Archive for the 'Efficiency' Category

Mar 04 2013

Monopoly prices – to regulate or not to regulate, that is the question!

Competitively Priced Electricity Costs More, Studies Show – New York Times

The problem with monopolies, as our AP students have learned, is that a monopolistic firm, left to its own accord, will most likely choose to produce at an output level that is much lower and provide their product at a price that is much higher than would result from a purely competitive industry.Regulated Monopoly A monopolist will produce where its price is greater than its marginal cost, indicating an under-allocation of resources towards the product. By restricting output and raising its price, the monopolist is assured maximum profits, but at the cost to society of less overall consumer surplus or welfare.

Unfortunately, in some industries, because of the wide range of output over which economies of scale are experienced, it sometimes makes the most sense for only one firm to participate. Such markets are called “natural monopolies” and some examples are cable television, utilities, natural gas, and other industries that have large economies of scale. (click graph to see full-sized)

Government regulators face a dilemma in dealing with natural monopolistic industries such as the electricity industry. A electricity company with a monopoly in a particular market will base its price and output decision on the profit maximization rule that all unregulated firms will; they’ll produce at the level where their marginal revenue is equal to their marginal cost. The problem is, for a monopolist its marginal revenue is less than the price it has to charge, which means that at the profit maximizing level of output (where MR=MC), marginal cost will be less than price: evidence of allocative inefficiency (i.e. not enough electricity will be produced and the price will be too high for some consumers to afford).

Here arises the need for government regulation. A government concerned with getting the right amount of electricity to the right number of people (allocative efficiency) may choose to set a price ceiling for electricity at the level where the price equals the firm’s marginal cost. This, however, will likely be below the firm’s average total cost (remember, ATC declines over a WIDE RANGE of output), a scenario which would result in losses for the firm, and may lead it to shut down altogether. So what most governments have done in the past is set a price ceiling where the price is equal to the firm’s average total cost, meaning the firm will “break even”, earning only a “normal profit”; essentially just enough to keep the firm in business; this is known as the “fair-return price”.

Below AP Economics teacher Jacob Clifford illustrates and explains this regulatory dilemma. Watch the video and see how he shows the effect of the two price control options on the firm’s output and the price in the market.

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The article above examines the differences in the price of electricity in states which regulate their electricity prices and states that have adopted “market” or unregulated pricing, in which firms are free to produce at the MR=MC level:

“The difference in prices charged to industrial companies in market states compared with those in regulated ones nearly tripled from 1999 to last July, according to the analysis of Energy Department data by Marilyn Showalter, who runs Power in the Public Interest, a group that favors traditional rate regulation.

The price spread grew from 1.09 cents per kilowatt-hour to 3.09 cents, her analysis showed. It also showed that in 2006 alone industrial customers paid $7.2 billion more for electricity in market states than if they had paid the average prices in regulated states.”

The idea of deregulation of electricity markets was that removing price ceilings would lead to greater economic profits for the firms, which would subsequently attract new firms into the market. More competitive markets should then drive prices down towards the socially-optimal price, benefiting consumers and producers by forcing them to be more productively efficient in order to compete (remember “Economic Darwinism”?). It appears, however, that higher prices have not, as hoped, led to lower prices:

“Since 1999, prices for industrial customers in deregulated states have risen from 18 percent above the national average to 37 percent above,” said Mrs. Showalter, an energy lawyer and former Washington State utility regulator.

In regulated states, prices fell from 7 percent below the national average to 12 percent below, she calculated…

In market states, electricity customers of all kinds, from homeowners to electricity-hungry aluminum plants, pay $48 billion more each year for power than they would have paid in states with the traditional system of government boards setting electric rates…”

That $48 billion represents higher costs of production for other firms that require large inputs of energy in their own production, higher electricity bills for cash-strapped households, and greater profits and shareholder dividends for the powerful firms that provide the power. On the bright side, higher prices for electricity should lead to more careful and conservative use of power, reducing Americans’ impact on global warming (since the vast majority of the country’s power is generated using fossil fuels).

