Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
Principles of Economics

16.1 The Problem of Imperfect Information and Asymmetric Information

Principles of Economics16.1 The Problem of Imperfect Information and Asymmetric Information
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Welcome to Economics!
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 What Is Economics, and Why Is It Important?
    3. 1.2 Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
    4. 1.3 How Economists Use Theories and Models to Understand Economic Issues
    5. 1.4 How Economies Can Be Organized: An Overview of Economic Systems
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. 2 Choice in a World of Scarcity
    1. Introduction to Choice in a World of Scarcity
    2. 2.1 How Individuals Make Choices Based on Their Budget Constraint
    3. 2.2 The Production Possibilities Frontier and Social Choices
    4. 2.3 Confronting Objections to the Economic Approach
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  4. 3 Demand and Supply
    1. Introduction to Demand and Supply
    2. 3.1 Demand, Supply, and Equilibrium in Markets for Goods and Services
    3. 3.2 Shifts in Demand and Supply for Goods and Services
    4. 3.3 Changes in Equilibrium Price and Quantity: The Four-Step Process
    5. 3.4 Price Ceilings and Price Floors
    6. 3.5 Demand, Supply, and Efficiency
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  5. 4 Labor and Financial Markets
    1. Introduction to Labor and Financial Markets
    2. 4.1 Demand and Supply at Work in Labor Markets
    3. 4.2 Demand and Supply in Financial Markets
    4. 4.3 The Market System as an Efficient Mechanism for Information
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  6. 5 Elasticity
    1. Introduction to Elasticity
    2. 5.1 Price Elasticity of Demand and Price Elasticity of Supply
    3. 5.2 Polar Cases of Elasticity and Constant Elasticity
    4. 5.3 Elasticity and Pricing
    5. 5.4 Elasticity in Areas Other Than Price
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  7. 6 Consumer Choices
    1. Introduction to Consumer Choices
    2. 6.1 Consumption Choices
    3. 6.2 How Changes in Income and Prices Affect Consumption Choices
    4. 6.3 Labor-Leisure Choices
    5. 6.4 Intertemporal Choices in Financial Capital Markets
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  8. 7 Cost and Industry Structure
    1. Introduction to Cost and Industry Structure
    2. 7.1 Explicit and Implicit Costs, and Accounting and Economic Profit
    3. 7.2 The Structure of Costs in the Short Run
    4. 7.3 The Structure of Costs in the Long Run
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  9. 8 Perfect Competition
    1. Introduction to Perfect Competition
    2. 8.1 Perfect Competition and Why It Matters
    3. 8.2 How Perfectly Competitive Firms Make Output Decisions
    4. 8.3 Entry and Exit Decisions in the Long Run
    5. 8.4 Efficiency in Perfectly Competitive Markets
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  10. 9 Monopoly
    1. Introduction to a Monopoly
    2. 9.1 How Monopolies Form: Barriers to Entry
    3. 9.2 How a Profit-Maximizing Monopoly Chooses Output and Price
    4. Key Terms
    5. Key Concepts and Summary
    6. Self-Check Questions
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Problems
  11. 10 Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly
    1. Introduction to Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly
    2. 10.1 Monopolistic Competition
    3. 10.2 Oligopoly
    4. Key Terms
    5. Key Concepts and Summary
    6. Self-Check Questions
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Problems
  12. 11 Monopoly and Antitrust Policy
    1. Introduction to Monopoly and Antitrust Policy
    2. 11.1 Corporate Mergers
    3. 11.2 Regulating Anticompetitive Behavior
    4. 11.3 Regulating Natural Monopolies
    5. 11.4 The Great Deregulation Experiment
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  13. 12 Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities
    1. Introduction to Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities
    2. 12.1 The Economics of Pollution
    3. 12.2 Command-and-Control Regulation
    4. 12.3 Market-Oriented Environmental Tools
    5. 12.4 The Benefits and Costs of U.S. Environmental Laws
    6. 12.5 International Environmental Issues
    7. 12.6 The Tradeoff between Economic Output and Environmental Protection
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Concepts and Summary
    10. Self-Check Questions
    11. Review Questions
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Problems
  14. 13 Positive Externalities and Public Goods
