Market Impeders and Market Inefficiencies

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Even the most devout proponents of free marketry and hidden hand theories acknowledge the existence of market failures, market imperfections and inefficiencies in the allocation of economic resources. Some of these are the results of structural problems, others of an accumulation of historical liabilities. But, strikingly, some of the inefficiencies are the direct outcomes of the activities of "non bona fide" market participants. These "players" (individuals, corporations, even larger economic bodies, such as states) act either irrationally or egotistically (too rationally).

What characterizes all those "market impeders" is that they are value subtractors rather than value adders. Their activities generate a reduction, rather than an increase, in the total benefits (utilities) of all the other market players (themselves included). Some of them do it because they are after a self interest which is not economic (or, more strictly, financial). They sacrifice some economic benefits in order to satisfy that self interest (or, else, they could never have attained these benefits, in the first place). Others refuse to accept the self interest of other players as their limit. They try to maximize their benefits at any cost, as long as it is a cost to others. Some do so legally and some adopt shadier varieties of behaviour. And there is a group of parasites – participants in the market who feed off its very inefficiencies and imperfections and, by their very actions, enhance them. A vicious cycle ensues: the body economic gives rise to parasitic agents who thrive on its imperfections and lead to the amplification of the very impurities that they prosper on.

We can distinguish six classes of market impeders:

  1. Crooks and other illegal operators. These take advantage of ignorance, superstition, greed, avarice, emotional states of mind of their victims – to strike. They re-allocate resources from (potentially or actually) productive agents to themselves. Because they reduce the level of trust in the marketplace – they create negative added value. (See: "The Shadowy World of International Finance" and "The Fabric of Economic Trust")
  1. Illegitimate operators include those treading the thin line between legally permissible and ethically inadmissible. They engage in petty cheating through misrepresentations, half-truths, semi-rumours and the like. They are full of pretensions to the point of becoming impostors. They are wheeler-dealers, sharp-cookies, Daymon Ranyon characters, lurking in the shadows cast by the sun of the market. Their impact is to slow down the economic process through disinformation and the resulting misallocation of resources. They are the sand in the wheels of the economic machine.
  1. The "not serious" operators. These are people too hesitant, or phobic to commit themselves to the assumption of any kind of risk. Risk is the coal in the various locomotives of the economy, whether local, national, or global. Risk is being assumed, traded, diversified out of, avoided, insured against. It gives rise to visions and hopes and it is the most efficient "economic natural selection" mechanism. To be a market participant one must assume risk, it in an inseparable part of economic activity. Without it the wheels of commerce and finance, investments and technological innovation will immediately grind to a halt. But many operators are so risk averse that, in effect, they increase the inefficiency of the market in order to avoid it. They act as though they are resolute, risk assuming operators. They make all the right moves, utter all the right sentences and emit the perfect noises. But when push comes to shove – they recoil, retreat, defeated before staging a fight. Thus, they waste the collective resources of all that the operators that they get involved with. They are known to endlessly review projects, often change their minds, act in fits and starts, have the wrong priorities (for an efficient economic functioning, that is), behave in a self defeating manner, be horrified by any hint of risk, saddled and surrounded by every conceivable consultant, glutted by information. They are the stick in the spinning wheel of the modern marketplace.
  1. The former kind of operators obviously has a character problem. Yet, there is a more problematic species: those suffering from serious psychological problems, personality disorders, clinical phobias, psychoneuroses and the like. This human aspect of the economic realm has, to the best of my knowledge, been neglected before. Enormous amounts of time, efforts, money and energy are expended by the more "normal" – because of the "less normal" and the "eccentric". These operators are likely to regard the maintaining of their internal emotional balance as paramount, far over-riding economic considerations. They will sacrifice economic advantages and benefits and adversely affect their utility outcome in the name of principles, to quell psychological tensions and pressures, as part of obsessive-compulsive rituals, to maintain a false grandiose image, to go on living in a land of fantasy, to resolve a psychodynamic conflict and, generally, to cope with personal problems which have nothing to do with the idealized rational economic player of the theories. If quantified, the amounts of resources wasted in these coping manoeuvres is, probably, mind numbing. Many deals clinched are revoked, many businesses started end, many detrimental policy decisions adopted and many potentially beneficial situations avoided because of these personal upheavals.
  1. Speculators and middlemen are yet another species of parasites. In a theoretically totally efficient marketplace – there would have been no niche for them. They both thrive on information failures. The first kind engages in arbitrage (differences in pricing in two markets of an identical good – the result of inefficient dissemination of information) and in gambling. These are important and blessed functions in an imperfect world because they make it more perfect. The speculative activity equates prices and, therefore, sends the right signals to market operators as to how and where to most efficiently allocate their resources. But this is the passive speculator. The "active" speculator is really a market rigger. He corners the market by the dubious virtue of his reputation and size. He influences the market (even creates it) rather than merely exploit its imperfections. Soros and Buffet have such an influence though their effect is likely to be considered beneficial by unbiased observers. Middlemen are a different story because most of them belong to the active subcategory. This means that they, on purpose, generate market inconsistencies, inefficiencies and problems – only to solve them later at a cost extracted and paid to them, the perpetrators of the problem. Leaving ethical questions aside, this is a highly wasteful process. Middlemen use privileged information and access – whereas speculators use information of a more public nature. Speculators normally work within closely monitored, full disclosure, transparent markets. Middlemen thrive of disinformation, misinformation and lack of information. Middlemen monopolize their information – speculators share it, willingly or not. The more information becomes available to more users – the greater the deterioration in the resources consumed by brokers of information. The same process will likely apply to middlemen of goods and services. We are likely to witness the death of the car dealer, the classical retail outlet, the music records shop. For that matter, inventions like the internet is likely to short-circuit the whole distribution process in a matter of a few years.
  1. The last type of market impeders is well known and is the only one to have been tackled – with varying degrees of success by governments and by legislators worldwide. These are the trade restricting arrangements: monopolies, cartels, trusts and other illegal organizations. Rivers of inks were spilled over forests of paper to explain the pernicious effects of these anti-competitive practices (see: "Competition Laws"). The short and the long of it is that competition enhances and increases efficiency and that, therefore, anything that restricts competition, weakens and lessens efficiency.

