The ABC of counterfactuals

Breakfast is one of my favourite times of day. I’ve been out for a run with the dog so feel very virtuous, and of course have the Financial Times to enjoy. This morning, one article had me spluttering over my coffee, however. Premium headphone-maker Sennheiser is leading a campaign against fake electronic goods. This is understandable; as a spokesman pointed out, if people buy cheap rip-offs thinking they’re the real thing, it will damage the company’s reputation. But what provoked me was the statement that the fakes had cost the company $2m in lost sales.

No they haven’t. That sum is based on a comparison with the false counterfactual that everyone who bought fake headphones would have bought the real thing if the cheap copy had been unavailable. The true counterfactual is that almost nobody who bought the fake item would have otherwise bough the real one, which apparently costs around $300. If anybody suffered lost sales, it was makers of cheap headphones, who should be joining Sennheiser’s campaign. Similarly, almost nobody who buys a $20 ‘Louis Vuitton’ handbag at the local market would otherwise have spent $2000 on the real McCoy. I suspect that relatively few people who buy fakes consumer goods actually think they’re getting the real item, although some no doubt are fooled. The price contains the information about authenticity and most people understand that.

The erroneous counterfactual about market size is often introduced into discussions of online piracy too. Although some people who download free music from filesharing sites would otherwise have bought it, many would not. Demand is negatively correlated with price in most markets.

This is not to condone piracy at all. In the case of electronic items it can be seriously dangerous, and I think it’s a big problem. I just wish people would learn to think about counterfactuals. It isn’t taught properly in economics courses, although essential in competition analysis – and also in good econometrics, including estimating the effect of introducing a low-priced copy of a consumer good into a market. The best discussion I’ve come across is inĀ  by Joshua Angrist and Jorn-Steffen Pischke.

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