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
- 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?
- What can bodies such as the Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Direct do to lessen the problem? What factors determine their success?
- Discuss the relative merits of alternative solutions to the principal–agent problem.
The US Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has recently published a 92-page on report on childhood obesity and the use of taxes on junk foods to tackle the problem. In the report, titled Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity, “a panel of experts suggested such taxes could play an important role in helping children make healthier eating choices”.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the Federal Government’s preventive health taskforce argued, amongst other things, that “junk food advertising should be phased out, the cost of cigarettes should be more than $20 a packet, and soft drinks and cask wine should be hit with higher taxes”.
So how effective are higher taxes in achieving a reduction in ill health associated with eating, drinking and smoking? If adopted, what is the socially optimum design and rates of such taxes? What other complementary policies could be adopted? The following articles consider the issues.
More support for a junk-food tax Los Angeles Times (2/9/09)
Tax junk food, drinks to fight child obesity-report Reuters (31/8/09)
Could Raising Taxes on Junk Food Curb Obesity? eMaxHealth (2/9/09)
Junk food and tobacco under fire The Age (Australia) (2/9/09)
What price health? The Australian (2/9/09)
- For what reasons does the free market fail to achieve an optimum level of consumption of junk foods, alcohol and cigarettes?
- How would you determine the socially optimum level of consumption of such products?
- How are the price, income and cross-price elasticities of demand, and the price elasticity of supply, relevant to assessing the effectiveness of taxes for reducing the consumption of unhealthy products?
- What determines the incidence of taxes on unhealthy products?
- What other policies would you advocate to tackle the problems associated with consuming unhealthy products? How would they affect the price elasticity of demand for such products.
- To what extent do the objectives of social efficiency and equity conflict when designing appropriate policies to discourage unhealthy consumption?
The economist Joseph Stiglitz won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001. Along with George Akerlof and Michael Spence, he worked out a theory of information asymmetry: a situation where both parties in a transaction have different levels of information. Could this theory have some relevance as an explanation of the current financial crisis?
In praise of …..Joseph Stiglitz Guardian (8/10/08)
Stiglitz lecture on financial crisis available online University of Manchester (13/10/08)
||Explain what is meant by information asymmetry.
||Explain how information asymmetry can lead to markets working imperfectly.
||Discuss the extent to which the theory of information asymmetry may be relevant as a partial determinant of the current financial crisis.
Have you ever had a drink or packet of peanuts from a hotel minibar and then regretted being tempted when you saw the price on checkout? If things like minibars and internet access are so over-priced in hotels, then how can they get away with it? Why do people pay these amounts and what can economics tell us about this pricing behaviour?
Minibar economics MSN Slate (17/2/07)
||Explain the reasoning behind hotel pricing strategies for rooms and minibars.
||Discuss the impact of competition on hotel pricing strategies for rooms and extras like minibars and internet access.
||Examine the reasons why more companies do not do “advertising campaigns boasting about their what-you-see-is-what-you-get pricing”.