Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to best auction natural resources

It is now well known that many natural resources suffer from the tragedy of the commons: because they are not owned, they are overused and depleted. The solution is for the state to sell rights to them. Those rights were typically set administratively and often with political considerations, thinks of the ultra-low grazing rights on federal lands. But governments can obtain more for the natural resources, not only because it increases revenue, but also because it encourages an efficient use of scarce resources. After all, the market price is still a wonderful signal. Thus auctions come into play. But auctions can go horribly wrong as well, as documented by Paul Klemperer. Every auction is different, and details are important.

Peter Cramton offers a handy guide for the design of efficient natural resource auctions. It focuses on oil and mineral rights in developing economies, but there are lessons to be learned for other auctions as well. There is an incredible array of auction designs, which helps accommodate a multitude of market situations and government goals. So, the next time you have an oil field to sell, you know where to look!

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