Archive for the 'Determinants of Supply' Category

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?

2 responses so far

Sep 23 2010

The magical recession proof bunny

Chocolate Sales: A Sweet Spot in the Recession – TIME

Living in Switzerland, I find an article featuring a local business from the town my school is in irresistible, particularly when it appear in TIME magazine. Lindt chocolate, the company featured in this article, manufactures its delicate treats right down the hill from the ZIS campus, which means that when the wind is just right, you can just catch the scent of fresh, creamy chocolate wafting up the hillside while walking to campus.

Lindt, as well as its global competitors in the chocolate business, is enjoying surge in demand even while countless other industries are forced to cut back production, lay off workers, and close their factory doors. From TIME:

While the credit crisis has slowed down sales of everything from cars to organic groceries, people seem happy to keep shelling out for chocolate. Last year, as the global recession was gaining ground, Swiss chocolate makers bucked the trend with record sales — nearly 185,000 tons, an increase of 2% over 2007, sold domestically and in 140 export markets…

“Switzerland’s image sells well abroad, and nothing says ‘Switzerland’ more than chocolate,” says Stephane Garelli, director of the World Competitiveness Center at the Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, predicting that this comfort food will continue to sweeten the sour economy for months to come…

“Now that people don’t have a new television or a new car,” he noted, “they eat a bit more chocolate.”

“Chocolate is one of the more recession-resilient food sectors,” says Dean Best, executive director of Just-Food, a U.K.-based news and information website for the global food industry. “With consumers eating out less and eating at home more, there is evidence that they are still allowing themselves the occasional indulgence — and chocolate is a relatively inexpensive indulgence.”

But the question of why there is no meltdown in the chocolate business may be more a matter of psychology than economics. “There is well-documented evidence going back to Freud, showing that in times of anxiety and uncertainty, when people need a boost, they turn to chocolate,” says Garelli of the IMD. “That’s why when the economy is bad, chocolate is still selling well.”

Which goes to show that chocolate is more than a candy treat — it’s real food for the soul.

So does this mean chocolate is an inferior good, or one for which demand increases as incomes fall? I doubt many Swiss chocolate producers would consider their product inferior, but perhaps it does fit the definition.

On the other hand, perhaps the reason demand for chocolate increases during a recession has more to do with the substitution effect than the income effect. As people eat out less, they consume fewer expensive deserts at restaurants and instead fill their shopping baskets with more affordable dessert options for the home. I can say from experience that this is the case for myself.

Living in Switzerland, I find myself rarely going out to eat at restaurants, an activity reserved for special occasions in this country where a steak can set you back 75 dollars. Instead, I eat at home almost every night, and nothing is more appealing to me, especially during hard economic times, than a bar of delicious chocolate after a home cooked meal. Demand for chocolate may rise during recessions simply because the demand for one of its substitutes (restaurant desserts) falls.

Discussion questions:

  1. Do you think chocolate is an inferior good or a normal good? What’s the difference? What types of goods do YOU consome more of when you find yourself faced with a tighter budget?
  2. Does economics have a good explanation for the above situation? The article mentions Freud, a pioneer in  the field of psychology; do humans’ economic behavior always appear rational?
  3. If chocolate were an inferior good, what would happen to chocolate sales when the global economy finally turns around and incomes start increasing? What do you think will happen to chocolate sales when the economy starts imrpoving? Explain.

28 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

China’s “visible hand” clamps down on rising prices

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2007

FT.com / Asia-Pacific / China – China freezes government-set prices

Here’s a great article for both AP and IB students to pay attention to. The Chinese government is responding to rising prices at home by resorting to some good old fashioned “iron fist” measures, namely price controls on a wide range of products. For the rest of this year, prices on certain goods and services will not be permitted to rise, OR ELSE! (what? we don’t want to know!)

China has begun to enforce a freeze on all government-controlled prices in a sign of the central government’s alarm about rising popular anger over inflation, now at the highest rate in over a decade.The order freezes a vast array of prices still under the control of governments in China, ranging from oil, electricity and water, to the cost of parking and park entrance fees.

I find the following statement interesting:

“Any unauthorised price rises are strictly forbidden…and in principle, there will be no new price-raising measures this year,” the ministries’ announcement said. (italics added)

How strange is it that the government’s announcement pointed out that the freeze on prices is only in principle? Could this be the government’s attempt to placate a public that’s grown angry at their weakening purchasing power? Does this mean that if prices actually do go up, the government can just say, “Hey, at least we tried!” Looks like the old communist mentality has softened a bit in the era of market reforms!

So what’s the source of all these rising prices? Well, food plays a big role, thanks to a couple of factors:

The sharp spike in inflation is largely due to higher food prices, because of a shortage of pigs after a disease killed millions late last year and earlier in 2007, and the rising cost of feed, a global
phenomenon.

