Posts tagged with: market failure

abc_lululemon_ceo_wanted_sign_jt_130615_wgPro-market advocates often talk about how markets are self-correcting. But why do businesses in free markets fix their own mistakes? Because if they don’t, customers and other stakeholders will punish them:

Lululemon, which produces yoga and other athletic apparel, provoked outrage from its devoted customer base when it released a flawed product earlier this year: see-through yoga pants. Founded in 1998, the company had built trust and loyalty among its yoga-loving clientele for delivering quality products: In just 15 years, Lululemon had grown to over $1.3 billion in annual revenue. So, it’s no surprise that Lululemon’s fans were upset and disappointed at the failure.

But Lululemon’s response to its mistake demonstrates why government intervention in the marketplace is unnecessary and, often, inferior to that of the free market. To address all the complaints the company received from consumers and stores, Lululemon recalled the pants on March 18, offered refunds, and apologized.

Despite the gesture, the market punished Lululemon for its error: Its stock price plummeted the next day, decreasing the company’s value by $250 million. Several weeks later, the chief product officer resigned. The repercussions for Lululemon’s mistake affect the short term as well as the long term: The damage to consumer confidence will take time to rebuild and revenues will reflect the damage.

The incentives for the company to address this mistake couldn’t be any higher. They will be far more powerful in encouraging better customer service than having the government inspect all clothes manufactured.

Read more . . .

An essay of mine appears today over at the First Things website as part of their “On the Square: Observations & Contentions” feature. In “Between Market and State,” I explore the dialectic logic of market and government “failure,” which functions in part to provide us with a false dilemma: our solution to social problems must lie with either “market” or “state.”

I work out this logic in the context of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and conclude that non-profits play a critical role as mediating institutions that are not driven in the first place by profit motives. A great deal of the economic woe of the last year or so has been the result of seeing the poor as objects of material gain rather than partners in charitable compassion. Read the piece over at the First Things site and discuss it here.

I should note that PowerBlog contributor Dr. William Luckey has provided a brief and challenging analysis of the role of non-profits. His survey of the treatment of non-profits in the literature includes the observation, “Many sources see the purposes of non-profits as taking up the slack from either market failure or government failure, thus revealing a pro-statist, anti-market bias.” The argument in my First Things essay takes the position that one purpose of non-profits is to “take up the slack,” so to speak. But I don’t see how this by definition reveals a “pro-statist, anti-market bias.”

As I say in the essay,

Advocates for government intervention abound nowadays. But apologists for the market economy do themselves and their cause no favors when they ignore the fact that there are limits to what the market can and ought to be asked to do. Indeed, much of what has been called “market failure” is actually the result of applying market-based solutions to problems for which profit considerations ought to be considered secondarily—if at all.

Within a market framework people tend to maximize efficiency and increase material well-being. But the market is not the answer for everything. It cannot tell us, for instance, how to arrange our familial or spiritual lives.

I was influenced in this line of thinking by a brief reflection from Arnold Kling, who writes about two propositions in the context of the sub-prime lending disaster: 1) Market failure is inevitable; and 2) Government failure is inevitable. He says, “In talking about the financial crisis, I believe that to speak the truth one has to accept both propositions. Most people prefer narrative, which either explicitly or implicitly denies one or the other.”

To be sure, I do think Luckey is right to call for “a completely new study of non-profit organizations,” an early attempt at which was made in the context of Acton’s own Samaritan Guide program. (With Marvin Olasky’s comment that the finalists tended to be either “rescue missions for the homeless or rehab centers for alcoholics and addicts” in view as well, see the conclusions of the promising paper, “Faith Makes a Difference: A Study of the Influence of Faith in Human Service Programs,” by Beryl Hugen, Fred De Jong, and Karen Woods.)

One non-profit ministry that I highlight in the First Things essay that is neither a homeless shelter nor a rehab center is the Inner City Christian Federation. This is a worthy organization that merits a great deal of attention in the debate about home ownership, the mortgage industry, and Christian charity.

As I also note in the First Things essay, this discussion about the credit crisis must go to our core assumptions about home ownership. A fascinating interview with Edmund Phelps, director of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society, picks up on some of these issues. Phelps has a lot of great things to say, and here’s one of them:

I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.

A handy chart showing the movement in trust in social institutions over the last thirty years according to the General Social Survey is available here.

Non-profits are increasingly being squeezed out between market and state, and the solutions they offer are either marginalized or subsumed under the logic of profit or coercion. As many others have noted, some recent policy initiatives, most notably lowering the limit on qualifying charitable donations, will only serve to exacerbate this problem.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By

When the sign for one of those payday lending stores went up on the corner a block away from my house, I have to say I was less than enthusiastic.

The standard response in a market economy to “market failure” is for a nonprofit to fill the gap in services or meet the need. Today’s NYT reports on efforts in the short-term loan industry to meet that need. As it stands in the market system, “Payday loan stores, which barely existed 15 years ago, now outnumber most fast-food franchises. Typically a customer borrows a few hundred dollars in exchange for a check, postdated to the next payday, made out in the amount of the principal plus a fee of $15 to $22 per $100 borrowed.” 22 dollars every two weeks works out to about 572 percent annual interest.

The troubling part of this is that those who are most likely to need these kinds of loans are the poor, people who are hit the hardest by higher rates of interest. It’s also clear that they are making some very poor fiscal decisions.

Nonprofit groups are in the early stages of setting up programs to help ameliorate the situation. GoodMoney, a joint venture of Goodwill Industries and Prospera Credit Union, charges about half of what for profit lenders charge. That still works out to over 200 percent interest annually, but “Of the $9.90 that GoodMoney charges per $100 borrowed, nearly half goes to writing off bad loans, Mr. Eiden said, and the rest to database service and administrative costs.” In the case of Ms. Truckey, profiled in the NYT piece, because of GoodMoney, “A few dollars from each payment go into a savings account, the first she has had in years.”

Programs like GoodMoney are still in their infancy and it’s clear that charging some level of interest might be a necessary part of encouraging responsibility and promoting independence on the part of the borrower. And market levels of interest approaching 600 percent per annum seem a bit like throwing someone in debtors prison if they can’t pay back a loan: there’s simply no way out of the mounting debt.

Now whether or not the amount that GoodMoney is charging isn’t precisely clear (there are no entries for GoodMoney at either GuideStar or Charity Navigator, and GoodMoney’s website doesn’t seem to disclose a breakdown of the programs expenses), but the enterprise itself is an interesting exercise in meeting the needs coming out of a pretty clear instance of market failure.