Dynamic Mechanisms with Martingale Utilities


We study the dynamic mechanism design problem of a seller who repeatedly sells independent items to a buyer with private values. In this setting, the seller could potentially extract the entire buyer surplus by running efficient auctions and charging an upfront participation fee at the beginning of the horizon. In some markets, such as internet advertising, participation fees are not practical since buyers expect to inspect items before purchasing them. This motivates us to study the design of dynamic mechanisms under successively more stringent requirements that capture the implicit business constraints of these markets. We first consider a periodic individual rationality constraint, which limits the mechanism to charge at most the buyer's value in each period. While this prevents large upfront participation fees, the seller can still design mechanisms that spread a participation fee across the first few auctions. These mechanisms have the unappealing feature that they provide close-to-zero buyer utility in the first auctions in exchange for higher utility in future auctions. To address this problem, we introduce a martingale utility constraint, which imposes the requirement that from the perspective of the buyer, the next item's expected utility is equal to the present one's. Our main result is providing a dynamic auction satisfying martingale utility and periodic individual rationality whose profit loss with respect to first-best (full extraction of buyer surplus) is optimal up to polylogarithmic factors. The proposed mechanism is a dynamic two-tier auction with a hard floor and a soft floor that allocates the item whenever the buyer's bid is above the hard floor and charges the minimum of the bid and the soft floor.