    1. Introduction to Positive Externalities and Public Goods
    2. 13.1 Why the Private Sector Under Invests in Innovation
    3. 13.2 How Governments Can Encourage Innovation
    4. 13.3 Public Goods
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  15. 14 Poverty and Economic Inequality
    1. Introduction to Poverty and Economic Inequality
    2. 14.1 Drawing the Poverty Line
    3. 14.2 The Poverty Trap
    4. 14.3 The Safety Net
    5. 14.4 Income Inequality: Measurement and Causes
    6. 14.5 Government Policies to Reduce Income Inequality
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  16. 15 Issues in Labor Markets: Unions, Discrimination, Immigration
    1. Introduction to Issues in Labor Markets: Unions, Discrimination, Immigration
    2. 15.1 Unions
    3. 15.2 Employment Discrimination
    4. 15.3 Immigration
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  17. 16 Information, Risk, and Insurance
    1. Introduction to Information, Risk, and Insurance
    2. 16.1 The Problem of Imperfect Information and Asymmetric Information
    3. 16.2 Insurance and Imperfect Information
    4. Key Terms
    5. Key Concepts and Summary
    6. Self-Check Questions
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Problems
  18. 17 Financial Markets
    1. Introduction to Financial Markets
    2. 17.1 How Businesses Raise Financial Capital
    3. 17.2 How Households Supply Financial Capital
    4. 17.3 How to Accumulate Personal Wealth
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  19. 18 Public Economy
    1. Introduction to Public Economy
    2. 18.1 Voter Participation and Costs of Elections
    3. 18.2 Special Interest Politics
    4. 18.3 Flaws in the Democratic System of Government
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  20. 19 The Macroeconomic Perspective
    1. Introduction to the Macroeconomic Perspective
    2. 19.1 Measuring the Size of the Economy: Gross Domestic Product
    3. 19.2 Adjusting Nominal Values to Real Values
    4. 19.3 Tracking Real GDP over Time
    5. 19.4 Comparing GDP among Countries
    6. 19.5 How Well GDP Measures the Well-Being of Society
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  21. 20 Economic Growth
    1. Introduction to Economic Growth
    2. 20.1 The Relatively Recent Arrival of Economic Growth
    3. 20.2 Labor Productivity and Economic Growth
    4. 20.3 Components of Economic Growth
    5. 20.4 Economic Convergence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  22. 21 Unemployment
    1. Introduction to Unemployment
    2. 21.1 How the Unemployment Rate is Defined and Computed
    3. 21.2 Patterns of Unemployment
    4. 21.3 What Causes Changes in Unemployment over the Short Run
    5. 21.4 What Causes Changes in Unemployment over the Long Run
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  23. 22 Inflation
    1. Introduction to Inflation
    2. 22.1 Tracking Inflation
    3. 22.2 How Changes in the Cost of Living are Measured
    4. 22.3 How the U.S. and Other Countries Experience Inflation
    5. 22.4 The Confusion Over Inflation
    6. 22.5 Indexing and Its Limitations
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  24. 23 The International Trade and Capital Flows
    1. Introduction to the International Trade and Capital Flows
    2. 23.1 Measuring Trade Balances
    3. 23.2 Trade Balances in Historical and International Context
    4. 23.3 Trade Balances and Flows of Financial Capital
    5. 23.4 The National Saving and Investment Identity
    6. 23.5 The Pros and Cons of Trade Deficits and Surpluses
    7. 23.6 The Difference between Level of Trade and the Trade Balance
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Concepts and Summary
    10. Self-Check Questions
    11. Review Questions
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Problems
  25. 24 The Aggregate Demand/Aggregate Supply Model
    1. Introduction to the Aggregate Demand/Aggregate Supply Model
    2. 24.1 Macroeconomic Perspectives on Demand and Supply
    3. 24.2 Building a Model of Aggregate Demand and Aggregate Supply
    4. 24.3 Shifts in Aggregate Supply
    5. 24.4 Shifts in Aggregate Demand
    6. 24.5 How the AD/AS Model Incorporates Growth, Unemployment, and Inflation
    7. 24.6 Keynes’ Law and Say’s Law in the AD/AS Model
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Concepts and Summary
    10. Self-Check Questions
    11. Review Questions
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Problems
  26. 25 The Keynesian Perspective
    1. Introduction to the Keynesian Perspective
    2. 25.1 Aggregate Demand in Keynesian Analysis
    3. 25.2 The Building Blocks of Keynesian Analysis
    4. 25.3 The Phillips Curve
