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LBj>R$"t$t$t$O%O%O%#B%B%B%B%B%B%B$JDhFHIBQ6'O%O%6'6'IBt$t$B0006't$t$#B06'#B00_>h?t$2*r*z>A4B0B>F,~F ?F?TO%h%J0&<=&O%O%O%IBIB.O%O%O%B6'6'6'6'ndnProduct Use Information and the Limits of Voluntary Disclosure
Oren Bar-Gill*, Oliver Board and Nicola Persico
1. Introduction
The efficiency of markets depends on the existence of adequate information. In consumer markets, the question is whether consumers have adequate information. We distinguish between two categories of information: product attribute information and product use information. Consider the credit card market. The interest rate on a credit card is an attribute of the credit card product. Borrowing patterns, i.e., how often and how much the consumer borrows on the card, describe how the product is used. The total benefits and costs associated with a product are a function of both product attributes and use patterns. Total interest paid depends both on the interest rate and on the consumers evolving balance.
Sellers are generally assumed to have better information about the attributes of their products. On the other hand, consumers are generally believed to have better information about how they will use the product, since product use is a function of consumer preferences. Accordingly, when policymakers impose disclosure mandates on sellers and this happens very often they naturally focus on product attribute information. They reason that sellers should be required to disclose their private information, i.e., product attribute information; there is no point in forcing sellers to disclosure product use information, since this is where consumers, not sellers, enjoy the informational advantage.
We take issue with this conventional wisdom on two counts. First, while it is often true that consumers have better product use information than sellers, there are important consumer markets where this is not the case. The credit card market is such a market. Duncan McDonald, former general counsel of Citigroups Europe and North America card businesses, noted:
"No other industry in the world knows consumers and their transaction behavior better than the bank card industry. It has turned the analysis of consumers into a science rivaling the studies of DNA . The mathematics of virtually everything consumers do is stored, updated, categorized, churned, scored, tested, valued, and compared from every possible angle in hundreds of the most powerful computers and by among the most creative minds anywhere. In the past 10 years alone, the transactions of 200 million Americans have been reviewed in trillions of different ways to minimize bank card risks." (MacDonald 2007)
Second, we argue that the prevalence of rules requiring disclosure and the relative paucity of mandatory product use disclosure is, in an important sense, exactly the opposite of what economic theory would recommend. As shown by Grossman and Hart (1980), in many market settings product attribute information will be voluntarily disclosed by firms. Since firms offering higher-quality products would not wish to be pooled with firms offering lower-quality products, an unraveling dynamic leads to voluntary disclosure by all firms. An implication of this result is that mandatory disclosure of product attribute information is often unnecessary.
We show that this classic result does not extend to product use information. In essence, the unraveling result assumes that the information is firm-specific, while product-use information is consumer-specific. Put differently, product-use information is common to all firms. Unlike disclosure of product attribute information, disclosure of product use information cannot help firms to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Since we cannot count on voluntary disclosure of product use information, it may be necessary to impose mandatory disclosure.
More specifically, we prove two general results about the likelihood of voluntary disclosure as a function of market structure. Extending the standard circular city model, we first show that competition guarantees disclosure of product attribute information. We then show that competition has the opposite effect on the disclosure of product-use information: voluntary disclosure of product-use information is less likely in competitive markets.
Our analysis is especially timely, since legal academics and, to some extent, policymakers are starting to recognize the need to mandate disclosure of product-use information. For example, the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 would impose a general duty, subject to rules prescribed by the CFPA, to disclose information, including usage data in markets for consumer financial products (HR 4173, Title IV, Sec. 1038). Legal academics have gone further, proposing mandatory disclosure of use-pattern information for credit cards, mortgages, payday loans, cell-phones, subscription services and more (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010; Bar-Gill and Stone 2009; Nalebuff and Ayres 2003; Sovern 2006; Lynch and Zauberman 2006).
This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 elaborates on the distinction between product-attribute information and product-use information. Section 3 contains the formal model and presents our main results about the likelihood of voluntary disclosure of product-attribute information and of product-use information as a function of market structure. Section 4 offers concluding remarks. In particular, we discuss the likelihood of voluntary disclosure, and the need for disclosure mandates, in cases where disclosure combines both product-attribute information and product-use information (e.g., total cost of ownership (TCO) disclosures, which are sometimes referred to as product life-cycle cost disclosures).
