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Transaction Costs, Imperfect Information, and Market Behavior

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  1. Transaction Costs, Imperfect Information, and Market Behavior CHAPTER 14 © 2003 South-Western/Thomson Learning

  2. Rationale for the Firm • In a world characterized by perfect competition the consumer could bypass the firm and deal directly with resource suppliers • So why is most production carried out within firms? • Why do people organize in the hierarchical structure of the firm and coordinate their decisions through a manager rather than market exchange?

  3. Rationale for the Firm • Ronald Coase answered this question as follows • Organizing activities through the hierarchy of the firm is often more efficient than market exchange, because production requires the coordination of many transactions among many resource owners • The firm is the favored means of production when the transaction costs involved in using the price system exceed the cost of organizing those same activities through direct managerial controls within a firm

  4. Rationale for the Firm • Where inputs are easily identified, measured, priced, and hired, production can be carried out through a price-guided “do-it-yourself” approach using the market • Conversely, where the costs of identifying the appropriate inputs and negotiating for each specific contribution are high, the consumer minimizes transaction costs by purchasing the finished product from a firm

  5. Rationale for the Firm • The more complicated the task, the greater the ability to economize on transaction costs through specialization and centralized control • At the margin, there will be some activities that could go either way, with some consumers using firms and some hiring resources directly in the markets • Choice depends on each consumer’s skill and opportunity cost of time

  6. Bounds of the Firm • The next question becomes: What are the efficient bounds of the firm? • Vertical integration is the expansion of the firm into stages of production earlier or later than those in which it has specialized • Backward integration: steel company mines its own iron ore or even coal • Forward integration by forming raw steel into various components

  7. Bounds of the Firm • How does the firm determine which activities to undertake and which to purchase from other firms? • The answer depends on a comparison of the benefits and costs of internal production versus market purchases  which method is a more efficient way of carrying out the transaction in question

  8. Bounded Rationality of the Manager • To direct and coordinate activity in a conscious way in the firm, a manager must understand how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together • As the firm takes on more and more activities, however, the manager starts losing track of things so the quality of managerial decisions suffers • The more tasks the firm takes on, the longer the lines of communication between the manager and worker becomes

  9. Bounded Rationality of the Manager • One constraint on vertical integration is the manager’s bounded rationality which limits the amount of information a manager can comprehend about the firm’s operation • The more tasks, the more likely it is that the firm will experience diseconomies similar to those it experiences when it expands output beyond the efficient scale of production

  10. Minimum Efficient Scale • The minimum efficient scale is the minimum level of output at which economies of scale have been fully exploited • Thus, in general, other things constant, a firm should buy an input if the market price is below what it would cost the firm to make • Exhibit 1 illustrates this situation

  11. Exhibit 1: Minimum Efficient Scale and Vertical Integration If the personal computer producer only requires 1,000,000 chips per year but the per unit cost of the chips is not minimized unless 5,000,000 are produced, the firm is better of purchasing the inputs than making them internally. (a) Computer Manufacturer Cost per unit LRAC 1,000,000 0 Computersper year (b) Chip Manufacturer Cost per unit LRAC 0 1,000,000 5,000,000 Computer chips per year

  12. Easily Observable Quality • If an input is well defined and its quality is easily determined at the time of purchase, that input is more likely to be purchased in the market than produced internally, other things constant • Firms whose reputations depend on the operation of a key component are likely to produce that component, especially if the quality varies widely across producers over time and cannot be easily observable by inspection

  13. Number of Suppliers • A firm wants an uninterrupted source of component parts • When there are many interchangeable suppliers of a particular input, a firm is more likely to purchase that input in the market than produce it internally, other things constant • Competition also keeps the price down

  14. Economies of Scope • Economies of scope exist when it is cheaper to combine two or more product lines in one firm than to produce them in separate firms • Tends to occur because the cost of some fixed resources, such as specialized knowledge, can be spread across product lines

  15. Market Behavior with Imperfect Information • Our analysis has thus far assumed that market participants have full information about products and resources • In reality, reliable information is costly for both consumers and producers • What’s more, in some markets, one side of a transaction has more information than does the other side

  16. Marginal Cost of Search • Marginal Cost of Search • Individuals gather the easy and obvious information first • However, as the search widens, the marginal cost of acquiring additional information increases because • Individuals may have to travel greater distances to check prices and services • The opportunity cost of their time increases as they spend more time acquiring information • Thus, the marginal cost curve for additional information slopes upward as in Exhibit 2

  17. Exhibit 2:Optimal Search with Imperfect Information Marginal cost of information Information costs and benefits (dollars) Quantity of information 0 I f The marginal cost curve for additional information slopes upward.

