Archive for the 'Factors of Production' Category

Feb 27 2012

A closer look at Apple’s iPad and iPhone – “made in America”?

I have two  interesting stories on Apple and the iPad to reflect on today.

First, ABC’s Nightline recently became the first Western journalists actually welcomed into an Apple assembly plant in China. The show recently aired a 15 minute feature on working conditions inside Apple’s Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China last week. Watch the video and then scroll down for what may be some additional surprising news about Apple’s operations in China.

Next, the story that has gone unreported lately is a University of California study titled “Capturing Value in Global Networks: Apple’s iPad and iPhone”. The study’s most interesting finding, in my opinion, is the tiny percentage of the total value of Apple’s iPhone and iPad that actually goes to the Chinese manufacturers of the products. The charts below, from the study, show how the value is divided among the various groups involved it their production and sales:

The Economist provides the analysis:

The chart shows a geographical breakdown of the retail price of an iPad. The main rewards go to American shareholders and workers. Apple’s profit amounts to about 30% of the sales price. Product design, software development and marketing are based in America. Add in the profits and wages of American suppliers, and distribution and retail costs, and America retains about half the total value of an iPad sold there. The next biggest gainers are South Korean firms like Samsung and LG, which provide the display and memory chips, whose profits account for 7% of an iPad’s value. The main financial benefit to China is wages paid to workers for assembling the product and for manufacturing some inputs—equivalent to only 2% of the retail price.

A student today asked why Apple doesn’t produce its products in the United States, where an economic downturn has left 14 million American out of work for the last three or four years. If iPads and iPhones were just made in America, jobs could be created, households would have more income to spend on Apples products, and both the country and the economy would benefit.

The data in the UC study indicates that in fact, more than half the value of an iPad or iPhone does end up in the hands of Americans. But Apple could never achieve the low costs and high profits that it does by assembling its products in the US. After watching the Nightline video above, it should be clear that the type of production involved in Apple factories’ is very low-skilled and labor-intensive. Using American labor, with its unions, minimum wages and 40 hour work weeks, would require Apple to employ such large numbers of workers and raise the company’s variable cost to such a level that the firm’s profits would be reduced significantly and its sales would fall dramatically. Apple would lose out to foreign producers of smart phones and tablet computers, such as LG, Samsung, Sony and others, which would continue assembling their goods with Chinese labor.

Ultimately, any gain to the low-skilled American workers (presuming Apple could even find enough to do the work of the 400,000 Chinese employed in the production of Apple products in China), would be offset by a loss of profits enjoyed by the millions of Americans who hold shares in Apple Computer and the thousands of American who are employed engineering and designing its products, as the firm’s sales would slip in the face of lower-cost competitors.

So this student’s question identifies an interesting paradox: America, with its large pool of unemployed workers, will never be attractive as a place to produce labor-intensive products such as phones and tablet computers, due to the vast wage differential between the US and China. And even if one firm did decide to produce its products in America, the gains to low-skilled workers who may find minimum wage work in the new assembly plants would be off-set by losses to the firms’ shareholders and the high-skilled workers whose jobs would be lost as sales decline due to the lower prices offered by lower-cost competitors.

The lesson here is two-fold: First, Apple and other American technology companies should continue using Chinese labor to assemble their products, and second, America is better off for it: lower costs mean cheaper products and higher sales, thus greater employment in the high-skilled sectors of the US economy, and more profits and returns on the investments of shareholders in American corporations. Americans are richer and enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to the millions of Chinese working in factories assembling the goods we consume.

Keep in mind, this analysis did not even consider the effect on the Chinese economy and the millions of Chinese workers (whose lives are much harder than the typical American) should companies like Apple shut down their Chinese manufacturing plants. That’s a whole other blog post!

2 responses so far

Sep 29 2010

Price controls in the Chinese Petrol market – or why you may have to wait in line to fill your gas tank!

China rations diesel as record oil hits supplies | Markets | Reuters

In the fall of 2007 I was living in Shanghai, China. At the time, oil prices were hitting record levels world wide, leading to rising petrol prices for drivers in most places.  However, at the time,  I began witnesing an unusual site on my taxi rides into the city of Shanghai: as our taxi passed petrol station after petrol station, I observed dozens of blue trucks (the ubiquitous medium of transporting good from Shanghai’s factories to her ports) spilling out of gas station parking lots into the road, apparently queued, waiting for a spot at the pump. I had never seen such long lines at any of the petrol stations around Shanghai before, and I began to wonder as to the reasons for these crazy long lines!

