excessive increase in ticket prices in comparison to overall inflation, Sholay would have made much more than Rs 450 crore, if we were to adjust for today’s reality.

It would have definitely made more than Bahubali 2 has in its first run in Hindi. Also, this does not take into account the fact that Sholay continued to earn money over the years, as it kept getting re-released. Now that is something that doesn’t happen anymore with most money being made in the first few weeks of the film’s release.

If we see the situation from this lens, things suddenly don’t seem like they are being projected.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 31, 2017.

Why Bangalore Came Last in IPL

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The Indian Premier League(IPL) is just about to come to an end. The Bangalore team did not do particularly well in this year’s edition and won only three out of their 14 games. They lost 10 games and one game was drawn because of rains.

The team was a finalist last year and lost to Hyderabad in the final. Given this, at the beginning of the 2017 season, nobody expected that the Bangalore team would come last among the 8 teams. Nevertheless, reasons are now being offered on why the Bangalore team did not do well this time around.

While analysing and offering reasons is fine, some of the cricket experts are now saying that they always knew that Bangalore wouldn’t do well this year. Multiple reasons have been offered. Here are a few that I have heard.

The captain Virat Kohli was injured and missed the first few games. KL Rahul missed the entire tournament because of an injury. Chris Gayle was not in his usual form. AB de Villiers was also injured and came in only after the first few games. One expert even said that the injury to batsman Sarfaraz Khan hit the team hard.  And hence, the team was never able to build the momentum that is required to keep winning T20 games.

While all this sounds fine, none of these reasons were offered at the beginning of the tournament. At the beginning of the tournament none of the experts said that they don’t expect the Bangalore team to do well this year. But now once the Bangalore team has not done well, they are busy coming up with various reasons to explain the non-performance.

And along with that they are convinced about the fact that they had always believed that the Bangalore team would not do well this year. As David Hand writes in The Improbability Principle: “After the fact, it’s easy to put the pieces together, and show how they form a continuous chain leading to the outcome.” Or to put it simply, everything is obvious once you know the answer. Hence, Bangalore did not do well because Kohli was injured and could not play in the first few games. Bangalore did not do well in these games and in the process, they were never able to build the required momentum which is an essential part of a tournament of this kind.

This kind of storyline could not have been offered at the beginning of the tournament. As Hand writes: “Before the fact, however, there are many pieces and potential chains and it’s just not possible to know which events fit together. This isn’t because there are too many pieces, but simply because they can be put together in a vast number of possible ways, and there’s no reason to select any one of them.”

Hence, before this year’s IPL started one did not know that Chris Gayle, the master of the T20 game, would have the kind of disastrous year he did. It was always difficult to predict that the likes of de Villiers, Travis Head and Shane Watson, brilliant T20 players in their own right, wouldn’t have much of an impact on Bangalore’s overall performance. Even Kedhar Jadhav burdened with the  responsibility to keep wickets, looked out of touch.

But all this and more can be now said with confidence, almost at the end of the tournament. As Hand writes: “Our innate tendency to retrospectively adjust a new recollection as new information becomes available, to identify the chain which led to the disaster and to say, after the fact, ‘Look, it was staring us in the face!’ is called hindisight bias.”

The point being that Bangalore lost because they did not score enough runs and they did not take enough wickets. Any analysis beyond this, is essentially hindsight bias.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 17, 2017

Why We Complete Reading Books We Don’t Like

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I love reading crime fiction. It’s my favourite weekend activity. It really relaxes me and gets me ready for the next week.

This weekend I happened to read this book called The Baltimore Boys by the Swiss author Joël Dicker. I read this book because I had particularly liked reading Dicker’s previous book The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a couple of years back.

Other than being a thriller with a great plot and several twists at the right places, the book also examined what goes on in a writer’s mind while he is writing a book. And that is something I enjoyed tremendously.

With this background in mind, I started reading Dicker’s new book The Baltimore Boys. This book at the same time is a prequel as well as a sequel to The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

Fifty pages into it, I knew that this book was nowhere as good as Dicker’s first one. It didn’t have the one liners that the first one did. Neither did it have the kind of intricate plot that Harry Querbert Affair did.

This disappointment notwithstanding I continued reading the 444 page book and finished it over one and a half days. Why did I do that? One was because I had been extremely impressed by Dicker’s first book and kept thinking all along that the second book is also building towards something. That something never came.

But more importantly I had become a victim of what economists call the sunk cost fallacy. This, despite knowing about it. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman defines this fallacy as “the decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available”.

