Market Failure

Market Failure

Market Failure Jonathan Poland

Market failure is a situation in which the market does not produce optimal outcomes for society as a whole. It occurs when the market fails to allocate resources efficiently, leading to suboptimal outcomes such as overproduction or underproduction of goods and services. There are several types of market failure that can occur, including:

  1. Externalities: Externalities refer to the costs or benefits of a particular action that are not reflected in the price of a good or service. For example, the negative externalities of pollution are not reflected in the price of a product that is produced using polluting methods. This can lead to overproduction of goods that have negative externalities, as the costs of pollution are not borne by the producers of the goods.
  2. Information asymmetry: Information asymmetry occurs when one party in a transaction has more information than the other, leading to an unequal distribution of power. This can lead to market failure if the party with more information is able to take advantage of the other party, leading to suboptimal outcomes.
  3. Public goods: Public goods are goods or services that are non-excludable and non-rival, meaning that they cannot be withheld from any individual and their consumption by one individual does not reduce their availability to others. Examples of public goods include national defense and clean air. Because it is not possible to exclude individuals from consuming public goods, it is difficult to charge for their use, leading to underproduction of these goods.

There are several ways that governments and policy makers can address market failures, including regulation, taxation, and subsidies. For example, a government may regulate pollution by setting limits on the amount of pollutants that can be emitted, or it may impose a tax on goods that have negative externalities to encourage the production of more environmentally-friendly products. Subsidies can also be used to encourage the production of goods or services that have positive externalities or are underproduced due to market failures.

Overall, market failures can lead to suboptimal outcomes and can be addressed through government intervention and regulation. It is important for policy makers to carefully consider the potential causes of market failures and to design interventions that can address these failures and promote more efficient and sustainable outcomes. The following are illustrative examples of market failure.

Economic Failure

The value of a free and open market is its ability to efficiently allocate resources. Economic failure is when a market allocates capital, labor and other resources inefficiently. For example, if everyone suddenly decided that volleyballs were going to be very valuable to the future and invested large scale resources into volleyball production, this could result in an oversupply of volleyballs that far exceeds demand.

Irrational Exuberance

Irrational exuberance is over-investment caused by investor behavior such as a fear of missing out. This can cause money to flow to popular companies or assets quickly and then suddenly reverse. This is inefficient as causes companies to over-expand and then suddenly retract. For example, the dot com bubble of 1997 to 2001 caused large scale waste as many technology companies received excessive funding that didn’t produce much value.

Information Asymmetry

Markets are based on the idea that buyers and sellers have equal information. If one side knows more than the other, inefficiencies can result. For example, if a company CEO exaggerates the current capabilities of a firm or hides risks, this can cause money to flow to the firm that ends up being wasted as risks known only to insiders become expensive problems.

Anti-Competitive Practices

Anti-competitive practices can cause competition to breakdown resulting in an inefficient market. For example, if all employers make employees sign restrictive agreements that make it difficult for them to change jobs, this could damage the efficiency of a labor market.


Cronyism is the extension of unfair economic advantages to friends and allies. For example, a government that builds more infrastructure than a nation requires because construction companies fund the political campaigns of policy makers.

Closed Markets

Closed markets such as transactions between insiders. For example, a company insider who buys assets from a firm with no competition.

Technical Failure

Technical failures such as a digital market that is altered by an information security incident.

Market Manipulation

Markets that are unfair in some way. For example, a market that gives advanced technologies an advantage over most market participants. This can discourage participation and make markets less open.

Excess Burden

A market that becomes uncompetitive due to excessive taxation or administrative burden. This may affect small firms more than large, leading a lack of lively competition.


An externality is a cost or benefit that isn’t reflected in market prices. For example, a factory that sells widgets for $1 that each result in $40 damage to the environment due to the manufacturing process. Reflecting the cost of environmental impact in the cost of goods can be achieved with markets such as cap and trade that places a limit on environmental damage that can be traded by firms who need to pollute to produce a good.

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