  18. Marginal Benefit of Search • The marginal benefit from acquiring additional information is better quality at a given price or a lower price for a given quality • The marginal benefit is relatively large at first, but as more information is gathered and people grow more acquainted with the market, additional information yields less and less additional benefits • Thus, the marginal benefit curve for additional information slopes downward as in Exhibit 2

  19. Exhibit 2: Optimal Search with Imperfect Information Information costs and benefits (dollars) Marginal benefit of information Quantity of information 0 I p The marginal benefit curve for additional information slopes downward.

  20. Exhibit 2: Optimal Search with Imperfect Information Market participants will continue to gather information as long as the marginal benefit of additional information exceeds its marginal cost  optimal search occurs when the marginal benefit equals the marginal cost at point I*. Marginal cost of information Information costs and benefits (dollars) Note that at search levels exceeding the I*, the marginal benefit of additional information is still positive. Note also that at some point the value of additional information reaches zero, Ip. This level of information is identified as perfect information. Marginal benefit of information 0 I* I Ip f Quantity of information

  21. Implications • The search model developed here was developed by George Stigler who showed that the price of a product can differ among sellers because some consumers are unaware of lower prices offered by some sellers • Thus, search costs result in price dispersion, or different prices, for the same product

  22. Implications • Some sellers call attention to price dispersions by claiming to have the lowest prices around or by claiming to match any competitor’s price • Search costs also lead to quality differences across sellers, even for identically priced products, because consumers find it too costly to shop for the highest quality product

  23. Implications • The more expensive the commodity, the greater the price dispersion in dollar terms  the greater the incentive to shop around • As the consumer’s wage increases, so does the opportunity cost of time  the marginal cost of additional information increases  less searching and more price dispersion

  24. Implications • Any change in technology that lowers the marginal cost of information will reduce the marginal cost of additional information  more information and less dispersion • Consider the impact of the Internet shopping sites

  25. Winner’s Curse • In 1996 the federal government auctioned off leases on the scarce radio spectrum to be used for newly invented personal communication services • The bidding was carried out in the face of much uncertainty about future competition in the industry, the potential size of the market, and future technological change  bidders had little experience with the potential value of such leases

  26. Winner’s Curse • At the time, 89 companies made winning bids totaling $10.2 billion for 493 leases • By 1998 it became clear that many of the winning bidders couldn’t pay, and dozens of licenses were tied up in bankruptcy proceedings • Why do many “winners” end up losers?

  27. Winner’s Curse • The actual value of space on the radio spectrum was unknown and could only be estimated • For example, suppose the average bid was $10 million, with some bidding more and others bidding less • Suppose also that the winning bid was $20 million

  28. Winner’s Curse • Note that the winning bid was not the average bid, which may have been the most reliable estimate of the true value • The highest bid was the most optimistic estimate of the value • Winners of such bids are said to experience the winner’s curse because they often lose money after winning the bid, since they were overly optimistic

  29. Asymmetric Information in Product Markets • The issue of costly and limited information becomes more complicated when one side of the market has more reliable information than does the other side  asymmetric information • Two types of information that a market participant may want but lack • One side of the market may know more about characteristics of the product for sale than the other side knows  asymmetric information problem involves hidden characteristics

  30. Asymmetric Information in Product Markets • A second type of problem occurs when one side of a transaction can pursue an action that affects the other side but that cannot be observed by the other side • Whenever one side of an economic relationship can take a relevant action that the other side cannot observe, the situation is described as one of hidden actions

  31. Hidden Characteristics: Adverse Selection • One type of hidden-characteristic problem occurs when sellers know more about the quality of the product than do buyers, such as the market for used cars • The seller of a used car normally has abundant personal experience with important characteristics of that car • While buyers have much less information

  32. Hidden Characteristics: Adverse Selection • To simplify the problem, suppose there are only two types of used cars for sale : good ones and bad ones • Suppose that a buyer who is certain about a car’s type would be willing to pay $10,000 for a good used car but only $4,000 for a lemon • However, only the seller knows which type is for sale • A buyer who believes that half the used cars on the market are good ones and half are lemons would be willing to pay, say, $7,000, for a car on an unknown type • Would $7,000 be the equilibrium price of used cars

