Monthly Archives: October 2008

I work as an escort in Canary Wharf. I wonder if you might have some sound business advice on how workers in my industry should tackle the sudden drop in demand following the collapse of Lehman Brothers?
Miss C

Dear Miss C,

I wasn’t aware that escort services were pro-cyclical, but I shall take your word for it. You have three options, none of them perfect.

One: relocate. Canary Wharf is a pure banking play, and you could seek a more diversified market. The West End is full of hedge funds, oil barons and old money. However, I recognise that it will take some effort to find new clients. The economist Steve Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh discovered, in a recent analysis of Chicago street prostitution, that the industry was very concentrated because prostitutes and clients would otherwise fail to find each other. You, of course, are not in quite the same game and may be able to relocate with ease.

Two: tough it out at Canary Wharf and hope that supply falls to match demand. Levitt and Venkatesh found that the supply of street prostitution was highly elastic in response to a demand surge. (The fourth of July holiday provokes a spike in trade for prostitutes – who knew?) Existing prostitutes would work longer hours, other prostitutes would travel to the area, and women who didn’t normally work as prostitutes at all would dabble in the business. This suggests that many of your rivals will find something else to do in the tough times.

Three: you may find that escort services are a little like estate agency, in that even severe demand shocks don’t tend to reduce fees. You’d find yourself well paid when in work, but frequently idle. That spare time could be used to study or find a part-time sideline.

I would give exactly the same advice to an estate agent.

Questions to

During the bail-out of AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – and, at the time of writing, the still unresolved debate over the bail-out of the entire US financial system – the phrase “moral hazard” has become popular, typically in conjunction with the phrase “privatising profits and socialising losses”. It’s easy to sympathise: the erstwhile masters of the universe seem to have forgotten the meaning of both “moral” and “hazard”. Why should they be helped now?

Still, we might usefully remember what the antiquated jargon “moral hazard” means. The term originated in insurance, recognising the idea that people with insurance may be careless – for example, paying for secure off-street parking looks less attractive if your car is insured.

Moral hazard can sometimes take extreme forms. According to the Florida newspaper The St Petersburg Times, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than two-thirds of insurance claims for the loss of a limb originated in the Florida Panhandle. At the epicentre, “Nub City” – the tiny town of Vernon, Florida – almost 10 per cent of the adult population had lost a limb. One man was said to be insured by dozens of companies when he lost his foot; fortunately he had been carrying a tourniquet at the time of the accident. He pocketed a million dollars. Another man shot his foot off – “while aiming at a squirrel” – just 12 hours after buying insurance. Now that’s careless – and that’s moral hazard in spades.

The rest of this column can be read here. Please post comments below.

Brandon Fuller explains at Slate’s new spin-off, The Big Money.

The best in-depth survey of auction theory is Paul Klemperer’s, here [pdf, technical].

The outstanding question here is, if the Treasury uses reverse auctions to buy up bank assets, how to adjust for the fact that not all bank assets are the same. No doubt a mere technicality…

Tim Harford’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.