Adverse Selection
By James Bleach
Chris Moorhead
Ji Hyun Lee
and Timothy Becher
What is Adverse Selection?
o Adverse selection is the problem created by asymmetric
information before the transaction occurs.
o It occurs when the potential borrowers who are the most
likely to produce an undesirable (adverse) outcome – the
bad credit risks – are the ones who most actively seek
out a loan and are thus most likely to be selected.
The Lemons Problem
o Nobel Prize winner George Akerlof – “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality,
Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”
• A buyer of a used car does not know whether a car will run well (peach)
or if it will constantly give them trouble (lemon), therefore the price the
buyer pays reflects the average quality of the cars in the market.
• The seller knows whether the car is a peach or a lemon, so the seller
will be happy to sell the car if it is overpriced (lemon), but he may not sell
the car at all if it is under valued (peach).
• Because the average quality of used cars available in the market will be
low, there will be few sales, causing inefficiency in the used car market.
If used cars were securities…
• Investors often do not have sufficient information to determine which
firms have high or low risk.
• Investors will only be willing to pay a price for average quality firms’
• Good firms know their securities are under valued and will not sell
• Bad firms know their securities are over priced and would love to sell.
• The only firms willing to sell will be the bad firms.
• Investors will not invest in firms.
• This scenario also goes for debt (bonds).
What this means?
1) Marketable securities are not the primary source of financing for
businesses in any country in the world.
2) Stocks are not the most important source of financing for American
Tools to Help Solve Adverse Selection
1) Private Production and Sales of Information
2) Government Regulation to Increase Information
3) Financial Intermediation
4) Collateral and Net Worth
Private Production and Sale
of Information
• Eliminates asymmetric information by supplying investors with the
information to help determine whether a firm is good or bad.
• Major problem – free riders.
• When investors pay for information and invest, people who don’t pay
for information catch on and invest in the same things. This increases
demand and therefore price of the undervalued securities.
• Investors who pay for information then have the burden of paying for
information, and thus are worse off than the free riders.
• Private firms that sell information will lose business and will stop
selling information.
Government Regulation to
Increase Information
• Because it is not efficient for private firms to produce information, the
government can.
• SEC – Securities and Exchange Commission – requires firms selling their
securities to have independent audits in which accounting firms certify that the
firm is adhering to standard accounting principles and disclosing accurate
information about sales, assets, and earnings.
• Problems : the government also would have to release negative information
about certain firms, which can cause political backlash.
- Bad firms may slant their information to make them look like good firms.
- There is a lot more to knowing the quality of a firm than statistics can
Financial Intermediation
• Just as used car dealers help solve adverse selection problems in the
car market, financial intermediaries play a similar role in financial markets
• Financial Intermediaries, like banks, become experts in producing
information about firms, so it can sort out good credit risks from bad ones.
• Because the bank lends mostly to good firms, it is able to earn a higher
return on its loans than the interest it has to pay to its depositors. The
resulting profit that the bank earns gives it the incentive to engage in this
information production activity.
• Financial Intermediaries, because they hold a large portion of nontraded
loans, play a greater role in moving funds to corporations than security
markets do.
• Indirect finances are more important than direct finance.
Why Banks are so Important
as Financial Intermediaries
• Banks avoid the free-rider problem by primarily making private loans rather than
purchasing securities that are traded in the open market. Because a private loan is
not traded, other investors cannot watch what the bank is doing and bid up the
loan’s price to the point that the bank receives no compensation for the information
it has produced.
• For this reason, banks are the most important source of external funds for
financing businesses.
• This is particularly important in developing nations, where information about the
quality of firms is hard to gather.
• The smaller the role played by the securities market, the bigger the role of
financial intermediaries.
• Conversely, well known corporations in industrialized nations rely less on banks
because their securities are more fairly valued due to the availability of information
on them.
Collateral and Net Worth
Collateral – property promised to
Net Worth (a.k.a. equity capital) –
the lender if the borrower
the difference between a firm’s
assets and it’s liabilities
• Both Collateral and Net Worth offset the losses of the lender in the event of a default.
• Collateral leaves the lender compensation which can be sold to make up for the losses
on the loan.
