How to have your pasta and eat it too – understanding the allocating function of prices in a market economy | Economics in Plain English

Sep 02 2011

How to have your pasta and eat it too – understanding the allocating function of prices in a market economy

Have a look at this article before reading the blog post below: Pasta prices rise after North Dakota loses million acres of wheat to heavy rain, flooding – Associated Press

Prices are determined by the relative scarcity of a good, service or productive resource. This fundamental lesson is one of the first things we learn in a high school economics class. Why are diamonds, which nobody really needs, so much more expensive than water, which everyone needs? The answer lies not in the relative demands for the two goods (clearly, water is far more demanded than diamonds), but rather the relationship between the relative demand and the supply. Between the two, diamonds are far more limited in supply than water, thus they are scarcer and accordingly more expensive.

This lesson applies not only to water and diamonds, but indeed to any product for which there is a market in which buyers and sellers engage in exchanges with one another. Commodities are goods for which there is a demand,  but for which the supply is standardized across all markets. For instance, bicycles are not a commodity, because there are hundreds of different types of bicycles, meaning it is not a standardized product. But steel, which is used to make bicycles, is a commodity since steel is fairly standard regardless of its ultimate use by manufacturers. Cookies are not a commodity, but wheat is, since wheat is a highly standardized ingredient used in the production of cookies.

Commodity prices, like the prices of anything, are determined in markets. Buyers are usually the manufactures of secondary products for which the commodities are an input. Since commodities are traded all over the world, there tends to be a common market price determined by the national or international supply and demand for the commodity. In recent weeks, one very important commodity has increased in scarcity, leading to an increase in the price for the finished product the commodity is used to produce.

Consumers are paying more for pasta after heavy spring rain and record flooding prevented planting on more than 1 million acres in one of the nation’s best durum wheat-growing areas.

North Dakota typically grows nearly three-fourths the nation’s durum, and its crop is prized for its golden color and high protein. Pasta makers say the semolina flour made from North Dakota durum produces noodles that are among the world’s best.

This year’s crop, however, is expected to be only about 24.6 million bushels, or about two-fifths of last year’s. Total U.S. production is pegged at 59 million bushels, a little more than half of last year’s and the least since 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cost of pasta jumped about 20 cents in the past few months to an average of about $1.48 a pound nationwide…

…North Dakota durum fetched about $15 a bushel this spring but has dropped to about $11, due to the lack of buying and selling.

Still, that’s about twice what it sold for at this time last year, she said…

“This is one of the few crops we have that can have such an immediate impact on the consumer,” Goehring said. “This year, they will experience higher pasta prices.”

The story above is one played out in countless markets for commodities (such as wheat) and the goods they are used to produce (pasta, in this case) all the time. Due to poor weather and a particularly wet spring, farmers were unable to plant as many of their fields with wheat as they have in the past. Therefore, the 2011 wheat harvest is less than it usually is, meaning the supply of wheat has decreased. However, since there has been no fundamental change to the demand for wheat (we still eat pasta!) the relative scarcity of wheat is greater than in the past. Demand remained constant, while supply fell, therefore the relative scarcity increased.

The value of anything is based on its relative scarcity. In product markets, like that for wheat, value is conveyed by the commodity’s price. As the article says, the price of wheat is currently selling at “about twice what it sold for at this time last year”. At the current price of $11 per bushel, we can assume that the price last year was $5.50. However, the price reached as high as $15 earlier in the summer, indicating that the reduced supply of 59 milliion bushels, which is “a little more than half of last years” (which we’ll assume was around 100 million bushels), caused the price to peak at $15 this year. All this is a complicated way of saying that as the output of wheat fell, wheat prices rose because demand remained constant.

Additionally, the price of the product for which wheat in an input also rose. Pasta prices have jumped “20 cents in the past few months” to $1.48. Since the price of wheat is a resource cost for pasta producers, higher wheat prices lead to a fall in the supply of pasta, making pasta more scarce and driving the price up for pasta consumers.

All this can be demonstrated graphically using simple supply and demand analysis.

Based on the figures in the graphs above, the responsiveness of wheat consumer (which are mostly pasta producers) to the rising price of wheat can be easily calculated. Price elasticity of demand (PED) is the measure of consumers’ sensitivity to price changes. It is measured by calculating the percentage change in quantity following a price change divided by the percentage change in price. The quantity demanded of wheat fell by 41%, while the price rose by 272%, meaning that the PED for wheat is 41/272, or 0.15. This is considered relatively inelastic since such a large price increase led to a relatively small fall in the quantity of wheat demanded.

It is likely that if wheat prices remain elevated throughout 2011, next spring farmers across the American Midwest will have a strong incentive to plant more acres of wheat than they have in years past. Assuming the weather conditions improve and the fields are dry enough to grow wheat, it would be expected that a year from now wheat prices will be much lower than they are today, as supply returns to or exceeds historical levels next year. High prices for wheat today have harmed pasta consumers, but in the long run everyone, both pasta producers and pasta consumers, will likely enjoy lower prices thanks to the high prices of today.

This is how the market system works. When resources are under-allocated towards a particular good, as they have been towards wheat in 2011, price rises in response to the good’s increased scarcity. But the higher prices incentivize producers to allocate more resources towards those goods’ production, and over time the supply increases once more, reducing its scarcity and bringing the price back down.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did wheat become more scarce in 2011, even though the demand for wheat did not change?
  2. Interpret the claim that “wheat consumers are relatively unresponsive to higher wheat prices”. Can you think of a reason why this is the case? Can you think of an example of a product for which consumers would likely be much more responsive to a change in the price?
  3. How does the high price of wheat and pasta in 2011 likely assure that a year from now, prices will be much lower than they are today, assuming there are not further problems with flooding in wheat growing areas?
  4. How do prices “allocate resources” in a market economy? What do you think would have happened to the number of acres farmers would plant in wheat next year if instead of the price doubling this summer, it had been half of what it was in previous years?

About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate's Economics for the IB Diploma and REA's AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “How to have your pasta and eat it too – understanding the allocating function of prices in a market economy”

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    How to have your pasta and eat it too – understanding the allocating function of prices in a market economy | Economics in Plain English