On the Paulson US Treasury Reverse Auction Process

Assuming the mooted auction does go ahead here are some thoughts as to possible designs.

The US Govt has a lot of experience in forward auctions selling treasury bonds as described here: http://www.newyorkfed.org/aboutthefed/fedpoint/fed41.html. If you have the time, Kenneth Garbade’s history of the treasury auctions is well worth a read – he emphasises the responses to failure as well as the successes in building a solid programme of auctions: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=596966.

For readers who are used to reverse English auctions the US Treasury format is very different from what you might expect. It is a single-round auction. As a bidder you put in one bid up until the deadline. This bid can state a price you wish to pay and how much you will buy at that price, or it can state a quantity you wish to buy at whatever the average price is. The Treasury then allocates the available bonds across the bidders based on who is offering the highest prices.

I expect that the US Treasury would want to use something similar in the proposed reverse auction. But things are not going to be as simple as that. There is some good debate amongst people who know auctions:

On one level the actual design of the auction is of secondary importance. Simple agreement on a bailout plan will be sufficient to soothe many nerves.

But once they start the reverse auctions will be the subjects of intense media and market scrutiny, at least in the early stages. So reverse auctions at the outset will need to be kept very simple. For this reason any real-time complex optimisation will need to be ruled out. At least to start with.

NERA point out in their paper (link above) a good issue: In a procurement reverse auction the buyer would likely only buy from one (or perhaps two or three, but certainly not all) of the bidders in the auction. So the bidders have to compete against each other to push the price down. Under the Paulson plan, if the government is committing to buying all the securities from all the banks (until the money runs out) then what is the incentive for any bidder to place a low bid? They know that the government will bail them out. To avoid this the auction process could include a number of bidders but commit the Treasury to buying securities from a small number of the bidders, or to buy a fraction of the auctioned value, such that all bidders have an incentive to bid.

There is also the question of one-round or multiple-round bidding. The US Govt currently sells Treasury bonds with one round of bidding so I’m sure they will be tempted to use a similar design for the bailout. But given the uncertainty around the value of the assets in question now I would expect the transparency of multiple-round bidding will be better. Paul Klemperer has some great horror stories of single-round bidding events. Search for “Banespa” and “New Zealand” in the document. The Banespa case was a first-price sealed bid auction, the New Zealand case was a second-price sealed bid auction (Vickrey auction). Both led to great embarrassment.

So could an auction work in this US bailout? It’s certainly well known across government and private sectors that auctions are the best way to ascertain a market price when the true market price is not known. I have seen some very successful reverse auctions for pension funds, for example. So perhaps using reverse auctions for mortgage-backed assets is not such a crazy idea after all.

On balance I think a long, regular series of auctions based on a multiple-round descending clock auction design with the government only buying a fraction of the securities on offer in each auction would be a good way to start the process. Then as the purchases become more commonplace, the desperate sellers offload their assets and prices creep up the government could look to add in optimisation technology.

More Reverse Auction momentum

Some more recent reverse auction stories that popped into my Google Reader:

Using Reverse Auctions to buy advertising spots on Radio. A quote:

Bid4Spots allows the media buyers (that’s us) to set a maximum bid and allow stations to bid ever-lower media prices. After all, the stations are selling next week’s leftover airtime.

The real power of Bid4Spots is the steadily lessening of price rather than the gradual increase. In a Bear economy, when most businesses are cutting their media spend, there exists a real opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses to get a lot of airtime for their money.

City of Waco uses a reverse auction to buy electricity. There seems to be a lot of interest in running reverse auctions for electricity these days. A quote:

“We’ve been wanting to try a reverse auction for some time, as we believed the process could significantly benefit the City and, ultimately, our taxpayers,” said Danny Jackson, Administrative Engineer, City of Waco. “I can’t say enough about how great World Energy’s people were throughout the process. The market directors were extremely knowledgeable about the industry and helped us make key decisions regarding structuring the auctions to ensure we had significant supplier participation. We were particularly pleased that World Energy was able to drum up supplier interest for the auction, even though we used our own paper for awarding the contract.”


2 points on this:

  1. The Bid4Spots story is spot on in linking an upswing in reverse auction interest to the current downwards trajectory in the economy. This is what happened last time round in 2002.
  2. The Waco story is spot on in highlighting the importance of market making support in running a successful auction. It’s no good these days for software companies to sell only software and/or software integration/implementation services. These days successful technology delivery revolves around what What Max Bleyleben (Disclosure: he works for Kennet, an investor in TradingPartners) calls software/services/content convergence. 

Unite Members to Protest Against Council Tendering

See here.

Unite, Scotland’s largest trade union, will hold a demonstration [Wednesday, 4th June] outside South Lanarkshire Council offices in protest at the blind bidding process for the care and support services for adults with learning disabilities.

