GAMBLING on elections is an invitation for corruption, say two independent MPs who want it banned ahead of the September 14 poll.
Senator Nick Xenophon will introduce legislation to ban gambling on the outcome of state or federal elections, after one betting agency took out a full-page advertisement to promote its markets for this year’s vote.
Does Xenophon really think that a political party will throw an election to win a bet? I’m happy to believe that a sportsman or sports team might do that – after all they play every week or so. But an election that happens every three or four years with the spoils of public office up for stake? No, I don’t think so. But wowsers never apply logic to their thinking – like all puritans they have the nagging suspicion that somebody, somewhere is enjoying themselves.
One way to get a better sense of the future is to turn to prediction markets, which have proven surprisingly accurate in forecasting election results. Such markets aggregate information from a large number of individuals, weighting it in proportion to each person’s degree of certainty about the outcome. Ask experts what they think will happen, and you’ll discover that talk can be pretty cheap. But ask those experts how much money they’d wager that the predicted event will come to pass, and you’ll find out how confident they really are.
Over the past decade, a wealth of evidence has accumulated on the power of prediction markets. In the words of George Mason University’s Robin Hanson: ‘in every known head to head field comparison between speculative markets and other social institutions that forecast, the markets have been no less, and usually more, accurate. Orange Juice futures improve National Weather Service forecasts, horse race markets beat horse race experts, Oscar markets beat columnist forecasts, gas demand markets beat gas demand experts’. And many firms – including General Electric, Google, Hewlett Packard, Nokia and Pfizer – have established internal prediction markets to shape their decision-making.
Prediction markets are not perfect, but many of the early critiques turn out to have been overblown. Trading volumes are generally thick enough to provide good estimates, and arbitrage opportunities are rare. Market manipulation is difficult, and prices generally revert to their true value as smart money happily soaks up ideological wagers. Structural details – such as whether the markets are run as betting markets or futures exchanges – do not seem to matter much.
At risk of undermining my own status, the strongest argument for prediction markets is the abysmal record of expert commentators in forecasting the future. One study that followed up the forecasts of several hundred political and economic pundits concluded that their forecasts were about as accurate as would have been produced by a team of dart-throwing monkeys. Armed with grand theories, experts are often too slow to adapt their ideas to fit the facts.
Allowing betting on future events will create greater competition in the forecasting market, and increase the precision with which we can anticipate coming events. In a volatile world, a little more certainty about the future has substantial value. Time for policymakers to take a bet on prediction markets?
So rather than banning them prediction markets should be encouraged. So what is the problem?
Part of the problem is regulatory – gambling laws treat a bet on an important event the same way they treat a bet on two flies crawling up a wall. This ignores the fact that there is a public benefit to improving our knowledge about future macroeconomic and disease events. Governments should lightly regulate – if not subsidise – prediction markets.
Well – I wouldn’t be subsidising them, but removing barriers to entry would be a good start.