  33. Hidden Characteristics: Adverse Selection • Since sellers of good cars can only get $7,000 for cars they know to be worth $10,000 on average, many will choose to keep their cars or will sell them to friends or relatives • But sellers of lemons will find $7,000 an attractive price, since they know their cars are worth only $4,000 on average

  34. Hidden Characteristics: Adverse Selection • As a result, the proportion of good cars on the market will fall and the proportion of lemons will rise  the average value of used cars on the market will fall • As buyers come to realize the mix has shifted toward lemons, they will reduce what they are willing to pay for a car of unknown quality  the sellers of good cars will become even more reluctant to sell at such a low price

  35. Hidden Characteristics: Adverse Selection • The process could continue until there are very few good cars sold on the open market • Generally, when sellers have better information about a product’s quality than buyers, lower-quality products tend to dominate the market • When those on the informed side of the market self-select in a way that harms the uninformed side  have the problem of adverse selection

  36. Hidden Actions: Principal-Agent Problem • In the age of specialization, there are many tasks that individuals do not perform for themselves because others do them better and have a lower opportunity cost • This leads to the second problem which occurs because one side of a transaction can pursue hidden actions that affect the other side

  37. Hidden Actions: Principal-Agent Problem • When buyers have difficulty monitoring and evaluating the quality of goods or services purchased, some suppliers may substitute poor-quality resources or exercise less diligence in providing the service • This is called the principal-agent problem • Describes a situation in which one party, the principal, contracts with another party, the agent, in the expectation that the agent will act on behalf of the principal • The problem arises when the goals of the agent are incompatible with those of the principal and when the agent can pursue hidden actions

  38. Asymmetric Information in Insurance Markets • In the insurance market, it is the buyers, not the sellers, who have more information about the characteristics and actions that predict their likely need for insurance in the future • If the insurance company has no way of distinguishing among applicants it must charge those who are good health risks the same as those who are poor ones

  39. Asymmetric Information in Insurance Markets • This price is attractive to poor health risks, but will seem too high to good health risks, some of whom will choose not to buy insurance • As the number of healthy people who don’t buy insurance increases, the insured group becomes less healthy on average  rates must rise  insurance is even less attractive to healthy people  adverse selection tends to make insurance buyers less healthy than the population as a whole

  40. Asymmetric Information in Insurance Markets • The insurance problem is compounded by the fact that once people buy insurance, their behavior may change in a way that increases the probability that a claim will be made • This incentive problem is referred to as moral hazard occurs when an individual’s behavior changes in a way that increases the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome

  41. Asymmetric Information in Insurance Markets • More generally, moral hazard is a principal-agent problem since it occurs when those on one side of a transaction have an incentive to shirk their responsibilities because the other side is unable to observe them

  42. Coping with Asymmetric Information • There are ways of reducing the consequences of asymmetric information • An incentive structure or an information-revealing system can be developed to reduce the problem associated with the lopsided availability of information • Lemon laws that offer compensation to buyers of new or used cars that turn out to be lemons • Health insurance companies use a variety of tools • Physical exams and filling out questionnaires • Deductibles

  43. Asymmetric Information in Labor Markets • Differences in the ability of labor present no particular problem as long as these differences can be readily observed by the employer • That is, if the productivity of each particular worker is easily quantified that measure can be used and serves as a basis for pay

  44. Asymmetric Information in Labor Markets • But because production often takes place through the coordinated efforts of several workers, the employer may not be able to attribute specific outputs to each particular worker • An adverse-selection problem arises in the labor market when labor suppliers have better information about their own productivities than do employers, because a worker’s ability is not observed prior to employment  hidden characteristics

  45. Asymmetric Information in Labor Markets • In a labor market with hidden characteristics, employers might be better off offering a higher wage  makes the job more attractive to more-qualified workers • Paying a higher wage gets at the problem of hidden actions by workers • Paying a higher wage to attract and retain more-productive workers is called paying efficiency wages

  46. Signaling and Screening • The person on the side of the market with hidden characteristics and hidden actions has an incentive to say the right thing • Both sides of the market have an incentive to develop credible ways of communicating reliable information about qualifications

  47. Signaling and Screening • Signaling is the attempt by the informed side of the market to communicate information that the other side would find valuable • Because the true requirements for many jobs are qualities that are unobservable, job applicants offer evidence of the unobservable features by relying on proxy measures such as years of education, grades, and letters of recommendation  proxy measures which become signals

  48. Signaling and Screening • In order to identify the best workers, employers try to screen applicants • Screening is the attempt by the uninformed side of the market to uncover the relevant but hidden characteristics of the informed party