Monday, February 3, 2014

Do You Know Where Your Meds and Other Products Came From - Information Asymmetry in Quality

I am excited about speaking at the upcoming  Learning and Intelligent Optimization (LION 8)  Conference in Gainesville, Florida later this month, especially since the snow is again falling in Massachusetts with more to come!

I am also excited because this will be the first time that I will be presenting the paper, "Equilibria and Dynamics of Supply Chain Network Competition with Information Asymmetry in Quality and Minimum Quality Standards," joint with one of my doctoral students, Dong "Michelle" Li.

Quality of products, especially those that one ingests, from pharmaceuticals to food and even, in a sense, human blood (and I am not talking about vampires here), is a topic of great concern and one that we have been researching for a while now.

Do you know where your medicines, for example,  are coming from?

As we noted in our earlier paper,  Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Networks with Outsourcing Under Price and Quality Competition, Anna Nagurney, Dong Li, and Ladimer S. Nagurney, International Transactions in Operational Research 20(6): (2013) pp 859-888, up to 40% of the drugs that Americans take are now imported, and more than 80% of the active ingredients for drugs sold in the United States are outsourced, often to countries such as India and China. The problem is that there may not be sufficient oversight and lack of quality standards.

Furthermore, the manufacturing of products, including pharmaceuticals, may take place in multiple manufacturing plants, so one may have no idea as to the place of production or the level of quaality!

In our new paper, which focuses on quality competition under information asymmetry, we were inspired by the work of the Nobel laureate George Akerlof and his classical paper 1970 paper (which got rejected 3 times by journals, before it finally got accepted and for which he earned the Nobel prize):  "The market for `lemons': Quality uncertainty and the market mechanism," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84(3), 488-500. Akerlof shared the Nobel with Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Spence.

In our paper, we construct a  supply chain network model with information asymmetry in product quality. The competing, profit-maximizing firms with, possibly,  multiple manufacturing plants, which may be located on-shore or off-shore, are aware of the quality of the product that they produce but consumers, at the demand markets, only know the average quality. Such a framework is relevant to products ranging from certain foods to pharmaceuticals. We propose both an equilibrium model and its dynamic counterpart and demonstrate how minimum quality standards can be incorporated. Qualitative results as well as an algorithm are presented, along with convergence results. The numerical examples, accompanied by sensitivity analysis, reveal interesting results and insights for firms, consumers, as well as policy-makers, who impose the minimum quality standards.

Specifically, we find from the computations the following.  Since consumers at the demand market do not differentiate between the products from different firms, and there is information asymmetry in quality between the firms (sellers) and the consumers (buyers) at the demand market, the average quality level at the demand market, as well as the price, which is determined by the quality levels of both firms, is for both firms' products. Firms  prefer a higher average quality, since, at the same demand level, a higher average quality results in a higher price of the product.

However, once a firm increases its own quality level, of course, the average quality level and, hence, the price  increases, but its total cost will also increase due to the higher quality. Furthermore, the price increase is not only for the firm's own product, but also for its competitor's product. If a firm increases its own quality, both the firm and its competitor would get the benefits of the price increase, but only the firm itself would pay for the quality improvement. Thus, a firm prefers a “free ride,” that is, it prefers that the other firm improve its product quality and, hence, the price, rather than have it increase its own quality.

Consequently, a firm may not be willing to increase its quality levels, while the other firm is, unless it is beneficial both cost-wise and profit-wise. This explains why, as the minimum quality standard of one firm increases, its competitor's quality level increases slightly or  remains the same.

When there is an enforced higher minimum quality standard imposed on a firm's plant(s), the firm is forced to achieve a higher quality level, which may bring its own profit down but raise the competitor's profit, even though the latter firm may actually  face a lower minimum quality standard. When the minimum quality standard of a firm increases to a very high value, but that of its competitor is low, the former firm will not be able to afford the high associated cost with decreasing profit, and, hence, it will produce no product for the demand market and will be forced to leave the market.

The above results and discussion indicate the same result, but in a much more general supply chain network context, as found in Ronnen (1991), who, in speaking about minimum quality standards,   noted that: ``low-quality sellers can be better off ... and high-quality sellers are worse off." Also the computational results support the statement on page 490 in Akerlof (1970) that ``good cars may be driven out of the market by lemons." Moreover, our results also show that the lower the competitor's quality level, the more harmful the competitor is to the firm with the high minimum quality standard. The implications of the sensitivity analysis for policy-makers are clear -- the imposition of a one-sided quality standard can have a negative impact on the firm in one's region (or country). Moreover, policy-makers, who are concerned about the products at particular demand markets,  should prevent firms located in regions with very low minimum quality standards from entering the market; otherwise, they may not only bring the average quality level at the demand market(s) down and hurt the consumers, but such products may also harm the profits of the other firms with much higher quality levels and even drive them out of the market.

Therefore, it would be beneficial and fair for both firms and consumers if the policy-makers at the same or different regions or even countries could impose the same or at least similar minimum quality standards on plants serving the same demand market(s). In addition, the minimum quality standards should be such that they will not negatively impact either the high quality firms' survival or the  consumers at the demand market(s).