Black market

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Black market on graffiti. Kharkov, 2008

A black market or underground economy is a market in goods or services which operates outside the formal one(s) supported by established state power. Typically the totality of such activity is referred to with the definite article as a complement to the official economies, by market for such goods and services, e.g. "the black market in bush meat" or the state jurisdiction "the black market in China".

It is distinct from the grey market, in which commodities are distributed through channels which, while legal, are unofficial, unauthorized, or unintended by the original manufacturer, and the white market, the legal market for goods and services.

Worldwide, the underground economy is estimated to have provided 1.8 billion jobs.[1]


The literature on the black market has avoided a common usage and has instead offered a plethora of appellations including: subterranean; hidden; grey; shadow; informal; clandestine; illegal; unobserved; unreported; unrecorded; second; parallel and black.[2] This profusion of vague labels attests to the confusion of a literature attempting to explore a largely uncharted area of economic activity.

There is no single underground economy; there are many. These underground economies are omnipresent, existing in market oriented as well as in centrally planned nations, be they developed or developing. Those engaged in underground activities circumvent, escape or are excluded from the institutional system of rules, rights, regulations and enforcement penalties that govern formal agents engaged in production and exchange. Different types of underground activities are distinguished according to the particular institutional rules that they violate. Four specific underground economies can be identified:

  1. the illegal economy
  2. the unreported economy
  3. the unrecorded economy
  4. the informal economy

The "illegal economy" consists of the income produced by those economic activities pursued in violation of legal statutes defining the scope of legitimate forms of commerce. Illegal economy participants engage in the production and distribution of prohibited goods and services, such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and prostitution.

The "unreported economy" consists of those economic activities that circumvent or evade the institutionally established fiscal rules as codified in the tax code. A summary measure of the unreported economy is the amount of income that should be reported to the tax authority but is not so reported. A complementary measure of the unreported economy is the "tax gap", namely the difference between the amount of tax revenues due the fiscal authority and the amount of tax revenue actually collected. In the U.S. unreported income is estimated to be $2 trillion resulting in a "tax gap" of $450–$500 billion.[3][4]

The "unrecorded economy" consists of those economic activities that circumvent the institutional rules that define the reporting requirements of government statistical agencies. A summary measure of the unrecorded economy is the amount of unrecorded income, namely the amount of income that should (under existing rules and conventions) be recorded in national accounting systems (e.g. National Income and Product Accounts) but is not. Unrecorded income is a particular problem in transition countries that switched from a socialist accounting system to UN standard national accounting. New methods have been proposed for estimating the size of the unrecorded (non-observed) economy.[5] But there is still little consensus concerning the size of the unreported economies of transition countries.[6]

The "informal economy" comprises those economic activities that circumvent the costs and are excluded from the benefits and rights incorporated in the laws and administrative rules covering property relationships, commercial licensing, labor contracts, torts, financial credit and social security systems. A summary measure of the informal economy is the income generated by economic agents that operate informally.[7][8] The informal sector is defined as the part of an economy that is not taxed, monitored by any form of government, or included in any gross national product (GNP), unlike the formal economy. In developed countries the informal sector is characterized by unreported employment. This is hidden from the state for tax, social security or labour law purposes but is legal in all other aspects.[9] On the other hand, the term black market can be used in reference to a specific part of the economy in which contraband is traded.


Goods acquired illegally take one of two price levels:

  • They may be cheaper than legal market prices. The supplier does not have to pay for production costs or taxes. This is usually the case in the underground economy. Criminals steal goods and sell them below the legal market price, but there is no receipt, guarantee, and so forth.
  • They may be more expensive than legal market prices. The product is difficult to acquire or produce, dangerous to handle or not easily available legally, if at all. If goods are illegal, such as some drugs, their prices can be vastly inflated over the costs of production.

Black markets can form part of border trade near the borders of neighboring jurisdictions with little or no border control if there are substantially different tax rates, or where goods are legal on one side of the border but not on the other. Products that are commonly smuggled like this include alcohol and tobacco. However, not all border trade is illegal.