South Lanarkshire Council set up an e-auction for firms to tender for providing care at home by submitting charges by the hour.

Thus begins the press release. Looks like an e-auction is the root cause of the antipathy.

Well – look again, further down.

Bidders were given no information in the tender document on the current terms and conditions of the employees who would be transferred.

In other words: the union’s issue seems to be with the quality (or lack) of information that was given out to bidders rather than with the bidding process itself. Once again – to run a good sourcing process (whether it involves an e-auction or not) you still need to be clear with suppliers. And make sure they have full access to the information they need to place sensible bids.

Reverse Auctions in the news

See  here .

Local government and schools are hoping to join forces to cut what each unit spends on millions of sheets of paper each year.
Rick Morrisey, purchasing manager for Lafayette, is working to arrange a bulk paper purchasing contract along with the county, Ivy Tech Community College and possibly others.

Despite rising paper prices Morrisey believes that by going through a spend aggregation exercise and then running a reverse auction on the aggregated spend that he will be able to achieve valuable savings.

Assuming he runs his auction process well I’m sure he will, and I wish him all the best in his project. Reverse auctions aren’t 5-minute jobs but when run well they tend to blow away people’s expectations.

Gearing up for more reverse auctions in 2008

This is from Supply Management in May. A quote from John Paterson, VP & CPO at IBM:

Sellers are more aggressive in their terms and pricing as they desire to maintain capacity and revenue streams. Sharp buyers recognise this and will typically look to place more business up for bid, take actions to renegotiate contracts, and seek out new suppliers. As always buyers should recognise markets change over time and they should do nothing that will damage their buying position when it becomes a sellers’ market again.

In these sorts of conditions reverse auctions are a great tool because they are able to cut through long-held assumed market prices and uncover exactly where suppliers are willing to go. But note John’s sage advice about not abusing market power. Again, reverse auctions, done well, are a good foundation on which to build solid supplier relationships (this has certainly been the case for me).

How many suppliers should I have in a reverse auction?

A few years back we did some work with Oxford University. They were interested in how procurement auctions fitted into the bigger auction picture. We were interested in finding out how in line with auction theory we were. I was looking through my old material from that study and I want to share a neat graph from that work that models how expected savings rise the more suppliers you include in an auction.

 How increasing suppliers increases savings

If you assume that all suppliers in a marketplace have a price evenly distributed between a low price and a high price then, on average, the savings you would get increase as shown in the graphic above. This helps emphasise that 4 bidders is a good number for a reverse English auction, as I have often said. But one thing to clarify: this is a model – you can do better than the model by ensuring that when you select potential suppliers that you are selecting suppliers who have a lower price rather than selecting suppliers at random from the marketplace.

The poor, misunderstood reverse auction

Reverse auctions as we we know them today started in the mid 90s. So now seems about the right time for them to be going through their poor, misunderstood phase.

Tim Cummins writes a great analysis of how buyers reap what they sow: screw your suppliers when times are good and you can’t expect your suppliers to queue up and looking for win-win opportunities when the markets move against you.

Two years ago, IACCM was warning its members that the change was coming and that suppliers were shifting their loyalties – for example, they were investing their marketing dollars in emerging markets, rather than their traditional (disloyal) customers.. We alerted buyers to the fact that they would pay a price for alienating the supply base. But the good times rolled on – commoditization, reverse auctions, confrontational contract terms – these were just some of the ways that buyers showed their lack of loyalty to the traditional supply base in their haste to grab low prices and exert their dominance.

A timely warning, and nothing contentious, you might think. But now read the paragraph again and see how “reverse auction” is equated with “showing disloyalty to your suppliers”.

This is to put the cart before the horse. It’s (short-sighted) buyers who screw suppliers, not reverse auctions. And don’t forget that short-sighted buyers are able to screw suppliers with all kinds of methods: you certainly don’t need an auction to demonstrate disloyalty to your suppliers. You can screw a supplier perfectly well using certain contract clauses – but that is not to say that contracts are a bad idea.

From my own experience: I recently awarded a contract for software development services via a reverse auction. I have a good relationship with both the current and previous supplier. I believe this is because I was open and up front during the whole process (including explaining to the incumbent why I was going to market). The reverse auction in fact helped the decision making process be more transparent. And the contract was far easier to implement than would have been the case without an auction.

In that example the reverse auction helped both with achieving the right price and with helping build the supplier relationship.


On Reverse Japanese Auctions

Paul Ferraro recently left a comment asking about reverse Japanese auctions.

I can only scratch the surface in a single blog post, so if you’d like to discuss this more then please leave a comment and we can continue the conversation. Also – I run workshops at TradingPartners every month (and also occasionally at CIPS) so if you want to dig further into different types of reverse auctions feel free to drop me a mail.

