Underground economy

Underground economy

The underground economy or black market is a market consisting of all commerce on which applicable taxes and/or regulations of trade are being avoided. The term is also often known as the underdog, shadow economy, black economy or parallel economy.

In modern societies the underground economy covers a vast array of activities. It is generally smallest in countries where economic freedom is greatest, and becomes progressively larger in those areas where corruption, regulation, or legal monopolies restrict legitimate economic activity.


Goods acquired illegally can take one of two price levels:

  • They may be less expensive than legal market prices, as the supplier does not incur the normal production costs or pay the usual taxes. This is usually the case in the underground market for stolen goods.
  • Alternatively, illegally supplied goods may be more expensive than normal prices, as the product in question is difficult to acquire or produce, dangerous to deal with or may hardly be available legally. This is usually the case in the underground market for goods that are illegal to purchase, sell or possess.

Consumer issues

Even when the underground market offers lower prices, consumers are likely to continue the purchase of the legal counterparts, when possible, due to the following reasons:

  • The consumer may — justifiably — prefer legal suppliers, as they are both easier to contact and can be held legally accountable in case of product faults
  • In some jurisdictions, customers may be charged with a criminal offence if they knowingly participate in the unregulated economy, even as a customer.
  • Consumers may feel that they incur a physical risk to their person, whilst dealing with black market goods, depending on the goods and how they are acquired
  • Consumers may feel that the black market supplier conducts business immorally, particularly in cases where the black market supplier exploits their own supplier or has a history of exploiting other consumers

However, in some cases consumers may actively prefer the underground market, particularly when government regulations unnecessarily hinder a legitimate service. Examples include:

  • 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.
  • Highly marginalized groups, such as illegal immigrants, may effectively be excluded from the legal economy and thus may undertake most of their purchases and employment in the underground economy.

Traded goods and services

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

Transportation Providers

In areas where taxicabs, buses, and other transportation providers are strictly regulated or monopolised by government, an active black market typically flourishes in providing transportation to underserved communities. In the United States, some cities restrict entry to the taxicab market via a medallion system. This has led to an active market illegal taxicab operation. Customers range from black Americans living in urban neighborhoods to rural old-order Amish.

Illegal drugs

Beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries, many countries began to ban the possession or use of various recreational drugs, such as the United States’ famous “war on drugs.” Many people nonetheless continue to use illegal drugs, and a black market exists to supply them. Despite ongoing law enforcement efforts to intercept illegal drug supplies, demand remains high, providing a large profit motive for organized criminal groups to ensure that drugs are available. The United Nations has reported that the retail market value of illegal drugs is worth 321.6 billion dollars. While law enforcement efforts do capture a small percentage of the distributors of illegal drugs, the high and very inflexible 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 in a perpetual cycle. Many drug legalisation activists draw parallels between the United States’ experience with alcohol Prohibition and the current bans on various psychoactive drugs.


Prostitution is illegal or highly regulated in some nations throughout the world. In such areas it is classic study of the underground economy because of consistent high demand from customers, as well the high pay, labor intensive, and low skill aspects the work attract a continued supply of sex workers. While prostitution is observed in virtually every nation, studies have shown that it tends to especially flourish in poorer countries, and in areas with large numbers of unattached men, such as around military bases.

Prostitutes in such areas generally operate with some degree of secrecy, sometimes negotiating price and activities through codewords and subtle gesture. Additionally, in areas such as the Netherlands where prostitution is legal but carefully regulated, illegal prostitutes exist whose services are offered without regard for legal requirements or procedures. In Nicaragua legal prostitution is regulated and most upscale hotels require identification of both parties involved to help prevent the growing percentage of child prostitution.


The legislatures of many countries forbid or restrict the ownership of personal arms. These can range from cold steel weapons exceeding certain sizes to firearms, either altogether or by classification (e.g. caliber, automatism, etc), to explosives. The black market can supply such demands, by smuggling the arms from countries where they were either purchased legally or stolen. The purchase of personal arms via these channels can be of use to criminals, those who wish to use them for self defense, and weapons collectors.