The China of today is very different from that of 20 or 30 years ago, when the government played a much larger role in the economy. Unleashing the beast of the free market in the early 80’s may have meant the government would have to loosen its grip in situations such as today’s inflation, and let the free market adjust on its own.

Economists said the price freeze is the kind of administrative measure redolent of China’s former planned economy, but it may be less effective in China today.

“They will not be able to control the price of everything,” said Chen Xingdong, of BNP Parisbas in Beijing.

Perhaps that’s for the better.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might the government’s price controls actually make the matter worse for the average Chinese?
  2. If the government were to take a “laissez faire” approach to the problems faced by China, how might the free market resolve them on its own? Any ideas?

18 responses so far

Nov 12 2008

Amazing innovation in cargo ship technology – WIND powered vessels!

Kite Powered Ship Sets Sail for Greener Futhre – Guardian.co.uk

A German engineer has given an old technology new life to help make trans-oceanic shipping greener and least costly.

A cargo ship pulled by a giant, parachute-shaped kite will leave Germany on Tuesday on a voyage that could herald a new “green” age of commercial sailing on the high seas.

The owners of the MS Beluga, a 462ft cargo vessel, will try to prove that modern steel ships can harness wind power and reduce their reliance on diesel engines.

During the journey from Bremen to Venezuela, the crew will deploy a SkySail, a 160 square metre kite which will fly more than 600ft above the vessel, where winds are stronger and more consistent than at sea level.

Its inventor, Stephan Wrage, a 34-year-old German engineer, claims the kite will significantly reduce carbon emissions, cutting diesel consumption by up to 20 per cent and saving £800 a day in fuel costs. He believes an even bigger kite, up to 5,000 square metres, could result in fuel savings of up to 35 per cent.

Here’s a thought… reduced fuel costs to trans-oceanic shipping companies should shift the supply of such services out, as the marginal cost of shipping falls. Greater supply will mean lower prices to customers demanding such services, moving downward along the demand curve, increasing the equilibrium quantity of trans-oceanic cargo journeys.

Question: Assume all cargo ships in the world eventually incorporate the sail technology, increasing the supply and reducing the price of shipping by an average of 20% and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases of vessels by an average of 20%. What would have to be true about the price elasticity of demand for trans-oceanic shipping in order for a 20% reduction in price to result in an overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by cargo ships? Depending on the answer to this question, this “green” technology could actually result in greater emissions of greenhouse gases by cargo ships.

Explain…

34 responses so far

May 01 2008

More on Obama, Clinton, and the “gas tax holiday”

Clinton thinks suspending the gas tax for the summer is good for Americans. She says that any revenue lost can be made up for by taxing the profits of oil companies.

Obama thinks it will cause more harm than good to the economy. He says the $9 billion of government revenue foregone could have done more good for the economy through job creation and road maintenance than the $25 each American driver will save with a suspension of the gas tax.

They’re both using their positions on the gas tax to garner more support among Democratic voters in Indiana and North Carolina, where next week’s key primaries will be held.

Greg Mankiw
, Harvard economist, has this to say about Hillary’s plan:

I don’t know any prominent economist who favors this McCain-Clinton proposal. More common is the reaction of a friend of mine (a veteran of the Clinton administration) who calls the idea “ludicrous.”

Sometimes a candidate’s position on one particular issue, even a relatively minor one like a federal gas tax that most Americans probably didn’t even know they were paying when they filled up their tanks, draws clear lines around a candidate’s values.

Clinton’s ‘Trouble’ ad

Obama Takes On Clinton and McCain on Gas Tax Holiday

It should be noted that while Obama is probably right that a gas tax suspension will only save drivers a pittance, his economics is slightly flawed. Here’s Tim Haab of Environmental Economics blog responding to Obama’s claim that a gas tax holiday could actually increase demand for gas thus raise gas prices:

Wrong, wrong, wrong: A lower gas price causes quantity demanded to increase as consumers move down the demand curve. The only things that cause gas demand to change are changes in income, prices of substitutes and complements, tastes and preferences and expectations… I demand a retraction.

Who are these “some economists” that Obama is talking about? Did they get their degrees from an SEC school or something? Name names so that we can have an econoblogosphere beatdown! Out these blasphemers!

Note: I think Obama got the $25 to $30 number correct.

Mr. Haab is technically correct when it comes to basic economic theory. Repealing the gas tax should shift supply out, not demand, as taxes are a determinant of supply. Rather than demand changing, quantity demanded by drivers will increase, in response to the increased supply and lower prices.

What I do think could happen, however, is that expectations of future price increases might incentivize drivers to increase their demand for gas over the summer. This Mr. Haab seems to oversee. When August roles around and drivers know that come Labor day the gas tax will kick in again, they may chose to take a family road trip that they otherwise would have postponed, shifting overall demand for gas out, driving prices up.

In the case of a temporary suspension of an excise tax on any good, there is always the expectation that the price will increase again in the future. This could lead to hoarding or stockpiling of the good, increasing overall demand and driving the price up before the tax has even returned.

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