What could anyone do about these inefficiencies? The world goes in circles of increasing and decreasing free marketry. The globe was a more open, competitive and, in certain respects, efficient place at the beginning of the 20th century than it is now. Capital flowed more freely and so did labour. Foreign Direct Investment was bigger. The more efficient, "friction free" the dissemination of information (the ultimate resource) – the less waste and the smaller the lebensraum for parasites. The more adherence to market, price driven, open auction based, meritocratic mechanisms – the less middlemen, speculators, bribers, monopolies, cartels and trusts. The less political involvement in the workings of the market and, in general, in what consenting adults conspire to do that is not harmful to others – the more efficient and flowing the economic ambience is likely to become.

This picture of "laissez faire, laissez aller" should be complimented by even stricter legislation coupled with effective and draconian law enforcement agents and measures. The illegal and the illegitimate should be stamped out, cruelly. Freedom to all – is also freedom from being conned or hassled. Only when the righteous freely prosper and the less righteous excessively suffer – only then will we have entered the efficient kingdom of the free market.

This still does not deal with the "not serious" and the "personality disordered". What about the inefficient havoc that they wreak? This, after all, is part of what is known, in legal parlance as: "force majeure".


There is a raging debate between the "rational expectations" theory and the "prospect theory". The former - the cornerstone of rational economics - assumes that economic (human) players are rational and out to maximize their utility (see: "The Happiness of Others", "The Egotistic Friend" and "The Distributive Justice of the Market"). Even ignoring the fuzzy logic behind the ill-defined philosophical term "utility" - rational economics has very little to do with real human being and a lot to do with sterile (though mildly useful) abstractions. Prospect theory builds on behavioural research in modern psychology which demonstrates that people are more loss averse than gain seekers (utility maximizers). Other economists have succeeded to demonstrate irrational behaviours of economic actors (heuristics, dissonances, biases, magical thinking and so on).

The apparent chasm between the rational theories (efficient markets, hidden hands and so on) and behavioural economics is the result of two philosophical fallacies which, in turn, are based on the misapplication and misinterpretation of philosophical terms.

The first fallacy is to assume that all forms of utility are reducible to one another or to money terms. Thus, the values attached to all utilities are expressed in monetary terms. This is wrong. Some people prefer leisure, or freedom, or predictability to expected money. This is the very essence of risk aversion: a trade off between the utility of predictability (absence or minimization of risk) and the expected utility of money. In other words, people have many utility functions running simultaneously - or, at best, one utility function with many variables and coefficients. This is why taxi drivers in New York cease working in a busy day, having reached a pre-determined income target: the utility function of their money equals the utility function of their leisure.

How can these coefficients (and the values of these variables) be determined? Only by engaging in extensive empirical research. There is no way for any theory or "explanation" to predict these values. We have yet to reach the stage of being able to quantify, measure and numerically predict human behaviour and personality (=the set of adaptive traits and their interactions with changing circumstances). That economics is a branch of psychology is becoming more evident by the day. It would do well to lose its mathematical pretensions and adopt the statistical methods of its humbler relative.

The second fallacy is the assumption underlying both rational and behavioural economics that human nature is an "object" to be analysed and "studied", that it is static and unchanged. But, of course, humans change inexorably. This is the only fixed feature of being human: change. Some changes are unpredictable, even in deterministic principle. Other changes are well documented. An example of the latter class of changes in the learning curve. Humans learn and the more they learn the more they alter their behaviour. So, to obtain any meaningful data, one has to observe behaviour in time, to obtain a sequence of reactions and actions. To isolate, observe and manipulate environmental variables and study human interactions. No snapshot can approximate a video sequence where humans are concerned.

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