Archive for the 'Cost-minimization' Category

Mar 29 2011

Resource market case study: New York’s manhole covers forged with human sweat and blood…

New York Manhole Covers, Forged Barefoot in India – New York Times

In the revealing story above, the NYT reports on the manufacture of the New York’s thousands of manhole covers, which it turns out come primarily from a foundry in the Indian state of West Bengal. An NYT photographer discovered the Indian factory, and his photos prompted the report here:

Eight thousand miles from Manhattan, barefoot, shirtless, whip-thin men rippled with muscle were forging prosaic pieces of the urban jigsaw puzzle: manhole covers.

Seemingly impervious to the heat from the metal, the workers at one of West Bengal’s many foundries relied on strength and bare hands rather than machinery. Safety precautions were barely in evidence; just a few pairs of eye goggles were seen in use on a recent visit.

In AP Economics, we have begun learning about resource markets, where firms hire the productive resources needed to produce their output. Land, labor, and capital are all needed to produce any output; the combination of these resources a firm will use depends on several factors, including the productivity and the prices of the resources. When the price of labor is low, firms tend to use more labor and less capital. In developing countries, especially those with a large, unskilled workforce (like India), firms are likely to specialize in the production of labor-intensive products, such as the manholes found in American cities like New York.

The scene at the Indian foundry sounds like something from the Middle Ages:

The temperature outside the factory yard was more than 100 degrees on a September visit. Several feet from where the metal was being poured, the area felt like an oven, and the workers were slick with sweat.

Often, sparks flew from pots of the molten metal. In one instance they ignited a worker’s lungi, a skirtlike cloth wrap that is common men’s wear in India. He quickly, reflexively, doused the flames by rubbing the burning part of the cloth against the rest of it with his hand, then continued to cart the metal to a nearby mold.

Once the metal solidified and cooled, workers removed the manhole cover casting from the mold and then, in the last step in the production process, ground and polished the rough edges. Finally, the men stacked the covers and bolted them together for shipping.

Why are New York’s manhole covers being made over 8,000 miles away, anyway? Wouldn’t it make more sense for American cities to buy such items from firms making them right here in the United States? To understand this question, we need to consider the principle of comparative advantage, which says that a nation should specialize in the production of the products for which it has the lowest opportunity costs.

Manhole covers manufactured in India can be anywhere from 20 to 60 percent cheaper than those made in the United States, said Alfred Spada, the editor and publisher of Modern Casting magazine and the spokesman for the American Foundry Society. Workers at foundries in India are paid the equivalent of a few dollars a day, while foundry workers in the United States earn about $25 an hour.

Bengali laborers working in India’s foundries most likely face the trade off of an agrarian existence or maybe another factory job in the pre-industrial economy of the impoverished region, alternatives presenting a much low opportunity cost than American workers whose alternatives include jobs offering much higher productivity. The productivity of a worker depends on the quality and quantity of capital available, the level of training and education of the worker himself. Clearly, Indian workers have less access to capital, lower quality capital, and much less training and education than their American counterparts.

The result is that jobs that require large inputs of low-skilled labor, such as the manufacture of manhole covers, end up being “off-shored” to remote corners of South Asia. The added cost of shipping thousands of ton of iron around the world is more than made up for by the lower resource prices (thus costs of production) in the West Bengali foundries.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do the Indian foundries use such large inputs of labor, and relatively little machinery?
  2. What factors might reduce the demand for labor in the Indian foundries?
  3. How does a firm know if it’s using the right combination of capital and labor in its production?

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12 responses so far

Nov 22 2010

From short to long: Economies of scale and the long-run average total cost curve

Look closely at the two cost curves below:

srATC

The curve on the left is a firm’s short-run average total cost curve. The one on the right represents a firm’s long-run average total cost curve. See the difference?

I didn’t think so. The shape of a typical firm’s short-run and long-run ATC curves may in fact be identical. But there are some very important differences to understand about the short-run costs and long-run costs faced by firms.

The Short-Run: In microeconomics, we define the short-run as the period of time over which a firm’s plant size is fixed. The only variable resource is labor and raw materials, meaning that when demand increases for a firm’s product, the firm is able to increase employee work hours, hire more workers and use existing capital more intensively, but it does not have the time to acquire new capital or expand factory size. Likewise, when demand falls for a firm’s products, it can cut back on work hours, fire workers, but cannot downsize its plants or factories.

