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“lemons” and other examples of imperfect information

Consider Marvin, who is trying to decide whether to buy a used car. Let’s assume that Marvin is truly clueless about what happens inside a car’s engine. He is willing to do some background research, like reading Consumer Reports or checking websites that offer information about makes and models of used cars and what they should cost. He might pay a mechanic to inspect the car. Even after devoting some money and time collecting information, however, Marvin still cannot be absolutely sure that he is buying a high-quality used car. He knows that he might buy the car, drive it home, and use it for a few weeks before discovering that car is a “lemon,” which is slang for a defective product (especially a car).

Imagine that Marvin shops for a used car and finds two that look very similar in terms of mileage, exterior appearances, and age. One car costs $4,000, while the other car costs $4,600. Which car should Marvin buy?

If Marvin was choosing in a world of perfect information, the answer would be simple: he should buy the cheaper car. But Marvin is operating in a world of imperfect information, where the sellers likely know more about the car’s problems than he does, and have an incentive to hide the information. After all, the more problems that are disclosed, the lower the car’s selling price.

What should Marvin do? First, he needs to understand that even with imperfect information, prices still reflect information. Typically, used cars are more expensive on some dealer lots because the dealers have a trustworthy reputation to uphold. Those dealers try to fix problems that may not be obvious to their customers, in order to create good word of mouth about their vehicles’ long term reliability. The short term benefits of selling their customers a “lemon” could cause a quick collapse in the dealer’s reputation and a loss of long term profits. On other lots that are less well-established, one can find cheaper used cars, but the buyer takes on more risk when a dealer’s reputation has little at stake. The cheapest cars of all often appear on Craigslist, where the individual seller has no reputation to defend. In sum, cheaper prices do carry more risk, so Marvin should balance his appetite for risk versus the potential headaches of many more unanticipated trips to the repair shop.

Similar problems with imperfect information arise in labor and financial capital markets. Consider Greta, who is applying for a job. Her potential employer, like the used car buyer, is concerned about ending up with a “lemon”—in this case a poor quality employee. The employer will collect information about Greta’s academic and work history. In the end, however, a degree of uncertainty will inevitably remain regarding Greta’s abilities, which are hard to demonstrate without actually observing her on the job. How can a potential employer screen for certain attributes, such as motivation, timeliness, ability to get along with others, and so on? Employers often look to trade schools and colleges to pre-screen candidates. Employers may not even interview a candidate unless he has a degree and, sometimes, a degree from a particular school. Employers may also view awards, a high grade point average, and other accolades as a signal of hard work, perseverance, and ability. Employers may also seek references for insights into key attributes such as energy level, work ethic, and so on.

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Source:  OpenStax, Principles of economics. OpenStax CNX. Sep 19, 2014 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11613/1.11
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