I could have easily given up reading The Baltimore Boys, 100 pages into it, and spent my time reading something else, or I could have slept more over the weekend, or I could have seen IPL matches a little more carefully than I currently do. But I chose to finish reading The Baltimore Boys. This for the simple reason that I did not want to feel that I had wasted the time I had already spent reading the book. In the process, I ended up wasting more time on it.

This phenomenon is clearly visible in other things we do in life as well. Like books, we continue watching a move till the end even though half way through it we know that the movie is not going anywhere. The last time this happened to me was when I saw Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon. Bhardwajs reputation from his previous films made sure that I watched the movie till the end, hoping that something substantial might come up and I would miss it, if I chose to walk out.

The sunk cost fallacy is also visible in bad marriages and relationships. People remain stuck in them. If they get out of it, they will feel that all the time they spent on it was basically a waste. And to avoid that feeling, they end up wasting more time on it than they should have in the first place.

As Kahneman writes: “The sunk-cost fallacy keeps people for too long in poor jobs, unhappy marriages, and unpromising research projects. I have often observed scientists struggling to salvage a doomed project when they would be better advised to drop it and start a new one.”

In fact, sunk cost fallacy even leads to wars continuing longer than they should. As Richard Thaler writes in Misbehaving—The Making of Behavioural Economics: “Many people believe that the United States continued its futile war of in Vietnam because we had invested too much to quit.” This escalation of commitment led to the war lasting longer than it should have and in the process killed many more people. But that is not how things turned out.

To conclude, the funny thing is that you can become a victim of the sunk cost fallacy despite knowing about it, which is precisely what happened to me.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 10, 2017.

Price Fixing and the Law of Unintended Consequences

 

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One of the beliefs that governments and regulators have is that they can control prices. All that is needed is a government decree fixing the price of a particular product and everything will fall into place.

But is that how things eventually work out? The answer is no. The first point here is that letting the market work and evolve a certain price of a product is very important, otherwise it leads to unintended consequences.

The law of unintended consequences essentially states that purposeful actions of the government have unintended or unanticipated consequences, the noble intentions of the government notwithstanding. Take the case of glass production in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Everything was government owned and like other things, the government produced glass as well.

The idea of course was to produce different types of glass and enough glass. The trouble was that there was no pricing mechanism in place, which could inherently coordinate the demand and supply of different kinds of glass. All that was in place were government diktats.

As Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar writes in From Narsimha Rao to Narendra Modi—25 Years of Swaminomics: “In the absence of pricing mechanisms, Soviet planners set physical targets of glass production in terms of weight, factory managers started producing the heaviest sorts of glasses to meet plan targets. This meant shortages in terms of square feet.”

The planners then decided to shift the targets from tonnes to square feet in order to correct for this unintended consequence. “Alas, this induced factories to produce the thinnest glasses to meet targets, and much of it shattered,” writes Aiyar.

The point being that when the government tries to interference with a pricing mechanism of a product, it has unintended consequences which are not good for the overall economy. Aiyar provides another excellent example of this phenomenon, in his book.

He talks about the days when India had only two car companies Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles. Those were also the days when the government fixed the price of a new car. And this had unintended consequences.

As Aiyar writes: “There was a long queue of several years to buy a car, and only people with contacts could get early delivery. The price of new cars was controlled by the government in the 1970s, but not of old cars. So, second hand cars cost more than new cars! As an accredited journalist, I was entitled to a car from the government, and I bought a Fiat car for Rs 22,000 in 1972.  I sold it for Rs 35,000 after five years of use.” These days the moment a car leaves a showroom it’s price comes down by as much as 30 per cent.

Nevertheless, the government continues to believe in price control mechanisms. Recently, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, put a price cap on stents which are used to open blocked arteries in the heart. Of course, those who pass such diktats have really no idea of how any market economy works.

Companies in the high-end stent business now want to withdraw stents from the market because these high-end stents are no longer viable at the price set by the government. Also, as happens in most cases where prices are capped, eventually the market for stents will move into the black economy. Those who can afford it, will settle in cash, or simply go abroad and get the procedure done and get the best stent available.

The hospitals which obviously made a cut from the stents that they sold can simply charge more for other procedures, in order to ensure that their revenues don’t fall. From the little anecdotal evidence that is available that has already started to happen. There have also been newsreports of high-end stents disappearing from the market.

In a column in the Mumbai Mirror on February 18, earlier this year, Dr Sanjay Oak had made a very sensible suggestion when he said that the government should “adopt an a la carte approach, making available stents at Rs 7000, Rs 28000, Rs 85000 and uncapped”. The way things currently are, the government diktat treats all stents to be the same.

And this as we have seen is having and will continue to have unanticipated consequences.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 3, 2017