    5. 25.4 The Keynesian Perspective on Market Forces
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  27. 26 The Neoclassical Perspective
    1. Introduction to the Neoclassical Perspective
    2. 26.1 The Building Blocks of Neoclassical Analysis
    3. 26.2 The Policy Implications of the Neoclassical Perspective
    4. 26.3 Balancing Keynesian and Neoclassical Models
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  28. 27 Money and Banking
    1. Introduction to Money and Banking
    2. 27.1 Defining Money by Its Functions
    3. 27.2 Measuring Money: Currency, M1, and M2
    4. 27.3 The Role of Banks
    5. 27.4 How Banks Create Money
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  29. 28 Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation
    1. Introduction to Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation
    2. 28.1 The Federal Reserve Banking System and Central Banks
    3. 28.2 Bank Regulation
    4. 28.3 How a Central Bank Executes Monetary Policy
    5. 28.4 Monetary Policy and Economic Outcomes
    6. 28.5 Pitfalls for Monetary Policy
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  30. 29 Exchange Rates and International Capital Flows
    1. Introduction to Exchange Rates and International Capital Flows
    2. 29.1 How the Foreign Exchange Market Works
    3. 29.2 Demand and Supply Shifts in Foreign Exchange Markets
    4. 29.3 Macroeconomic Effects of Exchange Rates
    5. 29.4 Exchange Rate Policies
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  31. 30 Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy
    1. Introduction to Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy
    2. 30.1 Government Spending
    3. 30.2 Taxation
    4. 30.3 Federal Deficits and the National Debt
    5. 30.4 Using Fiscal Policy to Fight Recession, Unemployment, and Inflation
    6. 30.5 Automatic Stabilizers
    7. 30.6 Practical Problems with Discretionary Fiscal Policy
    8. 30.7 The Question of a Balanced Budget
    9. Key Terms
    10. Key Concepts and Summary
    11. Self-Check Questions
    12. Review Questions
    13. Critical Thinking Questions
    14. Problems
  32. 31 The Impacts of Government Borrowing
    1. Introduction to the Impacts of Government Borrowing
    2. 31.1 How Government Borrowing Affects Investment and the Trade Balance
    3. 31.2 Fiscal Policy, Investment, and Economic Growth
    4. 31.3 How Government Borrowing Affects Private Saving
    5. 31.4 Fiscal Policy and the Trade Balance
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  33. 32 Macroeconomic Policy Around the World
    1. Introduction to Macroeconomic Policy around the World
    2. 32.1 The Diversity of Countries and Economies across the World
    3. 32.2 Improving Countries’ Standards of Living
    4. 32.3 Causes of Unemployment around the World
    5. 32.4 Causes of Inflation in Various Countries and Regions
    6. 32.5 Balance of Trade Concerns
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  34. 33 International Trade
    1. Introduction to International Trade
    2. 33.1 Absolute and Comparative Advantage
    3. 33.2 What Happens When a Country Has an Absolute Advantage in All Goods
    4. 33.3 Intra-industry Trade between Similar Economies
    5. 33.4 The Benefits of Reducing Barriers to International Trade
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  35. 34 Globalization and Protectionism
    1. Introduction to Globalization and Protectionism
    2. 34.1 Protectionism: An Indirect Subsidy from Consumers to Producers
    3. 34.2 International Trade and Its Effects on Jobs, Wages, and Working Conditions
    4. 34.3 Arguments in Support of Restricting Imports
    5. 34.4 How Trade Policy Is Enacted: Globally, Regionally, and Nationally
    6. 34.5 The Tradeoffs of Trade Policy
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  36. A | The Use of Mathematics in Principles of Economics
  37. B | Indifference Curves
  38. C | Present Discounted Value
  39. The Expenditure-Output Model
  40. Answer Key
    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2
    3. Chapter 3
    4. Chapter 4
    5. Chapter 5
    6. Chapter 6
    7. Chapter 7
    8. Chapter 8
    9. Chapter 9
    10. Chapter 10
    11. Chapter 11
    12. Chapter 12
    13. Chapter 13
    14. Chapter 14
    15. Chapter 15
    16. Chapter 16
    17. Chapter 17
    18. Chapter 18
    19. Chapter 19
    20. Chapter 20
    21. Chapter 21
    22. Chapter 22
    23. Chapter 23
    24. Chapter 24
    25. Chapter 25
    26. Chapter 26
    27. Chapter 27
    28. Chapter 28
    29. Chapter 29
    30. Chapter 30
    31. Chapter 31
    32. Chapter 32
    33. Chapter 33
    34. Chapter 34
  41. References
  42. Index

