“The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” is a 1970 paper, by the economist George Akerlof which examines how the quality of goods traded in a market can degrade in the presence of information asymmetry between buyers and sellers, leaving only “lemons” behind. In American slang, a lemon is a car that is found to be defective only after it has been bought.
Suppose buyers cannot distinguish between a high-quality car (a “peach”) and a “lemon”. Then they are only willing to pay a fixed price for a car that averages the value of a “peach” and “lemon” together (pavg). But sellers know whether they hold a peach or a lemon. Given the fixed price at which buyers will buy, sellers will sell only when they hold “lemons” (since plemon < pavg) and they will leave the market when they hold "peaches" (since ppeach > pavg). Eventually, as enough sellers of “peaches” leave the market, the average willingness-to-pay of buyers will decrease (since the average quality of cars on the market decreased), leading to even more sellers of high-quality cars to leave the market through a positive feedback loop.
Thus the uninformed buyer’s price creates an adverse selection problem that drives the high-quality cars from the market. Adverse selection is a market mechanism that can lead to a market collapse.
Akerlof’s paper shows how prices can determine the quality of goods traded on the market. Low prices drive away sellers of high-quality goods, leaving only lemons behind. Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz jointly received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001, for their research related to asymmetric information.
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