Consumer issues

No government, no global nonprofit, no multinational enterprise can seriously claim to be able to replace the 1.8 billion jobs created by the economic underground. In truth, the best hope for growth in most emerging economies lies in the shadows.
Global Bazaar, Scientific American[1]

Even when the underground market offers lower prices, consumers still have an incentive to buy on the legal market when possible, because:

  • They may prefer legal suppliers, as they are easier to contact and can be held accountable for faults;
  • In some[10] jurisdictions, customers may be charged with a criminal offense if they knowingly participate in the black economy, even as a consumer;
  • They may feel in danger of being hurt while making the deal;
  • They may have a moral dislike of black marketing;
  • In some jurisdictions (such as England and Wales), consumers in possession of stolen goods will have them taken away if they are traced, even if they did not know they were stolen. Though they themselves commit no offense, they are still left with no goods and no money back. This risk makes some averse to buying goods that they think may be from the underground market, even if in fact they are legitimate (for example, items sold at a car boot sale).

However, in some situations, consumers can actually be in a better situation when using black market services, particularly when government regulations and monopolies hinder what would otherwise be a legitimate competitive service. For example:

  • Unlicensed taxicabs. In Baltimore, it has been reported that many consumers actively prefer illegal taxis, citing that they are more available, convenient, and priced fairly.[11]

Traded goods and services

Largest black markets Estimated annual
market value

(Billion USD)
Total 796[12]
Marijuana 142[12]
Prostitution 108[12]
Counterfeit technology products 100[12]
Counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs 75[12]
Prescription drugs 73[12]
Cocaine 70[12]
Opium and heroin 65[12]
Web Video piracy 60[12]
Software piracy 53[12]
Cigarette smuggling 50[12]

In developed countries, some examples of underground economic activities include:

Biological organs

Transportation providers

Where taxicabs, buses, and other transportation providers are strictly regulated or monopolized by government, a black market typically flourishes to provide transportation to poorly served or overpriced communities. In the United States, some cities restrict entry to the taxicab market with a medallion system— that is, taxicabs must get a special license and display it on a medallion in the vehicle. This has led to a market in Carpooling/illegal taxicab operation, although in most jurisdictions it is not illegal to sell the medallions.[citation needed] In Baltimore, Maryland, for example, it is not uncommon for private individuals to provide illegal taxicab service[11] for city residents.

Illegal drugs

In the U.S., cannabis has been termed as a cash crop.

From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many countries began to ban the keeping or using of some recreational drugs, such as the United States' war on drugs. Many people nonetheless continue to use illegal drugs, and a black market exists to supply them. Despite law enforcement efforts to intercept them, demand remains high, providing a large profit motive for organized criminal groups to keep drugs supplied. The United Nations has reported that the retail market value of illegal drugs is $321.6 billion USD.[13]

Although law enforcement officers do capture a small proportion of the illegal drugs, the high and very stable demand for such drugs ensures that black market prices will simply rise in response to the decrease in supply—encouraging new distributors to enter the market. Many drug legalization activists draw parallels between the illegal drug trade and the Prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s.

In the United Kingdom, it is not illegal to take drugs, but it is illegal to possess them. This can lead to the unintended consequence that those in possession may swallow the evidence; once in the body they are committing no crime.


Prostitution is illegal or highly regulated in most countries across the world. These places form a classic study of the underground economy, because of consistent high demand from customers, relatively high pay, but labor intensive and low skilled work, which attracts a continual supply of workers. While prostitution exists in almost every country, studies show that it tends to flourish more in poorer countries, and in areas with large numbers of unattached men, such as around military bases.[14]

Prostitutes in the black market generally operate with some degree of secrecy, sometimes negotiating prices and activities through codewords and subtle gestures. In countries such as the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal but regulated, illegal prostitutes exist whose services are offered cheaper without regard for the legal requirements or procedures— health checks, standards of accommodation, and so on.

In other countries such as Nicaragua where legal prostitution is regulated, hotels may require both parties to identify themselves, to prevent the rise of child prostitution.


