Market Distortion: Definition, Causes, and Examples

What Is Market Distortion?

To free-market purists, market distortion is any situation in which prices are determined by anything except the unfettered forces of supply and demand. By that definition, truly free markets are scarce. In a more practical sense, market distortion means any interference that significantly affects prices and, in some cases, risk-taking and asset allocation.

Governments are the source of most market distortions, including regulation, subsidies, taxes, and tariffs. At the same time, central banks have been accused of distorting markets in recent decades with monetary policy and asset purchases. Some of the world's biggest corporations also have enough power to distort their markets.

Key Takeaways

  • Market distortion is commonly viewed as any interference that significantly affects prices or market behavior.
  • Many government regulations are widely accepted forms of market distortion intended for the common good.

Understanding Market Distortion

Most mainstream economists decided long ago that the government's market distortion was necessary and desirable to protect people from the sometimes unforgiving nature of markets. Government regulations intended to protect all market participants' general well-being are considered by market purists to be distortions but are broadly popular.

Regulators must make a tradeoff when deciding to intervene in any given marketplace. For this reason, analysts and lawmakers try to seek a balance between the general well-being of all market participants and market efficiency in the formulation of economic policy. Although an intervention may create market failures, it is intended to enhance a society's welfare.

Government subsidies

For example, many governments subsidize the agricultural sector, which sometimes makes farming economically feasible, at least for certain products. The subsidies can mean farmers gain artificially high prices for their products, giving them the incentive to produce more than they might otherwise. Although this type of intervention is not economically efficient, it helps ensure that a nation will have enough food.

Governments often object to each other's market interventions, though. For example, the U.S. and EU have long discussed how to address the Chinese government's support for its own steel and aluminum markets. And many countries have expressed opposition to former U.S. President Donald Trump's protectionist trade measures.

Monopoly Power and Market Distortion

A market may become distorted when a single business holds a monopoly or when other factors prevent free and open competition. This often causes problems for consumers—at least in the long run—and their competitors. A lack of competition typically means fewer choices and higher prices. 

Tech giants Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook), and Google have all been accused in recent years of using their size and market power to engage in anti-competitive market behavior to harm competitors and achieve greater market dominance.

Article Sources
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  1. Environmental Working Group. "Farm Subsidy Primer." Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. "The Importance of Federal Crop Insurance Premium Subsidies." Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

  3. Office of the United States Trade Representative. "Testimony of Ambassador Katherine Tai at a Senate Finance Committee Hearing on the President's Trade Agenda." Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

  4. The Tax Foundation. "Tracking the Economic Impact of U.S. Tariffs and Retaliatory Actions." Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

  5. U.S. House Committee On The Judiciary. "Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee Investigation Reveals Digital Economy Highly Concentrated, Impacted By Monopoly Power." Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.