Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Making predictions profitable?

My colleague Scott Field, who wrote all of my best papers that weren't written by my wife, asked me if I have an opinion about predictions markets like this one. And, other than knowing that they exist, I hadn't. But despite myself I became intrigued, and after a bit of reading I'm even more intrigued.
So I became a member of Intrade to see what its about. I think the only way to tell if it is worth anything would be to get price data on expired markets (one's where the event is settled), and then use that to see if it is able to predict the actual outcomes. They do sell their past data ... 
Surely somebody has done that for at least one market segment. A nice quote from Justin Wolfers and Eric Zitzewitz at Stanford:
"...the power of prediction markets derives from the fact that they provide incentives for truthful revelation, they provide incentives for research and information discovery, and the market provides an algorithm for aggregating opinions. As such, these markets are unlikely to perform well when there is little useful intelligence to aggregate, or when public information is selective, inaccurate, or misleading."
So one could ask for all the intrade market data for the middle east or iran, and then run logistic regression to see if the final price is a better than random predictor of the event - actually you could pick various points in the development of each market to see if prediction skill varies over time. It seems to me that most efforts at checking the skill of these markets have focused on american political events so far. Seems like it has promise given the caveats I quoted from above.

So what about applications in ecology/conservation/game management? The key thing is to be able to tap into a group of people that collectively have access to information that you can't get any other way, and are willing to participate in the market. So, for example hunters and fishers have "eyes on the ground" and real experience with the resource that isn't captured anywhere.

Bob Costanza and colleagues suggested some kind of a "bond" be paid up front by developers, and if no accidents happen they get their money back, whereas if an accident does happen the bond money is used to cover restoration costs. This is sort of similar to a prediction market. I've also heard of an idea (but can't find the reference right now) to price options on endangered species (or any managed species), where if the option is never called the investor gets their initial investment back, plus interest, and if the option is struck (say pallid sturgeon populations drop below 100), then they loose their investment and it goes to fund restoration and recovery work. That way the agency offering the option can potentially raise alot of money for recovery work, and never have to pay more than the interest on the investment, and only if things are going well.
Obviously the devil is in the details.

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