The legislatures of many countries forbid or restrict the personal ownership of weapons. These restrictions can range from small knives to firearms, either altogether or by classification (e.g. caliber, automation, etc.), and explosives. The black market supplies the demands for weaponry that can not be obtained legally, or may only be obtained legally after obtaining permits and paying fees. This may be by smuggling the arms from countries where they were bought legally or stolen, or by stealing from arms manufacturers within the country itself, using insiders. In cases where the underground economy is unable to smuggle firearms, they can also satisfy requests by gunsmithing their own firearms. Those who may buy this way include criminals, those who wish to use them for illegal activities, and collectors.

In England and Wales some kinds of arms designed for shooting animals may be kept at home but must be registered with the local police force and kept in a locked cabinet. Some people buy on the black market if they would not meet the conditions for registration— for example if they have a record of committing a criminal offense, however minor.

In some jurisdictions, collectors may legally keep antique weapons. Sometimes they must be disarmed (incapable of being fired); but sometimes they are so ineffective by modern standards that they are allowed to be kept intact. For example a blunderbuss or cannon is hardly likely to be used for a drive-by shooting.

Alcohol and tobacco

It has been reported that smuggling one truckload of cigarettes from a low-tax US state to a high-tax state can lead to a profit of up to $2 million.[15] The low-tax states are generally the major tobacco producers, and have come under enormous criticism for their reluctance to increase taxes. North Carolina eventually agreed to raise its taxes from 5 cents to 35 cents per pack of 20 cigarettes, although this remains far below the national average.[16] But South Carolina has so far refused to follow suit and raise taxes from seven cents per pack (the lowest in the USA).[17]

In the UK it has been reported that "27% of cigarettes and 68% of roll your own tobacco [is] purchased on the black market".[18]

Booze cruise

In the UK, the booze cruise — a day-trip ferry to continental Europe simply to get alcohol and tobacco at lower tax rates— is still very popular. Its popularity varies on the Euro to Sterling exchange rate, and the relative tax rates between the different countries. Some people do not even bother to get off the boat; they buy their stock on board and sail straight back. Ferry companies offer extremely low fares, in the expectation that they will make the money up in sales on the boat.[citation needed] The same system exists for boats between Liverpool and Dublin, Ireland.

Providing the goods are for personal consumption, "booze cruises" are entirely legal. Because there are no customs restrictions between European Union countries it is not strictly a black market, but closer to a grey market. The UK and Ireland are both European Union members and are both in a Common Travel Area so there are neither customs nor migration restrictions for citizens of the two countries.

There is however a thriving black market in goods, rubbing tobacco in particular, which have avoided the payment of excise duty. This is partly supplied by "booze cruises".

Copyrighted media

Street vendors in countries where there is scant enforcement of copyright law, particularly in Asia and Latin America, often sell deeply discounted copies of films, music CDs, and computer software such as video games, sometimes even before the official release of the title. A determined counterfeiter with a few hundred dollars can make copies that are digitally identical to an original and suffer no loss in quality; innovations in consumer DVD and CD writers and the widespread availability of cracks on the Internet for most forms of copy protection technology make this cheap and easy to do.

This has proved very difficult for copyright holders to combat through the law courts, because the operations are distributed and widespread— there is no "Mr. Big".[citation needed] Since digital information can be duplicated repeatedly with no loss of quality, and distributed electronically at little to no cost, the effective underground market value of media is zero, differentiating it from nearly all other forms of underground economic activity. The issue is compounded by widespread indifference to enforcing copyright law, both with governments and the public at large. To steal a car is seen as a crime in most people's eyes, but to obtain illicit copies of music or a game is not.[19]

Yet, the preceding comparison, although common, is not truly analogous. Automobile theft results in an item being removed from the owner with the ownership transferred to a second party. Media piracy is a crime of duplication, with no physical property being stolen. Copyright infringement law goes as far as to deem illegal "mix-tapes" and other such material copied to tape or disk. Copyright holders typically attest the act of theft to be in the profits forgone to the pirates. However, this makes the unsubstantiated assumption that the pirates would have bought the copyrighted material if it had not been available through file sharing or other means. Many artists and film producers have accepted the role of piracy in media distribution.[20] The spread of material through file sharing is a major source of publicity for artists and has been shown to build fan bases that may be more inclined to see the performer live[21] (live performances make up the bulk of successful artists' revenues[22]).

