European finance ministers finally agreed on a plan to help Greece avoid a default on March 20, which led to a brief sigh of relief followed by the resumption of worries that Greece’s problems run much deeper. The major indexes rallied for most of the day but fell back down to earth by market close, partly due to worries about geopolitical tensions with Iran and surging oil prices. The Dow briefly crossed 13,000 for the first time since May 2008 before giving up most of its gains.
The Dow gained 15 points, with 19 of its 30 components higher; the S&P 500 advanced just under a point; and the Nasdaq fell 3. Decliners narrowly outpaced advancers on the NYSE and led by five to three on the Nasdaq. The prices of Treasuries weakened. Gold futures rose $32.60 to close at $1,758.50 an ounce, and the price of crude oil gained $2.65 to settle at $106.25 a barrel. Threats by Iran to cut off oil shipments to various countries helped to push crude prices higher.
In Earnings News:
- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reduced prices in the fiscal fourth quarter, drawing in more customers to increase revenue but shrinking margins in the process. The retailer’s net income fell 13% from the year-ago quarter, largely because of a one-time tax benefit from last year. Excluding that item, earnings from continuing operations rose 3.4% to $5.2 billion on revenue of $122 billion (up 5.8%). Same-store sales of U.S. stores open more than a year improved, but Wal-Mart’s guidance and earnings came in below expectations. Its shares (WMT) dropped 3%.
- Kraft Foods reported higher fourth-quarter net income and forecast a 9% earnings growth rate for the year. The food and snacks manufacturer reported earnings of $830 million, or 47 cents a share, compared with the prior-year period’s $540 million, or 31 cents a share. Revenue was $14.7 billion, up 6.6%. The company will split in two later this year: One company will focus on snack brands; the other will focus on grocery store brands. Kraft’s shares (KFT) gained 1%.
In Other Business News:
- After a meeting that went into the early morning hours today, European finance ministers finally agreed to the terms of a 130 billion euro ($172 billion) bailout of Greece that should help the country avoid a March 20 default. As part of the deal, European governments will lower interest rates on Greek debt from a margin of 200 basis points to 150; central banks that hold Greek debt will return any profits on their holdings back to Greece; and Greece’s private bondholders agreed to a 53% haircut on Greek debt. The finance ministers believe that, under the proposed agreement, Greece should be able to reduce its debt-to-gross domestic product ration from 160% last year to 120.5% by 2020.
- Cable provider Comcast Corp. announced a new video-streaming service in a bid to compete with online streaming sites like Netflix. The service, called Xfinity Streampix, will stream old TV shows and movies. Amazon.com and a joint venture of Coinstar and Verizon Communications are also joining the video-streaming business. Comcast’s shares (CMCSA) fell 0.34%, while Netflix’s (NFLX) fell 3%.
The idea that positive incentives are just as important—if not more so—than negative punishment has slipped into our everyday lives. It makes sense for companies, obviously. An airline can’t fine or throw you in jail for not flying on its planes, so it offers frequent-flyer programs instead to convince people that its flying metal tubes are better than other companies’ flying metal tubes. (I’m not saying that airlines wouldn’t fine people if they could, only that they haven’t figured out how to do so legally. Yet.)
But why would a government, which doesn’t have to worry about being nice, bother with positive reinforcement when it can fine offenders or throw them in jail? Richard Thaler, the pioneering behavioral economist, has a great article in The New York Times about the phenomenon of governments joining the positive reinforcement bandwagon. The idea is that to get people to engage in a desired behavior—whether that’s buying a product, convincing them to eat right, or following the law—you need to make the activity fun and loaded with incremental rewards. It’s like training a rat to press a lever for pellets of food, except with more balloons and clown music.
Take traffic violations, for example. Normally, I don’t speed because…fine. I speed. Let’s choose a different example. Normally I don’t blow through stop signs because I don’t want to get issued a ticket, and the framework of negative reinforcement is all I’ve known. One idea being floated now is to buttress the threat of fines with the hope for a reward by instituting a traffic lottery. The revenue from the fines for traffic violations would be distributed via lottery to those with clean records. That way there’s a tiny incentive—the hope of a small payout—for drivers not to break the law.
Some other examples Professor Thaler mentions are instituting a sort of frequent-flyer program for recycling (the more pounds of qualified recyclables a person brings in, the more reward points they get, which could be redeemable for any number of things). Another example is one from China, which is trying to get small businesses like restaurants to accurately report and then pay sales taxes. The government prints scratch-off lottery tickets on special paper that restaurants have to use for receipts. That way, customers are enticed to ask for their receipt, creating a paper trail. Sneaky.
I just did my taxes last week, and I wondered if there was a way to make the exercise more fun. Enough of these fears of an audit or jail time. That’s so negative, so draconian. What if the government started a lottery system or a sweepstakes based on people sending in their taxes? Wouldn’t that be fun? Now let me rewrite that question, except this time with a straight face.