Expressions like informal sector or informal economy and many similar expressions (e.g. underground, black market, shadow economy, under the table, "off the books", "working for cash" or moonlighting) are used to describe all activities that typically are undeclared for one (or all) of the following intents: payment of taxes, law and regulation or statistical reporting. Such activities are often paid in cash and are estimated to represent about 20 to 40% of GDP in developed economies and less developed economies, respectively (the percentages in terms of employment are higher).
Since they involve mostly self-employed, small businesses and part-timers one would imagine that they are part of the competitive market sector. Indeed, some even think of them as the best entrepreneurial antidote to the entry barriers often found in the formal sector. However, this would extend its rationale too far, because the informal economy includes activities that in terms of amounts and moral values are substantially different. We can appreciate that by classifying some of those activities in six groups defined on the basis of the amounts transacted and the legality of the activities as shown in the following table.
The colouring used highlights the degree to which the various activities are similar to formal and open competitive markets. Potentially only the yellow and orange activities may be included in the market capitalism sector, because free and competitive markets demand equal opportunities in the face of the law. There is obviously scope to transfer through legislation some activities from the red coloured areas into less serious offense categories. For instance, some governments may legalise and regulate the sex and soft drugs trade. Indeed, in some countries the tax authorities sometimes advocate such policies to raise tax revenue.
However, in itself this does not guarantee that they may be added to the market capitalism sector because many cannot be carried out in an open and competitive manner. In fact, this problem also affects many of the activities in the orange group because of problems of information asymmetry. For example, if someone discovers a loophole in the tax code he or she cannot advertise it otherwise the tax authorities will move to close it.
To simplify, we will assume that only activities that fit in the yellow group are part of market capitalism. And, because there are so many activities in this category we assume that they will add up to a substantial part of the market economy. So, let´s examine what drives the growth of this sector.
The economic rationale for those involved in these activities is basically two-fold: economies of scale and abnormal profits. Economies of scale usually derive from two situations – either the participants are too poor to pay the minimum “overhead” imposed by the formal sector or their demand is insufficient to cover such costs. In most advanced economies the “overhead” costs typically include sales taxes, personal and corporate income taxes, compulsory employee insurance, accounting and administrative requirements that easily cost as much as the net salary of those employed in the formal sector.
For example, those on low income often are forced into inefficient household production of junk food at a cost of $4 because they cannot afford the $5 price of a burger at the local McDonald. However, they would be better off by paying $2.5 at the street corner from someone working in the informal economy. Likewise, imagine a middle class neighbourhood where every resident has a small garden that only requires 4 hours of work per month. So, a full-time gardener would need to sign in 40 residents. What if there are only 20 residents? Well, he could still live as a part-time gardener in the informal economy with a net income equal to what he would earn net in the formal economy working for 40 residents.
Without exception, governments fail to appreciate the relevance of an adequate balance between activities carried out in the household sector, the informal sector and the formal sector using two contradictory arguments – the need to promote a level playing field (the informal sector is a source of unfair competition for the formal economy) and the need for social policies to protect the weak working in the informal sector and the low paid sectors in the formal economy. The policies used to squeeze the informal sector include both a stick (persecution, fines and taxes) and a carrot (fixing a minimum wage or granting a minimum income for the unemployed on condition that they do not carry out any paid activity).
Such policies are often ineffective, contradictory and very costly. Yet, a common sense policy would simply aim at reducing the formal economy “overhead” on both sides. That is, creating a semi-formal sector with a small overhead (e.g. 25%) and reducing the current overhead costs of the formal sector by another 25%.
Unfortunately, the current level of sales taxation is high and rising creating a strong incentive for those seeking abnormal profits in the informal sector to risk a lose-lose war with the tax authorities. Nevertheless, there is much to gain from a quasi-formal sector by empowering the poor to rely on their own initiative and entrepreneurship rather than on government hand-outs. Therefore, creating such sector is also part of the fight to promote market capitalism as a pillar of human well-being.