Tag: information asymmetry

The news in many European countries has been dominated in February by the ‘horse meat scandal’. Small traces of horse meat may be the result of faulty quality control. But the significant amount of horse found in several processed meat products suggest fraud at one or more points in the supply chain from farm to supermarket or other outlet. Indeed several specific suppliers, from abattoirs to processors are facing criminal investigation.

The scandal has put the supply chain under intense scrutiny. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is often very long and complex. As the Guardian article states:

The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalised in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.

Then there is the huge pressure on all parts of the supply chain to reduce costs.

Supermarkets use their market power to drive down the prices of the products they buy from their suppliers and this has a knock-on effect backwards down the supply chain. This pressure has intensified as real wages have fallen and consumers have found their budgets squeezed.

At the same time, beef and other meat prices have been rising as the costs of animal feed have soared. This all puts tremendous pressure on suppliers to add cheaper ingredients. Again to quote the Guardian article:

Manufacturers add other cheap ingredients including water and fat, and use concentrated proteins to bind the water and fat in. They may appear on labels as ‘seasoning’. One of the cheapest sources of these protein additives is pork rind. It is possible that horse hide is now also being used. The widespread adulteration of cheap chicken breast with pig and beef proteins and water has been uncovered in previous scandals. The beef proteins were derived from hydrolysed cattle hides. It is not illegal to use these protein concentrates so long as they are identified correctly to the manufacturer.

It is not surprising that if cheap horse meat becomes available to suppliers, such as from old horses towards the end of their working lives, some processing companies may be tempted to add it fraudulently, stating that it is beef.

The articles look at the issues of long and complex supply chains in the processed food industry and assess why they have evolved into their current form and the difficulties in regulating them.

Horsegate: heed economics of the cold chain The Grocer, Andrew Godley (16/2/13)
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (15/2/13)
After the horse has been bolted The Economist (16/2/13)
Slavery, not horse meat, is the real scandal on our doorstep The Telegraph, Fraser Nelson (14/2/13)
Industry must take the reins on food safety Globe and Mail (Canada)Sylvain Charlebois (15/2/13)
Supply chains changed the growth model The Economist, Richard Baldwin (15/8/12)
Supply-chain management The Economist (6/4/09)
Tesco pledges to open up supply chain after horse meat scandal The Telegraph (16/2/13)
Horse meat scandal: Shoppers who buy ‘cheapest food’ at risk The Telegraph, James Quinn, Jason Lewis and Patrick Sawer (16/2/13)
Let Them Eat Horse Bloomberg, Marc Champion (15/2/13)
Scandal shows meat supply chain must be policed heraldscotland (14/2/13)
MPs push for new powers for FSA as officials seize yet more suspect meat Independent, Martin Hickman (13/2/13)


  1. Why do supermarkets and their suppliers use long supply chains?
  2. Explain the concepts of ‘countervailing power’ and ‘monopsony or oligopsony power’? How do they apply in the processed meat supply chain?
  3. Identify the types of transactions costs in the processed meat industry.
  4. In what ways do consumers (a) gain and (b) lose from such supply chains?
  5. Why is the problem of fraud in processed food supply chains likely to have intensified in recent years?
  6. How have supermarkets reacted to the horse meat scandal? Why has it taken the scandal to make them react in this way?
  7. To what extent is the problem simply one of inaccurate labelling?
  8. To what extent is there a principal–agent problem in the processed meat supply chain?

When people shop in supermarkets they often look for what’s on special offer. After all, everyone likes a bargain. About 35–37% of supermarket items are on special offer at any one time and around 50% of the money spent by customers is on such items.

But things aren’t always as they seem. Supermarkets use clever marketing to persuade people that they’re getting a good deal, while sometimes it’s nothing of the sort. Examples include putting up prices for a while and then reducing them again saying “huge reduction”; or promoting an offer of, say, “three for £2”, when you could buy an individual item for 60p; or using the word “now” £2.50 to imply that the previous price was higher, when in fact it wasn’t; or selling a double-sized “value pack” for more than double the price of the regular size. These tricks are commonplace in supermarkets.

Sometimes the wary consumer will be able to find out which offers are genuine, but it’s not always that easy. And even if you do buy something at a genuine discount, is it something you really want? Or have you been persuaded to buy it simply because it’s on offer? Supermarkets study consumers’ psychology. They find clever ways of promoting products to make us feel that we have done well in getting a bargain.

The following programme in the BBC’s Panorama series looks at the big four supermarkets in the UK – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – which between then have 68% of supermarket sales. It gives examples of some of the not so special offers and how consumers are being hoodwinked.


Revealed: The truth about supermarket ‘bargains’ BBC Panorama (clip), Sophie Raworth (5/12/11)
The Truth About Supermarket Price Wars BBC Panorama (full programme), Sophie Raworth (5/12/11)


What you need to know about the supermarket price wars Totally Money (7/12/11)
Supermarkets accused of misleading consumers The Telegraph, Nick Collins (5/12/11)
Supermarket price war: Can they all be cheapest? BBC News, Anthony Reuben (9/12/11)
Are Our Retailers Criminals? International Supermarket News, Laura Elliott (6/12/11)
Supermarket deals “not what they seem” warns expert Retail Gazette, Gemma Taylor (6/12/11)


  1. What types of misleading offers are identified in the Panorama report?
  2. For what reasons are consumers “taken in” by such offers? Does this imply that consumers are irrational?
  3. Does intense oligopolistic competition between the big four supermarkets lead to lower prices?
  4. How is it possible for two supermarkets to claim that they are cheaper than the other? How would you decide which supermarket was generally cheaper?
  5. Why might it be difficult for an independent agency to do a comparison of prices of different supermarket chains?

