Archive for the 'Non-price competition' Category

Mar 04 2013

“Drinking games” – Why a Budweiser / Corona merger would seriously bum out, like, a ton of frat boys

Facts: 65% of all the beer bought in the United States is produced by one of two companies: Anheuser Busch / InBev or Miller. 7% is produced by a company called Grupo Modelo. 72% of all the beer bought comes from these three companies. Much of the remaining market is shared by thousands of “micro-breweries” of varying sizes.

While there are literally thousands of beer makers in the US, technically speaking, the market is oligopolistic, since such a large share of the market (72%) is dominated by just three firms. To be classified as an oligopoly, a market must be dominated by a few large firm selling a differentiated (and sometimes a homogeneous) product. Firms are interdependent on one another and they tend to compete for consumers using “non-price competition”, which may include improving the quality of their product and offering customers a wider variety to choose from, and especially through advertising. A final characteristic of oligopoly is that high barriers to entry exist.

In the case of the beer market,  there are minimal economies of scale, since anyone with a $200 home brewing kit can technically “enter the market”. But other barriers to entering the national market for beer are significant, which explains why the market is dominated by three huge firms. Notably, brand recognition poses a barrier to entry to the thousands of small brewers in America. The brands owned by the big three firms are well-established and liked among consumers, making it difficult for smaller brewers to gain share in the market.

In the Planet Money podcast below, we hear the story two of these “big three” beer makers. Anheuser Busch / InBev is attempting to merge with Grupo Modelo, a transaction that would reduce the “big three” to the “big two”, which would give the new single firm a truly dominant position in the market, and increase the two-firm concentration ratio from 65% to 72%. The podcast explains how competition in the market for beer benefits consumers, and how a decrease in competition will harm consumers. Below, I will provide a graphical analysis of the situation.

As the podcast explains, the competition between the big three beer producers has several benefits for consumers, not least of which is the huge variety of beers available across the three firms, each trying to capture a larger share of the market by offering consumers beers that appeal to their diverse tastes. In addition, however, the nature of competition in oligopolistic markets tends to result in stable prices over time. Here’s why:

Imagine Anheuser Busch / InBev, which wishes to raise its price from P1 to P2 in the graph below. If AB/InBev raises its prices, while Modelo and Miller keep theirs unchanged, the demand for AB/InBev’s beer is likely to be highly elastic, meaning that even a small price increase will cause the quantity demanded to fall dramatically (from Q1 to Q2). Due to the high elasticity of demand above P1, such a price hike will lead to lower revenues for AB/InBev. Conclusion? A price hike is a bad idea.

graph 1

So what if AB/InBev decides to lower its prices? The graph below shows that at any price below P1, demand will most likely be highly inelastic, because a price cut will most likely be matched by Modelo and Miller, who would have to cut their prices to avoid losing a significant number of consumers to AB/InBev. If all three firms lower their prices, then each firm will see hardly any increase at all in their total sales. A price decrease by AB/InBev will set off a “price war” and the firm will see its revenues fall.

graph 2

What we end up with is what is known as a “kinked” demand curve for AB/InBev’s beers.

graph 3

The firm has almost no incentive to raise or lower its prices, since a change in either direction will cause revenues to decline. Therefore, beer consumers enjoy stable prices, and the firms choose to compete through product differentiation, innovation and, of course, advertising!

So how would a merger between two of the big three beer makers change the situation in the market? What if just TWO firms controlled 72% of the market instead of three? The fear is that AB/InBev, once it owns Modelo, will be less interdependent on the actions of Miller. In other words, it will care less whether Miller ignores its price increases or matches its price decreases. Since there will be fewer substitutes for the gigantic firm’s dozens (or hundreds?!) of beer brands, demand for them overall will be more inelastic. This would give AB/InBev more price making power, and essentially make the market look more like a monopoly.

graph 4

When a firm has monopoly power, as we can see, a large increase in price (from P1 to P2) leads to a relatively smaller decrease in sales (from Qt to Q2). If AB/InBev and Modelo were to merge the firm would be able to get away with raising the price of all of its beer brands, as consumers are less likely to switch to the competition, since a big chunk of the competition would be owned by the firm itself!

