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Three strikes of the clock: Betting on the man to be Pope since 1503.

April 18, 2017

The history of forecasting election outcomes for betting purposes is well-documented for open elections, such as presidential elections in the US, and for longer, though in less detail for the closed elections of the Pope.

In the former, it has been traced, according to contemporaries, to the election of George Washington and has existed in organized markets since the 1860s.

The first recorded example of betting on a papal election, however, can be traced much further back, to the papal conclave of September, 1503, at which time it was considered already an old practice.

The brokers in the Roman banking houses (sensali) who made books and offered odds on who would be elected, made Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini the 100/30 favourite, ahead of Cardinals Guiliano della Rovere (100/15) and Georges d’Amboise (the favourite if judged by the vocal support of the street crowds) at 100/13.

Although Piccolomini is thought to have trailed in the first round of voting with 4 votes to 13 for d’Amboise and 15 for della Rovere, Piccolomini apparently benefited from a switch of votes from d’Amboise to himself in subsequent voting, and duly became Pope Pius III.

The bookmakers were proved right.

The next conclave for which we have the betting odds is that of December, 1521, in which odds were offered on no fewer than twenty cardinals.

Giulio de’Medici, the cousin of Leo X, was the betting favourite, at 100 to 25 (4/1), followed closely by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese at 100/20 (5/1), whose odds shortened to 100 to 40 (5/2) after a Roman mob plundered his house.

Though Farnese at one point came close to being elected Pope, he could not reach the required two-thirds of the vote, and ultimately the cardinals looked outside of the conclave, electing Adrian of Utrecht as Pope Adrian VI.

In the papal election of 1549-50, Cardinal Gianmaria del Monte (who was eventually elected Julius III) had opened in the betting as the 5/1 (against) favourite, but within three days Cardinal Reginald Pole had been established at odds of 4/1. On December 5, as balloting began, Pole was clear favourite at 100/95.

On that day, he received 26 of the 28 votes that would have given him the two-thirds majority required to elect him Pontiff. Although on the point of being made Pope by acclamation, Pole insisted on waiting until he won the formal two-thirds majority.

By the time that four additional French cardinals, opposed to Pole, arrived December 11, however, he was trading at 5/2, and a month later he was being offered at odds of 100/16. His chance had gone.

In the papal conclave of April, 1555, Gian Pietro Carafa stood a good chance of being elected pope, ranking among the top three papabile in the first ballot of the conclave. It is reported that brokers intentionally “spread the rumour that Naples [i.e. Carafa] had died”, in order to attract money on the other candidates. Carafa went on to be elected Pope.

The first 1590 conclave, in September, is the earliest in which reports of insider trading emerged, when two of the key influencers of votes in the conclave, Cardinals Montalto and Sforza secretly agreed to join forces in support of Niccolo Sfondrato.

It is reported that both made fortunes betting on him, at odds of 10/1 the day before he was elected as Pope Urban VII.

As the conclave opened, he had been trading at 100/11, compared to Giambattista Castagna, who was offered at 100/22.

During the second conclave of 1590, Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti at one point increased to an implied probability of 70 per cent in the betting: “Wednesday at the twenty-second hour rumour began to hold Paleotti as pope, and it went on increasing so that at the end of the morning, he had risen to 70 in the wagering.”  The odds were not reflected in the outcome. Giovanni Battista Castagna was elected Pope Urban VII.

In 1603, despite a papal bull ‘Cogit Nos’, by Pope Gregory XIV, issued on March 21, 1591, which imposed a penalty of excommunication for wagering on papal or cardinal elections, or length of the papal reign, 21 cardinals were quoted odds of winning by the bookmakers.

The favourite was Cesare Baronius, at 10/1. The closest he came to election, however, was gaining the support of 32 cardinal electors, nine short of the required tally. Ultimately, Alessandro de’Medici became Pope Leo XI.

This ban on papal betting was abrogated in 1918 by Pope Benedict XV’s reforms.

In relation to the papal conclave of 1878, a New York Times correspondent wrote that: “The death and advents of the Popes has always given rise to an excessive amount of gambling in the lottery, and today the people of Italy are in a state of excitement that is indescribable.” There is no available known record, however, of the odds offered on that election. Similarly, the papal conclaves of 1903 and 1922 also attracted a great deal of wagering interest, which was reported widely in the international press, though no known record remains of the odds offered.

Bookmaker odds in Milan are available, however, for the 1958 conclave, which show Cardinal Angelo Roncalli the 2/1 favourite, followed by Cardinals Agagianian and Ottaviani at 3/1, then Stefan Wyszynski and Giuseppe Siri at 4/ 1. The odds were justified when Cardinal Roncalli was elected Pope John XXIII.

