Friday, January 28, 2022
As self-learning pricing algorithms become popular, there are growing concerns among academics and regulators that algorithms could learn to collude tacitly on non-competitive prices and thereby harm competition. I study popular reinforcement learning algorithms and show that they develop collusive behavior in a simulated market environment. To derive a counterfactual that resembles traditional tacit collusion, I conduct market experiments with human participants in the same environment. Across different treatments, I vary the market size and the number of firms that use a self-learned pricing algorithm. I provide evidence that oligopoly markets can become more collusive if algorithms make pricing decisions instead of humans. In two-firm markets, market prices are weakly increasing in the number of algorithms in the market. In three-firm markets, algorithms weaken competition if most firms use an algorithm and human sellers are inexperienced.