Might the age of asymmetric information – for better or worse – be over? Market institutions are rapidly evolving to a situation where very often the buyer and the seller have roughly equal knowledge. Technological developments are giving everyone who wants it access to the very best information when it comes to product quality, worker performance, matches to friends and partners, and the nature of financial transactions, among many other areas.
These developments will have implications for how markets work, how much consumers benefit, and also economic policy and the law. As we will see, there may be some problematic sides to these new arrangements, specifically when it comes to privacy. Still, a large amount of economic regulation seems directed at a set of problems which, in large part, no longer exist.
Let’s start with a simple and classic illustration from the economics literature, namely George Akerlof’s pioneering paper from 1970 about asymmetric information and the market for used cars. In the core version of this model, sellers have better information than buyers: sellers know the value of their car but buyers know only the value of used cars on average. Since buyers don’t know the quality of a seller’s car they will be willing to pay only the average value. But if buyers are only willing to pay for average quality, why would anyone want to sell a car that is of above average quality, a plum? When the plums exit the market, the average value of the used cars for sale falls even further and buyers are willing to pay even less. Following the logic, we end up with a situation where only a few lemons are bought and sold, thus the moniker “the market for lemons.”
The market for used cars, however, has been one of the earlier examples where market institutions largely (albeit not completely) solved the problem of asymmetric information. Even in 1970, the market for used cars was extensive, and some institutions existed to make information more symmetric. Perhaps the most important of these was the odometer. First used by Alexander the Great to measure distances between cities, modern odometers were standard on almost all cars by 1925. The odometer reading is the single most important piece of information about a specific car that determines its value, and that is why used car prices are adjusted for mileage. The law contributes to this solution by making odometer tampering illegal and successive state and federal laws have increased the penalties and enforcement over time. In 1972, for example, the Federal Odometer Act made tampering a federal felony. As with other crimes, punishment doesn’t eliminate tampering but it does reduce it quantity thus making odometer readings more trustworthy and quality information more symmetric. Even more importantly, the Truth in Mileage Act of 1986 requires that sellers disclose and record the odometer reading on the title at every transfer of title. The 1986 Act greatly reduced the benefits of tampering because the odometer could not be rolled back prior to the reading from a previously recorded sale.
Since the 1986 Act, odometer readings and recordings have become more frequent. Odometer readings, for example, are now made at emission inspections and safety inspections. In many states such readings are made once per year. Services such as CarFax collect and report odometer readings from title transfers and inspections, making the information easily available for a small fee. In the future, states or the private sector could provide this information online for free. In addition to odometer readings, services such as CarFax collect information from service stations and insurance companies about repairs and accidents. The information collected is incomplete but it can be very useful in the important cases, such as when a car has been flooded or totaled.
Perhaps the most telling fact is that the market for used cars is already some three times larger than the market for new cars (as measured by unit sales, see Bureau of Transportation Statistics). In 2012, for example, there were 40.5 million used car sales compared to 14.5 million new car sales (NIDIA 2013). On average, used cars sell for about a third the price of new cars, so the total size of the two markets is similar with both around $330 billion in sales. There just aren’t that many lemons to sustain such a high transactions volume. In fact both high-quality and low-quality used cars are available in fairly liquid, fairly transparent markets.
Information symmetry about the quality of automobiles is very likely to increase. Almost all vehicles today have “event data recorders” aka “black boxes,” similar to those found in airplanes. Event data recorders record data on vehicle performance and diagnostic checks but also speed, braking, seatbelt use and other information relevant to safety and car crashes. Some car companies, most notably Tesla, can collect such information remotely or stream it in real time. Tesla, for example, collects information on a vehicle’s odometer, service history, speed, location, battery use, charging time, braking, starting and stopping times, air bag deployment—even radio and horn use. When a vehicle is sold the data transfers with the vehicle. It is now possible to prove that a used car really was driven by a grandma just on Sundays.
Asymmetric information is no longer a plausible description of the used car market and, as a result, we should not be surprised that these markets are thriving, whether in terms of volume, diversity of product, or their ability to deliver a reliable purchase at a reasonable price.HT: Abnormal Returns
What about the adverse selection argument as it applies to health insurance? There too it seems that we are seeing a rapidly increasing symmetry of information.
Black boxes for people are not yet standard, but wearable sensors can monitor movement, heart rate, and heart rhythm, blood pressure and blood-oxygen levels, and glucose levels and other health-related statistics. Such information can be recorded and reported through smartphone apps, watches, and other wearable devices. Life insurance firms already have enough information from actuarial tables to make a good guess about an individual’s health. In the data we see that life insurance rates decline with the purchase of larger policies, which is the opposite of the prediction of the adverse selection model, namely that rates should increase with purchases (Cawley and Philipson 1999).
The actual problems with health insurance markets have less to do with information asymmetry and adverse selection than with too much information. That can make some people’s insurance very expensive at actuarially sound rates. For instance if you have a cancer of a given kind, this is verifiable to the outside world, and if the treatment costs are $200,000, the cost of an insurance policy will in turn be about $200,000. Buying the policy won’t be cheaper than buying the treatments, and in that sense the market for insurance is not always present. That is a very real public policy problem, but it is not well understood by invoking standard theories of asymmetric information.
The cheap sequencing of the genome may accelerate and intensify these issues. Science still is not able to infer so much from a sequenced genome, but to the extent this changes medical information and indeed information about the person more generally will become more public. Even if privacy legislation is in place, the market equilibrium may induce a lot of disclosure, because employers and others (potential dating partners?) will infer negative information from a lack of disclosure (Tabarrok 1994). In the limiting case we can imagine that each person will carry indicators of genetic information and also of environmental upbringing, allowing other parties to evaluate that individual much more accurately than before.
Moral hazard is another kind of asymmetric information problem which very often can be tolerably overcome with cheap, ubiquitous information. By moral hazard we mean the tendency of a better informed party to exploit its information advantage in an undesirable or dishonest way; for instance it is moral hazard when a worker shirks on the job or when a business enterprise takes too much risk at the possible expense of its bondholders....MORE
And a couple responses.