“This is a really exciting area of research where game theory based models can provide direct insights into behavior of market participants.” — Roy

SMU, Santanu Roy, Economic Journal, price signaling, regulation

Rather than explicitly revealing information about the quality of their products and services, many firms prefer to signal quality through the prices they charge, typically working on the assumption that a high price indicates high quality.

New research by Maarten Janssen, University of Vienna, and Southern Methodist University economist Santanu Roy provides a new explanation for why firms choose not to disclose quality directly – and explains how prices that are set to signal quality can distort actual buying decisions.

Their study, “Competition, Disclosure and Signalling,” which is published in the February 2015 issue of the Economic Journal, shows that when firms compete on price, not disclosing product quality voluntarily can soften competition and boost profits.

“We often use prices to form ideas about product quality. Firms understand this,” said Roy, a professor in SMU’s Department of Economics in Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences. “As a result, their strategic decisions about pricing and direct disclosure of product characteristics become intricately linked. Our research explains why firms may prefer not to disclose quality attributes of their products and instead induce buyers to try to infer quality from prices: it allows firms to sustain high prices despite strong competition.”

Finding may be a case for imposing mandatory disclosure regulation
The finding has an important policy implication for regulators: even if consumers infer all relevant product information from prices (or other actions by firms), there may be a case for imposing mandatory disclosure regulation. Such regulation can reduce market power and the price and consumption distortions resulting from firms’ use of prices to signal product quality.

“If you regulate and force firms to directly disclose quality attributes, prices may fall and lead to better market outcomes,” Roy said. “This is a really exciting area of research where game theory based models can provide direct insights into behavior of market participants. Our current research studies some related issues such as the case for ‘truth in advertising’ regulation and penalizing false advertising of product attributes.”

The researchers begin by noting that in a large number of markets, ranging from educational and health services to consumer goods and financial assets, sellers have important information about the quality of their products. Quality attributes include satisfaction from consuming the product, durability, safety and potential health hazards as well as ethical and environmental attributes.

Information about these quality attributes is not always publicly available to potential buyers or competitors. In many of these markets, firms have the option of voluntarily disclosing product information in a credible and verifiable manner – for example, through independent certification, rating agencies or regulated advertising.

Without hard, credible information about products, buyers associate higher prices with better quality
But in practice, firms do not disclose product quality very often, even when there are relatively cost-effective mechanisms for credible disclosure and even when the product quality itself is not bad.

For example, empirical studies find that hospitals often do not disclose risk-adjusted mortality; schools often do not report standardized test scores; restaurants almost never disclose hygiene inspection reports; and so on.

In fact, the reluctance of firms to disclose voluntarily may discourage the emergence of rating agencies and certification intermediaries in many industries. This study provides a new explanation for why firms do not wish to disclose quality.

The researchers’ explanation is based on the commonplace observation that even when there is no hard and credible information about products on the market, buyers often associate higher prices with better quality and cheap products with low quality.

Such beliefs held by buyers are rational in markets where firms anticipate this and choose their actions (such as prices) to convey the hidden information. Economists call this “signaling”: it is an alternative way of communicating private information by firms.

The researchers argue that firms may not disclose product attributes voluntarily because they find it more profitable to signal their information indirectly.

Excessively high price makes it credible to buyers that product could not be low quality
This is somewhat paradoxical at first glance. Economists have long maintained that signalling is costly for firms. For example, to signal high quality through high prices, a firm may have to charge a much higher price than in a situation where product quality was observed or disclosed, leading to loss of sales and profit. The excessively high price is needed to make it credible to buyers that this could not be a low quality product as the producer of such a product would have lower costs and therefore prefer to sell high volume at low price.

Why then would a firm prefer to signal rather than disclose? The answer lies in the strategic behavior of firms and market competition. The researchers show that when firms compete on price, not disclosing product quality voluntarily, competing under a “veil of incomplete information” can soften competition, leading to higher profits and a more collusive outcome.

Firms’ incentives to lower prices to steal business from their rivals are disciplined by the fact that buyers may associate lower prices with lower quality. The resulting market outcome can be one with higher profits for the nondisclosing firm. The strategic incentive for nondisclosure may be strong even when a firm has a strong competitive advantage in the market.

Absence of voluntary disclosure does not mean that consumers make uninformed decisions
In contrast with previous research on this issue, the new explanation of nondisclosure is not based on disclosure being too costly or imperfect. The researchers show that no firm may disclose product quality (including the ones with the best product quality), even if the mechanism for voluntary disclosure is almost costless and frictionless.

The researchers’ analysis indicates that the absence of voluntary disclosure does not mean that consumers make uninformed decisions; nondisclosure arises precisely when buyers infer quality from the market behavior of firms.

But markets may well be inefficient as the prices that are set to signal quality distort actual buying decisions. This leads to the important policy implication that there may be a case for imposing mandatory disclosure regulation on firms. — Royal Economic Society and Southern Methodist University

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