Organised crime

Usually hidden under a front business that is legal.


Money itself is traded on the black market. This may happen for one or more of several reasons:

  • The government sets ("pegs") the local currency at some arbitrary level to another currency that does not reflect its true market value.
  • A government makes it difficult or illegal for its citizens to own much or any foreign currency.
  • The government taxes exchanging the local currency with other currencies, either in one direction or both (e.g. foreigners are taxed to buy local currency, or residents are taxed to buy foreign currency).
  • The currency is counterfeit.
  • The currency has been acquired illegally and needs to be laundered before the money can be used.[23]

A government may officially set the rate of exchange of its currency with that of other currencies, typically the US dollar. When it does, the peg often overvalues the local currency relative to what its market value would be if it were a floating currency. Those in possession of the "harder" currency, for example expatriate workers, may be able to use the black market to buy the local currency at better exchange rates than they can get officially.

In situations of financial instability and inflation, citizens may substitute a foreign currency for the local currency. The U.S. dollar is viewed as a relatively stable and safe currency and is often used abroad as a second currency. At the present time, $340 billion dollars, roughly 37 percent[24] of all U.S. currency is believed to be circulating abroad.[25] The widespread substitution of U.S. currency for local currency is known as defacto dollarization, and has been observed in transition countries [26] and in some Latin American countries.[27] Some countries, such as Ecuador, abandoned their local currency and now use US dollars, essentially for this reason, a process known as de jure dollarization. See also the example of the Ghanaian cedi from the 1970s and 1980s.

If foreign currency is difficult or illegal for local citizens to acquire, they will pay a premium to acquire it. U.S. currency is viewed as a relatively stable store of value and since it does not leave a paper trail,[dubious ] it is also a convenient medium of exchange for both illegal transactions and for unreported income (tax evasion) both in the U.S and abroad.[3]


In the EU it is not illegal for a person or business to buy fuel in one EU state for their own use in another, but as with other goods the tax will generally be payable by the final customer at the physical place of making the purchase.

Petrol tanks for cooking/ water heating are often smuggled from Ecuador into Colombia. The price is in Ecuador for one tank is 2.50, whereas the same tank in Colombia costs 10 dollars.

Between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland there has often been a black market in petrol and diesel.[28][29] The direction of smuggling can change depending on the variation of the taxes and the exchange rate between the Euro and Pound Sterling; indeed sometimes diesel will be smuggled in one direction and petrol the other.

In some countries diesel fuel for agricultural vehicles or domestic use is taxed at a much lower rate than that for other vehicles. This is known as dyed fuel, because a coloured dye is added so it can be detected if used in other vehicles (e.g. a red dye in the UK, a green dye in Ireland). Nevertheless, the saving is attractive enough to make a black market in agricultural diesel. In 2007 it was estimated that £350 million was not gained in potential revenue this way in the UK.[30]

Appearance and disappearance

If an economic good is illegal but not seen by many in society as particularly harmful, such as alcohol under prohibition in the United States, the black market prospers. Black marketeers can reinvest profits in diverse legal or illegal activities, well beyond the original source of profit.

Some, for example in the marijuana-trade debate, argue for removing the underground markets by making illegal products legal. This would, in their view:

  • decrease the illegal cashflow, thus making the performance of other, potentially more harmful, activities financially harder
  • allow quality and safety controls on the traded goods, thus reducing harm to consumers
  • let the goods be taxed, providing a source of revenue
  • free up court time and prison space and save taxpayer money.

Modern examples


Black markets flourish in most countries during wartime. States that are engaged in total war or other large-scale, extended wars must necessarily impose restrictions on home use of critical resources that are needed for the war effort, such as food, gasoline, rubber, metal, etc., typically through rationing. In most cases, a black market develops to supply rationed goods at exorbitant prices. The rationing and price controls enforced in many countries during World War II encouraged widespread black market activity.[31] One source of black-market meat under wartime rationing was by farmers declaring fewer domestic animal births to the Ministry of Food than actually happened. Another in Britain was supplies from the USA, intended only for use in USA army bases on British land, but leaked into the local native British black market.

