Adverse Selection – definition, examples, and some solutions

During yesterday’s Finance 4335 class meeting, I introduced the topic of adverse selection, and we’ll devote next Tuesday’s class to further discussion of this topic.

Adverse selection is often referred to as the “hidden information” problem. This concept is particularly easy to understand in an insurance market setting; if you are an insurer, you have to be concerned that the worst possible risks are the ones that want to purchase insurance. However, it is important to note that adverse selection occurs in many market settings other than insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs whenever one party to a contract has superior information compared with his or her counter-party. When this occurs, often the party with the information advantage is tempted to take advantage of the uninformed party.

In an insurance setting, adverse selection is an issue whenever insurers know less about the actual risk characteristics of their policyholders than the policyholders themselves. In lending markets, banks have limited information about their clients’ willingness and ability to pay back on their loan commitments. In the used car market, the seller of a used car has more information about the car that is for sale than potential buyers. In the labor market, employers typically know less than the worker does about his or her abilities. In product markets, the product’s manufacturer often knows more about product failure rates than the consumer, and so forth…

The problem with adverse selection is that if left unchecked, it can undermine the ability of firms and consumers to enter into contractual relationships, and in extreme cases, may even give rise to so-called market failures. For example, in the used car market, since the seller has more information than the buyer about the condition of the vehicle, the buyer cannot help but be naturally suspicious concerning product quality. Consequently, he or she may not be willing to pay as much for the car as it is worth (assuming that it is not a “lemon”). Similarly, insurers may be reticent about selling policies to bad risks, banks may be worried about loaning money to poor credit risks, employers may be concerned about hiring poor quality workers, consumers may be worried about buying poor quality products, and so on…

A number of different strategies exist for mitigating adverse selection. In financial services markets, risk classification represents an important strategy. The reason insurers and banks want to know your credit score is because consumers with bad credit not only often lack the willingness and ability to pay their debts, but they also tend to have more accidents than consumers with good credit. Signaling is used in various settings; for example, one solution to the “lemons” problem in the market for used cars is for the seller to “signal” by providing credible third party certification; e.g., by paying for Carfax reports or vehicle inspections by an independent third party. Students “signal” their quality by selecting a high-quality university (e.g., like Baylor! :-)). Here the university provides potential employers with credible third-party certification concerning the quality of human capital. In product markets, if a manufacturer provides a long-term warranty, this may indicate that quality is better than average.

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