Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A nice portrait of Akerlof the Great (ls)

Find it here. (HT Mankiw)

Some teasers:

While unemployment is the topic that has motivated him the most, it is his 1970 article showing how markets might break down in the presence of asymmetric (or unequal) information that won him the Nobel Prize. Indeed, if you play a game of word association with an economics PhD and say “Akerlof,” chances are the response will be “lemons.”

Hmmm... probably true. ;-)
This is because the example Akerlof gave was of used car markets, where sellers have better knowledge of whether their car is a good one or a “lemon.” The buyers’ best guess is that the car is of average quality, so they will only be willing to pay the price of a car of average quality. This means, however, that owners of good cars will not place their cars in the used car market. But that in turn lowers the average quality of cars on the market, causing buyers to revise downward their expectations of quality. Now even owners of moderately good cars are unable to sell, and so the market spirals toward collapse. Akerlof says that the problem dates back to one that has confronted horse traders over the ages: “If he wants to sell that horse, do I really want to buy it?” But problems of asymmetric information are present in most markets, particularly in financial markets. “This [recent financial] crisis gave us glaring examples,” says Akerlof. “Ordinary people thought they were buying homes, not the complex derivatives that they later realized they had ended up buying.”Akerlof says he chose the example of used cars to make his paper “more palatable” to U.S. readers. But his interest in the subject had been triggered when, during his stay in India in 1967–68, he noticed people’s difficulty obtaining credit. He kept this example in the paper, along with sections on how the “lemons principle” could also explain why the elderly had trouble obtaining insurance and why minorities had difficulty obtaining employment. All this proved too exotic for much of the academic market of the time; the paper was turned down by three leading journals before it was finally published [...]
Find the paper here. It is a must-read for students. In my humble opinion it's one of the most brillant papers ever written, since it introduces the extremely powerful concept of adverse selection in a way which is really easy to understand.