The amount of competition that exists in a market has major bearings on the consumers, as this podcast demonstrates and our graphs illustrate. With just three big firms making 72% of the beer in the US, it may not seem like that big a deal if two of them merge. But even the loss of one firm in a highly concentrated market like beer could lead to higher prices for dozens of the top selling beers in the country; hence the US government’s hesitance to give AB/InBev a green light in its plan to acquire Grupo Modelo!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can a market with thousands of individual sellers be considered oligopolistic?
  2. Why is “brand recognition” considered a barrier to entry into the beer market?
  3. Explain why prices in oligopolistic markets tend not to increase or decrease very often.
  4. Why is “non-price competition” so important for beer makers in the US? What are some forms of non-price competition that they practice?
  5. What is meant by the statement that “monopoly price is higher and output is lower than what is socially optimal.” Would this apply to the beer market if the AB/InBev and Modelo merger were to proceed?

No responses yet

Jan 26 2011

Creative Destruction: Google, Apple, Facebook and the future of competition in the market for our minds…

I have recently been showing my AP and IB Econ classes the following New Yorker interview with Columbia Professor Tim Wu, the man who coined the phrase “net neutrality”. Wu shares his views on the “cycles” of competition in the communications industry, from radio, telephone and television in the 20th century to the internet and the “mobile web” today.

I find it a useful video for starting discussions about the pros and cons of perfectly competitive markets (represented by the “chaotic” period of any new communications technology) and imperfectly, more monopolistic industries (represented by the period later in the cycle of any communications technology when market power becomes concentrated among a few large firms).

Watch the video and pause it along the way to discuss some of the questions below.

Currents: Tim Wu on Communication, Chaos, and Control : The New Yorker

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why are new communications industries often characterized by “chaos” in their early years? How did the internet industry reflect the perfectly competitive characteristics in its early days, or even 10 years ago?
  2. How are consumers affected as communications industries go from “chaos” to control under big companies like Apple and Google?
  3. How does the behavior of firms like Google and Apple demonstrate the concept of non-price competition?
  4. Would the technology industry be more efficient if it were more competitive?
  5. Can you envision a world in which all of our online activities are done through one company, i.e. the “Googlenet” or the “Facebooknet” instead of the “Internet”? Would that world be better or worse than what we have now? Why?
  6. How is the communications industry today similar to the telephone industry 30 years ago? How is it different?
  7. Tim Wu suggest that in the future there will be no internet. Discuss as a class what you envision as a possible successor to the internet.
  8. If you had a time machine and could travel back to 1970, how would you try to explain to someone on the stree how we communicate with one another in 2011. How would you have tried to explain the internet and smart phones? Do you think someone from 1970 would believe your descriptions of products like Skype, like Google, like a phone you could watch movies on, like video chat, like “Google goggles”, etc…?
  9. If someone from 40 years in the future arrived in 2011 and tried to explain to you how humans are communicating in 2050, do you think you would believe them?
  10. Economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to capitalism as a system driven by a system of “creative destruction”. How does the history of the communications industry demonstrate the concept of “creative destruction”?

Imperfect competition in the News: After watching the video and discussion the questions with your class, go to Welker’s Wikinomics Universe and follow the link to the “Econ News” tab.  Browse the headlines from the various news feeds and look for articles that you think may be about non-price competition between firms in a monopolistically competitive or an oligopolistic market.

When you’ve found one good article, open your Diigo toolbar and add highlights to the lines in the article that you think demonstrate non-price competition between the firms described. Add one or two sticky notes using the Diigo toolbar, and when you’ve added your own thoughts, bookmark the article. Be sure to share it to your class’s group before bookmarking it so your classmates can view your highlights and sticky notes online.

If there is time left in class, log into your Diigo account and visit our class group. Read some of the highlights from your classmates’ articles and discuss with the people around you the various types of non-price competition described.

128 responses so far

Feb 27 2009

The “delicate balance of terror”: How game theory can be used to predict firm behavior (oh, and save the human race from utter annihilation)

This week in AP Microeconomics students get to play online games, watch movies, and compete with their classmates in strategic competitions in which there are proud winners and sad losers. That’s right, we’re studying oligopoly!