Student fees are set to rise to between £6000 and £9000 per year from 2012 (see Will students be Browned off?. But I’m sure you know that already! Not surprisingly, there has been considerable debate about the effects on student debt and whether potential students will be put off from applying to university. But there is another issue, explored in the article below. This is the question of the ‘marketisation’ of higher education.

With the exception of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) universities will no longer receive any teaching subsidy from the government. Teaching will have to be funded from student fees. This means that provision will depend on supply and demand. If there is a high demand for certain courses, then the courses will be financially viable for universities. If not, they will have to close (unless the university chooses to cross-subsidise them from other profitable courses).

This might be fine if the market for university places were perfectly competitive and if questions of inequality of access were fully taken into account. But the higher education market is not perfect. The article looks at some of these imperfections and why, therefore, a pure market system will fail to achieve the optimum allocation of university places.

Browne’s Gamble London Review of Books, Stefan Collini (4/11/10)


  1. What information failures are there in the market for higher education places?
  2. What externalities are involved in higher education and will this lead to an over or underprovision of higher education in a pure market system?
  3. Apart from externalities and information asymmetries, what other market failures apply to the market for student places in HE?
  4. What are the arguments for subsidising non-STEM subjects (as well as STEM ones)? Should these subsidies vary from course to course and from university to university?
  5. What is the best way of tackling the problem of unequal access to higher education?

Until the credit crunch and crash of 2008/9, there appeared to be a degree of consensus amongst economists about how economies worked. Agents were generally assumed to be rational and markets generally worked to balance demand and supply at both a micro and a macro level. Although economies were subject to fluctuations associated with the business cycle, these had become relatively mild given the role of central banks in targeting inflation and the general belief that we had seen the end of boom and bust.

True, markets were not perfect. There were problems of monopoly power and externalities. Also information was not perfect. But asymmetries of information were generally felt to be relatively unimportant in the information age with easy access to market data through the internet.

Then it all went wrong. With the exception of a few economists, people were caught unawares by the credit crunch. There was too little understanding of the complexities of securitisation and the leveraged risk in these pyramids of debt built on small foundations. And there was too little regard paid to the potentially destructive power of speculation and herd behaviour.

So how should economists model what has been happening over the past three years? Do we simply need to go back to Keynesian economics, which emphasised the importance of aggregate demand and the ability of economies to settle at a high unemployment equilibrium? Can the persistence of high unemployment in the USA and elsewhere be put down to a lack of demand or is the explanation to be found in hysteresis: the persistence of a problem after the initial cause has disappeared? Can failures of markets be incorporated into standard microeconomics?

Or do we need a new paradigm: one that emphasises the behaviour of economic agents and examines how people act when there are information asymmetries? These are the questions that are examined in the podcast below. It is an interview with Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Building blocks’ of a new economics BBC Today Programme (25/8/10)

Needed: a new economic paradigm Financial Times, Joseph Stiglitz (19/8/10)
Obama should get rid of Geithner, Summers Market Watch, Wall Street Journal, Darrell Delamaide (25/8/10)
This rebel’s heresy is not so earth-shaking Fund Strategy, Daniel Ben-Ami (23/8/10)


  1. What are Stiglitz’s criticisms of the economics profession in recent years?
  2. What, according to Stiglitz, should be the features of a new economic paradigm?
  3. Is such a paradigm new?
  4. Provide a critique of Stiglitz’s analysis.
  5. What do you understand by ‘behavioural economics’? Would a greater understanding of human behaviour by economists have helped avert the credit crunch and subsequent recession?

Should economists have foreseen the credit crunch? A few were warning of an overheated world economy with excessive credit and risk taking. Most economists prior to 2007/8, however, were predicting a continuation of steady economic growth. Inflation targeting, fiscal rules and increasingly flexible markets were the ingredients of this continuing prosperity. And then the crash happened!

So why did so few people see the downturn coming? Were the models used by economists fundamentally flawed, or was it simply a question of poor assumptions or poor data? Do we need a new way of modelling the economy, or is it simply a question of updating theories from the past? Should, for example, models become much more Keynesian? Should we abandon the new classical approach of assuming that markets are essentially good at pricing in risk and that herd behaviour will not be seriously destabilising?

The following podcast looks at these issues. “Aditya Chakrabortty’s joined in the studio by the Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott, as well as Roger Bootle, the managing director of Capital Economics, and political economist and John Maynard Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky. Also in the podcast, we hear from Nobel prize-winning economist, Elinor Ostrom, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, and UN advisor and developmental economist Daniel Gay.”

The Business: A crisis of economics Guardian podcast (25/11/09)

See also the following news items from the Sloman Economics news site:
Keynes is dead; long live Keynes (3/10/09)
Learning from history (3/10/09)
Macroeconomics – Crisis or what? (6/8/09)
The changing battle grounds of economics (27/7/09)
Repeat of the Great Depression – or learning the lessons from the past? (23/6/09)
Animal spirits (30/4/09)
Keynes – do we need him more than ever? (26/10/08)


  1. Why did most economists fail to predict the credit crunch and subsequent recession? Was it a problem with the models that were used or the data that was put into these models, or both?
  2. What was the Washington consensus? To what extent did this consensus contribute to the current recession?
  3. What is meant by systemic risk? How does this influence the usefulness of ‘micro’ financial models?
  4. What particular market failures were responsible for the credit crunch?
  5. What is meant by ‘rational behaviour’? Is it reasonable to assume that people are rational?
  6. Is macroeconomics too theoretical or too mathematical (or both)? If you think it is, how can macroeconomics be reformed to improve its explanatory and predictive power?
  7. Does a ‘really good economist’ need to have a good grounding in a range of social sciences and in economic history?