1499: Arbitrage

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The invisible hand of the market never texts me back.
Title text: The invisible hand of the market never texts me back.


In economics and finance, arbitrage is the practice of buying cheaply on one market whilst immediately selling at a higher price on another market, taking advantage of the price difference to make relatively risk-free profit. In real-world liquid financial markets, arbitrage helps the market to converge on one price for a product. Arbitrageurs are the individuals performing this act to equalize the prices in those markets and hopefully make a profit.

The place where Cueball and Hairy are eating is giving away unlimited free potato/tortilla chips, probably serving the same function as a bread basket, being a cheap but welcome appetizer while patrons wait for their orders. Hairy is acting as an arbitrageur by collecting the chips to later resell them. This is much to the consternation of Cueball, who is (depending on how you interpret the simple art-style) holding his hands up in front of his mouth in shock, covering the lower half of his face in shame, covering his eyes out of denial, sliding his palms down the front of his face in disgust, face palming in exasperation, or eating chips – possibly all in sequence.

Trying this strategy in the real world would not work. Customers leaving the restaurant with bags of chips might well be barred from the establishment. More simply, the restaurant is under no obligation to keep refilling the bowls indefinitely; if a customer's demands for more chips became unreasonable, they could simply refuse to bring any more. In either case, it's highly unlikely that a customer could leave with enough chips to offset the cost of even an inexpensive meal. Additionally, there would likely be a problem of a lack of demand, given the absence of a secondary market. Case in point: would you buy open bags of perishable, presumably hand-soiled chips? Didn't think so.

In the caption below the comic, Randall suggests that society only functions because we don't take people like Hairy "out to dinner"; we generally have an aversion to dealing with people with such extreme self-interest, bordering on sociopathic behavior. Traditional theories of capitalism are based on the concept that people will act in their own economic self-interest, but in reality this is usually limited by both legal strictures and unspoken social norms. There are many aspects of society that are only possible because we trust most people to keep their self-interested actions within reasonable bounds. We see from Cueball's reaction that he is appalled by what Hairy is doing in believing he can profit from the apparent generosity.

A distinguishing feature of social animals, rather than animals simply sharing a habitat, is that they perform tasks that benefit their group. All such societies rely on some situations where the individual is not working purely on short term self-interest. The payoff for this is generally that co-operation makes things better for the group as a whole. Most people would find Hairy's behavior embarrassing and shameful, and thus would not socialize with people who behave like that. By rejecting such individuals, society protects itself from such people.

The title text mentions the invisible hand. In economics this is a metaphor used by Adam Smith to describe unintended social benefits resulting from the individual actions of self-interested parties. In the context of arbitrage, the invisible hand compels all of a given fungible substance to be sold for the same price, as a result of the actions of individuals like Hairy (or Black Hat in 958: Hotels) who are only seeking personal profit. The invisible hand is a sort of personification of the market; in the title text, the person has become so real that it can be sent a text message, but, despite presumably being able to hold a phone, the Hand doesn't reply (it IS only a hand). It is tempting to wonder why Randall/Cueball is texting it in the first place - not, presumably, to invite it to dinner, since the market would doubtless behave just as Hairy is doing. As it is invisible, though, perhaps it would at least be less embarrassing to sit at a table with.


[Cueball and Hairy are sitting at a table with a bowl of chips in the middle. Hairy is taking chips from the bowl on the table with one hand, and his other hand is dropping chips into a large bag behind him. Cueball is double facepalming.]
Hairy: They're the ones giving chips away!
Hairy: If they don't see the arbitrage potential, sucks for them.
[On the bag is written: Chips.]
In a deep sense, society functions only because we generally avoid taking these people out to dinner.


The invisible hand of the market is also mentioned in 958: Hotels.

The same idea was previously used in 1110: Click and Drag, where a person takes free drinks to resell. Later, 1721: Business Idea implies a similar plan to extract wealth out of a small market inefficiency that, in reality, would be far too onerous to exploit; in this case, premium gasoline at regular price. See also the what if? article Cost of Pennies regarding why it would not be worth trying these kind of ventures out.

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I've never been into an "explain" page so early... is everyone on March Break today? Jarod997 (talk) 12:56, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

The comic seemed to be very late, today, for reasons unknown (but perhaps Randall's been on a weekend Pratchett-bender, in memoriam). All the usual "early-birds" may have had nothing to work with, and perhaps even given up for the day/morning/whatever. 14:20, 16 March 2015 (UTC)
That's the case with me. I'm still waiting on Friday's What-If, but thinking it'll get skipped. Mikemk (talk) 22:45, 17 March 2015 (UTC)

Is that a facepalm by Cueball? 14:04, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

It looks more like a "My God, what are you DOING?" reaction from Cueball. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I think this might be a reference to Ultra-Low-Latency trading, where arbitreurs with Direct Market Access build faster parallel networks between two market and use the difference in latency to arbitrage before the two markets can communicate. This practice, along with many others, use the financial markets to generate revenue without any real contribution to the economy. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

It is true that must current arbitrageurs are computer programs doing ultra-high-frequency trading, but arbitrage as a concept is far from limited to that regime. Arbitrage is pretty much the sole way that markets communicate to maintain consistent prices. Vyzen (talk) 19:29, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

In a nutshell, arbitrage is when you see a price disparity between two markets and you buy from one at a low price, and immediatly sell to the other at a profit. The distinct factor between this and normal trade is that the agent does not maintain an inventory, and the profit is not through interest or maket scarcity. In the case of the comic, the purchase of the chips is at no cost, and presumably he's bagging the chips to resell to the restaurant. 21:19, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

Interestingly, if we assume he's bagging the chips to resell to the restaurant, we could also assume this has already happened. So let's imagine he sold the chips to the restaurant, and now he's "taking" them back. The chips are not "at not cost" -- they are indirectly paid by the restaurant customers as a non-itemized portion of their bill. Presumably the restaurant would not give away the chips at a loss, so essentially he would be paying more for them from his meal's bill than he would get when selling them back to the restaurant. The only way to make a profit here is by being invited and not paying for the meal, or sell them to another restaurant at a higher price (thus the arbitrage.) Ralfoide (talk) 15:18, 19 March 2015 (UTC)

The title text could be in reference to "There Ain’t Such A Thing As a Free Lunch" (economic concept of arbitrage-freeness). 00:15, 17 March 2015 (UTC)