• If a firm has a high net worth, then even if it engages in investments that cause it to
defaults on its debt payments, the lender can take title to the firm’s net worth, sell it off,
and use the proceeds to recoup some of the losses from the loan.
• Creditors have compensatory priority over shareholders in the event that a company
Adverse Selection In Credit Card Market
In order to gain empirical evidence of adverse selection, data was taken on results
of large-scale randomized trials in preapproved credit card solicitations. This is
meaningful, as over 5 billion solicitations were sent out in 2001, a substantial
portion of credit card marketing.
From this test, four basic conclusions can be drawn:
Adverse selection can be clearly seen from the start: respondents to mailed
solicitations are those with characteristics of substantially worse credit risks than
the average citizen.
Offers with inferior terms, such as higher introductory interest rates, yielded
smaller customer pools. Those who remained were always those with worse
credit-risk characteristics.
Predictably, customers who accept inferior offers also more likely to default.
Finally, those who accepted the solicitation prioritized cards with low introductory
rates with less regard to long-term rates, showing a tendency towards overly
optimistic views about future borrowing.
Adverse Selection in the Credit Card Market 1999 by Lawrence M. Ausubel.
“Sticky” Interest Rates and
Switching Costs
• More recent studies show a trend towards “sticky” credit card interest
rates; that is, ones that don’t adjust their interest rates with the flow of
the market, increasing both initial cost and the cost of switching cards.
• This can be blamed largely on persisting informational barriers for
companies. The cost to switch rises as card issuers cannot readily
distinguish between applicants intending to switch and those intending to
accumulate more debt, causing high-balance customers to have difficulty
obtaining further credit.
• Adverse selection effects may compound these switching costs because,
as the last test showed, those who respond to solicitations are higher-risk
clients who’re more likely to gather more debt. It’s a legitimate possibility
that high-balance customers may have been denied higher credit limits by
their current issuer on the basis of private information.
Stock Market Speculation
• Asymmetric information and adverse selection play a large
role in the survival of public firms, their funding, and their
current market value.
• Small firms ( Micro & Nano Cap firms < $300M value) heavily
rely on funding through the issuance of debt and equity
• These firms are often considered “going concerns” as
investors and creditors have a difficult time valuing the firms
and are unsure of the exact credit risk/likelihood of survival
associated with each firm.
• This uncertainty creates significant volatility and doubt.
Ticker Symbol AEN: 110% Increase In 2 Weeks
CYCC: 2200% Fluctuation in 2 Years
Market Speculation Cont…
• High risks are associated with these firms because of an above
average default risk.
• Along with increased risk comes investors seeking high returns.
• These investors in-turn create a market for low-quality, unsecured
debt and debt instruments/insurance policies.
• One such debt/insurance instrument is called a Credit Default Swap
• A CDS is a contract where the buyer makes periodic payments to
the seller in exchange for the right to a payoff if there is a default or
material change in a firm’s credit standing.
• Eg: Buyer pays $100/mth in exchange for a $10,000 payment if a
company receives a downgrade from a Credit-rating agency or
defaults on bonds or loans.
Market Speculation Cont…
• The speculative aspect of the whole situation is when neither
party involved in trading the credit insurance actually owns
the assets/liabilities in question.
• Imagine: one person being able to insure your house, but
through someone else entirely not connected to your house;
so that if your house is destroyed, that person get paid your
house’s value.
• It’s making a bet on an outcome or event, which in the
financial industry causes extreme instability when a certain
series of events is triggered.
The Housing & Credit Crises
• To an extent, the credit crisis and financial crisis can be
directly attributed to by parties taking out “insurance” policies
related to assets they knew nothing about.
• Real-life examples of the disastrous outcomes of this
speculation can be seen all throughout the government TARP
and the bankruptcies/near failure of many prominent
institutions that are vital to the function of the financial
structure of the United States.
• To name a few: AIG, Fannie Mae, Bear Sterns, Lehman
Brothers. Most troubles/failures are related to mortgagebacked securities. This is primarily because of the housing
bubble where properties were artificially valued (knowingly or
not). The above firms owned very large amounts of assets
that were suddenly deemed worthless, or close to it.