Here arises another question? Should we be opposed to higher profits for powerful electricity firms if their profits result in much needed energy conservation and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? An environmental economist might argue that if customers are to pay higher prices for their energy, it might as well be in the form of a carbon tax, which rather than increasing profits for a monopolistic firm would generate revenue for the government. In theory tax revenue could be used to subsidize or otherwise promote the development and use of “green energies”.

Whether customers paying higher prices for traditionally under-priced electricity is a good or bad thing depends on your views of conservation. But whether higher profits for a powerful electricity company are more desirable than increased tax revenue for the government are beneficial for society or not seems clear. If we’re paying higher prices, the resulting revenue is more likely to be put towards socially desirable uses if it’s in the government’s hands rather than in the pockets of shareholders of fossil fuel burning electricity monopolies.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do governments regulate the prices in industries such as natural gas and electricity?
  2. Why would a state government think that de-regulation of the electricity industry might eventually result in lower prices in the long-run?
  3. Why, in reality, did the price of electricity in unregulated electricity markets ultimately increase so much that consumers in the market states paid billions of dollars more than in regulated states?
  4. What industries besides that for electricity share characteristics that might qualify them as “natural monopolies”? Which of the industries you identified should be regulated by government, and WHY?

230 responses so far

Nov 01 2012

“Cap & Trade” – An introduction market-based approaches to pollution reduction

Inside Obama’s Green Budget – Forbes.com

Some say that Global Warming may be the greatest market failure of all. This podcast was originally broadcast in January of 2007 while George Bush was still in office. The commentator claims that global warming is “nothing but one giant market failure”, arguing that the United States therefore must get serious about tackling the problem.

The allocation of resources towards carbon emitting industries has almost undoubtedly contributed to the warming of the planet over the last half century. Only recently have governments begun taking active measures to reduce the impact of industry on the environment through greater regulation of polluting industries, employing corrective taxes in some instances and market-based approaches to pollution reduction in others.

US President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, appears to be serious about correcting the “market failure” represented by global warming:

Obama’s budget, announced Thursday, looks to fund a host of new energy programs, from carbon sequestration to electric transmission upgrades. It would also provide the EPA with a $10.5 billion budget for 2010, a 34% increase over the likely 2009 budget. Nineteen million dollars of that would be used to upgrade greenhouse gas reporting measures.

The Interior Department would get $12 billion for 2010. The agency would use part of the money to asses the availability of alternative energy resources throughout the country.

Funding comes from elaborate carbon “cap and trade” program, which puts a price on emitting pollution and is the core of Obama’s plans. Starting in 2012, the government would sell permits giving businesses the right to emit pollution, generating $646 billion in revenue through 2019.

During those years, the number of available permits would gradually decline, forcing businesses to buy the increasingly scarce, and costly, rights to pollute on an open market. Obama hopes that the rising cost of permits will encourage businesses to invest in clean technologies as a cheaper alternative to meeting pollution mandates, helping to cut greenhouse gas production to 14% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Below is a diagram that illustrates precisely how the Obama cap and trade plan is meant to work. Notice that between 2012 and 2020 the cost to firms of emitting pollution will increase dramatically, while at the same time the total amount of carbon emissions in the US economy will fall due to regular reductions in the number of permits issued to industry.

market-for-pollution-rights_1

The Obama cap and trade scheme is not the first experiment with such a market based approach to externality reduction:

Europe established such a market in 2005. But some E.U. governments allocated too many credits at the outset, causing the value of some permits to fall by half and making it relatively easy for large polluters to simply buy credits rather than cut emissions. Overall emissions grew in 2005 and 2006. In 2008, E.U. emissions dropped 3%; 40% of that drop was attributed to the carbon trading scheme.

