Archive for the 'Price controls' Category

Apr 30 2013

The winners and losers of protectionism – the US sugar industry

Episode 454: The Lollipop War : Planet Money : NPR

This episode of my favorite podcast, Planet Money provides a great overview of the effects of the US government’s long-time protectiono f the sugar industry on various stakeholders.

When teaching the effects of protectionism, I urge students to evaluate its effects on both consumers and producers. Often, however, students generalize this analysis, and make broad statements like “consumer will pay higher prices for the good”, without clarifying who, exactly, the consumers of the protected good are. In the case of agricultural commodities, the “consumer” is typically not a private individual who buys the product at a store, rather, it’s the producers of process foods that use the commodities as inputs into their products which then are sold to consumers.

This is all to say that there is more than just a loss of “consumer surplus” in the market for a protected agricultural commodity. Rather, the effects can be far more serious, as the producers of hte consumer goods that use the commodity as an input may be forced to shut down their domestic production and move overseas. This is the story told in the podcast, as the maker of the candy dum dums has moved its plants to Mexico to take advantage not of lower wages or less regulation, rather the cheaper sugar that can be acquired there.

Listen to the podcast, and respond to the discussion questions that follow:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What method does the US government use to protect domestic sugar producers?
  2. What are the main economic arguments for continued protection of the US sugar industry?
  3. What are the main arguments for the removal of protection of US sugar producers?

No responses yet

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?

224 responses so far

Nov 01 2010

The problem with price controls in Europe’s agricultural markets

The following is an excerpt from chapter three of my upcoming IB Economics Textbook published by Pearson Baccalaureate

Understanding price elasticity of supply, which measures the responsiveness of producers to changes in the price of different goods, allows firm managers and government policymakers to better evaluate the effects of their output decisions and economic policies.

Excises taxes and PES: A tax on a particular good, known as an excise tax, will be paid by both the producers and the consumers of that good. When a government taxes a good for which supply is highly elastic, it is the consumer who ends up bearing the greatest burden of the tax, as producers are forced to pass the tax onto buyers in the form of a higher sales price. If the producer of a highly elastic good bears the the tax burden itself, it may be forced to reduce output to such a degree that production of the good becomes no longer economically viable. A tax on a good for which supply is highly inelastic will be born primarily by the producer of the good. The price paid by consumers will only increase slightly while the after-tax amount received by the producer will decrease significantly, but in the case of inelastic supply this will have a relatively small impact on output. A graphical representation of the effects of taxes on different goods will be introduced in chapter 4.

Price controls and PES: A common policy in rich countries aimed at assisting farmers is the use of minimum prices for agricultural commodities. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) involves a complex system of subsidies, import and export controls and price controls, the objective of which is to ensure a fair standard of living for Europe’s agricultural community. The use of minimum prices in agricultural markets can have the unintended consequence of creating substantial surpluses of unsold output. Take the example of butter in the EU. The following excerpt was taken from the January 22, 2009 issue of the New York Times:

“Two years after it was supposed to have gone away for good, Europe’s ‘butter mountain’ is back… Faced with a drastic drop in the [demand for] dairy goods, the European Union will buy 30,000 tons of unsold butter. Surpluses… have returned because of the sharp drop in the [demand for]… butter and milk resulting partly from the global slowdown.

In response, the union’s executive body, the European Commission, said it would buy 30,000 tons of butter at a price of 2,299 euros a ton… Michael Mann, spokesman for the European Commission, said that the move was temporary but that if necessary, the European Union would buy more than those quantities of butter — though not at the same price.”

The situation in the European Union butter market can be attributed to an underestimate by policy makers of the responsiveness of butter producers to the price controls established under the CAP. A minimum price scheme of any sort, if effective, will result in surplus output of the good in question, but the 30,000 tons of unsold butter in Europe appears to exceed the expected surplus considerably. The graph below illustrates why:

A price floor (Pf) is set above the equilibrium price of butter established by the free market. Butter producers in Europe are guaranteed a price of Pf, and any surplus not sold at this price will be bought by the European Commission (EC). Assuming a relatively inelastic supply, which corresponds with the short-run period (Ssr), the increase in butter production is relatively small (Qsr), resulting in a relatively small surplus (Qsr – Qd). In the short-run, the amount of surplus butter the EU governments needed to purchase was minimal. But as we learned earlier in this chapter, as producers of goods have time to adjust to the higher price, which in the case of the CAP is a price guaranteed by the EC, they become more responsive to the higher price and are able to increase their output by much more than in the short-run. Slr represents the supply of butter in Europe after years of the minimum price scheme. As demand has fallen due to the global economic slowdown, butter producers have continued to produce at a level corresponding with the price floor (Pf), leading to ever growing butter stocks and the need for the EC to spend, in this case, 69 million euros on surplus butter.