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Analyze the impact of both imperfect information and asymmetric information
  • Evaluate the role of advertisements in creating imperfect information
  • Identify ways to reduce the risk of imperfect information
  • Explain how imperfect information can affect price, quantity, and quality

Consider a purchase that many people make at important times in their lives: buying expensive jewelry. In May 1994, Doree Lynn bought an expensive ring from a jeweler in Washington, D.C., which included an emerald that cost $14,500. Several years later, the emerald fractured. Lynn took it to another jeweler who found that cracks in the emerald had been filled with an epoxy resin. Lynn sued the original jeweler in 1997 for selling her a treated emerald without telling her, and won. The case publicized a number of little-known facts about precious stones. Most emeralds have internal flaws, and so they are soaked in clear oil or an epoxy resin to hide the flaws and make the color more deep and clear. Clear oil can leak out over time, and epoxy resin can discolor with age or heat. However, using clear oil or epoxy to “fill” emeralds is completely legal, as long as it is disclosed.

After Doree Lynn’s lawsuit, the NBC news show “Dateline” bought emeralds at four prominent jewelry stores in New York City in 1997. All the sales clerks at these stores, unaware that they were being recorded on a hidden camera, said the stones were untreated. When the emeralds were tested at a laboratory, however, it was discovered they had all been treated with oil or epoxy. Emeralds are not the only gemstones that are treated. Diamonds, topaz, and tourmaline are also often irradiated to enhance colors. The general rule is that all treatments to gemstones should be revealed, but often disclosure is not made. As such, many buyers face a situation of asymmetric information, where the both parties involved in an economic transaction have an unequal amount of information (one party knows much more than the other).

Many economic transactions are made in a situation of imperfect information, where either the buyer, the seller, or both, are less than 100% certain about the qualities of what is being bought and sold. Also, the transaction may be characterized by asymmetric information, in which one party has more information than the other regarding the economic transaction. Let’s begin with some examples of how imperfect information complicates transactions in goods, labor, and financial capital markets. The presence of imperfect information can easily cause a decline in prices or quantities of products sold. However, buyers and sellers also have incentives to create mechanisms that will allow them to make mutually beneficial transactions even in the face of imperfect information.

If you are unclear about the difference between asymmetric information and imperfect information, read the following Clear It Up feature.

Clear It Up

What is the difference between imperfect and asymmetric information?

For a market to reach equilibrium sellers and buyers must have full information about the product’s price and quality. If there is limited information, then buyers and sellers may not be able to transact or will possibly make poor decisions.

Imperfect information refers to the situation where buyers and/or sellers do not have all of the necessary information to make an informed decision about the price or quality of a product. The term imperfect information simply means that not all the information necessary to make an informed decision is known to the buyers and/or sellers. Asymmetric information is the condition where one party, either the buyer or the seller, has more information about the quality or price of the product than the other party. In either case (imperfect or asymmetric information) buyers or sellers need remedies to make more informed decisions.

“Lemons” and Other Examples of Imperfect Information

Consider Marvin, who is trying to decide whether to buy a used car. Let’s assume that Marvin is truly clueless about what happens inside a car’s engine. He is willing to do some background research, like reading Consumer Reports or checking websites that offer information about makes and models of used cars and what they should cost. He might pay a mechanic to inspect the car. Even after devoting some money and time collecting information, however, Marvin still cannot be absolutely sure that he is buying a high-quality used car. He knows that he might buy the car, drive it home, and use it for a few weeks before discovering that car is a “lemon,” which is slang for a defective product (especially a car).

Imagine that Marvin shops for a used car and finds two that look very similar in terms of mileage, exterior appearances, and age. One car costs $4,000, while the other car costs $4,600. Which car should Marvin buy?

If Marvin was choosing in a world of perfect information, the answer would be simple: he should buy the cheaper car. But Marvin is operating in a world of imperfect information, where the sellers likely know more about the car’s problems than he does, and have an incentive to hide the information. After all, the more problems that are disclosed, the lower the car’s selling price.

