Category Archives: The Real World

Adverse Selection – a definition, some examples, and some solutions

During today’s Finance 4335 class meeting, we will delve deeper into the topic of adverse selection. 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.

Sometimes it’s not possible to fully mitigate adverse selection via the methods described above. Thus, insurers commonly employ pricing and contract design strategies which incentivize policyholders to reveal their actual risk characteristics according to their contract choices. Thus, we obtain what’s commonly referred to as a “separating” (Rothschild-Stiglitz) equilibrium in which high-risk insureds select full coverage “high-risk” contracts whereas low-risk insureds select partial coverage “low risk” contracts:

Rothschild-Stiglitz

The Rothschild-Stiglitz equilibrium cleverly restricts the menu of available choices in such a way that the insurer induces self-selection. Here, the insurer offers contract L, which involves partial coverage at an actuarially fair price (based upon the loss probability of the low risk insured), and contract H, which provides full coverage at an actuarially fair price (based upon the loss probability of the high risk insured). The differences in the shapes of the indifference curves are due to the different accident probabilities, with a lower accident probability resulting in a more steeply sloped indifference curve. Here, the high-risk policyholder optimally chooses contract H and the low-risk policyholder optimally chooses contract L. The high-risk policyholder prefers H to L because L would represent a point of intersection with a marginally lower indifference curve (here, the Ih curve lies slightly above contract L, which implies that contract H provides the high-risk policyholder with higher expected utility than contract L). The low-risk policyholder will prefer L, but would prefer a full coverage contract at the point of intersection of APl line with the full insurance (45 degrees) line. However, such a contract is not offered since both the low and high-risk policyholders would choose it, and this would cause the insurer to lose money. Thus, one of the inefficiencies related to adverse selection is that insurance opportunities available to low-risk policyholders are limited compared with the world where there is no adverse selection.

There is a very practical implication of this model. If you are a good risk, then you owe it to yourself to select high-deductible insurance, since insurers price low-deductible insurance with the expectation that high-risk policyholders will be the primary purchasers of such coverage (and therefore, low-deductible policies will be more costly per dollar of coverage than high-deductible policies.

Also featured as one of “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”: The Index Fund

Tim Harford also features the index fund in his “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” radio and podcast series. This 9-minute long podcast lays out the history of the development of the index fund in particular and the evolution of so-called passive portfolio strategies in general. Much of the content of this podcast is sourced from Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s September 2011 WSJ article entitled “How the Index Fund Was Born” (available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904583204576544681577401622). Here’s the description of this podcast:

“Warren Buffett is the world’s most successful investor. In a letter he wrote to his wife, advising her how to invest after he dies, he offers some clear advice: put almost everything into “a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund”. Index funds passively track the market as a whole by buying a little of everything, rather than trying to beat the market with clever stock picks – the kind of clever stock picks that Warren Buffett himself has been making for more than half a century. Index funds now seem completely natural. But as recently as 1976 they didn’t exist. And, as Tim Harford explains, they have become very important indeed – and not only to Mrs. Buffett.”

Warren Buffett is one of the world’s great investors. His advice? Invest in an index fund

Insurance featured as one of “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”

From November 2016 through October 2017, Financial Times writer Tim Harford presented an economic history documentary radio and podcast series called 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. This same information is available in book form under the title “Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy“. While I recommend listening to the entire series of podcasts (as well as reading the book), I would like to call your attention to Mr. Harford’s episode on the topic of insurance, which I link below. This 9-minute long podcast lays out the history of the development of the various institutions which exist today for the sharing and trading of risk, including markets for financial derivatives as well as for insurance.

“Legally and culturally, there’s a clear distinction between gambling and insurance. Economically, the difference is not so easy to see. Both the gambler and the insurer agree that money will change hands depending on what transpires in some unknowable future. Today the biggest insurance market of all – financial derivatives – blurs the line between insuring and gambling more than ever. Tim Harford tells the story of insurance; an idea as old as gambling but one which is fundamental to the way the modern economy works.”

Stop Using 6-Digit iPhone Passcodes (Implications of Combinatorics for Personal Data Security…)

The article entitled “Stop Using 6-Digit iPhone Passcodes” clearly explains passcode security; even though the odds of guessing the right 6 digit sequence is (1/6)^10 = 1 in a million, a company called “Grayshift”  distributes software called “Graykey” which apparently can crack 6 digit passcodes in 3 days time (4 digits only take 2 hours)…

On the Determinants of Risk Aversion

This coming Tuesday, we begin a series of five Finance 4335 class meetings (scheduled for September 10-24) devoted to decision-making under risk and uncertainty. We shall study how to measure risk, model consumer and investor risk preferences, and explore implications for the pricing and management of risk. We will focus especially on the concept of risk aversion. Other things equal, risk averse decision-makers prefer less risk to more risk. Risk aversion helps to explain some very basic facts of human behavior; e.g., why investors diversify, why consumers purchase insurance, etc.

A few years ago, The Economist published a particularly interesting article about various behavioral determinants of risk aversion, entitled “Risk off: Why some people are more cautious with their finances than others”. Here are some key takeaways from this article:

  1. Economists have long known that people are risk-averse, yet the willingness to run risks varies enormously among individuals and over time.
  2. Genetics explains a third of the difference in risk-taking; e.g., a Swedish study of twins finds that identical twins had “… a closer propensity to invest in shares” than fraternal ones.
  3. Upbringing, environment, and experience also matter; e.g., “… the educated and the rich are more daring financially. So are men, but apparently not for genetic reasons.”
  4. People’s financial history has a strong impact on their taste for risk; e.g., “… people who experienced high (low) returns on the stock market earlier in life were, years later, likelier to report a higher (lower) tolerance for risk, to own (not own) shares and to invest a bigger (smaller) slice of their assets in shares.”
  5. “Exposure to economic turmoil appears to dampen people’s appetite for risk irrespective of their personal financial losses.” Furthermore, a low tolerance for risk is linked to past emotional trauma.