Underground economy

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Unreported income and business activities
Development of parallel economies
Black market economy
Shadow economy
Black market trading
Unreported financial transactions
Underground and illicit business
Second economy
Illegal private profit
Black marketeers
Underground trade
Undeclared income
Unofficial earnings
Informal markets

A black market, underground economy, or shadow economy is a clandestine market or series of transactions that has some aspect of illegality or is not compliant with an institutional set of rules. If the rule defines the set of goods and services whose production and distribution is prohibited or restricted by law, non-compliance with the rule constitutes a black-market trade since the transaction itself is illegal. Such transactions include the illegal drug trade, prostitution (where prohibited), illegal currency transactions, and human trafficking.

Participants try to hide their illegal behavior from the government or regulatory authority. Cash is the preferred medium of exchange in illegal transactions, since cash transactions are less easily traced. Common motives for operating in black markets are to trade contraband, avoid taxes and regulations, or evade price controls or rationing. Typically, the totality of such activity is referred to with the definite article, e.g., "the black market in bush meat".

The black market is distinct from the grey market, in which commodities are distributed through channels that, while legal, are unofficial, unauthorized, or unintended by the original manufacturer, and the white market, in which trade is legal and official.

Black money is the proceeds of an illegal transaction, on which income and other taxes have not been paid, and which can only be legitimized by some form of money laundering. Because of the clandestine nature of the black economy, it is not possible to determine its size and scope.


Unreported business activities and cash transactions occur in most countries and are the continuing subject of investigation by tax authorities. These activities include drug trafficking, gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking, bribery, use of state property for private gain, employment of workers without a permit and without paying social costs and misappropriation of public funds. In 1994 in the UK it was estimated by government tax authorities that the underground economy had reached a volume of £50 billion per year, namely more than twice the annual defence budget.

[Former socialist countries] As its name implies, the second economy refers to all unlawful activities taking place outside the state-controlled economic system. It is centred primarily around the illegal production and distribution of goods and services for private profit. This illegal system has persevered and has even played a useful role in filling the gap resulting from the inefficient performance of the 'first' economy. However, one of its disadvantages is that it has given birth to a new privileged class that enjoys many amenities and luxuries not available to the majority of the population.


Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal
Problem Type:
C: Cross-sectoral problems
Date of last update
17.10.2021 – 06:43 CEST