Well, an article at the time helped solve the riddle of the long lines. As it turns out, there was a simple explanation rooted in the principles of supply and demand that any first semester AP or IB economics student would understand! The Chinese government had been forced to ration petrol (limiting the amount that a driver can buy at one go) due to the shortages resulting from the government’s price controls in the petrol market.

Truck drivers reported long queues at petrol stations along a national highway linking Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, with each truck getting 100 yuan ($13) worth of diesel, or around 20 litres, per visit at a state-run station and 40 litres at a private kiosk…

“What’s wrong with the oil market? Our drivers had to queue the whole night for only a small amount of fill, slowing the traffic by almost one day,” said Gao Meili, who manages a logistics company.

China is a major importer of oil. With an economy growing around 12% in 2007, much of the country’s growth depended on the availability of crude oil at reasonable prices, which China’s oil refining firms turn into diesel and petrol, needed to get Chinese manufactured products from factory to port and from port to overseas consumers.

The problem with the oil market in China, however, was that as “Chinese refiners cannot pass the souring crude costs on to consumers.” Oil is an input needed to make a finished product, diesel. As the price of oil rose in 2007 (it reached a record of $92 per barrel in October of that year), the resource costs to petrol and diesel producers also rose, shifting the supply of petrol and diesel to the left, putting upward pressure on the equilibrium price.   As a first semester AP or IB student knows, resource costs are a determinant of supply, and as oil (the main resource in the production of petrol and diesel) increased in price, the supply of these important commodities invariably decreased.

In a free market, a decrease in supply leads to an increase in price. Herein lies the answer to the riddle of the long lies at petrol stations in Shanghai: the Chinese petrol and diesel market is not a free market. The government plays an active role in controlling prices paid by consumers for the finished product refiners are producing, petrol fuel:

Beijing fears stoking already high inflation and rigidly caps pump fuel rates to shield users from a 50 percent rally in global oil so far this year.

As the costs to petrol and diesel producers rose in 2007, the government in Beijing took the side of consumers and forbade fuel producers from raising the price they charge consumers.  The Chinese government essentially imposed a price ceiling in the market for petrol. A price ceiling is a maximum price set by a government aimed at helping consumers by keeping essential commodities like fuel affordable. As we have learned this week in AP and IB Economics, price controls such as this end up hurting BOTH producers AND consumers, since they only lead to a dis-equilibrium in the market in which the quantity demanded for a product rises while the quantity supplied by firms falls. The shortage of petrol and diesel resulting from the government’s price control are the perfect explanation for the long lines of blue trucks and motor scooters at all the gas stations in Shanghai during October of 2007.

So why, exactly, does the government’s enforcement of a lower than equilibrium price result in such severe shortages that truck drivers are only allowed to pump 20 litres of petrol per visit and made to wait hours each time they need to refill? Below is a supply and demand diagram that illustrates the situation in the Chinese fuel market in 2007:

In the graph above, the supply of petrol has decreased due to the increasing cost of the main resource that goes into petrol, oil. This decrease in supply means petrol has become more scarce, and correspondingly the equilibrium price should rise. However, due to the government’s intervention in the petrol and diesel markets, the price was not allowed to rise and instead remained at the maximum price of Pc.

At the government-mandated maximum price of Pc, the quantity of fuel demanded by drivers far exceeds the quantity supplied by China’s petrol producers. The result is a shortage of petrol equal to Qd-Qs.

The government’s intention for keeping petrol prices low is clear: to make consumers happy and keep the costs of transportation among China’s manufacturers low so as to not risk a slow-down in economic growth in China. However, the net effect of the price controls is a loss of total welfare in the petrol market. Notice the colored areas in the graph above. These represent the effect on welfare (consumer and producer surplus) of the price control.