2. Two Categories of Information
Informed choice assumes two distinct categories of information: information about product attributes and information about how the product will be used. One way to view the distinction between product-attributes information and product-use information is by tracing the source of the information. Product attribute information, like the product itself, is created by the manufacturer. The manufacturer is the source of the information. Product use is a function of both the products attributes and the consumers wants and needs. Product-use information has two sourcesthe manufacturer and the consumer. A different categorization would focus on these two sources and distinguish between manufacturer (or seller) information and consumer information. Consumer information, i.e., information on consumer wants and needs, can be further divided into two categories or sources of information: an internal source, consumer preferences, and an external source, consisting of the sum of external forces that affect the benefit to the consumer from using the product.
Consumer protection law is concerned with imperfect information on the part of consumers. Traditional consumer protection analysis and policy focus on lack of information about product attributes and, correspondingly, on mandatory disclosure of product-attribute information (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010). This emphasis on product attribute information can be traced back to the rational choice foundations of traditional consumer protection analysis. Rational choice theory assumes that individuals have perfect information about their own preferences. To the extent that use is determined by consumer preferences, the rational choice model assumes perfect information about use patterns. Unfortunately, few consumers are perfectly rational. And imperfectly rational consumers might have imperfect information concerning their own preferences. Moreover, as explained above, how a consumer will use a product depends on external influences, as well as on internal preferences. Even a perfectly rational consumer may have only imperfect information about these external influences.
Consider a lawnmower. The value of a lawnmower to a consumer depends on attributes of the lawnmower and on how frequently the consumer will want or need to mow her lawn. How often the lawnmower will be used depends, in turn, on attributes of the lawnmower, on consumer preferences, and on external factors influencing the consumers need to mow the lawn. The attributes of the lawnmower matter, because, for example, a better lawnmower is less burdensome to operate and thus will be used more often. Consumer preferences matter, because a consumer who cares more about her lawn will use the lawnmower more often. And external forces, like rainfall and soil condition, matter, because they affect the speed with which grass grows. To make a fully-informed decision whether to purchase a lawnmower and which lawnmower to purchase the consumer must have information on all of these factors. Yet consumer protection law, with its focus on product attribute information, pays insufficient attention to other factors affecting product use.
Or consider a credit card. Focusing on the financing component of the credit card product, the value of a credit card depends on product attributes, specifically the interest rate. The value of the product depends also on how it will be usedon how much the consumer will borrow. The extent of borrowing, in turn, depends on (1) product attributes such as the interest rate, (2) the consumers intertemporal consumption preferences, and (3) external forces affecting the consumers desire to borrow or need to borrow such as present and expected available income and conditions affecting the demand for funds, e.g., illness or divorce. Policymakers have been concerned about mistakes in the credit card market. Their response, however, has largely been targeted at product attribute information. The Truth-in-Lending Act, for example, mandates conspicuous disclosure of credit card interest rates. Use pattern mistakes that are not caused by imperfect information about interest rates have received less attention.
The importance of product-use information should be evident. It should also be evident that consumers will often have imperfect information about how they will use a product. But these two observations, in and of themselves, are not enough to justify legal rules that mandate disclosure of product-use information. For mandated disclosure to make sense it is not enough that consumers lack information; sellers must possess the information so that they can disclose it to consumers. As suggested in the Introduction, there are important markets, like the credit card market and the cell-phone market, where sellers do have superior product-use information. Finally, even if sellers have superior product-use information, mandatory disclosure is unwarranted if sellers will disclose the information voluntarily. In the following section, we argue that, at least in certain markets, voluntary disclosure of product-use information is unlikely.
3. Model
We now turn to a formal analysis of sellers incentives to voluntarily disclose information. We show that while competition encourages voluntary disclosure of product-attribute information, it discourages voluntary disclosure of product-use information. This result provides the impetus for mandating disclosure of product-use information, especially and counterintuitively in competitive markets.
