Three Americans win Nobel

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Three Americans won the Nobel prize for economics Wednesday for research into how the control of information influences everything from used car sales to the recent boom and collapse in high-tech stocks.

George A. Akerlof, 61, of the University of California at Berkeley; A. Michael Spence, 58, of Stanford University; and Joseph E. Stiglitz, 58, of Columbia University will share the $943,000 award.

So far, eight Americans have won Nobel prizes this year, one more than last year.

The laureates laid the foundation in the 1970s for a general theory about how players with differing amounts of information affect a wide range of markets.

Research into ''asymmetric information'' gave economists a way to measure the risks, for example, faced by a lender who lacked information about a borrower's creditworthiness.

It also explored how people with inside knowledge of a high-technology company's financial prospects gain an edge over other investors, while people who don't fully understand a company's finances may invest unwisely.

The theory helps economists explain why the recent bubble in high-technology stocks burst.

The winners' contributions ''form the core of modern information economics,'' the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a written announcement.

It cited a watershed 1970 paper by Akerlof called ''The Market for Lemons,'' which used car sales as an example of how poorly informed buyers can end up with products that don't work well.

''Markets such as for used cars tend to be rather screwed up,'' Akerlof told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

''When you buy a used car you're always careful because you're wondering why that person is selling the car. When you're selling, you're worried you're not going to get a good price,'' he said. ''People are suspicious.''

Spence was cited for coming up with ways to measure ''signaling,'' when people and businesses go out of their way to boost their image.

For example, individuals earning a graduate degree get more than an education -- they send a signal to prospective employers that they work hard. A company that pays dividends on its stocks sends a signal that it is doing well.

''All of us were given the award for trying to understand how markets perform when people have imperfect information,'' Spence told The Associated Press by telephone.

Stiglitz, for his part, measured how poorly informed parties can boost their business by extracting information from better informed ones.

A car insurance company, for instance, can glean information about whether customers are high-risk or low-risk by the size of deductibles and premiums they choose.

''The big question in economics is when do markets work and when do markets fail. These three economists moved that analysis into a new realm -- where some people in markets know more than other people in markets,'' said Gregory Mankiw, an economics professor at Harvard University.

The award, known formally as the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences, was the second prize announced Wednesday.

Two Americans -- K. Barry Sharpless and William S. Knowles -- and a Japanese scientist, Ryoji Noyori, shared the chemistry prize for showing how to better control chemical reactions used in producing medicines.

The prestigious prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, and were first awarded in 1901.

The economics prize was established separately in 1968 by the Swedish central bank, but it is grouped with the other awards. The literature prize will be announced on Thursday and the peace prize on Friday in Oslo, Norway.

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