The Long-Run: The long-run is defined as the variable-plant period. A firm can adjust the number of all its inputs: land, labor and capital. One way of thinking about the difference between the short-run and the long-run is imagining the long-run as several different short-runs spread out over a larger range of output. The graph below will illustrate this concept for you.

lrATC

When we examine the long-run ATC more closely, it becomes apparent that there are in fact lots of little short-run ATC curves along the length of the long-run curve. Each of the gray lines in the graph above represent a short-run period in which this firm opened a new factories. There are three distinct phases of this firm’s long-run ATC:

  • Economies of scale: As this firm first begins to grow and open new factories, it becomes better and better at what it is producing, is able to get more output per unit of input, and thus experiences lower and lower average total costs as it grows larger. “Scale” is a synonym for size. The bigger the firm’s size, the lower its costs of production: this is called “economies of scale”. My favorite illustration of the concept of economies of scale is to think about two shoe companies: Nike and Luigi’s Fine Italian Shoes. Nike makes shoes in giant factories in Indonesia, ships them in giant containers to all corners of the world in shipments containing 100,000 shoes each. Luigi makes shoes in his basement in Milan, has two employees, and ships shoes one at a time to customers around Europe. Who will have a lower average total cost of producing shoes? Luigi or Nike? Clearly, Nike has economies of scale, Luigi does not. If Luigi were to grow his business, chances are his average total costs would decline.
  • Constant Returns to Scale: For the firm above, economies of scale assure that the larger it becomes, the lower its average total costs get. Efficiency in production improves whether through the lower price of inputs achieved through bulk-ordering, its ability to attract and hire skilled managers, the lower per unit cost of shipping larger quantities of products, or other such benefits of being big. At a certain point, however, the benefits of getting larger begin to diminish. This firm’s tenth factory is its minimum efficient scale: The level of total output this firm must achieve to minimize its long-run average total cost. Beyond this level of production, as this firm continues to grow, it will see no further cost benefits; in other words, it will achieve constant returns to scale (size).
  • Diseconomies of scale: Why did the Mongol, the British and the Soviet empires collapse? Some historians argue it was because they became too big for their own good. When an organization (whether it’s a country or a firm) becomes TOO big, it begins to experience inefficiencies. When a firm grows so large that it has factories in all corners of the world, a dozen levels of management, and countless opportunities for corruption and miscommunication, its efficiency decreases and its average total costs begin to increase. In the 1980’s General Motor Company began to lose lots of business to smaller Japanese rivals. The outcome was the gigantic corporation broke up into smaller divisions, which then began to operate as different firms. For a while, GM remained competitive, partially because as a smaller firm, it was more efficient and able to compete on cost with its foreign rivals.

Diminishing Returns versus Economies of Scale: A common area of confusion for economics students is the difference between these two seemingly similar concepts. The difference lies in the two curves above, the short-run ATC and the long-run ATC.

  • The shape of short run costs (MC, ATC and AVC) are determined by the law of diminishing returns. Since short-run costs are determined by the productivity of the variable resource in the short-run (labor), diminishing returns assures that at first, since a firm can expect to get MORE output for additional units of labor (as fixed capital is used more efficiently) ATC declines as output increases. But beyond a certain point, diminishing returns sets in and the additional output attributable to more units of the variable resource declines. Inevitably, a firm will experience higher and higher average costs as its output continues to grow, since it’s only able to vary the amount of labor used, not capital.
  • The shape of long run ATC is determined by economies of scale (and diseconomies of scale). All resources are variable in the long-run, but lower costs cannot be guaranteed the larger a firm gets. At first, efficiency is improved as the firm grows, but at some point it becomes “too big for its own good” and costs start to rise as productivity of resources (land, labor and capital) is inhibited due to the firm’s massive size.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean that a firm can become “too big for its own good”? Can you think of any other organizations (economic or otherwise) that have gotten so big that they’ve failed?
  2. Why does your hometown have only one electricity company? Why aren’t utility industries such as water, natural gas, and garbage collection more competitive? How does the concept of economies of scale lead to certain industries being “natural monopolies”?
  3. Why don’t more companies make jumbo jets?

78 responses so far

Mar 03 2009

Recession’s effects on small vs. large companies: some evidence in support of the Classical view of self-correction

Why Are Large Companies Losing More Jobs Than Small Ones? – TIME

This is a fascinating, short article from TIME. Before reading it, see if you can answer the multiple choice question below:

Q: Why do small companies lay off proportionately fewer workers during a recession than large companies?

