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American Jewish economist Paul Milgrom shares Nobel for auction theory work

Award given jointly to Michigan-born professor and US colleague Robert Wilson for their work understanding value and bidding

Professor Paul Milgrom is interviewed at Cambridge University, November 2019 (Screen grab/YouTube)
Professor Paul Milgrom is interviewed at Cambridge University, November 2019 (Screen grab/YouTube)

Americans Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson won the Nobel Prize in economics on Monday for “improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats.”

“Their discoveries have benefitted sellers, buyers and taxpayers around the world,” the Nobel Committee said, noting that the auction formats developed by the winners have been used to sell radio frequencies, fishing quotas and airport landing slots.

The winners were announced in Stockholm by Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Milgrom was born in Detroit to Jewish parents. He became the Shirley and Leonard Ely Professor of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, and frequently lectures at Israeli universities.

A screen shows pictures of US economists Paul Milgrom (L) and Robert Wilson during the announcement of the winners of the ‘2020 Nobel Prize Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’ at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on October 12, 2020 (Anders WIKLUND / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT

The award caps a week of Nobel Prizes and is technically known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Since its establishment in 1969, it has been awarded 51 times and is now widely considered one of the Nobel prizes.

The committee said Wilson’s work showed “why rational bidders tend to place bids below their own best estimate of the common value,” that is, “the value which is uncertain beforehand but, in the end, is the same for everyone.”

“(Bidders) are worried about the winner’s curse — that is, about paying too much and losing out,” the committee said.

Milgrom developed a more general theory of auctions that takes into account was is known as the “private value” of what’s being sold that can vary greatly from bidder to bidder.

Speaking to reporters in Stockholm by phone after learning of his win, Wilson struggled to think of an auction he himself had participated in. But then added: “My wife points out to me that we bought ski boots on eBay. I guess that was an auction.”

Peter Fredriksson, Chairman of the Committee for Economic Sciences, left, Goran K. Hansson, Permanent Secretary for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, center, and Tommy Andersson, member in The Prize Committee for the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences announce the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 2020 at a press conference in Stockholm, Oct. 12, 2020 (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP)

Last year’s award went to two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a third from Harvard University, for their groundbreaking research into efforts to reduce global poverty.

Few economists could have predicted last fall that the globe would come to a virtual standstill within months, as governments closed their borders, imposed lockdowns and ordered other measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, triggering a sharp dip in business activity worldwide.

The prestigious award comes with a 10 million krona ($1.1 million) cash prize and a gold medal.

Last Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus.

Bidder Ole Bjorn Fausa, of Norway, holds the 1936 Nobel Peace Prize medal in Baltimore, March 27, 2014, the second Nobel Peace Prize ever to come to auction. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Tuesday’s prize for physics honored breakthroughs by Briton Sir Roger Penrose, German Reinhard Genzel and American Andrea Ghez in understanding the mysteries of cosmic black holes, and the chemistry prize on Wednesday went to French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer A. Doudna for their work on a powerful gene-editing tool.

The literature prize was awarded to Jewish American poet Louise Glück on Thursday for her “candid and uncompromising” work.

The World Food Program won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for its effort to combat hunger worldwide.

Winners would normally receive their Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, but the pandemic means it has been replaced by a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

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