What Is Adverse Selection?

Adverse selection refers generally to a situation in which sellers have information that buyers do not have, or vice versa, about some aspect of product quality—in other words, it is a case where asymmetric information is exploited. Asymmetric information, also called information failure, happens when one party to a transaction has greater material knowledge than the other party.

Typically, the more knowledgeable party is the seller. Symmetric information is when both parties have equal knowledge.

In the case of insurance, adverse selection is the tendency of those in dangerous jobs or high-risk lifestyles to purchase products like life insurance. In these cases, it is the buyer who actually has more knowledge (e.g., about their health). To fight adverse selection, insurance companies reduce exposure to large claims by limiting coverage or raising premiums.

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Adverse Selection

Understanding Adverse Selection

Adverse selection occurs when one party in a negotiation has relevant information the other party lacks. The asymmetry of information often leads to making bad decisions, such as doing more business with less-profitable or riskier market segments.

In the case of insurance, avoiding adverse selection requires identifying groups of people more at risk than the general population and charging them more money. For example, life insurance companies go through underwriting when evaluating whether to give an applicant a policy and what premium to charge.

Underwriters typically evaluate an applicant’s height, weight, current health, medical history, family history, occupation, hobbies, driving record, and lifestyle risks such as smoking; all these issues impact an applicant’s health and the company’s potential for paying a claim. The insurance company then determines whether to give the applicant a policy and what premium to charge for taking on that risk.

Adverse Selection in the Marketplace

A seller may have better information than a buyer about products and services being offered, putting the buyer at a disadvantage in the transaction. For example, a company’s managers may more willingly issue shares when they know the share price is overvalued compared to the real value; buyers can end up buying overvalued shares and lose money. In the secondhand car market, a seller may know about a vehicle’s defect and charge the buyer more without disclosing the issue.

Adverse Selection in Insurance

Because of adverse selection, insurers find that high-risk people are more willing to take out and pay greater premiums for policies. If the company charges an average price but only high-risk consumers buy, the company takes a financial loss by paying out more benefits or claims.

However, by increasing premiums for high-risk policyholders, the company has more money with which to pay those benefits. For example, a life insurance company charges higher premiums for race car drivers. A car insurance company charges more for customers living in high crime areas. A health insurance company charges higher premiums for customers who smoke. In contrast, customers who do not engage in risky behaviors are less likely to pay for insurance due to increasing policy costs.

A prime example of adverse selection in regard to life or health insurance coverage is a smoker who successfully manages to obtain insurance coverage as a nonsmoker. Smoking is a key identified risk factor for life insurance or health insurance, so a smoker must pay higher premiums to obtain the same coverage level as a nonsmoker. By concealing his behavioral choice to smoke, an applicant is leading the insurance company to make decisions on coverage or premium costs that are adverse to the insurance company's management of financial risk.

Another example of adverse selection in the case of auto insurance would be a situation where the applicant obtains insurance coverage based on providing a residence address in an area with a very low crime rate when the applicant actually lives in an area with a very high crime rate. Obviously, the risk of the applicant's vehicle being stolen, vandalized, or otherwise damaged when regularly parked in a high-crime area is substantially greater than if the vehicle was regularly parked in a low-crime area.

Adverse selection might occur on a smaller scale if an applicant states that the vehicle is parked in a garage every night when it is actually parked on a busy street.

Key Takeaways

  • Adverse selection is when sellers have information that buyers do not have, or vice versa, about some aspect of product quality.
  • It is thus the tendency of those in dangerous jobs or high-risk lifestyles to purchase life or disability insurance where chances are greater they will collect on it.
  • A seller may also have better information than a buyer about products and services being offered, putting the buyer at a disadvantage in the transaction. For example in the market for used cars.

Moral Hazard vs. Adverse Selection

Like adverse selection, moral hazard occurs when there is asymmetric information between two parties, but where a change in the behavior of one party is exposed after a deal is struck. Adverse selection occurs when there's a lack of symmetric information prior to a deal between a buyer and a seller.

Moral hazard is the risk that one party has not entered into the contract in good faith or has provided false details about its assets, liabilities, or credit capacity. For instance, in the investment banking sector, it may become known that government regulatory bodies will bail out failing banks; as a result, bank employees may take on excessive amounts of risk to score lucrative bonuses knowing that if their risky bets do not pan out, the bank will be saved anyhow.

Example of Adverse Selection: The Market for Lemons

The lemons problem refers to issues that arise regarding the value of an investment or product due to asymmetric information possessed by the buyer and the seller.

The lemons problem was put forward in a research paper, "The Market for 'Lemons': Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism," written in the late 1960s by George A. Akerlof, an economist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The tag phrase identifying the problem came from the example of used cars Akerlof used to illustrate the concept of asymmetric information, as defective used cars are commonly referred to as lemons.

The lemons problem exists in the marketplace for both consumer and business products, and also in the arena of investing, related to the disparity in the perceived value of an investment between buyers and sellers. The lemons problem is also prevalent in financial sector areas, including insurance and credit markets. For example, in the realm of corporate finance, a lender has asymmetrical and less-than-ideal information regarding the actual creditworthiness of a borrower.