3.1 Framework
n firms are evenly spaced around a circle of unit circumference. The firms produce a good. The cost of production of this good is normalized to zero. A unit mass of consumers is distributed around the circle. Each consumer buys either zero or one units of the good. The value to a consumer of a good produced by firm i (i = 1,,n) is EMBED Equation.3 . Firm i sets a price EMBED Equation.3 . Consider a consumer who is located at a distance EMBED Equation.3 from firm i (i = 1,,n). The utility of this consumer is given by
EMBED Equation.3
A firm can disclose the value of EMBED Equation.3 at some cost c > 0.
3.2 Product Attribute Information
We first analyze the incentives to voluntarily disclose product attribute information. We consider a product attribute that affects the value EMBED Equation.3 and the incentives of firm i to disclose its firm-specific EMBED Equation.3 . We assume that the EMBED Equation.3 s of the n firms are i.i.d. from the uniform distribution on the unit interval. We further assume that EMBED Equation.3 is private information to firm i. We impose two restrictions on out-of-equilibrium beliefs:
Assumption 1 (Beliefs):
Beliefs about EMBED Equation.3 are independent of firm js actions, for all EMBED Equation.3 .
Beliefs about EMBED Equation.3 are independent of EMBED Equation.3 .
The following result states that, as long as c is sufficiently small and the market is sufficiently competitive, i.e., as long as n is sufficiently large, there must be some disclosure in equilibrium.
Proposition 1: Suppose EMBED Equation.3 . Then there exists a threshold EMBED Equation.3 such that for all EMBED Equation.3 , there is some disclosure in equilibrium.
Proof: We show that, under the conditions specified in the proposition, there is no equilibrium in which no firm discloses its EMBED Equation.3 . Suppose that no firm discloses, for any value of EMBED Equation.3 . Then, by Assumption 1, the consumers expectations are given by EMBED Equation.3 for all i (whatever prices are charged).
We next derive the profits of any firm i when consumers expect the value of any firms product to be EMBED Equation.3 . The consumer who is indifferent between buying from firm i and one of firm is closest rivals, who are charging p, is located at a distance of x from firm i, where x solves: EMBED Equation.3 . Thus, EMBED Equation.3 . Firm i faces a demand of 2x, so its profit is given by EMBED Equation.3 . Maximizing with respect to EMBED Equation.3 and setting EMBED Equation.3 (to focus on the symmetric equilibrium), we obtain: EMBED Equation.3 and EMBED Equation.3 . The market is covered, as long as the consumer located equidistant between two firms prefers to buy (from either firm) than not to buy, i.e., as long as EMBED Equation.3 or EMBED Equation.3 . Substituting EMBED Equation.3 , this condition becomes EMBED Equation.3 .
We next show that a firm i with quality EMBED Equation.3 , the highest-quality firm, can deviate and increase its profit by disclosing its quality. If firm i discloses its quality, under Assumption 1(i) consumers continue to hold the same expectations about each firm EMBED Equation.3 , i.e., EMBED Equation.3 . To establish a lower bound on firm is disclosure profits, assume that EMBED Equation.3 for all EMBED Equation.3 , and suppose that firm i charges a price of EMBED Equation.3 . Firm i will then face demand of at least EMBED Equation.3 , since any firm located within a distance of EMBED Equation.3 from firm i will prefer to buy from firm i, with EMBED Equation.3 , than from any other firm j, with EMBED Equation.3 . Thus firm i will earn net profit of at least EMBED Equation.3 .
Comparing the disclosure profit to the no-disclosure profit, we find that disclosure is preferred if EMBED Equation.3 or if EMBED Equation.3 . %
3.3 Product Use Information
We next analyze the incentives to voluntarily disclose product use information. We conceptualize product-use information as information that is common to all firms. Formally, we assume that EMBED Equation.3 for all i and j, and that v is common knowledge among all firms. In a symmetric equilibrium, each firm charges the same price. Suppose that the two firms to the left and right of firm i charge a price of p.
There are three cases to consider.
(i) The market is covered: The consumer who is indifferent between buying from firm i and one of firm is closest rivals is located at a distance of x, where x solves:
EMBED Equation.3 .