In brief the question was: “Are reverse Japanese auctions only appropriate when there is a small number of suppliers bidding?”.

Briefly the answer is “In theory a reverse Japanese auction will work just fine, all the time. But in practice you’re best off keeping to Japanese auctions where there are fewer suppliers.”

Some initial comments regarding reverse Japanese auctions:

1. I once saw an eAuction manager just after he’d run a reverse Japanese auction with 8 suppliers in. Haggard is a good way to describe him. The reason is that you have to collect up to 8 bids at each price level before decreasing the price. What with internet connections, technical issues at the supplier side etc you can pretty much guarantee that one supplier will need additional coaxing and assistance to prevent them from missing a price decrement. A reverse Japanese auction can be pretty hard work for the eAuction manager to run because it relies on the eAuction manager to drive the competitive element.
2. I was talking to a UK body recently who are intending to run a reverse Japanese auction on a supply base of 200 suppliers (due to the vagaries of the category). I hope that with a bit of investigation a better way of running this auction as a reverse English auction will transpire.
3. We are seeing a lot of success with reverse Japanese auctions at TradingPartners but I do wonder sometimes whether weighted auctions would be better in some of the cases where a Japanese auction was used. (e.g. in my example below where you could apply a weighting to reflect switching costs).

But to get back to Paul’s questions. I’ll use a highly simplified example to illustrate what I mean when I say that reverse Japanese auctions are most appropriate when there are fewer suppliers:

Suppose you have 2 potential suppliers, Incumbent Supplier and New Supplier. You are currently buying from Incumbent Supplier and she knows full well that it is going to cost you about €30,000 to switch supplier, not to mention the hassle factor involved from your side of things if you have to switch. New Supplier, on the other hand has no idea of what these numbers are.

First let’s run this as a reverse English auction, with an opening price of €400,000.

New Supplier wants to win the business so places a bid of €390,000 early on in the auction. What happens next? Incumbent Supplier won’t bid – she knows the business is still safe with her. Nor will New Supplier bid more aggressively – he thinks he’s in the lead. So the auction ends, Incumbent Supplier keeps the business and New Supplier is left with a bitter taste in his mouth about this whole auctions business.

Now let’s run this is a reverse Japanese auction, again with an opening price of €400,000.

Buyer drops the price to €390,000. New Supplier and Incumbent Supplier both have to accept this price level, without waiting to see who else accepts first. And they both know that they need to accept the price level to stay in the auction. They both accept. The buyer then drops the price to €390,000. etc etc.

Now let’s change the scenario. Instead of 2 potential suppliers there are 20 potential suppliers. Even in a reverse English auction you’ve now got sufficient competition amongst all the suppliers to encourage competition and to bring the incumbent into that competition

Obviously the example above is a trivial but I hope it gets the general point across – that reverse Japanese auctions are most use when you have a small-ish number of bidders. (In reality you might use messaging, for example, to stimulate competition even with only a small number of suppliers).

Does Procurement eAuction Design Matter? (part 1)

In my last post I outlined the presentation I gave at eWorld in Feb, which went down very well, and so for the next few posts I will be posting up some of the main slides with some commentary.

Procurement eAuctions, as we know them today, really took off in the mid 90s. Back in those early days, behind the sales and marketing spin, reverse auctions were pretty basic tools most suited to simple commodity items for which price was the most important (if not the only relevant) factor. eAuctions have moved on dramatically over the past decade and are now capable of delivering significant benefits to buyers across an ever wider range of categories.

Reverse eAuction Family Tree

(click to enlarge)

The Reverse eAuction Family tree shows how eAuctions have evolved over the past decade.

Before I dive into the different types of eAuction shown, a word on terminology. The vast majority of academic study and thinking about auctions has been based around auctions used for selling goods or services. In these auctions a seller puts something up for auction and potential buyers place bids, with one buyer being awarded the goods or services at the conclusion of the auction. The same theories and practices could apply equally well in procurement auctions. But in these auctions a buyer puts something up for auction and potential suppliers place bids. In other words the roles of buyer and seller are reversed in a procurement auction. Hence the name reverse auction. As you’ll see, the term “reverse” does not apply to the price going down, because under some reverse  auctions the price can actually go up!

To return to the evolution of eAuctions. A decade ago almost all “reverse auctions” used the same broad format. This has now come to be known as the Reverse English eAuction. In a Reverse English eAuction the price starts at a particular agreed level and then potential suppliers place lower and lower bids to drive the price down. This is still the most popular type of auction format today, but it does rely on 4 or more suppliers who share a similar cost base in order to be successful. About 90% of TradingPartners’  eAuctions in the private sector are English eAuctions. The buyer is careful not to guarantee awarding the contract to the lowest priced supplier because the lowest priced supplier may not offer the best value for money overall.

