Text NFT (non-fungible token) Art on abstract background
Recently, during a video call on the sale, and resale, of the Disney Nonfungible Tokens (NFTs) of Spiderman and other Marvel Comic characters on Veve, an attendee asked, “why would anyone buy a digital asset; and, if so why would anyone pay a premium for that asset on resale?” The answer to that question is the same as the answer as to how to understand estate planning for artists and collectors: the economic decision process on buying any collectible is predictably irrational.
This is outlined in “Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” by Dan Arierly, which is a very readable work on behavioral economics. Making such irrational economic decisions occurs most frequently when the collector is caught up in the emotional “high” of pursuing and acquiring the item. This irrationality applies not just to ownership of collectibles, digital or otherwise. It also applies to ownership of family businesses and legacy real estate as well.
First, the economic decision to buy a collectible is unique, because the collector places a high price on ownership, decisions are often economically irrational; and, clients are primarily relationship driven, not financially driven.
Second, the perception of value increases upon ownership of the asset. An example of this are people who purchase concert tickets based on a lottery value of those tickets. When asked to resell them, do so at a much higher price than the same people would be willing to purchase the same tickets outside of the lottery.
People “fall in love” with what they perceive as their possession, even if they do not have ownership or possession of the item now. The focus shifts on evaluation of their actions from what they might gain, to what they might lose. Owners also assume that their opinion of their assessed value for their possessions is shared by others who do not have the same emotional ties of possession and ownership.
A classic example of this is when you bid on something at an auction. By bidding on an item, you begin to identify it as “yours.” If that ownership is challenged, you bid higher to avoid “losing” your possession, even though you do not actually have any rights to the item at the time. This “virtual ownership” is what drives the extraordinary prices sometimes seen at auction. It becomes harder and harder to give up on raising bids because of the sense of loss.
People predictably make irrational economic decisions, especially when it comes to buying, owning and the possible loss of tangible assets, such as artwork and collectibles. The economic irrationality of these decisions depends on the specific situations and roles, people find themselves in, which can cause them to modify their behavior, accordingly.
To explain this behavior, here are a few of the unspoken economic assumptions people which are not actually true:
Assumption: Truth is Absolute / Reality: Truth is Relative
Assumption: Demand is inversely related to Supply / Reality: Demand is unrelated to Supply
Assumption: Gifts have no cost / Reality: Gifts do have a cost
Assumption: People have a level of self-control / Reality: People lack self-control in the heat of the moment
Assumption: The value of an object is no different whether you possess it or not / Reality: People value what they possess more highly than what they do not possess.
The Truth is Relative
People do not know what it is that they want, unless and until they see it in context. Therefore, decisions about whether you do or do not purchase an asset is always relative. This, then, leads to some irrational economic behaviors that particularly apply to art collectors.
When given a choice between two extremes and a “middle way” on which object to buy, people will pick the “middle way”.
The presence of a decoy, that is a similar but somewhat less attractive alternative, will encourage people to choose the similar but more attractive alternative rather than the dissimilar, but economically better, choice.
For example, having a choice between a very good painting, a somewhat less well-done painting, and an extremely well done sculpture all at the same price, people will choose the very well done painting over the sculpture even though the sculpture is be a better value at the price.
When the salaries of CEO’s were published, rather than restraining the rise in salaries relative to worker’s wages, it in fact accelerated the widening of the gap. The same is true on the publication of the prices on the sale of artwork at auction. Envy and jealousy become the driver of the price rise.
People who base their decisions on buying assets are happier with those decisions, if they deliberately set out to restrict the “pool” of alternatives to as small a range as possible. The result is that a buyer who limits their consideration of the assets they will buy, to a narrow subset of the market, say 19th century French bronzes, will be happier with their decision, than a buyer who opens the pool up to include all French Art of the 19th century.
Supply Does Not Equal Demand
To make someone covet the ownership of an object, it is not necessary to limit the supply, it is only necessary to make it more difficult to obtain.
The initial price and value of an asset will set your expectation of the future price and value of similar objects, independent of whether the supply of those objects vastly increases over time. This is because your perception of the price or value is anchored by your first encounter.
Even though the initial price for an asset is set arbitrarily, once set that price will shape the present and future prices for the asset that people will pay. This creates a level of coherence with the arbitrary price that endures despite the economic facts of the supply of assets in the future.
The behavior of others, and even your own past behavior, creates the presumption that something is “good” or “bad,” based on the imprint of this behavior on your perceptions. This applies to the purchase of stocks as well as the purchase of art.
There is a Cost to Getting Something for Free
Getting something for free is an emotional high, even if it is not something we need or want. The result is that the presence of something for free, can lead us to decide to take the free item we do not need, over buying at a steeply discounted price, something we do need.
Because people intrinsically fear loss, something for free seems to be a “no loss” alternative. This applies even though spending a relatively small amount now leads to much greater returns later than the free alternative.
This applies not only to the initial purchase, but also to “free exchanges” of an item you own for an item you do not own. Time is also affected by the lure if getting something for free, such that people will spend more time waiting for an item to be delivered, if it is “free,” than they would if they had to pay for it. In sales, businesses can draw a crowd by making something free, and the customers will then spend more money on other items than they would have done, without the draw of the free item., An example of this is having a free day at the museum, where people then spend money at the gift store or the café, that they otherwise would not have spent if they had to pay an admission price.
People Lack Self-Control
People will promise to take action based on rational, long-term goals, when they are in an emotionally “cool” state, but will actually make an economically irrational choice that involves immediate gratification, when they are in a “hot” emotional state. This undermines self-control regardless of the prior commitment.
There are several possible solutions to this behavior, including:
The Value of Ownership and Estate Planning
So, why would people buy Disney NFTs? Will there be a secondary market for digital assets? Because collectors value the ownership and control of these digital assets, often above their market value, we can anticipate that they will behave in an economically (emotionally) irrational manner. Without taking into consideration this behavior, many estate planning techniques that are used for discounting the transfer costs, such as gift taxes, by dividing up the ownership and control of an asset using trusts, limited partnerships, and the like are self-defeating. Despite the quality of the traditional planning, the clients will continue to consider that they have complete ownership and control of these assets.
The solution is for estate planners to utilize and take advantage of unique estate planning techniques, such as a scenario planning process, illustrating for the clients, the process used to preserve the ownership of these assets, as if we were telling a story, in which the desired ending satisfies the client’s needs.