For the first conclave of 1978, bookmakers in London were offering odds of 5/2 about Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, 7/2 about Sebastian Baggio and Ugo Poletti and 4/1 about Carlo Benelli. The best odds about a non-Italian were 8/1 about Johannes Willebrands. Of these only Pignedoli showed any strength in the voting, unconfirmed reports of the voting indicating that he obtained about 18 votes in the first ballot, compared to about 23 for Albino Luciani and 25 for Giuseppe Siri. Ultimately, Cardinal Luciani was elected Pope John Paul I.

For the second conclave of 1978, following the death of Pope John Paul I, the Associated Press noted that:

“Once again, there is no odds-on favourite to be elected as the new pope of the Roman Catholic Church … mentioned most often are Corradi Ursi, Salvatore Pappalardo, Ugo Poletti, Giuseppe Siri, Giovanni Colombo, Giovanni Benelli and Antonio Poma… Non-Italian front-runners include Argentinian Eduardo Pironio, 57, and Dutchman Johannes Willebrands, 68.”

Cardinal Carol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was elected Pope John Paul II, after the eighth ballot.

In 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger opened in the betting at 12/1 with one major bookmaker.

At that point, another leading bookmaker made Cardinal Arinze favourite, with Archbishop Tettamanzi, Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Hummes as the next in the betting.

After three ballots, Ratzinger was favourite on two out of the three online betting boards monitored by CNN, his shortest odds being 5/2. He was at that point in the conclave being offered at between 9/2 favourite and 11/2 second favourite.

By the last day of the conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger had shortened to a clear 3/1 favourite, closely followed by Carlo Martini at 100/30 and Jean-Marie Lustiger at 7/2.

By that point, Francis Arinze had dropped back to 8/1, the same price as Claudio Hummes (who was now in the top six in all three lists). He had opened at 12/1. At the same time, Jorge Bergoglio was trading at 12/1 and Angelo Scola at 25/1.

According to a newspaper report, “among those speculating about who the next pope will be, the big money – literally is on Joseph Ratzinger, who delivered a stirring homily at the late Pope’s funeral … As of yesterday, most gambling sites gave Ratzinger … the best odds, with a host of second-tier candidates not far behind.”

Side bets were available on the name of the next pope.

Benedict was the 3 to 1 favourite. John Paul was offered at 7 to 2. Pius at 6 to 1. Peter at 8 to 1. John at 10 to 1.

Joseph Ratzinger was elected Benedict XVI.

The first show of odds following the 2005 conclave for the successor to Benedict was: Angelo Scola 6-1; Christoph Schonborn 7-1; Oscar Maradiga 7-1; Jorge Bergoglio 9-1; Francis Arinze 10-1; Dionigi Tettamanzi 25-1.

In 2013, a survey of the so-called experts made Angelo Scola favourite, although the expert assessment and the betting odds diverged to some degree after that. A survey of Vatican watchers by YouTrend.It listed Timothy Dolan of the United States as the second most likely pope, followed by Cardinals Marc Ouellet, Odilo Scherer and Thomas O’Malley. Luis Tagle of the Phillipines was sixth was ranked sixth. Some of the bookmakers’ favourites, notably Cardinals Turkson and Bertone, did not appear on this experts’ list.

The implied win probabilities in the Oddschecker display of best bookmaker odds on March 3rd were as follows: Scola, 23%; Turkson, 22%; Bertone, 16%; Ouellet, 12%; Bagnasco, 10%; Ravasi, 8%; Sandri, 7%; Erdo, 7%; Scherer, 6%; Schonborn, 6%; Maradiaga, 5%; Arinze, 5%; O’Malley, 4%; Tagle, 4%; Bergoglio, 4%; Dolan, 3%; Hummes, 3%; Grocholewski, 3%; Dziwisz, 3%; Carrera, 2%; Piacenza, 2%; Marini, 2%; Rylko, 2%; Sarah, 2%; Martino 2%. Note that the probabilities add up to more than 100 due to rounding and the in-built margin in the bookmakers’ odds.

A Washington Post analysis, published on March 11th, calculated the implied probabilities of the ‘frontrunners’ based on betting sites including the betting exchange, Betfair.

The results were: Scola, 19.9%; Scherer, 11.9%, Turkson, 9.7%; Bertone, 8.3%; Ouellet, 5%; Erdo, 4.9%; O’Malley, 3.8%; Schonborn, 3.7%; Ravasi, 3.4%; Tagle, 2.6%; Sandri, 2.5%; Dolan, 2.3%; Bagnasco, 2.3%.