There is another offshoot of Reverse English eAuctions called Multi Directional eAuctions. Multi Directional auctions allow some elements to be bid downwards and others upwards at the same time. These are particularly useful where suppliers can bid a unit price downwards and a rebate upwards. Many TradingPartners’ auctions for office supplies use the multi directional format because rebates are a common feature in this category.

Where competition amongst suppliers is likely to be limited, or where cost bases differ dramatically across suppliers, or where the buyer does not want to share market pricing information amongst suppliers, Japanese eAuctions are a good alternative. In a Japanese eAuction buyers set a price level and suppliers have to accept to supply at that price level or to withdraw from the auction. As long as one supplier has accepted a certain price level the buyer then decreases the price level, inviting suppliers again to accept or withdraw. Suppliers do not know how many other companies they are competing against. At TradingPartners about 10% of auctions use the Japanese format.

Reverse Dutch eAuctions follow the opposite method compared to Japanese eAuctions. In a Dutch eAuction the buyer sets an initial price that is very low, too low for any supplier to supply at. The buyer then gradually increases the price until one supplier agrees to supply at the stated price. The auction then ends. Forwards Dutch Auctions work well for selling (in particular, some successful IPOs have used a variant of a dutch auction). But Reverse Dutch eAuctions don’t work well in procurement. One main reason is that the buyer only ever sees the price from the lowest priced supplier, so if there are any issues with that supplier’s quality (for example), the buyer does not have an alternative source of supply to hand. In fact, I recall talking to a major retailer who had updated their Reverse Dutch eAuction software so that it acted the same way as a Sealed Bid: accepting price proposals from suppliers and then revealing them all to the buyer. In practice this is the way to go: don’t do Reverse Dutch eAuctions on the internet. You will be better off doing either a Sealed Bid or a Japanese auction, depending on the circumstances.

In the EU public sector, regulations came into force in January 2006 that stated that: if a buyer was to run a reverse eAuction, the buyer would need to award the contract to the supplier who came first. This left public sector buyers with two choices:
(a) Qualify out all but a tiny minority of identical suppliers amongst whom price is really the only differentiator, and then award the contract to the one of these who comes in with the lowest price during the eAuction, or
(b) Calculate weightings and incorporate those into the eAuction so the supplier who comes first is not necessarily the one with the lowest price, but is the one with the best value for money.

Enter Weighted and Multi Attribute eAuctions. These auction types incorporate non-price factors into the auction so that the buyer can award a contract, say 60% on price and 40% on quality and see the real positions of the different suppliers, on a total value for money basis, in real time during the auction. About 60% of the UK public sector eAuctions facilitated by TradingPartners have used these kinds of weighting. The rest tend to be English auctions.

Unfortunately, traction for weighted auctions outside of the EU public sector is very low, perhaps because it forces buyers to think through their award process up front rather than waiting until after the auction.

This is already a long post for a blog, but I hope it has given you an overview of the richness of the contemporary eAuction landscape. In my next post I will discuss how judicious use of these different auction types has helped buyers achieve better results in their sourcing projects.

Can e-auctions help with … ?

I was visiting a client recently who was asking the usual questions about reverse auctions: I can understand that they work for a very commoditised category which I have a high spend for, but how can they help with this more strategic strategy?

I hear this question so here are some brief thoughts.

Reverse auctions are helpful if you want to achieve a better price than what you can achieve otherwise. If you don’t care about getting a better price, don’t consider a reverse auction.

Of course auctions these days are far more sophisticated than the old price-based systems. Weighted and Multi Attribute auctions are capable of incorporating all kinds of non-price attributes into the competitive dynamic. With this in mind I’ll revise what I just said:

e-auctions are helpful if you want to achieve better value for money than what you can achieve otherwise. If you don’t care about value for money, don’t consider an e-auction.

Once you consider an e-auction there are some factors that could rule it out:
(a) Monopoly. If what you are buying can genuinely only be got from one source then, sorry, you can’t do much about it. But I wonder whether, with a little imagination, you can change the specs to some degree to allow competition? Just a thought.
(b) Unable to specify what you want. The EU directive on public procurement puts it well: You can’t auction the result of intellectual endeavour. In English, this means that you couldn’t auction the design of a building. But guess what, you can auction architect day rates. So, again, with a bit of imagination you might be able to specify what you want in such a way that it does become auctionable.
(c) You know and love your favourite supplier too much. Fair enough. But bear in mind that despite all the talk about “win win” that is in vogue these days, the supplier might just be taking a teensy bit of advantage

A personal perspective: I have been negotiating two contracts recently – one for software development and one for hosting. I used a weighted e-auction for the software development but elected to source my hosting offline. The offline negotiation has been much more of a pain in the arse for me than the online e-auction. I dare say that the suppliers feel likewise. Next time I will use an e-auction, if I can.