Archive for the 'Oligopoly' Category

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.

136 responses so far

Sep 14 2010

Bali’s Oligopolistic Scuba operators

A few summers ago, my wife and I spent three weeks travelling around the island of Bali in Indonesia. For six of those days we rented a jeep and circumnavigated the island. Our first stop was for two days of scuba diving in the northeast region of Ahmed. As we drove along the seven beaches near Ahmed, we observed there were around ten dive operators offering packages for the local dive spots (including one of Asia’s most famous dives, the WWII-era USS Liberty wreck). Based on our Lonely Planet recommendation, we settled on Eco-Dive, where we paid $60 a day for two dives and all our gear rental. We felt good about this rate and agreed that $60 was a fair and competitive price for a day of diving.Jukung- traditional wind powered trimaran used for fishing in Ahmed

Our next stop, Pemuteran, a remote and relatively undeveloped area on the northwest coast just across the straits from Java, is also known for its great diving. On our first morning in Pemuteran, my wife and I strolled along the beach and found that there were only three dive operators to choose from! And guess what, they all charged between $95-$105 for a day of diving. That’s around 60% more than the operators in Ahmed charged! In the end, we decided to do only one day of diving in Pemuteran, and elected to spend our second day there reading by the pool.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the difference between the scuba diving markets in Ahmed and Pemuteran? Which market was more competitive? Which of the four market structures did the two markets most resemble: perfectly competitive, monopolistically competitive, oligopolistic or monopolistic?
  2. How were the dive operators in Pemuteran able to charge 60% more than the operators in Ahmed?
  3. What do you think is keeping one of the three dive operators in Pemuteran from lowering their price to, say, $60 for a day of diving? How would the other two operators respond? Would this be good or bad for the dive operators of Pemuteran? Would it be good or bad for scuba divers?
  4. Assuming that the cost of opening a dive operation was relatively low, and there were no government or other barriers to doing so in Pemuteran, what do you suspect will happen in the Scuba diving market as the tourism industry continues to develop in the remote town of Pemuteran? Explain.
  5. Which village’s dive operators do you think were more “efficient” in their use of resources? Explain.

59 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]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1r99OPKVF4&feature=related[/youtube]

14 responses so far

Feb 07 2009

McAfee on Price Discrimination: a must-read for teachers of Microeconomics

Professor Preston McAfee on Price Discrimination

(you must have RealPlayer to view this video. Mac users can download it here)

CalTech Economics professor Preston McAfee is an expert on prices. His research spans three decades and examines the pricing behavior of firms in various market structures. In the lecture linked above the professor shares several examples of firms practicing price discrimination. I was surprised to see that many of the examples he discusses are ones that I have been using in my own lectures on price discrimination for the last few years.

McAfee presents a mathematical formula for monopoly pricing, which no AP or IB text that I’ve seen has included:

Monopoly Price = [PED/(1-PED)] x MC where PED is the price elasticity of demand of the customer and MC is the firm’s marginal cost of production.

The basic idea is that the more inelastic the customer’s demand, the higher price the monopolist should charge over its marginal cost. The implication, therefore, is that a monopolist prefers to charge higher prices to customer’s whose demand is inelastic and lower prices to customers who are “price sensitive” or whose demand is elastic. The charging of different prices to different consumers for the exact same product is what economists call price discrimination.

McAfee begins talking about price discrimination at minute 8:44 in the video. His examples include:

  • Movie theaters: Charge different prices based on age. Seniors and youth pay less since they tend to be more price sensitive.
  • Gas stations: Gas stations will charge different prices in different neighborhoods based on relative demand and location.
  • Grocery stores: Offer coupons to price sensitive consumers (people whose demand is inelastic won’t bother to cut coupons, thus will pay more for the same products as price sensitive consumers who take the time to collect coupons).
  • Quantity discounts: Grocery stores give discounts for bulk purchases by customers who are price sensitive (think “buy one gallon of milk, get a second gallon free”… the family of six is price sensitive and is likely to pay less per gallon than the dual income couple with no kids who would never buy two gallons of milk).
  • Dell Computers: Dell price discriminates based on customer answers to questions during the online shopping process. Dell charges higher prices to large business and government agencies than to households and small businesses for the exact same product!
  • Hotel room rates: Some hotels will charge less for customers who bother to ask about special room rates than to those who don’t even bother to ask.
  • Telephone plans: Some customers who ask their provider for special rates will find it incredibly easy to get better calling rates than if they don’t bother to ask.
  • Damaged goods discounts: When a company creates  and sells two products that are essentially identical except one has fewer features and costs significantly less to capture more price-sensitive consumers.
  • Book publishers: Some paperbacks cost more to manufacture but sell to consumers for significantly less than hard covers. Price sensitive consumers will buy the paperback while those with inelastic demand will pay more for the hard cover.
  • Airline ticket prices: Weekend stayover discounts for leisure travelers mean business people, whose demand for flights is highly inelastic, but who will rarely stay over a weekend, pay far more for a roundtrip ticket that departs and returns during the week.

McAfee also goes into a fascinating discussion of price dispersion which is essentially a theory of oligopoly pricing. All Econ teachers should watch this video and find examples of price discrimination and oligopoly pricing that they can incorporate into their own class.

If you’re up for a challenge, try deciphering some of the mathematics in McAfee’s free, downloadable intro to economics text, available here.

6 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?

309 responses so far

« Prev - Next »