How conflict of interest can drive money behaviour (Mint)

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This article first appeared in Mint.

All economic transactions have a buyer and seller. As consumers we are buyers. As marketers, we are sellers. So, in all economic transactions, buyers and sellers have a conflict of interest. If you are selling a soap to consumers, you are making money from consumers. Consumers get the soap in exchange. If the seller is unhappy, he can raise the price and make more money or target different buyers. If the buyer is unhappy he can choose another seller of soap for better value at a lower or higher price. Both sellers and buyers have some advantages and some disadvantages.

Let’s examine sellers and buyers in other markets. For example, wealth. The seller is either a company or an agent who sells a financial product and the buyer is the end consumer. When sellers sell a financial product, it’s not usually as simple to understand and buy as a soap is. The information is usually in favour of sellers. Also, sellers try and hide the actual price of the product and fees are not disclosed upfront or not mentioned clearly. The amount of money is also a relatively large part of the savings for purchase of a financial product, whether it is insurance or mutual funds or shares in an IPO. Think of a typical insurance agent or mutual fund adviser or relationship manager. Whichever company and product gives her a higher commission, she usually tries to sell that product to the buyer, irrespective of whether the buyer has any knowledge about it, needs that product or knows how much it costs. In such a case, sellers take advantage of buyers.

Another example is health. The seller is a hospital or a doctor. The information is in favour of the doctor because the patient is almost completely dependent on her. The conflict of interest is immense here between sellers (doctors) and buyers (patients), because the seller wants to make money off the buyer, while the buyer has very limited information and not much choice. One may think that the seller here is likely to have consideration for the buyer to a greater degree because of the nature of the relationship and the nature of the service, but does that really hold true? Do doctors sell only what the buyers need or do they take advantage of the lack of knowledge of buyers, just like insurance agents? Doctors too have goals of covering huge overhead costs and fixed costs like education to recover their money. So how do you think this kind of seller behaves with buyers? Surprisingly such conflict of interest doesn’t usually catch the attention of buyers.

Another type of conflict of interest, is by stockbrokers. The broker may claim to have “inside” information about impending news on a stock and may urge buyers to buy the stock quickly. Investors buy the stock, which creates a high demand and pumps up the prices. This entices more buyers to believe the hype and buy shares. Stockbrokers then dump their shares. The price drops, and other investors are left holding stocks that are worth nothing compared to what they paid for it.

We live in a world full of information asymmetry and caveat emptor (buyer beware). Sellers always put themselves first. As a solution, policies mandate disclosure. But disclosures like “insurance is a subject matter of solicitation”, assuming that buyers are being made aware of conflicts of interest, so they would discount the seller’s pitch. But this works only in theory. Behavioural science studies show that it makes no difference to the real behaviour of sellers or buyers. For example, calorie labelling on packaged foods does not have the intended effect of decreasing calorie purchasing or consumption.

Conflicts of interest are everywhere, and their fundamental nature leads to a change in people’s view of the world in important ways, causing them to give biased advice and behave in dishonest ways. Conflict of interest pushes sellers into the direction of what is not good for buyers financially. And disclosures, the way they are currently framed, don’t fix the problem. That’s why policy makers need to recognise the size of the conflict and the depth of their influence, and try to create behaviourally designed disclosures, so that buyers are not taken advantage of. Policy makers need to understand that buyers are not necessarily rational; they have limited attention, limited cognitive bandwidth, suffer from biases and use rules of thumb to make decisions. That’s why policy makers need to rethink how disclosures are consumed by buyers and understand their actual effect on the behaviour of buyers. It would be best if disclosures are made intuitive with simple visuals and plain language that’s easy to read and understand, and are placed at prominent locations, so that they become part of the buyer’s decision-making process.

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