What makes oligopolistic markets, which characterized by a few large firms, so different from the other market structures we study in Microeconomics? The answer is that unlike in more competitive markets in which firms are of much smaller size and one firm’s behavior has little or no effect on its competitors, an oligopolist that decides to lower its prices, change its output, expand into a new market, offer new services, or adverstise, will have powerful and consequential effects on the profitability of its competitors. For this reason, firms in oligopolistic markets are always considering the behavior of their competitors when making their own economic decisions.

To understand the behavior of non-collusive oligopolists, economists have employed a mathematical tool called Game Theory. The assumption is that large firms in competition will behave similarly to individual players in a game such as poker. Firms, which are the “players” will make “moves” (referring to economic decisions such as whether or not to advertise, whether to offer discounts or certain services, make particular changes to their products, charge a high or low price, or any other of a number of economic actions) based on the predicted behavior of their competitors.

If a large firm competing with other large firms understands the various “payoffs” (referring to the profits or losses that will result from a particular economic decision made by itself and its competitors) then it will be better able to make a rational, profit-maximizing (or loss minimizing) decision based on the likely actions of its competitors. The outcome of such a situation, or game, can be predicted using payoff matrixes. Below is an illustration of a game between two coffee shops competing in a small town.

As illustrated above, the tools of Game Theory, including the “payoff matrix”, can prove helpful in helping firms decide how to respond to particular actions by their competitors in oligopolistic markets. Of course, in the real world there are often more than two firms in competition in a particular market, and the decisions that they must make include more than simply to advertise or not. Much more complicated, multi-player games with several possible “moves” have also been developed and used to help make tough economic decisions a little easier in the world of competition.

While Game Theory can be useful in predicting firm behavior in oligopolistic markets, believe it or not that is not its most useful application developed. In fact, would you believe me if I told you that Game Theory may be precisely what saved the world from nuclear holocaust during the 20th Century? It’s true. The US government employed Game Theory to avert annihilation by nuclear attack from the Soviet Union during much of the 20th Century. This video tells the story!

YouTube Preview Image

11 responses so far

Feb 25 2009

Starbucks instant coffee: a sign of the times?

Chicago, Seattle first markets to get instant Starbucks — chicagotribune.com

I consider myself a Seattleite. I discovered the joy of drinking coffee in the home of Starbucks, Tully’s, Seattle’s Best, and countless local coffee shops that inhabit every corner of the rainy city.http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2008/02/25/0225_starbucks_460x276.jpg To me, the experience of drinking a latte, machiato, cappuccino, or simply a “coffee of the week” encapsulates the smells, soft decor and friendly greetings from the barista at my favorite coffee shop. Living overseas, I have turned to Starbucks over and over for a taste of Seattle and a feeling of home.

There is no denying that the Starbucks experience is one that does not come cheap. Here in Switzerland, a grande latte, my drink of choice, sets the consumer back nearly $7. In an economic downturn such as that the US and the rest of the world are experiencing right now, such expenses are often the first to be reduced by cash strapped consumers. In fact, I recently began bringing a thermos of homemade coffee to work every day, rather than stopping at the Starbucks at the train station as I had done for several months not long ago.

Starbucks, which recently announced the closure of hundreds of its locations around the world, is actually expanding its product line while simultaneously closing down shops. It may not be in the way you expect, though. Soon, I’ll be able to get my $7 cup of coffee for as little as $1, it will just come in a different form:

Starbucks Corp. will launch its new instant coffee product next month in Chicago and its home turf of Seattle, with a full-scale, national offensive set for the fall.

Starbucks on Tuesday formally unveiled the new product, called Via Ready Brew. It will be available in Starbucks retail outlets in the Chicago and Seattle areas on March 3, Howard Schultz, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview with the Tribune.

Instant coffee from the king of gourmet blends? Sounds suspicious. Well, it’s all about economics, you see. Starbucks coffee is a normal good, one for which demand falls as incomes fall, as evidenced by falling sales at its coffee shops around the world. In order to maintain its customer base even as incomes fall, a company like Starbucks must expand its product line to include inferior products, or those for which demand increases even as incomes fall. Clearly, instant coffee is viewed as an inferior product, due to its significantly lower price and reputation of poor quality.

Furthermore, Starbucks’ new product is in response to increased competition from lower-end fast food chains that traditionally did not compete in the coffee market, but recently have begun offering various blends and varieties of coffee to the price-sensitive coffee consumers, further harming business at Starbucks’ higher end coffee outlets.