Alcohol and tobacco

Black markets can also form near when neighboring jurisdictions with loose or no border controls have substantially different tax rates on similar products. Products that are commonly smuggled to fuel these black markets include alcohol and tobacco.

It has been reported that smuggling one truckload of cigarettes from a low-tax U.S. state to those jurisdictions of the same country with the highest taxes can lead to a profit of up to $2 million. The low-tax states are generally the major tobacco producers and have come under enormous criticism for their reluctance to increase taxes from their minimal rates. North Carolina eventually agreed to raise its taxes from 5 cents per pack to 35 cents, although this remains far below the national average. However, South Carolina has thus far refused to follow suit and raise their taxes from seven cents per pack (currently the lowest in the U.S.A.) Some law enforcement officials have expressed concern that the profits from tobacco smuggling may be directed to terrorist organizations. This has led to calls for the U.S. Congress to intervene by setting mandatory minimum tobacco taxes for all states.

Copyrighted media

Street vendors in many third world countries, particularly in Asia where loose enforcement of copyright law exists, often sell deeply discounted copies of films, music CDs, and computer software such as video games, sometimes long before the official release of a title. Innovations in consumer DVD and CD burners and the widespread availability on the Internet of cracks for most extant forms of copy protection technology allow anyone with a few hundred dollars to produce DVD and CD copies that are digitally identical to an original and suffer no loss in quality.

Such operations have proven very difficult for copyright holders to combat legally, due to their decentralized nature and the cheap widespread availability of the equipment needed to produce illegal copies for sale. Widespread indifference towards the enforcement of copyright law on the part of law enforcement officials, as well as social acceptance, further compounds the issue.

Appearance and disappearance

In the case of the legal prohibition of a product viewed by large segments of the society as harmless, such as alcohol under prohibition in the United States, the black market can prosper, allowing the black marketeers can reinvest profits in a widely diversified array of legal or illegal activities, well beyond the original item.

Underground markets can be reduced or eliminated by removing the relevant legal restrictions, thereby increasing the supply and quality of formerly banned goods, e.g. marijuana-trade debate. Removing legal restrictions will usually reduce the price of the goods in question, possibly resulting in more of them being bought and sold. This can be beneficial to the state, as the state:

  • simultaneously decreases the illegal cashflow, thus making the performance of other, potentially more harmful, activities financially harder.
  • can perform quality and safety controls on the traded goods, thus reducing the harm to the consumers.
  • can tax the trade, thus providing a source of revenue.
  • can free up prison space and save taxpayer money

Modern examples


Black markets flourish in most countries during wartime. Most states engaged in total war or other large-scale, extended wars must necessarily impose restrictions on domestic use of critical resources, which 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.

During the Vietnam war, soldiers would spend Military Payment Certificates on maid service and sexual entertainment, thus supporting their partners and their families. If the local then wanted consumer goods, which were sparse in the civil stores due to governmental import controls, he would purchase them for the double price from one of the soldiers, who owned a monthly ration card and thus had access to the military stores. The transactions ran through the on-base maids to the local populace. Despite the fact that these activities were illegal, only flagrant or large scale black marketers were prosecuted by the military.

Prohibition in the United States

Of alcohol

The prohibition period in the 1920s in the United States is a classic example of the creation of a black market, its activity while the affected good has to be acquired on the black market, and its end. Many organized crime syndicates took advantage of the lucrative opportunities in the resulting black market in banned alcohol production and sales. Since much of the populace did not view drinking alcohol as a particularly harmful activity (that is, consumers and its traders shouldn’t be treated like conventional criminals), illegal speakeasies prospered, and organizations such as the Mafia grew tremendously more powerful through their black market activities distributing alcohol.

Of smoking

This effect similarly is seen today, when jurisdictions pass bans on smoking in bars and restaurants. In such jurisdictions, smokeasies (businesses, especially barrooms, which allows smoking despite the legal prohibition) frequently arise. This phenomenon is very prevalent in many jurisdictions with smoking bans, including California, Philadelphia, Utah, Seattle, Ohio, Washington, D.C.. and Iowa


The Clearstream scandal is an example of such tax evasion. Based in Luxembourg, Clearstream practices financial clearing, which means it centralises operations of multiple banks, some based in tax havens.

See also


External links

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