Europe’s cap and trade program took a few years before it began having any noticeable impact on the emission of carbon by European industry. While unpopular among the firms who are forced to pay to pollute, the fall in emissions in Europe shows that a market for carbon may be effective in forcing firms “internalize” the costs of carbon emissions, which until now have been born by society and the environment in the form of the negative effects of global warming.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think tradeable pollution permits are more politically viable than a direct tax on firms’ carbon emissions?
  2. Why did Europe’s carbon emission permit market fail to reduce emissions over its first couple of years of implementation?
  3. Is making firms pay to pollute a good idea in the middle of a recession? Do you think that we should even be worrying about the environment when millions of people are losing their jobs and entire industries are struggling to survive?

58 responses so far

Sep 27 2012

Deflation: why lower prices spell doom for any economy!

The Fed should focus on deflation | The greater of two evils | The Economist

Deflation: a decrease in the general price level of goods and services of an economy. Sounds great, right? Lower prices mean the purchasing power of our income increases, making the “average” person richer! On the surface, it could be concluded that deflation may actually be a good thing. And in some cases, it is!

If prices of goods are falling because of major technological advances (think of the price of cell phones and laptop computers over the last 20 years) or because of massive improvements in the productivity of labor and capital (think of the price of manufactured consumer goods during the Industrial Revolution), then deflation could be considered a sign of healthy economic growth. Put in terms an IB or AP Economics student should understand, a fall in prices caused by an increase in a nation’s aggregate supply is good, since it is accompanied by greater levels of employment and higher real incomes. But if the fall in prices is caused by a decline in spending in the economy (in other words, by a decrease in aggregate demand), the consequences can be catastrophic.

It just so happens that the United States, Great Britain, and my own home of Switzerland are all faced with demand-deficient deflation at this very moment. I’ll allow the Economist to elaborate:

…With unemployment nearing 9% (in the United States), economic output is further below the economy’s potential than at any time since 1982. This gap is likely to widen. House prices are not part of America’s inflation index but their decline is forcing households to reduce debt , which could subdue economic growth for years. As workers compete for scarce jobs and firms underbid each other for sales, wages and prices will come under pressure.

So far, expectations of inflation remain stable: that sentiment is itself a welcome bulwark against deflation. But pay freezes and wage cuts may soon change people’s minds. In one poll, more than a third of respondents said they or someone in their household had suffered a cut in pay or hours…

Does this matter? If prices are falling because of advancing productivity, as at the end of the 19th century, it is a sign of progress, not economic collapse. Today, though, deflation is more likely to resemble the malign 1930s sort than that earlier benign variety, because demand is weak and households and firms are burdened by debt. In deflation the nominal value of debts remains fixed even as nominal wages, prices and profits fall. Real debt burdens therefore rise, causing borrowers to cut spending to service their debts or to default. That undermines the financial system and deepens the recession.

From 1929 to 1933 prices fell by 27%. This time central banks are on the case. In America, Britain, Japan and Switzerland they have pushed short-term interest rates to, or close to, zero…

…inflation is easier to put right than deflation. A central bank can raise interest rates as high as it wants to suppress inflation, but it cannot cut nominal rates below zero… In the worst case, rising debts and defaults depress growth, poisoning the economy by deepening deflation and pressing real interest rates higher….Given the choice, erring on the side of inflation would be less catastrophic than erring on the side of deflation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Deflation poses several threats to an economy that is otherwise fundamentally healthy, such as the United States’. What are some the threats posed by deflation?
  2. The expectation of future deflation can have as equally devastating effect. Why is this?
  3. What evidence does the article put forth that an economy experiencing deflation may eventually “self-correct”, meaning return to the full employment level of output in the long-run?
  4. Why don’t governments and central banks just sit back and let the economy self-correct? In other words, why are fiscal and monetary policies being used so aggressively by the US, Great Britain and Switzerland during this economic crisis?