Via marks Starbucks second announcement this month of a cheaper menu alternative, as the famous coffee chain struggles in a weak economy. Starbucks is also now selling pairings of coffee and breakfast offerings for $3.95.

Starbucks’ troubles have occurred at the same time value-oriented fast-food chains, particularly Oak Brook-based McDonald’s Corp., have thrived. McDonald’s owes part of its success to improving the quality of its basic coffee, and expanding into new drinks like iced coffee, and, more recently, flavored specialty coffees such as lattes and cappuccinos.

Still, Schultz said McDonald’s coffee offensive hasn’t really affected Starbucks: “We have a lot of respect for McDonald’s as a company. But we have not seen any significant issues with McDonald’s share of the coffee business affecting Starbucks.”

McDonald’s offers “a different product, a different value proposition,” he said. In fact, Schultz said McDonald’s should expand the overall coffee market, thus leading some customers to “trade up” to Starbucks.

Despite the CEO’s claims that Starbucks and McDonald’s coffees are “different” products, it is clear by his firm’s decision to expand into the instant coffee market that Starbucks is concerned about the loss of customers to lower-end coffee retailers.

The theory of firm behavior as studied in AP and IB Economics teaches us that firms in oligopolistic or monopolistically competitive markets, such as that for coffee shops in the US, tend to compete using non-price methods such as product differentiation and advertising. Rather than slashing the prices of all of its coffee in the face of a recession and falling consumer incomes, Starbucks has instead diversified its product line to include lower end options for consumers whose sensitivity to price and demand for gourmet coffee have been adversely affected by the weak economy.

24 responses so far

Jan 28 2009

Product differentiation in imperfectly competitive markets – the MacBook Wheel

In  IB Economics, we are currently learning about how firms in imperfectly competitive markets differentiate their products in order to increase their market power and their price-making power.

In a market with a few large firms such as the laptop computer market, companies must do what they can to increase demand for their own products over those of their competitors. Apple Computer is an example of a company that has successfully differentiated its line of laptop computers in recent years, regularly improving the features of its line of MacBooks to attract consumers away from its competitors and into the world of Macs.

Last year Apple launched the MacBook Air, the lightest and thinnest laptop on the market, creating a huge buzz in the technology world and converting millions to Apple’s line of laptops. This year, Apple has launched yet another innovation in laptop computing, in the hope of once again increasing demand for its products, and making consumers think they cannot live without the sleek, shiny Apple computers. This year’s innovation? The “MacBook Wheel”… watch:

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

The goal of an imperfectly competitive firm like Apple is to increase its market power by increasing demand for its particular product through product differentiation, advertising, developing brand loyalty, and “hype”: all forms of non-price competition. If Apple were to simply charge a lower price than its competitors for its products, it would also succeed in increasing the amount of computers it sells to consumers, but may also end up accepting lower profits due to the lower prices it must sell for.

Through differentiation, which means making its products unique and attractive to consumers, Apple attempts to increase market demand for its computers, while simultaneously making demand less elastic. With higher, more inelastic demand, Apple gains price-making power over the laptop computer market, as can be seen in the graphs below, which show that after the successful launch of a new product like the MacBook wheel Apple is able to charge a higher price, produce a similar quantity, and earn greater economic profits.

In the video, one customer says that he’d buy “buy almost anything if it’s shiny and its made by Apple”. Such statements reflect that among loyal customers, demand for Apple’s products is highly inelastic. While the firm is certainly not a monopolist in the market for laptop computers, Apple has surely succeeded to increase its market power and thus its power over prices through product differentiation, brand loyalty, and the “hype” surrounding the launch of new products like the MacBook Wheel.

Discussion questions:

  1. In the graphs above, the slopes of the demand curve increases after successful product differentiation by Apple. Why does this happen?
  2. Assuming the market for laptop computers is monopolistically competitive, what will likely happen to Apples economic profits over time? What must Apple do if it wishes to maintain its profits in the long-run?
  3. What are some real ways companies like Apple and its competitors have attempted to differentiate their products over the years? Would YOU buys a MacBook Wheel if it were real?

242 responses so far

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