A) Because small firms are less likely to be in the industries hardest hit by a recession (such as manufacturing)?
B) Because small firms are less focused on maintaining profits to satisfy greedy shareholders?
C) Because small companies are able to hang on to employees and even hire new ones during a recession because of all the talent being laid off by big firms.

Still thinking? Well, it’s likely that all three are true to some extent. But it’s the third one that seems most intriguing as a student of economics. Here’s what the article says:

…small companies hire disproportionately more early on in an economic recovery because it’s easy for these firms to find good workers while unemployment is still high—and easy for workers to come across small companies since there are so many of them. Once the economy is chugging along at full-steam and the labor market is tight, larger companies regain the advantage, since they’re likely able to offer more money—and poach from smaller outfits.

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Sure, but the fact that small firms are likely to hire when unemployment is high supports one side in a long-running economic debate over the economy’s ability to “self-correct” in times of recession.

As any student of Macroeconomics learns early on, there are two dominant theories of macroeconomics, both which are represented in the aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram that we learn and use in AP and IB Economics.

The two models below represent the two opposing views of macroeconomics. First we see the Keynesian model, which shows that when overall demand in an economy falls, unemployment increases drastically and output tanks, plunging the economy into a deep recession. This is primarily because of the “inflexible” nature of wages, meaning that even when unemployment rises, workers are unwilling to accept lower wages and firms therefore are unwilling to hire more workers.

According to Keynesians, the only way to get the economy out of the recession is by increasing overall demand through heavy doses of government spending (case in point, the $775 billion stimulus in the US).

Next is the Classical AD/AS model with a vertical long-run aggregate supply curve. The implication of the vertical AS curve is that regardless of the level of overall demand in the economy, output will always return to the full-employment level, and thus unemployment will always return to its natural level. The major assumption underlying the Classical model is that wages are in fact flexible in times of recession. As unemployment rises, workers will accept lower wages since they’d rather be making less than making nothing at all. As wages fall firms will begin hiring more workers, increasing overall output and decreasing unemployment until full-employment output is restored.

The implication of the model on the right is that government is NOT needed to get the economy out of a recession, because it will self-correct due to the new hiring and production by firms in response to falling wages in the labor market.

The reason this article stood out to me was that it seems to offer some evidence in support of the flexible-wage, Classical model of macroeconomic self-correction. There has been surprisingly little talk among news anchors, pundits and politicians about the likelihood of the US or ANY economy suffering in the global slowdown “self-correcting” as the Classical model would suggest it should. But the fact that small businesses are less likely to lay off workers in a recession and more likely to begin hiring them due to the large number of workers being laid of by big companies offers at least an inkling of evidence in support of the Classical model of flexible wages and macroeconomic self-correction.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is laying off workers the first thing big companies do when faced with falling demand for their products? Why don’t they shut down factories instead?
  2. What pressures does a publicly traded company (one that sells stocks to investors) face in times of recession that a small, privately owned business does not?
  3. When the global recession is finally over, do you think more people or fewer people will be working for small companies (less than 50 people) than before the recession? What would you rather work for, a small firm or a large one? Why?

257 responses so far

Jan 18 2009

Competition and rising costs force Southwestern farmers to consider alternatives

NPR : Farmers May Switch Crops Due to Labor Shortage

Pure competition forces firms to produce their output in the most efficient manner. Productive efficiency is achieved when producers achieve their minimum average total cost. Any increase in costs may lead to economic losses for a firm, and if costs increase too much a firm may be forced to shut down.

The scenario above is basically a textbook explanation of the reality faced by farmers in the American Southwest this very day. Hundreds of fruit and vegetable farmers are facing higher variable costs as tougher border security and immigration laws has led to a shortage of cheap labor, which the farmers depend on in the labor-intensive fruit and vegetable industry.

Listen to the podcast above, then study the graphs that accompany this article.

Rising costs for in a perfectly-competitive (PC) industry: Click on the thumbnails of the graphs to see the full-sized versions

economic profitEconomic lossesShut down scenario

Discussion Questions:

  1. What changes have occurred in the American fruit and vegetable industry?
  2. What are the possible outcomes for Southwest farmers?
  3. How might technology help save these growers from having to shut down their operations?
  4. What other alternatives do they have to shutting down in the long run?

181 responses so far

Dec 03 2008

American auto makers insult the intelligence of high school Econ students!

