For those, uninitiated into econospeak, information asymmetry (sometimes referred to as information failure), is a situation in which one party to an economic transaction possesses greater knowledge of facts, material or relevant to the decision, than the other party. For example, a seller may know hidden information about a car on offer that is not revealed to the buyer. In more extreme example, a seller might actively conceal such information from a buyer. This can happen when a seller ‘prepares’ the car for sale by cleaning the engine, thus removing leaks and accumulations of oil and / or coolant that can indicate the areas where the problems might be.
The agency problem, also referred to as principal-agent problem, arises when an agent, acting on behalf of the principal, has distinct set of incentives from the principal. The resulting risk is that the agent will act in self-interest to undermine the goals and objectives of the principal. An example here would be a real estate agent contracted by the seller, while taking a commission kickback from the buyer. Or vice versa.
Occasionally, both problems combine to produce an even more powerful distortionary result, pushing the markets further away from finding a ‘true’ (or fundamentals-justified) price point.
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Today, we have an example of such interaction. As reported in Euractiv, the ECB has denied the EU Court of Auditors access to data on Greek bailout. (Full story here: http://www.euractiv.com/section/all/news/ecb-denies-eu-auditors-access-to-information-on-greek-bailouts/) The claimed justification: banking secrecy. The result:
- There is now clearly an asymmetry in information between the EU, the Court of Auditors, and the ECB when it comes to assessing the ECB actions in the Greek bailout(s). The ‘car salesman’ (the ECB) has scrubbed out information about the ‘vehicle’ (the bailout(s)) when presenting it to the ‘buyer’ and is refusing to show any evidence on pre-scrubbed ‘car’.
- And there is an agency problem. The ECB is an agent for the EU (and thus an agent relative to the principal – the EU Court of Auditors, which represents the interest of the EU). As an agent, the ECB has a contractual obligation to act in the interest of the EU. But as a part of the Troika in the case of the Greek bailout(s), the ECB is also contracted into a set of incentives to act in concert with other players: the sub-set of the EU, namely the EU Commission and the EFSF/ESM funds, and the IMF. At least one of these agents, the IMF, has a strong incentives to avoid transparent discovery of information about the Greek bailout(s) because these bailout(s) have, potentially, violated the IMF by-laws in lending to distressed countries. Another agent, the EU Commission, has an incentive to conceal the truth about the same bailout(s) in order to sustain a claim that the Greek bailout(s) are(were) a success. The third set of the agents (various EU funds that backed the bailout(s)) has incentives to sustain the pretence that the Greek bailout(s) were within the funds’ bylaws and did not constitute state aid to the insolvent government.
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