Understanding the behavior of producers in response to changes in prices, whether due to excise taxes or price controls, better allows both firm managers and government policy makers to respond appropriately to the conditions experienced by producers and consumer in the market place and avoid inefficiencies resulting from various economic policies.

Discussion questions:

  1. Explain why the price elasticities of both demand and supply of primary commodities tend to be relatively low in the short run and higher in the long-run.
  2. Explain the factors which influence price elasticity of supply. Illustrate your answer with reference to the market for a commodity or raw material.
  3. Discuss the importance of price elasticity of supply and price elasticity of demand for producers of primary commodities in less developed countries.

4 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

Sep 29 2009

Letting markets work: the Malaysia fuel subsidy goes bye bye

This article was originally published on June 9, 2008

Asia Sentinel – Malaysia cuts fuel subsidy

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the conflict between good politics and good economics. Most of the time in government, smart economic policy is sacrificed in order to achieve political favor with voters. Whether it’s price ceilings on petrol in China, Zimbabwe’s slashing of food prices, harmful import restrictions to benefit domestic producers, or the proposed suspension of gas taxes in a time when fuel conservation is really what’s needed, politicians often act in economically stupid ways to bolster or hang on to their popularity.

So when a government makes a bold move that is economically sound, it sometimes comes as a surprise, as in the case of the Malaysian government this week. The government in Kuala Lumpur has for years subsidized domestic fuel prices, which at under 2 Malaysian Ringit per liter have been the equivelant of roughly $2.40 US per gallon, far below the average price in the west. Drivers benefited from this subsidy, but were not forced to bear any of the burden of rising oil prices, nor had they any incentive to conserve or switch to more fuel efficient automobiles or alternative forms of transportation. The Malaysian government, on the other hand, has had to allocate more and more of its limited budget towards subsidizing petrol prices.

Well, as of yesterday, all price supports for petrol are cancelled, and the effect will be sweeping in the Malaysian economy:

The government announced Wednesday evening that petrol prices would rise by 78 sen (US24¢) at midnight — a 41 percent jump from RM1.92 per liter to RM2.70. That means those spending RM2,000 per month to fill the tanks of their BMWs will now be paying RM2,820. Regardless of income levels, it is likely most Malaysians will feel the pinch.

The subsidy would have cost the Malaysian government 56 billion ringit (around $17 billion) this year. With the money it will now save by ending the subsidy, the government will begin making public transport cheaper and more convenient for commuters who wish to avoid paying for the more expensive petrol to fuel their personal automobiles:

The government hopes to channel the savings into improving public transportation, as it promised many years and elections ago but with little to show. In Kuala Lumpur, despite having a light rail train service and monorail, public transportation is expensive and inconvenient. Worse, intercity travel is still being serviced by old and slow trains, and accident-prone buses.

Malaysia is not the only country taking measures to end government fuel-price supports:

Indonesia has hiked fuel prices by an average of 29 percent, saving about 34.5 trillion rupiah and kicking off a series of street demonstrations… Similarly, after slashing subsidies, Taiwan will distribute US$659 million to middle and low-income families. The latest to raise oil prices is India, whose government announced Wednesday that gasoline and diesel prices will increase by 10 percent.

As more and more countries allow the market mechanism to work, and in the short-run fuel prices rise with the price of oil, the chances are that the long-run equilibrium price of petrol will actually begin to fall.Price controls and subsidies distort market demand. In Malaysia, where a government subsidy kept the price consumers paid around 2 RM, the quantity demanded exceeded the free market quantity. With the removal of the subsidy, consumers will respond by driving less, reducing overall quantity demanded for petrol. As other Asian nations follow suit, global quantity demanded for petrol will decline, while higher prices incentivize producers to increase output. New prouction facilities will come online, just as drivers begin to find alternative ways to get to work, either through carpooling, public transportation, cycling or walking.

The combined effect of slowing increases in demand (or perhaps even a decline in demand if enough substitution of alternative forms of transportation takes place), and increases in supply as new production facilities come on line will be a stabilization and eventual fall in the price of oil.

The future fall in oil prices is explained in more detail here. Malaysia’s repealing of the fuel subsidy is one example of how markets work to restore equilibrium in a market such as that for oil today, where short-term bubbles always burst. $135 oil is probably not here to stay, if only the market is allowed to works its magic.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does a subsidy create disequilibrium in a product market like the petrol market in Malaysia?
  2. Give two examples of how consumers may respond to the 40% increase in petrol prices once the subsidy is removed in Malaysia.
  3. How could making fuel more expensive to consumers in the short-run actually lead to a fall in oil and fuel prices in the long-run?

39 responses so far

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