Agents without principles

A major failing of free markets is the principal–agent problem. This is where one party to a transaction (normally the principal) has poorer information than the other (normally the agent). A good example of this is rogue traders from the building trade – “builders who overcharge or do shoddy work”. Often people are persuaded by doorstep sellers to have their drives resurfaced or their roofs felted or to have double glazing installed. But frequently, the unsuspecting homeowner (the principal to the transaction) has little knowledge of the quality of the work being offered by the builder (the agent). This asymmetry of information means that the homeowner could be taken in by clever selling or reassuring statements.

Another example is estate agents. A recent OFT study found that nearly a quarter of estate agents deliberately misdescribe the properties they are selling, either by exaggerating a property’s benefits or omitting to mention problems, or, in some cases, by downright lying.

So how are agents able to exploit principals and what can be done about it? Is the answer to have better regulation, or is there a market solution?

More complaints of rogue traders BBC News, Brian Milligan (14/11/09)
Rogue trader complaints on the up (video) BBC News, Brian Milligan (14/11/09)
Crackdown on rogue doorstep traders Press Association (16/11/09)
Estate agents ‘regularly lie to homebuyers’ Telegraph (12/11/09)
Lying estate agents confronted with home truths Times Online, Rebecca O’Connor (12/11/09)

A summary of the OFT campaign against rogue traders selling at the doorstep can be found at:
Doorstep selling campaign strategy Office of Fair Trading (16/11/09)
The relevant section of the OFT’s site is Doorstep selling
The government’s Consumer Direct agency has four relevant sections on its site:
Doorstep selling, Home Improvements, Buying a home in England and Wales and Buying a home in Scotland


  1. Give some other examples of the principal–agent problem. Are there any cases where it is the agent that has poorer information and is thus exploited by the principal?
  2. What can bodies such as the Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Direct do to lessen the problem? What factors determine their success?
  3. Discuss the relative merits of alternative solutions to the principal–agent problem.