Information asymmetry

Information asymmetry

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In economics
Economics
Economics is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek from + , hence "rules of the house"...

 and contract theory
Contract theory
In economics, contract theory studies how economic actors can and do construct contractual arrangements, generally in the presence of asymmetric information. Because of its connections with both agency and incentives, contract theory is often categorized within a field known as Law and economics...

, information asymmetry deals with the study of decisions in transactions where one party has more or better information
Information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

 than the other. This creates an imbalance of power in transactions which can sometimes cause the transactions to go awry, a kind of market failure
Market failure
Market failure is a concept within economic theory wherein the allocation of goods and services by a free market is not efficient. That is, there exists another conceivable outcome where a market participant may be made better-off without making someone else worse-off...

 in the worst case. Examples of this problem are adverse selection
Adverse selection
Adverse selection, anti-selection, or negative selection is a term used in economics, insurance, statistics, and risk management. It refers to a market process in which "bad" results occur when buyers and sellers have asymmetric information : the "bad" products or services are more likely to be...

, moral hazard
Moral hazard
In economic theory, moral hazard refers to a situation in which a party makes a decision about how much risk to take, while another party bears the costs if things go badly, and the party insulated from risk behaves differently from how it would if it were fully exposed to the risk.Moral hazard...

, and information monopoly. Most commonly, information asymmetries are studied in the context of principal–agent problems.

In 2001, the Nobel Prize in Economics
Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics, but officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel , is an award for outstanding contributions to the field of economics, generally regarded as one of the...

 was awarded to George Akerlof
George Akerlof
George Arthur Akerlof is an American economist and Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics George Arthur Akerlof (born June 17, 1940) is an American economist and Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of...

, Michael Spence
Michael Spence
Andrew Michael Spence is an American economist and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, along with George A. Akerlof and Joseph E. Stiglitz, for their work on the dynamics of information flows and market development. He conducted this research while at Harvard University...

, and Joseph E. Stiglitz
Joseph E. Stiglitz
Joseph Eugene Stiglitz, ForMemRS, FBA, is an American economist and a professor at Columbia University. He is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the John Bates Clark Medal . He is also the former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank...

 "for their analyses of markets with asymmetric information."

Information asymmetry models


Information asymmetry models assume that at least one party to a transaction has relevant information whereas the other(s) do not. Some asymmetric information models can also be used in situations where at least one party can enforce, or effectively retaliate for breaches of, certain parts of an agreement whereas the other(s) cannot.

In adverse selection
Adverse selection
Adverse selection, anti-selection, or negative selection is a term used in economics, insurance, statistics, and risk management. It refers to a market process in which "bad" results occur when buyers and sellers have asymmetric information : the "bad" products or services are more likely to be...

 models, the ignorant party lacks information while negotiating an agreed understanding of or contract to the transaction, whereas in moral hazard
Moral hazard
In economic theory, moral hazard refers to a situation in which a party makes a decision about how much risk to take, while another party bears the costs if things go badly, and the party insulated from risk behaves differently from how it would if it were fully exposed to the risk.Moral hazard...

 the ignorant party lacks information about performance of the agreed-upon transaction or lacks the ability to retaliate for a breach of the agreement. An example of adverse selection is when people who are high risk are more likely to buy insurance
Insurance
In law and economics, insurance is a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for payment. An insurer is a company selling the...

, because the insurance company cannot effectively discriminate against them, usually due to lack of information about the particular individual's risk but also sometimes by force of law or other constraints. An example of moral hazard is when people are more likely to behave recklessly after becoming insured, either because the insurer cannot observe this behavior or cannot effectively retaliate against it, for example by failing to renew the insurance.

Adverse selection


The classic paper on adverse selection
Adverse selection
Adverse selection, anti-selection, or negative selection is a term used in economics, insurance, statistics, and risk management. It refers to a market process in which "bad" results occur when buyers and sellers have asymmetric information : the "bad" products or services are more likely to be...

 is George Akerlof
George Akerlof
George Arthur Akerlof is an American economist and Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics George Arthur Akerlof (born June 17, 1940) is an American economist and Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of...

's "The Market for Lemons
The Market for Lemons
"The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism" is a 1970 paper by the economist George Akerlof. It discusses information asymmetry, which occurs when the seller knows more about a product than the buyer. A lemon is an American slang term for a car that is found to be...

" from 1970, which brought informational issues at the forefront of economic theory. It discusses two primary solutions to this problem, signaling and screening
Screening (economics)
Screening in economics refers to a strategy of combating adverse selection, one of the potential decision-making complications in cases of asymmetric information...

.

