Tag: principal-agent problem

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.

The following article by Will Hutton looks at the relative efficiency of private- and public-sector organisations. The public sector is typically characterised as inefficient and providing a poorer level of service and poorer quality products than the private sector. After all, the private sector is driven by the profit motive, where providing a good service would seem to be a key ingredient in making more profit.

Yet when you look around you, this portrayal can be seen as far too simplistic. On the one hand, much of the public sector has been forced to be efficient, following many years of tight budgets. At the same time, many in the public sector are keen to deliver a good service, not only because that is required by their employers, but because they are motivated by a sense of public duty and professionalism. On the other hand, there are many market failings in large parts of the private sector, where monopoly power, asymmetric information and externalities are rife. Read the article and see if you agree with Will Hutton’s analysis.

These money-grubbing companies make the public sector look good Observer (1/11/09)


  1. What are the incentives to encourage either private-sector companies or public-sector organisations (a) to be efficient in the sense of cutting out waste (X-efficiency); (b) to be allocatively efficient; and (c) to provide a high quality of service to customers / clients / patients / students, etc.?
  2. What market failures may prevent private-sector companies from achieving (a) to (c) above?
  3. What organisational failures may prevent public-sector organisations from achieving (a) to (c) above?
  4. How is Goodhart’s Law relevant to the setting of performance targets in both the private and public sectors?