Real-Life Examples: #1-AIG
• As of June 2009, AIG had written $440 billion worth of swaps on corporate
bonds and mortgage-backed securities. As the value of these insuredreferenced entities fell, AIG had massive write-downs and additionally had
to post more collateral. And when its ratings were downgraded that
month, the company had to post even more collateral, which it didn’t
• These instruments are causing many of the massive write-downs at banks,
investment banks and insurance companies. This means that the value of
the hedge funds, the credit markets and the stock market had to adjust
downward, rapidly and drastically.
• The financial structure of the U.S. was severely damaged by a dominoeffect type forced liquidation by large firms and investors – all as a result
of billions of dollars being invested without sufficient information.
AIG: Down from $900/sh to $25 = -97%
Real-Life Examples: #2-Goldman Sachs
• Goldman Sachs is being charged with fraud by the SEC, relating to
the sale of mortgage-backed securities.
• Goldman wrongly permitted a client (John Paulson) that was betting
against the mortgage market to heavily influence which mortgage
securities to include in an investment portfolio, while telling other
investors that the securities were selected by an independent,
objective third party.
• Basically, Goldman knew that the product being sold was poor, yet
endorsed it as a good investment to innocent investors.
• This is illegal and can be defined as adverse selection in that
Goldman hid essential information from investors as they pursued
quality investment opportunities.
Aftermath of AIG and GS Activities
• AIG’s poor choice to insure securities that were foreign to
them caused a serious liquidity crisis for the company and for
the financial industry.
• Goldman’s wrongdoing has left investors outraged, the
Government seeking strict regulation, and the stock market
losing upward momentum.
• The future of the U.S. financial structure depends on past
events, and the U.S. economy has been experiencing mostly
negative events as of late.
• The massive amount of uncertainty over the economy can
also be seen in politics/legislative battles every single day.
Adverse Selection In Insurance
• The problem of adverse selection also applies to insurance markets.
• The customers that are most likely to want insurance are the people
who face the highest risks.
• These are the people that insurance companies would least like to
have as customers, as also seen respectively in the credit market
and stock market.
• Insurance companies are aware that their customers will, on
be worse insurance risks than a randomly-selected member of the
• So, instead of basing risk estimates on statistics for the population
as a whole, they base them on statistics for insured people in
previous years for more accuracy.
Adverse Selection In Insurance Cont…
• The healthy tend to avoid health insurance up until the point
of requiring medical services to be paid.
• An example of a low-risk individual: a healthy 25 year old
male with no family history of heart disease or cancer and no
insurance claims made for 10 years.
• High-risk individual: a 55 year old investment banker whose
parents died from cardiovascular disease, who also smokes,
and is being treated for high blood pressure and diabetes.
Role of Medical Underwriting
• Adverse selection is counteracted by medical underwriting.
• Medical underwriting involves the use of statistics and
probability theory to predict the chance of paying benefits to
the insured in the risk pool.
• Low-risk individuals have a very small chance of needing
medical services, and so their premiums should be low
enough when correctly underwritten so that buying insurance
is an economically-wise decision
• High-risk individuals have a very high chance of needing
medical services, so their premiums should be, on average,
enough to cover all the medical expenses.
Desire For Reform
• A small fraction of individuals account for a large share of
total health expenditures.
• Avoiding high cost/high risk customers therefore overrides the
incentive for insurers to instead effectively manage all clients.
• Excluding these individuals is seen as immoral to many and is
politically controversial.
• The insurance industry needs competition to keep prices
lower for consumers as a whole.
• Adverse selection limits the economics of health insurance,
making health insurance prohibitively expensive for many
Ways To Limit Adverse Selection In
Health Insurance
• The government would have to remove its restrictions on medical
• Insurers would need to have all information available to adjust
premiums based on each individual's inherent risk.
• Examples of information needed: age, social behavior, family
medical history, past medical history, claims history, genetic tests,
work environment, level of education, BMI, blood pressure etc.
• The more that premiums are tailored to individuals, the more likely
that individuals will buy insurance before the point of need.
• Low-risk individuals would pay low premiums, high-risk individuals
would pay high premiums, similar to the auto insurance system.

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