On the morning of the final ballot, on March 13th, 2013, the Guardian newspaper Liveblog reported that: “Ladbrokes has Scola at 9/4, Scherer at 3/1 and Turkson at 6/1. Paddy Power has Scola at 11/4, Scherer at 7/2 and Turkson at 9/2.”

A post by Vatican Insider journalist Andrea Tornielli was also published ahead of the final ballot, stating that “The first casting of ballots, which will serve as a primary, will see votes merge towards the Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, as well as the Canadian Marc Ouellet and the Brazilian Odilo Pedro Scherer. Some votes might also go to the Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio and to other cardinals mentioned during the past few hours, such as the Sinhalese Malcolm Ranjith, the American Timothy Dolan and others. It remains to be seen if, among these nominations, there will be one able to garner at least two-thirds of the votes.”

Despite this level of detail, the same article declared that “From the moment cardinal electors entered the Santa Marta residence, they have not had any contact with the outside world and have to use protected paths that are constantly under surveillance, to get about. Every space they enter is monitored and blocked off from all forms of communication… All those who have to access the Holy See during the Conclave are bound to the strictest confidentiality.”

Then came the three strikes of the clock.

The first strike of the clock was a post by Vatican Insider journalist Giacomo Galeazzi, time-stamped on Vatican Insider Twitter at 8.24am that morning. It noted that there were only five candidates left in the running: Scola, Scherer, Bergoglio, Ouellet, Dolan.

The second strike of the clock was  a link to a post by Vatican Insider journalist Giacomo Galeazzi, time-stamped on Vatican Insider Twitter at 11.12am: “After the first negative scrutinies, lunch breaks and dinners in Santa Marta House, the cardinals’ residence during the conclave, become opportunities for informal discussions on disregarding candidates with weaker consensuses, to the advantage of the papabile who have obtained more votes so far (Scola, Bergoglio, Ouellet).”

So, by 11.12 am, according to Galeazzi, it was effectively down to three – Cardinals Scola, Bergoglio and Ouellet.

The third strike of the clock came at 11.57am, when the Guardian Liveblog reported that: “La Stampa’s Vatican Insider claims that most of the votes have been going to Cardinals Scola, Bergoglio and Ouellet. This morning it was claiming most of them were going to Scola, Scherer, Bergoglio, Ouellet and Dolan. But it’s hard to know where they can be getting this information from.”

So what was actually going on while the clock was striking once, twice, thrice? A post-election report, published in La Repubblica, claims that Scola received approximately 35 votes in the first vote, to 20 for Bergoglio and 15 for Ouellet. National Catholic Reporter also reports that there was some support for Scherer: “After two rounds of voting Wednesday morning, it had become clear that neither Scola nor Scherer were likely to cross the finish line and gain the 77 votes needed for election … The fourth ballot, the first of Wednesday afternoon, saw Bergoglio separate himself from the pack.”

So it appears that Galeazzi’s tweeted reports conformed broadly to what we now understand to have been the case. Somehow it seems he knew!!!

But the markets failed to respond except for a flicker towards Bergoglio on the exchanges after the Guardian Liveblog posted the niche Galeazzi tweets to their wider audience.

So, either the new information was not (for good or bad reason) sufficiently believed. Or it was for the most part overlooked by those trading on the exchanges. Or the market was not sufficiently liquid to make it possible to earn a significant return, so most sophisticated traders did not bother to participate.

Whatever the reason, the betting markets did not perform as well as might have been expected in responding to new public information, which subsequently turned out to be accurate, unless the reports were accurate by sheer chance and deserved to be disbelieved. After all, it was ‘Vatican Insider’ itself that declared how “All those who have to access the Holy See during the Conclave are bound to the strictest confidentiality.”

This cannot be explained either in terms of the fog of conflicting signals as there were no other credible sources issuing conflicting information.

So the ‘Galeazzi anomaly’, as I term it, turns into a mystery, partly because he seemed to know what he shouldn’t have known, but also because hardly anyone seemed to believe him. Giacomo Galeazzi shouted wolf, and there was a wolf! It is a lesson that some, in an efficient market, will now have learned.


Further Reading.

Vaughan Williams, L. and Paton, D., (2015), Forecasting the Outcome of Closed-Door Decisions: Evidence from 500 Years of Betting on Papal Conclaves, Journal of Forecasting, 34 (5), August, 391-404.




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