Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hold Up Problem and Chicken Game - Why Cooperation Matters

Imagine that your are a property developer who wishes to build a new amusement park in certain city. The business prospect is good, and the city is also happy with the project since it will increase the city's tax revenues and improve the city's economic growth. But before you can start your dream project, you must first buy the necessary land from several owners. Here is when the problem starts. If you tell these owners that you are trying to build an amusement park above their land, each rational seller who maximizes his/her own interest might hold up the sale of his land, hoping that they can increase the value of their land as the number of sellers decrease. The smaller the number of sellers, the higher the gain that they can get from holding up their land. Of course this is detrimental to your project since it is effectively similar to a monopoly by the sellers and it increases the difficulties of settling the negotiation.

True, the sellers realize that the increase value of their lands owes to your proposed project. If they are being too greedy and you choose to abandon  the project, they will gain nothing. So there is a possibility that they will give up and sell their land with the maximum value that they think they can reap from you without making you cancel your plan. However, there would always be a possibility that one seller remains unwavering. Seeing that other people have already sold their lands, he understand that now his land has the biggest value of all and he knows that you don't have any choice other than buying his land in order to continue with your project. He also knows that you have already incurred a lot of money for purchasing the lands and you will need to start the project in order to recoup your initial investment costs. Effectively, you become a hostage of the final seller due to an increase of his bargaining power. This is what we call as the Hold Up Problem.

Hold Up Problem is a serious matter. If we don't find a good solution, Hold Up Problem can end up discouraging any form of investment that may benefit the society. Why? Because obviously, you don't want to waste your money for initial investment if in the end you will be ripped off by whoever holds the final trump card. The costs of investment will be too high and any rational person will eventually choose not to put the investment in the first place. As you can see, both parties and the society can be better off if only the parties cooperate, but because they can't trust each other, they fail to do so.

The case does not stop there. A Hold Up Problem can easily turned into a Chicken Game. Ever heard about this game? A good example is the famous scene in old US movies where two stupid kids are driving against each other on a collision course. If both of them stay in the path, they will die. But if one of them chooses to swerve from the path, both will survive, although the one who swerves first will be called as a coward chicken, hence why we call this as Chicken Game. Let us try to apply the basic principle of this game into our case above.

Once initial investments to purchase the lands have been made by you and there is only one seller remaining, you only have two choices. You can "swerve" by accepting the ridiculous demand from the seller and continue with the project (of course, you're being a loser here), or you can stay in the path and continue with the project even though you have not secure the land from the last seller. If you choose the latter, it is a disaster for both of you. Once the project has been started, the value of the seller's land will drop to virtually nothing. Who wants to buy a land in the middle of an amusement park that cannot be used for anything? For you it is also a problem since you will spend a considerable amount of costs to alter your project and ensure that it can be build around the remaining land. Both parties can be better off in this case if they cooperate and again, my analysis shows that they can end up with unnecessary losses.

So how can we solve the issue? Some people argue that Hold Up Problem can be solved through takeover or merger (it works on certain type of contracts), but we know for sure that in our case, the problem is the takeover itself, so we can skip that solution. I would think of two solutions. First of all, you can purchase the lands from the sellers without having to disclose your future plan for the land. As far as I know, there is no legal obligation to disclose the reasons for doing a transaction and this solution may work in case you can design a system that will not cause the sellers to suspect you of doing anything fishy.

Second, you can disclose your plan and then offer to buy the land of the sellers as a single package (everyone must sell their lands at the same time or the deal is off). By doing this, you prevent the possibility of having a Hold Up Problem in the future as the sellers will be required to act as an unity. Again, the solution might not guarantee that you can do your project but at least you won't be a hostage to certain sellers. Furthermore, in case the majority want to sell their land for a nice fortune, asking the sellers to sell their lands as a bundle will induce them to cooperate to reach the best conclusion for everyone and there would be pressures to sellers who refuse to sell without a good reason.

As you can see from the above, cooperation matters where there is an inherent collective action problem. The issue is to give the correct incentives that can promote cooperation among parties that might have different interests. In this case information matters. How we disclose the information in the first place will affect the strategy that we will choose to close the deal. Here I agree with the current legal regime that allows people to transact without having any obligation to disclose their purpose in doing such transaction. Requiring such obligation might be inefficient in case the information can be used for Hold Up purposes.

If you can propose other solutions that may be implemented to the above problem, feel free to give your comments. Who knows, we might end up finding a solution worth a Nobel Prize :)

3 comments:

fikafawzia Tuesday, November 22, 2011 2:59:00 PM  

Hmm, Prisoner's Dilemma. Well the government can impose a land sales gain tax to deter the ransom problem.

If it's a private transaction then withholding information may work, but if it's a public transaction (like infrastructure projects), once the information is out, the land seller will always try to negotiate for a betterment value.

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda Wednesday, November 23, 2011 4:00:00 AM  

Yes, Hold Up and Chicken Game are variants of the original prisoner's dilemma, although the problem is slightly different.

Imposing a land sales gain tax might be a good option to solve the Hold Up Problem if the amount is progressive but we won't do that since that may actually put a burden in the ordinary course of business and people might be induced not to enter into any high value transaction for the fear of high tax burden.

For public projects, we have different measure, i.e. the eminent domain concept where the government have the power to forcibly purchase the land and give a compensation based on the market value. The market value compensation might not necessarily satisfy all of the sellers but it is nevertheless the most efficient way to avoid Hold Up Problem. Plus, by imposing a mandatory market value compensation, we also try to avoid the rent seeking problem from the Government. So I think it's a different case.

economist Thursday, December 29, 2011 11:38:00 AM  

We can also "integrate" all involved parties in the value dynamics of the project. For instance, in addition to cash payment, landowners are also compensated with equities (of the amusement park project).

Everyone now shares both the upside and downside risks of the project.

The key is to find ex-contractual means of committing to rewards and prices.

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