What should Marvin do? First, he needs to understand that even with imperfect information, prices still reflect information. Typically, used cars are more expensive on some dealer lots because the dealers have a trustworthy reputation to uphold. Those dealers try to fix problems that may not be obvious to their customers, in order to create good word of mouth about their vehicles’ long term reliability. The short term benefits of selling their customers a “lemon” could cause a quick collapse in the dealer’s reputation and a loss of long term profits. On other lots that are less well-established, one can find cheaper used cars, but the buyer takes on more risk when a dealer’s reputation has little at stake. The cheapest cars of all often appear on Craigslist, where the individual seller has no reputation to defend. In sum, cheaper prices do carry more risk, so Marvin should balance his appetite for risk versus the potential headaches of many more unanticipated trips to the repair shop.

Similar problems with imperfect information arise in labor and financial capital markets. Consider Greta, who is applying for a job. Her potential employer, like the used car buyer, is concerned about ending up with a “lemon”—in this case a poor quality employee. The employer will collect information about Greta’s academic and work history. In the end, however, a degree of uncertainty will inevitably remain regarding Greta’s abilities, which are hard to demonstrate without actually observing her on the job. How can a potential employer screen for certain attributes, such as motivation, timeliness, ability to get along with others, and so on? Employers often look to trade schools and colleges to pre-screen candidates. Employers may not even interview a candidate unless he has a degree and, sometimes, a degree from a particular school. Employers may also view awards, a high grade point average, and other accolades as a signal of hard work, perseverance, and ability. Employers may also seek references for insights into key attributes such as energy level, work ethic, and so on.

How Imperfect Information Can Affect Equilibrium Price and Quantity

The presence of imperfect information can discourage both buyers and sellers from participating in the market. Buyers may become reluctant to participate because they cannot determine the quality of a product. Sellers of high-quality or medium-quality goods may be reluctant to participate, because it is difficult to demonstrate the quality of their goods to buyers—and since buyers cannot determine which goods have higher quality, they are likely to be unwilling to pay a higher price for such goods.

A market with few buyers and few sellers is sometimes referred to as a thin market. By contrast, a market with many buyers and sellers is called a thick market. When imperfect information is severe and buyers and sellers are discouraged from participating, markets may become extremely thin as a relatively small number of buyer and sellers attempt to communicate enough information that they can agree on a price.

When Price Mixes with Imperfect Information about Quality

A buyer confronted with imperfect information will often believe that the price being charged reveals something about the quality of the product. For example, a buyer may assume that a gemstone or a used car that costs more must be of higher quality, even though the buyer is not an expert on gemstones. Think of the expensive restaurant where the food must be good because it is so expensive or the shop where the clothes must be stylish because they cost so much, or the gallery where the art must be great, because it costs so much. If you are hiring a lawyer, you might assume that a lawyer who charges $400 per hour must be better than a lawyer who charges $150 per hour. In these cases, price can act as a signal of quality.

When buyers use the market price to draw inferences about the quality of products, then markets may have trouble reaching an equilibrium price and quantity. Imagine a situation where a used car dealer has a lot full of used cars that do not seem to be selling, and so the dealer decides to cut the prices of the cars to sell a greater quantity. In a market with imperfect information, many buyers may assume that the lower price implies low-quality cars. As a result, the lower price may not attract more customers. Conversely, a dealer who raises prices may find that customers assume that the higher price means that cars are of higher quality; as a result of raising prices, the dealer might sell more cars. (Whether or not consumers always behave rationally, as an economist would see it, is the subject of the following Clear It Up feature.)

The idea that higher prices might cause a greater quantity demanded and that lower prices might cause a lower quantity demanded runs exactly counter to the basic model of demand and supply (as outlined in the Demand and Supply chapter). These contrary effects, however, will reach natural limits. At some point, if the price is high enough, the quantity demanded will decline. Conversely, when the price declines far enough, buyers will increasingly find value even if the quality is lower. In addition, information eventually becomes more widely known. An overpriced restaurant that charges more than the quality of its food is worth to many buyers will not last forever.

Clear It Up

Is consumer behavior rational?

There is a lot of human behavior out there that mainstream economists have tended to call “irrational” since it is consistently at odds with economists’ utility maximizing models. The typical response is for economists to brush these behaviors aside and call them “anomalies” or unexplained quirks.

