Price-bots can collude against consumers

The Economist:

Consider the conditions that allow for tacit collusion. First, the market is concentrated and hard for others to enter. The petrol stations on the Vineyard were cut off from the mainland. Second, prices are transparent in a way that renders any attempt to steal business by lowering prices self-defeating. A price cut posted outside one petrol station will soon be matched by the others. And if one station raises prices, it can always cut them again if the others do not follow. Third, the product is a small-ticket and frequent purchase, such as petrol. Markets for such items are especially prone to tacit collusion, because the potential profits from “cheating” on an unspoken deal, before others can respond, are small.

Now imagine what happens when prices are set by computer software. In principle, the launch of, say, a smartphone app that compares prices at petrol stations ought to be a boon to consumers. It saves them the bother of driving around for the best price. But such an app also makes it easy for retailers to monitor and match each others’ prices. Any one retailer would have little incentive to cut prices, since robo-sellers would respond at once to ensure that any advantage is fleeting. The rapid reaction afforded by algorithmic pricing means sellers can co-ordinate price rises more quickly. Price-bots can test the market, going over many rounds of price changes, without any one supplier being at risk of losing customers. Companies might need only seconds, and not days, to settle on a higher price, note Messrs Ezrachi and Stucke.