During the Vietnam war, soldiers would spend Military Payment Certificates on maid service and sexual entertainment,[citation needed] thus supporting their partners and their families. If the Vietnamese civilian wanted something that was hard to get, he would buy it at double the price from one of the soldiers, who had a monthly ration card and thus had access to the military stores.[citation needed] The transactions ran through the on-base maids to the local populace. Although these activities were illegal, only flagrant or large-scale black-marketeers were prosecuted by the military.[citation needed]

Indian black-money

The black money market situation in India is epidemical. India currently tops the list for illegal monies in the entire world, estimated to be almost US$1,456 billion stored in Swiss banks (USD 1.4 trillion approximately) in the form of unaccounted money.[32] According to the data provided by the Swiss Banking Association, India has more black money than the rest of the world combined.[33][34] Indian Swiss bank account assets are worth 13 times (1300%) the country’s national debt, and, if this black money is seized and brought back to the country, India has the potential to become one of the richest countries in the world.[35]

Prohibition in the United States


A classic example of creating a black market is the Prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s in the United States. Many organized crime syndicates took advantage of the lucrative opportunities in the resulting black market in banned alcohol production and sale. Most people did not think drinking alcohol was particularly harmful nor that its buyers and sellers should be treated like common criminals. So illegal speakeasies prospered, and organizations such as the Mafia grew tremendously more powerful through their black market activities distributing alcohol. This lasted until repeal of Prohibition.

Although Prohibition ended in 1933, there are still some parallels today with evasion of the drinking age of 21 in the United States, which is high compared to other industrialized countries and three years above the age of majority in nearly all states. Like Prohibition, this law is widely (but more covertly) disobeyed as well. Though social sources of supply predominate for underage drinkers, some bars and stores knowingly serve and sell to those who are underage, and some may even make deals with local police. Many college towns especially have a vast network of fraternities and sororities (and others) that run what can be considered modern-day speakeasies in their houses, in which age is irrelevant. Since the substance in question, alcohol, is legal for those over 21, it can be considered more of a gray market than a black market.


This effect is seen similarly today, when jurisdictions pass bans on smoking in bars and restaurants. In these jurisdictions, smokeasies arise which allow smoking despite the legal prohibition. In a sense the owner is not a black marketeer since he is not necessarily selling tobacco, but he profits by the sale of other goods on his premises (typically alcohol).

This phenomenon is very prevalent in many US state jurisdictions with smoking bans, including California,[36][37] Philadelphia,[38][39] Utah,[40] Seattle,[41] Ohio,[42] and Washington, D.C..[43]

See also

Further reading

  • Breusch, Trevor. "Estimating the Underground Economy using MIMIC Models" (PDF). Ideas.repec. Retrieved 2005. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  • Feige, Edgar L. (1989 and 2007). The Underground Economies:Tax Evasion and Information Distortion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 378. ISBN 0-521-26230-5. Check date values in: |year= (help)
  • Feige, Edgar L. (December 11, 2003). "Defining And Estimating Underground And Informal Economies: The New Institutional Economics Approach". World Development. Elsevier,. 18 (7): 989–1002.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  • Schneider, Friedrich; Enste, Dominik H. (2000). "Shadow Economies: Size, Causes, and Consequences". Journal of Economic Literature. American Economic Association. 38 (1): 77–114. JSTOR 2565360..


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  2. ^ Feige, Edgar L. (December 11, 2003). "Defining And Estimating Underground And Informal Economies: The New Institutional Economics Approach". World Development. Elsevier,. 18 (7). Retrieved 2012-03-05.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  3. ^ a b Feige, Edgar L. & Cebula, Richard (January 2011). "America's Underground Economy: Measuring the Size, Growth and Determinants of Income Tax Evasion in the U.S." Retrieved 2012-03-05.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  22. ^ Cory Doctorow (November 13, 2009). "Labels may be losing money, but artists are making more than ever". Retrieved 2012-03-05.
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  35. ^ VM Sathish (February 12, 2011). "Tehelka says Manorma Group has account". Emirates 24-7. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
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  44. ^ Silk road used as an online black market

External links