  • The total areas of the green, orange and grey shapes represent the total amount of consumer and producer surplus in the petrol market assuming there were NO price controls. At a price of Pe, the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied are equal (at Qe) and the consumer surplus and producer surplus are maximized. The market is efficient at a price of Pe. Neither shortages nor surpluses of petrol exist.
  • However, at a price of Pc (the maximum price set by the government), the amount of petrol actually produced and consumed in the market is only Qs. Clearly, those who are able to buy petrol are better off, because they paid a lower price than they would have to without the price ceiling. But notice that there is a huge shortage of fuel now; many people who are willing and able to buy petrol at Pc simply cannot get the quantity they demand, because firms are simply not producing enough!
  • The total consumer surplus changes to the area below the demand curve and above Pc, but only out to Qs. The green area represents the consumer surplus after the price control. It is not at all obvious whether or not consumers are actually better off with the price ceiling.
  • The total producer surplus clearly shrinks to the orange triangle below Pc and above the supply curve. Petrol producers are definitely worse off due to the government’s action.
  • So how is the market as a whole affected? The black triangle represents the net welfare loss of the government’s price control. Notice that with a price of Pe, the black triangle would be added to consumer and producer surplus, but with a disequilibrium in the market at Pc, the black triangle is welfare lost to society.

Price controls by government’s clearly have an intended purpose of helping either consumers (in the case of a maximum price or price ceiling) or producers (in the case of a minimum price or price floor).  But the effect is always predictable from an economist’s perspective. A price set by a government above or below the equilibrium price will always lead to either a shortage or a surplus of the product in question. In addition, there will always be a loss of total welfare resulting from price controls, meaning that society as a whole is worse off than it would be without government intervention.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why has the supply of petrol decreased?
  2. With a fall in supply of a commodity like petrol, does the demand change, or the quantity demanded? What is the difference?
  3. Define “consumer surplus” and “producer surplus”. Why does a government’s control of prices reduce the total welfare of consumers and producers in a market like petrol?
  4. How would a government subsidy to petrol producers provide a more desirable solution to the high oil prices than the maximum price described in this post? In your notes, sketch a new market diagram for petrol and show the effects on supply, demand, price and quantity of a government subsidy to petrol producers. Does a subsidy create a loss of welfare? Why or why not?

57 responses so far

May 05 2009

3 million job openings! Good news… or is it?

Help Wanted: Why That Sign’s Bad – BusinessWeek

This week’s cover story in Business Week magazine tells an interesting story about unemployment in America. Listen to the podcast or follow the link above to read more of this story:

Surprising statistic: In the midst of the worst recession in a generation or more, with 13 million people unemployed, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but so far have been unable to fill. That’s more job openings than the entire population of Mississippi.

Sound like good news? It’s not. Instead, it’s evidence of an emerging structural shift in the U.S. economy that has created serious mismatches between workers and employers. People thrown out of shrinking sectors such as construction, finance, and retail lack the skills and training for openings in growing fields including education, accounting, health care, and government. At the same time, the worst housing bust in decades has left the unemployed frozen in place. They can’t move to get work because they can’t sell their homes.

In IB and AP Economics we teach that there are three types of unemployment an economy may experience, ranked roughly in order from the least undesirable to the most undesirable (from a macroeconomic perspective):

  • Frictional unemployment: This accounts for people who are “in between jobs” or fresh out of college looking for their first jobs.
  • Structural unemployment: This is caused by the changing structure of an economy. As America’s manufacturing sector shrinks and its education and health care sectors grown, those whose skills lie in manufacturing become structurally unemployed.
  • Cyclical unemployment: This is also called “demand-deficient” unemployment because it is caused by a fall in aggregate demand or overall spending in the economy.

America today is clearly experiencing all three types, but due to the particular circumstances of the recession, the American worker is finding it it harder than ever to match his skills with an appropriate job. Below are some of the industries with the most and the fewest job openings today:

Most openings:

  • Education
  • Health care
  • Government
  • Energy (such as wind, oil, natural gas)
  • “Analytics” (i.e. business data analysis by firms such as IBM)

Fewest openings:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing

Unfortunately for the large numbers of unemployed construction and factory workers, the kinds of skills required to work in the fields with the most job openings are prohibitively different from those learned in their previous industries. In addition to a mismatch of skills between the industries in which jobs are being lost and those in which labor is in demand, there is also a geographic mismatch in the labor market. Below are the states with the least and the most job openings:

Most job vacancies (states with large energy sectors: oil, natural gas and windmills)

  • North Dakota
  • Wyoming

Least job vacancies (states with large manufacturing and construction sectors)

  • North Carolina
  • California
  • Michigan

Historically, the geographic factor has not posed an issue to American workers, and when jobs opened up in one part of the country, Americans would pack up and move where necessary to find work. Today, however, with the collapse of house prices, more and more Americans find themselves stuck with a house they can’t sell in a part of the country where they can’t find a job.