“If only you knew more economics, you would not be so irrational,” is what many mainstream economists seem to be saying. A group known as behavioral economists has challenged this notion, because so much of this so-called “quirky” behavior is extremely common among us. For example, a conventional economist would say that if you lost a $10 bill today, and also got an extra $10 in your paycheck, you should feel perfectly neutral. After all, –$10 + $10 = $0. You are the same financially as you were before. However, behavioral economists have done research that shows many people will feel some negative emotion—anger, frustration, and so forth—after those two things happen. We tend to focus more on the loss than the gain. This is known as “loss aversion,” where a $1 loss pains us 2.25 times more than a $1 gain helps us, according to the economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in a famous 1979 Econometrica paper. This has implications for investing, as people tend to “overplay” the stock market by reacting more to losses than to gains.

Behavioral economics also tries to explain why people make seemingly irrational decisions in the presence of different situations, or how the decision is “framed.” A popular example is outlined here: Imagine you have the opportunity to buy an alarm clock for $20 in Store A. Across the street, you learn, is the exact same clock at Store B for $10. You might say it is worth your time—a five minute walk—to save $10. Now, take a different example: You are in Store A buying a $300 phone. Five minutes away, at Store B, the same phone is $290. You again save $10 by taking a five minute walk. Do you do it?

Surprisingly, it is likely that you would not. Mainstream economists would say “$10 is $10” and that it would be irrational to make a five minute walk for $10 in one case and not the other. However, behavioral economists have pointed out that most of us evaluate outcomes relative to a reference point—here the cost of the product—and think of gains and losses as percentages rather than using actual savings.

Which view is right? Both have their advantages, but behavioral economists have at least shed a light on trying to describe and explain systematic behavior which previously has been dismissed as irrational. If most of us are engaged in some “irrational behavior,” perhaps there are deeper underlying reasons for this behavior in the first place.

Mechanisms to Reduce the Risk of Imperfect Information

If you were selling a good like emeralds or used cars where imperfect information is likely to be a problem, how could you reassure possible buyers? If you were buying a good where imperfect information is a problem, what would it take to reassure you? Buyers and sellers in the goods market rely on reputation as well as guarantees, warrantees, and service contracts to assure product quality; in the labor market, occupational licenses and certifications are used to assure competency, while in financial capital market cosigners and collateral are used as insurance against unforeseen, detrimental events.

In the goods market, the seller of a good might offer a money-back guarantee, an agreement that functions as a promise of quality. This strategy may be especially important for a company that sells goods through mail-order catalogs or over the web, whose customers cannot see the actual products, because it encourages people to buy something even if they are not certain they want to keep it.

L.L. Bean started using money-back-guarantees in 1911, when the founder stitched waterproof shoe rubbers together with leather shoe tops, and sold them as hunting shoes. He guaranteed satisfaction. However, the stitching came apart and, out of the first batch of 100 pairs that were sold, 90 pairs were returned. L.L. Bean took out a bank loan, repaired all of the shoes, and replaced them. The L.L. Bean reputation for customer satisfaction began to spread. Many firms today offer money-back-guarantees for a few weeks or months, but L.L. Bean offers a complete money-back guarantee. Anything you have bought from L.L. Bean can always be returned, no matter how many years later or what condition the product is in, for a full money-back guarantee.

L.L. Bean has very few stores. Instead, most of its sales are made by mail, telephone, or, now, through their website. For this kind of firm, imperfect information may be an especially difficult problem, because customers cannot see and touch what they are buying. A combination of a money-back guarantee and a reputation for quality can help for a mail-order firm to flourish.

Link It Up

Visit this website to read about the origin of Eddie Bauer’s 100% customer satisfaction guarantee.

QR Code representing a URL

Sellers may offer a warranty, which is a promise to fix or replace the good, at least for a certain period of time. The seller may also offer a buyer a chance to buy a service contract, where the buyer pays an extra amount and the seller agrees to fix anything that goes wrong for a set time period. Service contracts are often used with large purchases such as cars, appliances and even houses.

Guarantees, warranties, and service contracts are examples of explicit reassurance that sellers provide. In many cases, firms also offer unstated guarantees. For example, some movie theaters might refund the cost of a ticket to a customer who walks out complaining about the show. Likewise, while restaurants do not generally advertise a money-back guarantee or exchange policies, many restaurants allow customers to exchange one dish for another or reduce the price of the bill if the customer is not satisfied.