Thus,
EMBED Equation.3 .
Firm i faces a demand of 2x, so its profit is given by
EMBED Equation.3 .
Maximizing with respect to EMBED Equation.3 and setting EMBED Equation.3 , we obtain:
EMBED Equation.3 and EMBED Equation.3 .
The market is covered, as long as the consumer located equidistant between two firms prefers to buy (from either firm) than not to buy, i.e., as long as
EMBED Equation.3
or
EMBED Equation.3 .
(ii) The market is not covered: If EMBED Equation.3 , then each firm has a local monopoly. The consumer who is indifferent between buying from firm i and not buying is located at a distance of x from firm i, where x solves:
EMBED Equation.3
Or:
EMBED Equation.3
Firm is profit EMBED Equation.3 is then maximized at
EMBED Equation.3
And so
EMBED Equation.3
Since the local monopoly assumption implies EMBED Equation.3 or, substituting EMBED Equation.3 , EMBED Equation.3 , Case (ii) is, in fact, limited to EMBED Equation.3 .
(iii) In-between case: When EMBED Equation.3 , prices and profits in the symmetric equilibrium are given by
EMBED Equation.3 and EMBED Equation.3
It is easy to check that EMBED Equation.3 in monotonic in v, across the three cases.
Now suppose that consumers do not know the value of v, which is uniformly distributed on the unit interval. The following proposition states that if the market is sufficiently competitive, i.e., when n is sufficiently large, there will be no disclosure in equilibrium.
Proposition 2: Suppose EMBED Equation.3 and EMBED Equation.3 . Then no firm discloses in equilibrium.
Proof: Suppose v = 1 (the highest possible v). Then, we are in case (i) and, by disclosing, firm i will obtain profit of EMBED Equation.3 (since EMBED Equation.3 ). Since equilibrium profit is monotonic in n, disclosure is strictly dominated by no disclosure for all v. %
4. Concluding Remarks
[To be added]
References
Della Vigna, Stefano and Malmendier, Ulrike (2006), Paying Not to Go to the Gym, Am. Econ. Rev., 96, 694-???.
Grossman, Sanford J. and Hart, Oliver D. (1980), Disclosure Laws and Takeover Bids, The Journal of Finance, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 323-334.
Lynch, John G. and Zauberman, Gal (2006), When Do You Want It? Time, Decisions, and Public Policy, J. Pub. Poly & Marketing, 25, 67-???.
MacDonald, Duncan A. (2007), Viewpoint: Card Industry Questions Congress Needs to Ask, American Banker, Mar. 23, 2007.
Nalebuff, Barry, and Ayres, Ian (2003), Why Not?
Sovern, Jeff (2006), Toward a New Model of Consumer Protection, Wm. & Mary L. Rev., 47, 1635-???.
Consumer Financial Products
Bill: The Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 (HR 3126), Sec. 1038 Establishing a general duty, subject to rules prescribed by the CFPA, to disclose information, including usage data.
Law [Credit Cards]: The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, Pub. L. No. 109-8, 119 Stat 23, 1301 Requiring the following disclosure: Minimum Payment Warning: Making only the minimum payment will increase the interest you pay and the time it takes to repay your balance. For example, making only the typical 2% minimum monthly payment on a balance of $1,000 at an interest rate of 17% would take 88 months to repay the balance in full.
Congress was concerned that consumers lack information on the cost of slow repayment. Specifically, many consumers who make only the minimum monthly payment underestimate the amount of time that it will take them to repay their credit card debt and, consequently, underestimate the total amount of interest that they will end-up paying. In response, Congress required issuers to disclose, on the monthly statement, the length of time it will take an average consumer to repay a typical balance in full if he makes only the minimum required payment each month.
A proposal to make this an individual use disclosure, rather than an average use disclosure H.R. 1052, 2, 107th Cong. (2001) was defeated by the industry lobby.
