Auction Theory: 2020 Economics Nobel Prize

  • IASbaba
  • October 19, 2020
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Topic: General Studies 3:

  • Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization, of resources, growth, development and employment. 

Auction Theory: 2020 Economics Nobel Prize

Context:  In 2020 U.S. economists Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson won the Nobel Economics Prize for their work on commercial auctions, including for goods and services difficult to sell in traditional ways such as radio frequencies

What is auction theory?

  • Auction theory is a branch of economics that deals with, as the name suggests, auctions. 
  • Auctions are important to economists because they are the most widely used and also the most efficient mechanism to allocate scarce resources. 
  •  In particular, auction theory deals with the various ways in which auctions can be designed to improve seller revenues, increase benefits to consumers, or even achieve both these goals at the same time.

How is it relevant?

  • Throughout history, countries have tried to allocate resources in various ways. 
  • Some have tried to do it through political markets, but this has often led to biased outcomes. For Ex: The rationing of essential goods worked in State-controlled economies. People who were close to the bureaucracy and the political class came out ahead of others. 
  • Lotteries are another way to allocate resources, but they do not ensure that scarce resources are allocated to people who value it the most.
  • Auctions, for a good reason, have been the most common tool for thousands of years used by societies to allocate scarce resources. 
  • When potential buyers compete to purchase goods in an auction, it helps sellers discover those buyers who value the goods the most. 
  • Further, selling goods to the highest bidder also helps the seller maximise his or her revenues. So, both buyers and sellers benefit from auctions.
  • Whether it is the auction of spectrum waves or the sale of fruits and vegetables, auctions are at the core of allocation of scarce resources in a market economy.

What are the criticisms levelled against auctions and what are the economists contribution?

  1. Issue of Winner’s Curse
  • The most common one is that auctions can lead buyers to overpay for resources whose value is uncertain to them. 
  • This criticism, popularly known as the ‘winner’s curse’, is based on a study that showed how buyers who overpaid for U.S. oil leases in the 1970s earned low returns. Dr. Wilson was the first to study this matter. 
  • The rational bidders may decide to underpay for resources in order to avoid the ‘winner’s curse’, and Dr. Wilson argued that sellers can get better bids for their goods if they share more information about it with potential buyers
  1. Auction formats
  • Economists traditionally working on auction theory believed that all auctions are the same when it comes to the revenues that they managed to bring in for sellers. The auction format, in other words, did not matter. 
  • This is known as the ‘revenue equivalence theorem’. 
  • But Dr. Milgrom showed that the auction format can actually have a huge impact on the revenues earned by sellers.
  • The most famous case of an auction gone wrong for the seller was the spectrum auction in New Zealand in 1990.
  • In what is called a ‘Vickrey auction’, where the winner of the auction is mandated to pay only the second-best bid, a company that bid NZ$1,00,000 eventually paid just NZ$6 and another that bid NZ$70,00,000 only paid NZ$5,000.
  • In particular, Dr. Milgrom showed how Dutch auctions, in which the auctioneer lowers the price of the product until a buyer bids for it, can help sellers earn more revenues than English auctions. 
  • In the case of English auctions, the price rises based on higher bids submitted by competing buyers. But as soon as some of the bidders drop out of the auction as the price rises, the remaining bidders become more cautious about bidding higher prices.

Real world Contribution of Economists through better auction model

  • Dr. Milgrom and Dr. Wilson, however, are most popular for their contribution towards devising new, real-world auction formats. 
  • The combinatorial auctions designed by the duo, for instance, have been used to sell complex goods such as spectrum as bundles, instead of as individual units. 
  • Earlier, governments sold spectrum rights on a piecemeal basis, which made it unappealing to companies which demanded spectra in a bundle. 
  • This led to private speculators earning billions in the secondary market by reselling spectrum, while the government was starved of revenues that it could have easily earned with better auction design.


  • The contributions of Dr. Milgrom and Dr. Wilson have helped governments and private companies design their auctions better. 
  • This has, in turn, helped in the better allocation of scarce resources and offered more incentives for sellers to produce complex goods.

Connecting the dots:

  • Nudge Theory – 2017 Economics Nobel Prize winner

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