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Abstract

Discrete choice experiments (DCE) are increasingly used to quantify the demand for improvements to services provided by regulated utility companies and inform price controls. This form of preference elicitation, however, often reveals a high frequency of status quo(SQ) choices. This may signal an unwillingness of respondents to evaluate the proposed trade-offs in service levels, questioning the welfare theoretic interpretation of observed choices and the validity of the approach for regulatory purposes. Using the methodology for DCE in the regulation of water and sewerage services in England and Wales, our paper contributes to the understanding of SQ choices in several novel dimensions. First, we control for the perception of the SQ and the importance of attributes in day-to-day activities. Second, we use a split sample design to vary both the description of the SQ and the survey administration mode (online vs. in-person). Third, the service attributes can both improve or deteriorate, so that the SQ is not necessarily the least-cost option. Fourth, we examine SQ choices in individual choice tasks and across all tasks so as to identify the determinants of serial SQ choices. Our results suggest that individual SQ choices mostly reflect preferences and thus represent important information for the regulator. However, serial SQ choices are mainly driven by cognitive and/or contextual factors, and these responses should be analysed as part of standard validity tests.

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