The rationale for these policies is that firms want repeat customers, who in turn will recommend the business to others; as such, establishing a good reputation is of paramount importance. When buyers know that a firm is concerned about its reputation, they are less likely to worry about receiving a poor-quality product. For example, a well-established grocery store with a good reputation can often charge a higher price than a temporary stand at a local farmer’s market, where the buyer may never see the seller again.

Sellers of labor provide information through resumes, recommendations, school transcripts, and examples of their work. Occupational licenses are also used to establish quality in the labor market. Occupational licenses, which are typically issued by government agencies, show that a worker has completed a certain type of education or passed a certain test. Some of the professionals who must hold a license are doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers, accountants, and lawyers. In addition, most states require a license to work as a barber, an embalmer, a dietitian, a massage therapist, a hearing aid dealer, a counselor, an insurance agent, and a real estate broker. Some other jobs require a license in only one state. Minnesota requires a state license to be a field archeologist. North Dakota has a state license for bait retailers. In Louisiana, a state license is needed to be a “stress analyst” and California requires a state license to be a furniture upholsterer. According to a 2013 study from the University of Chicago, about 29% of U.S. workers have jobs that require occupational licenses.

Occupational licenses have their downside as well, as they represent a barrier to entry to certain industries. This makes it more difficult for new entrants to compete with incumbents, which can lead to higher prices and less consumer choice. In industries that require licenses, the government has decided that the additional information provided by licenses outweighs the negative effect on competition.

Clear It Up

Are advertisers allowed to benefit from imperfect information?

Many advertisements seem full of imperfect information—at least by what they imply. Driving a certain car, drinking a particular soda, or wearing a certain shoe are all unlikely to bring fashionable friends and fun automatically, if at all. The government rules on advertising, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), allow advertising to contain a certain amount of exaggeration about the general delight of using a product. They, however, also demand that if a claim is presented as a fact, it must be true.

Legally, deceptive advertising dates back to the 1950s when Colgate-Palmolive created a television advertisement that seemed to show Rapid Shave shaving cream being spread on sandpaper and then the sand was shaved off the sandpaper. What the television advertisement actually showed was sand sprinkled on Plexiglas—without glue—and then scraped aside by the razor.

In the 1960s, in magazine advertisements for Campbell’s vegetable soup, the company was having problems getting an appetizing picture of the soup, because the vegetables kept sinking. So they filled a bowl with marbles and poured the soup over the top, so that the bowl appeared to be crammed with vegetables.

In the late 1980s, the Volvo Company filmed a television advertisement that showed a monster truck driving over cars, crunching their roofs—all except for the Volvo, which did not crush. However, the FTC found in 1991 that the roof of the Volvo used in the filming had been reinforced with an extra steel framework, while the roof supports on the other car brands had been cut.

The Wonder Bread Company ran television advertisements featuring “Professor Wonder,” who said that because Wonder Bread contained extra calcium, it would help children’s minds work better and improve their memory. The FTC objected, and in 2002 the company agreed to stop running the advertisements.

As can be seen in each of these cases, factual claims about the product’s performance are often checked, at least to some extent, by the Federal Trade Commission. Language and images that are exaggerated or ambiguous, but not actually false, are allowed in advertising. Untrue “facts” are not allowed. In any case, an old Latin saying applies when watching advertisements: Caveat emptor—that is, “let the buyer beware.”

On the buyer’s side of the labor market, a standard precaution against hiring a “lemon” of an employee is to specify that the first few months of employment are officially a trial or probationary period, and that the worker can be let go for any reason or no reason after that time. Sometimes workers also receive lower pay during this trial period.

In the financial capital market, before a bank makes a loan, it requires a prospective borrower fill out forms regarding the sources of income; in addition, the bank conducts a credit check on the individual’s past borrowing. Another approach is to require a cosigner on a loan; that is, another person or firm who legally pledges to repay some or all of the money if the original borrower does not do so. Yet another approach is to require collateral, often property or equipment that the bank would have a right to seize and sell if the loan is not repaid.

Buyers of goods and services cannot possibly become experts in evaluating the quality of gemstones, used cars, lawyers, and everything else they buy. Employers and lenders cannot be perfectly omniscient about whether possible workers will turn out well or potential borrowers will repay loans on time. But the mechanisms mentioned above can reduce the risks associated with imperfect information so that the buyer and seller are willing to proceed.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/principles-economics/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/principles-economics/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Oct 23, 2020 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.