Thursday

August 6th, 2020

Insight

Would you bet against Trump in 2020?

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published Oct. 20, 2019

Each week brings a fresh batch of polls about the 2020 presidential campaign, but it's also worth taking a look at the prediction markets. They can be a very useful source of information, most of all as a check on the human tendency to overreact.

Prediction markets — there are several, which allow people to bet on a particular candidate — are a quick way to get an overview of the state of the campaign. President Donald Trump is currently at about 0.40 to be re-elected, which means that it costs about 40 cents to buy a share that pays $1 if Trump wins. Under normal assumptions about the uncertainty of future economic growth, the markets rate Trump's chances of winning at 40%.

Don't get too carried away inferring anything about the exactness of that estimate. Still, it is a useful corrective to the argument that Trump is toast — or, alternatively, that he is a shoo-in. The market incorporates the relevant uncertainties in both directions. (Interestingly, Trump's re-election odds have stayed pretty steady over the last week or so of negative news.) In many cases, prediction markets show greater stability than poll results over the course of an election cycle, as they "see through" the day-to-day volatility that may buffet the polls but not affect the final outcome.

You also will see that Elizabeth Warren is a clear favorite to be the next Democratic nominee. As of this writing, her nomination victory is selling at 45 cents on the PredictIt site. Joe Biden is a distant second at 20 cents. Other prediction markets offer slightly different prices, but the overall picture is broadly consistent.

Compare this picture to the one you get from reading the mainstream media, which tend to view Biden and Warren as locked in a close struggle (and sometimes even leave the impression that Biden is the favorite). Prediction markets have usefully disabused me of that notion. They have also made me think that a possible Hillary Clinton candidacy, while still unlikely, is perhaps an undercovered story.

You may find that notion absurd. But remember: It is not a valid criticism of prediction markets to say that they didn't predict Trump, say, or Brexit. The purpose of prediction markets is not to foresee particular upsets. They can, however, tell you in advance what would be an upset — much like probability theory can tell you that getting three heads in a row is unlikely but is of no help in predicting exactly when it will happen.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the casual use of prediction markets is that they can overrate the odds of underdogs. For instance, Andrew Yang has been hovering at about 10% for his chances of winning the Democratic nomination (meanwhile Kanye West has a 6% chance of running for president, with Mark Zuckerberg at 4%). I strongly suspect his actual chances are less than that.

Why might the market be wrong here? The most likely hypothesis is that Yang has some supporters who bet on him out of loyalty, much as some sports fans bet on their team regardless. At the same time, there aren't so many people who want to bet against Yang. This leads to a bias in his favor. Keep in mind that when you put money into these markets, you lock up funds for some period of time, and you run the risk that the intermediary cannot redeem winning bets in a timely manner. That leads to arbitrage — and the accompanying probability estimates will be imperfect, especially for smaller sums in the less liquid markets.

Prediction markets have another potential flaw: They focus attention on clearly demarcated events that are easy to bet on, such as who will win an election or whether Rudy Giuliani will face federal charges. Sometimes these are important matters. Other times they are not.

There are more meaningful trends that are more difficult to measure, such whether Americans are feeling more lonely. These things certainly have an impact on politics, but they are not easy to bet on. Political prediction markets are undeniably useful and very often enlightening, but maybe they should come with a warning: Feel free to check the odds as often as you like, but do not let your obsession blind you to the larger issues at stake.

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(COMMENT, BELOW)

Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

Previously:
09/25/19 The right industrial policy for America
09/24/19 Harvard's legacies are nothing to be proud of
09/02/19 Yes, the Fed could still stop a recession
08/20/19 A trade deal with China wouldn't change much
07/29/19 How your personality traits affect your paycheck
07/16/19 Internet 101 should be a required class
05/28/19 How Dems actually are the ANTI-immigrant party
04/23/19 Want to help fight climate change? Have more children
03/22/19 America isn't as divided as it looks
03/12/19 The Twitter takeover of politics: You ain't seen nothing yet
03/04/19 How to tell which Dem dreams won't come true
02/07/19: Now the Dems want to end America's nuclear first strike option. How clueless is that?
01/29/19: The shutdown hit a lot of government workers --- hard. But, ultimately, who is responsible for their unfortunate circumstances?
12/12/18: The West is abusing its legal power to punish people or institutions that do things it doesn't like. It better stop
10/23/18: The US needs Saudi Arabia, and vice versa
10/19/18: The right finds the perfect weapon against the left
07/24/18: The drive for the perfect child gets a little scary
06/04/18: Side effects of the decline of men in labor market
05/14/18: Proving Marx's theories right
05/08/18: Holding up a mirror to intellectuals of the left
05/01/18: Virtual reality will make lives better ... mostly
04/16/18: It's hard to burst your political filter bubbleIt's hard to burst your political filter bubble
04/09/18: The missing key to grasping why American politics seems to have become more polarized, with no apparent end in sight
04/05/18: Two American power centers are about to clash
03/22/18: We fear what we can't control about Uber and Facebook
03/08/18: How to stop the licen$ing insanity
01/10/18: Polarized Congress needs to bring back earmarks
12/27/17: The year when the Internet collides with reality
11/07/17: Would you blame the phone for Russian interference?
10/23/17: North Korea is playing a longer game than the US
10/12/17: Why conservatives should celebrate Thaler's Nobel
08/02/17: Too many of today's innovations are focused on solving problems rather than creating something new

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