Deflation or Inflation:Watch the video below, see if gives you any clues as to the causes and effects of deflation. What do you think John Maynard Keynes would say in response to the deflationary fears expressed in the Economist article?

61 responses so far

Aug 14 2012

My first Economics lesson – Scarce Chairs!!

The following lesson is a great way to start an IB or AP Economics class for the year. I just tried it this morning for the first time and it went great!

Instructions:

  • Before your Econ students arrive for their first full class meeting, remove chairs until there are only half as many as you will have students. I stuck mine in the library, well out of view of the students coming to my class.
  • Tell students that the custodian removed the chairs for repairs, or they were taken to another room for a presentation or something. Anyway, you don’t know when they’ll come back and it may be a couple of weeks.
  • For now, we are stuck with this many chairs, and we have to figure out a way to resolve this problem!
  • Tell the students it’s up to them to decide how our limited number of chairs will be allocated. Have them brainstorm solutions out loud while you write their suggestions on the board.
  • Try to come up with 6-10 possible solutions, then have the students vote on the one they would like to see enacted. They can only vote once! Write the tallies next to each option on the board.
  • If there is a tie for #1, have the whole class vote between the two or three options you’ve narrowed it down to until there is one clear winner.
The Economist’s Solution:
  • Once the students have voted on their favorite solution, share with them the economist’s favorite solution. It is known as a sealed-bid auction.
  • Give each student a slip of scrap paper and have him write two things: 1) His name, and 2) the maximum price he would be willing and able to pay each class period to have a chair to sit on.
  • Collect the results, and in front of the students, organize their bids from highest to lowest. If there is a tie on the margin, have the students whose bids were identical bid again, writing their highest price on the back of the same slip of paper, then re-rank.
  • The students with the highest bids will get a chair! For example, I had 17 students, and only 8 chairs. The highest bid was $10, while three students were not willing to pay anything. Four kids were willing to pay $1, but there were only two chair left at that point. When they re-bid, one was willing to pay $2, one $1.75, $1.25 and $1.20. Therefore, the two remaining chairs went to the students willing to pay $2 and $1.75.
  • Finally, tell the winners that they can take a seat, and that everyone else must stand! At this point, of course, you can send the lowest bidders out to fetch the missing chairs and begin your debrief.
Economic concepts illustrated by the Scarce Chairs exercise:

Scarcity exists:

  • When something is limited in supply and in demand, it is scarce.
  • Everyone wants to sit, but the chairs were missing… chairs were scarce.
  • Scarcity is a function of both demand and supply. The greater the demand relative to supply, the more scarce something is.

Choices must be made:

  • Because scarcity exists, we must make choices about how to allocate our scarce resources
  • We had to choose between competing systems for allocating the chairs

Rationing systems:

  • When faced with scarcity, a system must be decided upon to ration the scarce items.
  • The systems we decided upon ranged from a lottery to first come first serve to a merit-based system.

Something that is scarce has value:

  • Everyone wanted a chair, yet they were limited. Because the chairs provide us with benefit, we value them, and are therefore willing to pay to have one.
  • Value is a function of scarcity. The scarcer something is, the more valuable it becomes (gold), while less scarce items are less valuable (drinking water).

Consumer surplus:

  • Consumer surplus is the difference between what you are willing to pay and what the price is.
  • Sofia would have had lots of consumer surplus if she only had to pay $2 , because she was willing to pay up to $10.

Equity versus Efficiency:

  • Equity means fairness, while efficiency requires that resources go towards their most socially optimal use, so that those who value something most end up getting that which they value. 
  • The tradeoff between equity and efficiency is a major theme of the IB Economics course.
  • What is most efficient (an auction to determine who is willing to pay the most for the chairs) may not be equitable (or fair).
  • When the richest students end up in the chairs, those with lesser ability to pay feel that they’ve been treated unfairly.
  • A lottery in which names would be drawn from a hat to determine who gets a chair is certainly more equitable, but is actually less efficient, since those who get the chairs may not be those who place the greatest value on having a chair.
  • Auctioning the chairs assures that those who value them the most will end up getting them, therefore resources are allocated most efficiently.