Signaling


Michael Spence
Michael Spence
Andrew Michael Spence is an American economist and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, along with George A. Akerlof and Joseph E. Stiglitz, for their work on the dynamics of information flows and market development. He conducted this research while at Harvard University...

 originally proposed the idea of signaling. He proposed that in a situation with information asymmetry, it is possible for people to signal their type, thus believably transferring information to the other party and resolving the asymmetry.

This idea was originally studied in the context of looking for a job. An employer is interested in hiring a new employee who is "skilled in learning." Of course, all prospective employees will claim to be "skilled at learning", but only they know if they really are. This is an information asymmetry. Skill in learning is malleable, and depends upon many factors, including diet, exercise and money.

Spence proposes, for example, that going to college can function as a credible signal of an ability to learn. Assuming that people who are skilled in learning can finish college more easily than people who are unskilled, then by finishing college the skilled people signal their skill to prospective employers. No matter how much or how little they may have learned in college, finishing functions as a signal of their capacity for learning. However, finishing college may merely function as a signal of their ability to pay for college, it may signal the willingness of individuals to adhere to orthodox views, or it may signal a willingness to comply with authority.

Screening


Joseph E. Stiglitz
Joseph E. Stiglitz
Joseph Eugene Stiglitz, ForMemRS, FBA, is an American economist and a professor at Columbia University. He is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the John Bates Clark Medal . He is also the former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank...

 pioneered the theory of screening. In this way the underinformed party can induce the other party to reveal their information. They can provide a menu of choices in such a way that the choice depends on the private information of the other party.

Examples of situations where the seller usually has better information than the buyer are numerous but include used-car salespeople, mortgage
Mortgage loan
A mortgage loan is a loan secured by real property through the use of a mortgage note which evidences the existence of the loan and the encumbrance of that realty through the granting of a mortgage which secures the loan...

 brokers and loan originators, stockbrokers, Realtors, and real estate agents.

Examples of situations where the buyer usually has better information than the seller include estate sale
Estate sale
An estate sale or estate liquidation is a sale or auction to dispose of a substantial portion of the materials owned by a person who is recently deceased or who must dispose of his personal property to facilitate a move.-Reasons for an estate sale:...

s as specified in a last will and testament, life insurance
Life insurance
Life insurance is a contract between an insurance policy holder and an insurer, where the insurer promises to pay a designated beneficiary a sum of money upon the death of the insured person. Depending on the contract, other events such as terminal illness or critical illness may also trigger...

, or sales of old art
Art
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect....

 pieces without prior professional assessment
Assessor (property)
An assessor is a specialist who calculates the value of property. The value calculated by the assessor is then used as the basis for determining the amounts to be paid or assessed for tax or insurance purposes....

 of their value. This situation was first described by Kenneth J. Arrow in an article on health care in 1963.

George Akerlof
George Akerlof
George Arthur Akerlof is an American economist and Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics George Arthur Akerlof (born June 17, 1940) is an American economist and Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of...

 in The Market for Lemons
The Market for Lemons
"The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism" is a 1970 paper by the economist George Akerlof. It discusses information asymmetry, which occurs when the seller knows more about a product than the buyer. A lemon is an American slang term for a car that is found to be...

notices that, in such a market, the average value of the commodity
Commodity
In economics, a commodity is the generic term for any marketable item produced to satisfy wants or needs. Economic commodities comprise goods and services....

 tends to go down, even for those of perfectly good quality. Because of information asymmetry, unscrupulous sellers can "spoof
Forgery
Forgery is the process of making, adapting, or imitating objects, statistics, or documents with the intent to deceive. Copies, studio replicas, and reproductions are not considered forgeries, though they may later become forgeries through knowing and willful misrepresentations. Forging money or...

" items (like replica goods such as watches) and defraud the buyer. As a result, many people not willing to risk getting ripped off will avoid certain types of purchases, or will not spend as much for a given item. It is even possible for the market
Market
A market is one of many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services in exchange for money from buyers...

 to decay to the point of nonexistence.

Although information asymmetry has recently been noted to be on the decline with the rise of the internet, which allows ignorant users to acquire hitherto unavailable information such as the costs of competing insurance policies, or the price of used cars, it is still heavily applied to human resource and personnel economics regarding incentive schemes when the employer cannot continually observe worker effort.

Application of information asymmetry in research


Since the seminal contributions of Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz, the pervasive effects of information asymmetry in markets have been documented and studied in numerous contexts. In particular, a substantial portion of research in the field of accounting can be framed in terms of information asymmetry, since accounting involves the transmission of an enterprise's information from those who have it to those who need it for decision-making. Likewise, financial economists apply information asymmetry in studies of differentially informed financial market participants (insiders, stock analysts, investors, etc.).

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