Automakers turnaround plans sent to Congress – Dec. 2, 2008

…and hopefully every other American with a functioning cerebral cortex. Ford Motor Company announced today its ambitious plan to cut costs and restore its profitability as it appeals once again to Washington for a $25 billion “low-interest bridge loan” (aka bailout).

The company announced that the salary of Ford CEO Alan Mulally would be cut to $1 a year if Ford actually borrowed money from the government. When Mulally appeared before the House Financial Services Committee last month, he did not agree to the suggestion of such a paycut…

Ford and GM also announced plans to get rid of corporate jets. Mulally, Wagoner and Nardelli were all roundly criticized at a House hearing last month when they admitted they had each flown their corporate jets to Washington to ask for help…

Mulally and Wagoner will be driving to Washington in hybrid vehicles made by their companies when they return to Capitol Hill later this week to make their case for loans. Nardelli is also not planning to fly to Washington but Chrysler has not disclosed any more specifics of his travel plans.

So the CEOs of the three largest auto companies are agreeing to be exploited for one year by accepting a salary of one dollar. The combined savings from the salary cuts of the three companies’ CEOs  equal roughly $6 million, or about 0.024% of the sum the companies are asking for from the government. Selling corporate jets during a recession when demand for such frivolous luxuries is at a record low will also do little to cut the costs of the incredibly inefficient US automakers.

As for any serious cost cutting plans, Ford had little to report:

…the Ford plan is perhaps most notable for what it did not include. The company did not mention that it would be dropping any brand or unprofitable models…

There was also no announcement of additional plants being closed or capacity being eliminated. Ford said it continues to work with its unions and dealers to achieve additional savings, but it did not set any cost savings targets for those discussions.

Ford highlighted many of the cuts it has already made, including closing 14 plants and reducing salaried personnel by 36% over the past three years. The company also touted labor cost savings that would bring the cost of factory workers’ pay and benefits close to those of the nonunion U.S. plants operated by Asian automakers

Real cost savings will only be achieved by the further closing of plants. With the economy in a deep recession and auto sales at their lowest in decades, the demand for new cars is just not there. Until Ford and its American competitors begin adjusting their plant capacities to the realities of market demand, the chances of achieving profitibility seem slim.

Allow me to make a connection between the situation faced by American auto makers and a basic economic concept we are currently studying in Microeconomics class. Firms, as any first year econ student knows, are profit maximizers. In fact, all companies are trying to make the same thing as all other companies, profits. When a firm experiences negative profits, or losses, as Amerhttp://i92.photobucket.com/albums/l10/InsaneMotoGirl86/FordLogo.jpgican auto makers are today, it can do one of two things to restore profitability: 1) Increase its revenues or 2) Lower its costs. Since demand for new cars is so low, the revenue increasing option is just not there, so American auto makers must reduce costs to restore profits.

There are two main types of costs we study in microeconomics. Short-run and long-run costs. In the short-run, which in the case of the auto industry we can consider the last few months since the financial crisis began, firms can do one thing to lower their costs: reduce the use of labor. Workers can be asked to take unpaid vacations, jobs can be eliminated, work hours can be cut back. In the short-run, plant size is fixed, meaning firms cannot add nor eliminate capital and land resources. The only variable resource is labor. By “reducing salaried personnel by 36% over the past three years” Ford has taken steps to lower its short-run costs of production.

Long-run costs must also be considered when firms are faced with negative profits. The long-run in the automobile industry is considered the period of time over which auto makers can either add new plant facilities or shut down existing facilities, lowering the costs of capital and land to firms. Long-run cost reductions have also been undertaken by Ford, including “closing 14 plants… over the past three years”.

Clearly, Ford has made an effort to reduce short-run labor costs and long-run capital costs by eliminating some of its work force and closing some of its factories in recent years. But today, as the US officially enters what is likely to be a deep, long recession, the announcement by Ford and its competitors that its new strategy for further cutting costs hinges on paying its CEOs one dollar and making them travel across the country in hybrid cars represents a laughable insult to the intelligence of high school Econ students.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the “variable resource” that firms can use less of in the short-run if cost reductions are needed?
  2. In Microeconomics, we sometimes refer to the long-run as the “variable plant period”. Explain the meaning of this concept.
  3. The law of diminishing marginal returns would indicate that if Ford were to close additional factories, it would almost certainly have to simultaneously lay off thousands of additional workers. What is the law of diminishing marginal returns and why does it require firms to lay off workers as plants are closed?

4 responses so far

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