5 Things to Learn from Monopoly

I haven’t played Monopoly in a while (preferring Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, Tigris and Euphrates and even Cranium), but after a recent conversation I started thinking about the game dynamics. There is surprisingly much that is relevant to the current story of our economy.

1 The Competition Commission is necessary

Monopolies serve to increase prices for consumers. In Monopoly, the “rents” charged are instantly higher as soon as a player has a monopoly on property in a certain area.

Worse than the increase in prices and decrease in supply, the additional profit for suppliers is not equal to the cost to consumers from higher prices, resulting in an overall “dead weight loss of monopoly” or an overall cost to society.

To date, the Competition Commission has focussed on cartels and price collusion. We can only hope soon they will consider issues of local loop unbundling to provide real competition to the effective monopoly Telkom has on ADSL lines.

2 The easy availability of credit is a useful and dangerous tool

An important consideration in Monopoly is to prevent competitors from owning property (so that you don’t have to pay rent on as many properties as possible) and definitely don’t get a monopoly (so they can increase rents and improve the properties, increasing rents even further).

A key way of doing this is by buying as many properties as possible, even if you mortgage many of them with a fresh injection of cash from the bank and very reasonable repayment terms. Leverage, or borrowing, can provide cost effective (especially after tax considerations) financing for profitable projects. It can be cheaper to raise than equity and increases returns to shareholders.

Leverage also creates significant risks, both in Monopoly and real life. Overextending can make you more likely to end up bankrupt. Also, by artificially increase the supply of funds for purchasing property while keeping the supply constant, the price of property will increase dramatically with distorting impacts on the allocation of resources within an economy.

3 Trading is good for those who trade

Every time two people (or organisations, or countries) trade, both parties are better off than they were before. (A hint, otherwise they wouldn’t have traded.) The trading parties are each better off, and the non-trading competitors are worse off, because a potential trade is now off the table and they are not in a better position otherwise.

There are some plausible arguments for trade restrictions in very particular circumstances. For example, I think I buy the idea of nurturing infant industries, but only if there is a reasonable chance that the industries won’t only grow as far as pimply, sulky adolescents with no drive or ambition.

Other than that, trade is good as it increases prosperity on average, which is one important way to lift more families incomes above the poverty line.

4 Liquidity risk can be the end of you

While buying as much property as possible and mortgaging some to provide additional funds will generally work in your favour and allow you greater control over the board, it also introduces liquidity risk. If you don’t have the funds to pay rent or taxes or fines when they unexpectedly fall due, you will be forced into a fire-sale of houses and hotels at way below replacement cost. You may need to mortgage even more properties, reducing your income generating ability and possibly sending you into a debt trap where your income isn’t sufficient to meet your expenses.

Always watch your liquidity. It has almost become a truism that more businesses fail because of liquidity than solvency or profitability.

5 The world is full of randomness, but it always helps to calculate the numbers

In Monopoly, the player “roles the dice and moves the mice” so to speak. There is plenty of luck around and skill can seem to disappear in an avalanche of random numbers.

Nassim Taleb (of Fooled By Randomness fame) would suggest that in everyday life we underestimate risk and overestimate skill. I tend to agree with this overall comment. It doesn’t mean that we should try to use our skill as much as possible.

Did you know that certain properties are relatively more valuable than others? The properties just after Jail are more likely to be hit than others, since several cards and one square on the board send the player to jail. Similarly, several chance cards require the player to advance a certain way, making the squares immediately after a chance square less likely to be hit. The cost to benefit of houses on certain squares are better than others, and the best bang for buck is somewhere between 2 and 3 houses per property.

It’s important to be aware that risk and uncertainty exists, but it’s more important to understand risk in a way that allows informed, risk-aware decisions to be made.

Identify, measure, mitigate and monitor risk!

Are all the lessons good?

Slightly tongue in cheek, there are a few other lessons of dubious validity:

  1. Stay in jail and make more money
  2. You get to keep the money if the bank makes an error in your favour
  3. You can take as long as you want to repay your mortgage and only have to pay 10% interest
  4. If the bank runs out of money, it can always photocopy some more
  5. When the game is over, you can forget about the debt you have and walk away

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