Proposal [Credit Cards]: The TILA disclosure apparatus can and should be amended to include use-pattern disclosures. Specifically, issuers can be required to disclose the number of late payments that an average consumer makes in a year or the amount that an average consumer pays in late fees in one year (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Or, even better, issuers can be required to provide individualized information on the number of late payments and total late fees paid by the specific consumer (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Proposal [Credit Cards]: Credit card issuers engage in intertemporal bundling in response to underestimation of future use by offering low teaser interest rates for an introductory period. Issuers could be required to disclose information on average switching rates, or information on the average interest rate that the consumer will pay, accounting for borrowing patterns in both the introductory and post-introductory periods. The evidence suggests that such disclosures would reduce the attractiveness of teaser rate offers. Overestimation of switching affects not only the perceived value of teaser rate offers but also the perceived cost of other mid-stream changes that issuers make. Disclosure of switching rates can help reduce these cost misperceptions as well (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Proposal [Mortgage Products]: Mortgage lenders that offer loans with increasing interest rates could be required to disclose the average balance-weighted interest rate, or the average monthly payment, over the life of the loan. Lenders could also be required to disclose the average likelihood of incurring each of the many penalty fees included in the loan contract and perhaps also the total fees paid by an average consumer. And in response to consumer optimism about refinancing options, lenders could disclose the average likelihood of refinancing (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Proposal [Payday Lending]: Payday lenders could also be required to provide average-use information. Specifically, they could be required to disclose the average number of roll-overs and, based on the average number of roll-overs, the total fee paid by an average consumer. For example, the disclosure could read: "The fee is $30 for a two-week, $200 advance. The average borrower renews her loan three times (namely, takes three consecutive advances) before repaying. Therefore, the total fee on a $200 loan, is $90 for an average borrower." (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Wireless Service [The FCC is now beginning a rulemaking process]
Proposal: A common feature of the wireless service contract is the lock-in clause, which ties the consumer to a specific provider for as long as two years. Consumers might underestimate the cost of lock-in. Sellers can be required to provide information about the percentage of consumers who stop using their phones, but continue paying for them, before the end of the lock-in period. Sellers can also be required to disclose the percentage of consumers who broke the contract and paid the exit penalty. (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Proposal: Wireless service providers can be required to disclose the per-minute cost of service with the consumers current, and perhaps also with an alternative, service plans. (Bar-Gill and Stone 2009)
Video Rental
Proposal: Blockbuster's customers underestimate the likelihood, and hence the cost, of tardiness in returning their video rentals, then Blockbuster could be required to disclose the number of late returns, and the total fee payments, that an average consumer pays over a one-year period (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Proposal: Netflix could disclose the number of DVDs that an individual consumer views in a month or the (average) per-DVD price that the consumer pays (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Misc
Proposal - Extended Warranties: Sellers could be required to provide information on the probability that an extended warranty would be invoked (Nalebuff and Ayres 2003). Or, even better, sellers could be required to provide an estimate of the total repair or replacement costs that a typical consumer would save by purchasing the extended warranty (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
Proposal - Rebates: Sellers offering rebates could be required to disclose the low redemption rates (Sovern 2006; Lynch and Zauberman 2006).
Add-ons:
Proposal - Printers and Ink: If Hewlett-Packard (HP) customers, when purchasing a home printer, underestimate the number of ink cartridges that they will purchase over the life of the printer, then HP can be required to provide the missing use-pattern information, perhaps based on an FTC-designed average-use index. Even better, HP could be required to disclose average Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) information that combines the use-pattern information with ink prices.
Proposal - General: Average use or total price information could be provided by sellers of base-goods and add-ons bundles. For example, with such information a consumer choosing between two hotels could compare not only room rates, but also total price figures, based on an average add-on use index (e.g., 2 phone calls, 1 in-room meal, 1 movie, etc').
Subscription Services:
Proposal - Health Clubs: Health clubs could be required to disclose the effective per-visit fee paid by an average subscription holder. If this effective per-visit fee is eight times higher than the clubs actual per-visit fee (Della Vigna and Malmendier 2006), some consumers may reconsider their decision to purchase a subscription.
Proposal - General: Subscription services, like health clubs and magazines, can disclose the amount that the subscription saves per-year, as compared to the per-visit or per-magazine payment option (Bar-Gill and Ferrari 2010).
* NYU School of Law
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