To paraphrase the podcast above, “the US in danger of looking like Europe. The European job market has been described as ‘sclerotic’; people don’t respond to want ads because of the generous long-term unemployment benefits offered by European governments. Europeans have historically been geographically immobile due to nationalist ties to their home countries.” Today, the US job market reflects some of the same “sclerosis” as that of Europe.

America is facing the perfect storm of unemployment. At the same time that the economy is undergoing its most significant structural change since the Industrial Revolution brought millions of American workers from the farm fields into factories, it is facing the most significant decline in private sector spending (consumption, investment and exports) since the great depression. Put this together with the relative immobility of the American worker caused by the housing crisis, and unemployment has climbed to its highest level in three decades.

This interesting story ends with a glimmer of hope for the American worker:

To fight this sclerosis, the White House is using $3.5 billion of the stimulus for training, while boosting support for community colleges. Classes for factory workers seeking entry-level health-care careers have shown some success.

The truth is, displaced workers may have to move down a few rungs as they switch careers because their skills are irrelevant in their new roles… Many laid-off Wall Street financial engineers still haven’t absorbed that, says Fred Wilson, a partner in Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. “For them to take a job that pays a lot less, they have to make a meaningful change in their lifestyle. And that is an issue.”

Employers need to bend as well, recognizing that the candidates they’re seeking may not exist. Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXRoads, a staffing strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, N.J., tells employers: “You’re hiring potential….You’ve got to train them.”

A mismatch of work and workers is never a good thing. But smart policy—combined with realism on the part of employers and job seekers—can minimize the disruption.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what way may structural unemployment be a sign of a healthy economy, rather than a sick one?
  2. Part of the Obama stimulus package includes increased benefits for unemployed Americans. How may this pose an obstacle to reducing unemployment in America?
  3. Historically, the natural rate of unemployment in most European economies has been higher than that of the United States. Why is this?
  4. Do you think America’s NRU will return to its historic level (4-6%) when the economy eventually recovers from the current crisis? Why or why not?

38 responses so far

Mar 05 2009

Some good news for Swiss businesses and workers during hard economic times

Two items consisting of good news from the local English language news in Switzerland. The first article says that small and medium-sized enterprises, in other words family owned businesses, are likely to come out of a global economic slowdown relatively unscathed and healthy.

Swiss SMEs are well placed to survive the economic recession. – swissinfo

Family-run firms in Switzerland are well set to survive the global recession having put long-term growth before quick profits in the good years, a report concludes.

Such small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which account for more than 88 per cent of all Swiss companies, are also cushioned by an aversion to taking on too much debt but still face succession problems.

The survey of 300 Swiss family-owned SMEs found that 68 per cent of companies are less motivated by making money than in maintaining the good name of the firm.

Some 83 per cent of owners put the healthy state of their company down to risk aversion and 39 per cent said long-term planning was crucial to success.

Swiss family business consultant Hakan Hillerström contributed to the study by Barclays Wealth and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Often, without a stock market listing, family businesses are insulated from the need to meet the short-term demands of investors and so are better placed to ride out volatility than their listed peers,” he said.

Second is a story about the mobility of skilled labor in Switzerland. When global demand for one of Switzerland’s most famous exports, watches, falls, Swiss watch makers are snatched up and employed by other industries in which demand is actually increasing during the recession: namely, rail car engineering and construction. Similar skills are required of workers in both industries, watches and rail cars. I suspect demand for rail cars has increased because of the multiple fiscal stimulus packages being initiated around Europe, many of which include funding for infrastructure expansion, including upgrading and expanding rail networks.

I am impressed by the flexibility of labor markets in Switzerland in times of economic hardship. Such labor mobility as demonstrated below helps Switzerland weather economic woes more easily than it would if workers laid off from one industry could not easily find employment in others, such as is the case in many countries.

Enterprises in Vaud to exchange workers to beat redundancies. – swissinfo

Skilled workers from the Swiss watchmaking industry could soon find themselves building locomotives instead.

A new project to meet the challenges posed by the financial crisis has been launched in the French-speaking canton of Vaud, with the backing of the major trade union and employers associations, as well as the cantonal government.

The idea is that businesses experiencing a temporary shortfall in orders will be able to lend their workers to others facing a shortage of labour.

“It’s pretty ridiculous to pay people to sit around and do nothing,” Yves Defferrard of the Unia trade union told swissinfo. “But when they have no work for them, employers can often think of nothing better than to lay them off. That’s the wrong way to manage a crisis. It’s what happened in the downturn of 2000.”

4 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