 

19 responses so far

Aug 21 2011

Thoughts on Scarcity and the big questions of Economics

What is scarcity? In Economics, we say that scarcity is the basic economic problem. Because there are only limited resources available in the world, but humans’ wants and needs are practically infinite, we run into a problem, how to:

  • decide what will be produced, 
  • how it will be produced, and 
  • who will get the stuff that’s produced.

Any economic system must answer these three simple questions. Today I started off a new year of AP and IB Economics with a lesson in scarcity (the full lesson plan can be viewed here). Students were faced with a classroom with only half as many chairs as there were students. In the face of the scarcity of chairs, students had to decide who would get a chair and who wouldn’t. The suggestions from this morning’s class ranged from rock, paper, scissors, to musical chairs, to first come, first serve, to a Hunger Games style fight to the death. Ultimately, students decided that I, the teacher, should create a rotating schedule of who would get the chairs, to assure that they would be allocated fairly and no particular student would get to sit in a chair more often than any other.

It was of great interest to me that the students settled on this solution. Sure, it seems fair if a schedule is set by the teacher. But why was this their preferred solution? I asked them if this is how seats in movie theaters are allocated, or seats in top universities, or beds in hospitals? They agreed that, in fact, other scarce chairs are rarely allocated in the manner they settled on, a rotating schedule assigning seats to different people on different days in a way that assure everyone gets to have the chairs equal numbers of times throughout the year.

Of course, this is NOT how seats at top universities are allocated, nor in movie theaters. Upon reflection, we determined that university spots are typically allocated in the following manner:

  1. By merit (based on academic achievements in secondary school), and
  2. By price (based on who is able to afford tuition at the best universities).

Of course, in many cases, those who may be most qualified to attend the top universities may not be able to afford the tuition, so ultimately, university spots are allocated by price.

Once we had decided that price was an important factor in allocating the scarce chairs out there in the real world, we decided to try out a price system in the classroom. Each student was asked to write down on a piece of paper (confidentially, of course), the price they would be willing to pay each day to have a seat in my class. Once I collected the “bids” I organized them from highest to lowest, and those who were willing to pay the most ended up getting chairs, while those willing to pay the least had to stand.

Is the price system fair? During our debrief I asked students whether they believed our price system for determining chair allocation was fair. Instinctively, they said it was NOT fair. Their reasons were that those who could afford to pay the most (e.g. the richest students) ended up getting chairs, while the students with less disposable income ended up standing. But what makes this unfair?

Upon further discussion, some students pointed out that in the real world, those who are able to pay the most for scarce goods (university spots, high quality health care, nice cars, big houses), have probably worked the hardest and therefore earned higher incomes than those who cannot afford these nice things. In this regard,the price system makes sure that those who work hardest and are most productive end up enjoying a higher standard of living since they can afford to consume more and nicer products.

Or is the price system unfair? On the other hand, those who cannot afford to pay the prices of lots of nice things may not be able to do so because they have not worked hard enough (either in school or in the labor market). But how, then do we explain the fact that many factory workers, miners, fishermen, farmers and others who obviously work incredibly hard, cannot afford to buy lots of nice things (and get their kids into the best universities).

The questions we struggled with today in class are some of the most fundamental questions that the field of Economics deals with, and which we will study in great detail in my classes over the next two years:

  • What is scarcity and why does it exist?
  • What are some scarce resources in the world outside of school?
  • How should scarce resources be allocated between competing wants and needs?
  • Who should get the stuff that scarce resources go towards producing?
  • What is fair? And what is efficient?
  • What kind of system for allocating scarce resources is both efficient and fair?
These and many other questions form the basis of the field of Economics. In the coming months my students will explore the answers to these questions in  their Economics classes!

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