VoxEU Column Institutions and economics

Information and illegal market mechanisms

This column studies the online (illegal) market for male sex work. It shows that participants find ways to get the prices right, even in the absence of formal enforcement mechanisms, using technology to share and disseminate information. The risk of fraud is disciplined by client reviews and demand for photos in escorts’ advertisements.

Economists have coalesced around the view that institutional design can help overcome problems of asymmetric information. While George Akerlof (1970) is credited with bringing this insight into the mainstream of the profession, his work can also be viewed as part of the earlier institutional analysis by Thomas Schelling (1960), Douglass North (1981), Ronald Coase (1937, 1960), and Oliver Williamson (1975) that fuelled developments in contract theory, game theory, and industrial organisation, producing notions such as incomplete contracts, signalling, and screening. These insights are the intellectual parents of policies such as cap-and-trade and have informed the analysis and policy prescriptions in labour markets, financial markets, and antitrust policy.

At a more fundamental level, however, analyses of asymmetric information environments contain a number of implicit assumptions about the behaviour of firms, households, and markets in general. To be sure, the working assumption is that well functioning markets and contracts move us closer to efficient allocations of resources, reward technological progress and innovation, lower the discount rate, and encourage investments with long-term payoffs. To that end, the allocation will be more efficient if participants have full information.

The other side of the coin, however, is a belief that formal enforcement of contracts is necessary to prevent market failures when information asymmetries exist. While the use of formal institutions such as courts is rare relative to the volume of transactions, the standard argument is that the presence of formal institutions gives contracts their authority. In Schelling’s (1960) classic terminology, the power to sue and be sued give parties the ability to make credible, enforceable commitments, a prerequisite to most transactions. Without means of redress, the information that principals and agents share would, a priori, have little value.

Contracts without enforcement

Indeed, it is hard to imagine the contracts that would be entered into in a world void of formal enforcement. How could fraud be detected and punished? Would assets be misappropriated? Wouldn’t the unscrupulous actors in the economy drive out the good, leaving us with corruption, uncertain property rights, and low levels of economic progress?

The standard results in game theory and contract design say yes. Theoretically, formal enforcement per se is not necessary if one uses, for example, long-term relationships. Without such added structures, however, a rational principal would never trust the information received from an agent, as it could likely be cheap talk. Also, the fact that additional structures must be in place suggest that the absence of formal enforcement is less efficient than formal enforcement. Any discussion of the role of institutions, the rule of law, and contract enforcement is predicated on the existence of formal enforcement. In the institutional developments now taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan, the development of formal institutions is a pressing policy concern (Agule 2009).

But the question of whether formal enforcement is necessary to overcome the problems of asymmetric information, we believe, is an inherently empirical one. If, using the definition of Robert Hall and Charles Jones (1999), “good” social infrastructure is the mechanism that gets the prices right, we would like to see if markets without formal enforcement (which would presumably be riddled with “bad” social institutions such as corruption, rent seeking, and theft) get the prices wrong more often than markets with formal enforcement, which are presumably the “good” social infrastructure. In other words, does the data support the theory?

Testing this proposition, however, requires that we have access to the prices in an illegal market, if only to guarantee that the underlying contract is illegal and therefore unenforceable. Illegal markets, by their very nature, tend to stay hidden, so finding one where the information that agents communicate varies only increases the difficulty. To be sure, it is the rare illegal market where prices are widely known and where information on contractual arrangements can be observed by outsiders. In a recent paper (Logan and Shah 2009), we exploit one such market to answer this important question – the online market for male sex work. What we find is fascinating, and at many turns supports the existing theory of the economics of information, but also cautions that formal enforcement may not get the prices right more often than markets without formal enforcement, especially in the digital age.

The market for male sex work

First, male escorts are independent owner-operators who advertise online. The ability of male escorts to price directly without intermediaries and the large number of escorts create a market setting similar to competitive market assumptions where we expect markets to function well. Since this market is an illegal market, however, there is potential for escorts to mislead clients and engage in fraud. In particular, an escort’s ability to post unreliable information should lead to adverse selection in the market. While escort claims are verifiable ex post, there are no formal institutional penalties for ex ante misrepresentation. Indeed, most of the scenarios one could think of (posting deceptive information, obtaining and maintaining a false reputation, etc.) would lead us to predict that information would have little value. We found, however, that the market for male sex work is well regulated, informally, by the principals. Clients police escorts in two ways – through posts to independent client-owned forums and through detailed reviews of escort services on the escort websites, which are linked to the respective escort’s specific advertisement. This well developed system allows clients to review the services of male escorts and alert other clients to deceptive male sex workers. In fact, clients have identified, and made known, their preferred signal of escort quality – face photos in an escort’s advertisement.

While informal enforcement is ubiquitous, is it enough to get the prices right? We found that it is. We find that this illegal market values information just as much as legal markets where truth-in-advertising and subsequent contracts are rigorously enforced. Interestingly, the price premium we estimate for the total number of pictures in escort advertisements (about a 1.5% increase in the price for every picture) is quite similar to the premium for pictures estimated by Gregory Lewis (2009) for used automobiles on eBay.com.1 That information has a value in any market is quite intuitive, but that it has such a large value in an illegal market is unexpected. In particular, we find that the market does not respond to all types of information – the premium to information in this market is driven entirely by face pictures, which command a premium in excess of 3% per face picture.

Our investigation into the market for male sex work provides a case where the richness of the information environment overcomes some of the problems of asymmetric information. The illegality of the market and the near-impossibility of guaranteed truthful disclosure imply that the market should deteriorate into a “lemons” market or one where information has dubious value. Surprisingly, clients informally police the market, punish misrepresentation, and reward credible disclosure. This enables male escorts to credibly signal their quality, and prices in the market respond accordingly. The illegal market mechanism is strikingly similar to it legal counterpart.


While previous empirical work has looked at how information technology improves market functions (Brown and Goolsbee 2002, Jensen 2007, Lewis 2009, Goyal 2008), we provide the first evidence that an illegal online market is just as responsive to information as a legal online market. We believe that this work suggest that, irrespective of the institutions involved, market participants find ways to get the prices right if they have access to technology that allows them to share and disseminate information even in the absence of formal enforcement. Even in markets with formal contracts and enforcement, the types of forums created by the clients of male sex workers are common (e.g., AngiesList.com). In this illegal market, we found that the participants are quite good at policing the market themselves. This informal policing, we believe, is critical to the functioning of this market. While formal institutions in general are undoubtedly important, large economic gains could be made in short order by allowing market participants better access to technology and information, allowing participants to share information and police themselves until formal institutions are well developed enough for contracts to be formalised and enforced.


1 Lewis (2009) is one of the few studies to estimate the value of information in legal online markets.


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