Archive for the 'Price Theory' Category

Sep 02 2011

How to have your pasta and eat it too – understanding the allocating function of prices in a market economy

Have a look at this article before reading the blog post below: Pasta prices rise after North Dakota loses million acres of wheat to heavy rain, flooding – Associated Press

Prices are determined by the relative scarcity of a good, service or productive resource. This fundamental lesson is one of the first things we learn in a high school economics class. Why are diamonds, which nobody really needs, so much more expensive than water, which everyone needs? The answer lies not in the relative demands for the two goods (clearly, water is far more demanded than diamonds), but rather the relationship between the relative demand and the supply. Between the two, diamonds are far more limited in supply than water, thus they are scarcer and accordingly more expensive.

This lesson applies not only to water and diamonds, but indeed to any product for which there is a market in which buyers and sellers engage in exchanges with one another. Commodities are goods for which there is a demand,  but for which the supply is standardized across all markets. For instance, bicycles are not a commodity, because there are hundreds of different types of bicycles, meaning it is not a standardized product. But steel, which is used to make bicycles, is a commodity since steel is fairly standard regardless of its ultimate use by manufacturers. Cookies are not a commodity, but wheat is, since wheat is a highly standardized ingredient used in the production of cookies.

Commodity prices, like the prices of anything, are determined in markets. Buyers are usually the manufactures of secondary products for which the commodities are an input. Since commodities are traded all over the world, there tends to be a common market price determined by the national or international supply and demand for the commodity. In recent weeks, one very important commodity has increased in scarcity, leading to an increase in the price for the finished product the commodity is used to produce.

Consumers are paying more for pasta after heavy spring rain and record flooding prevented planting on more than 1 million acres in one of the nation’s best durum wheat-growing areas.

North Dakota typically grows nearly three-fourths the nation’s durum, and its crop is prized for its golden color and high protein. Pasta makers say the semolina flour made from North Dakota durum produces noodles that are among the world’s best.

This year’s crop, however, is expected to be only about 24.6 million bushels, or about two-fifths of last year’s. Total U.S. production is pegged at 59 million bushels, a little more than half of last year’s and the least since 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cost of pasta jumped about 20 cents in the past few months to an average of about $1.48 a pound nationwide…

…North Dakota durum fetched about $15 a bushel this spring but has dropped to about $11, due to the lack of buying and selling.

Still, that’s about twice what it sold for at this time last year, she said…

“This is one of the few crops we have that can have such an immediate impact on the consumer,” Goehring said. “This year, they will experience higher pasta prices.”

The story above is one played out in countless markets for commodities (such as wheat) and the goods they are used to produce (pasta, in this case) all the time. Due to poor weather and a particularly wet spring, farmers were unable to plant as many of their fields with wheat as they have in the past. Therefore, the 2011 wheat harvest is less than it usually is, meaning the supply of wheat has decreased. However, since there has been no fundamental change to the demand for wheat (we still eat pasta!) the relative scarcity of wheat is greater than in the past. Demand remained constant, while supply fell, therefore the relative scarcity increased.

The value of anything is based on its relative scarcity. In product markets, like that for wheat, value is conveyed by the commodity’s price. As the article says, the price of wheat is currently selling at “about twice what it sold for at this time last year”. At the current price of $11 per bushel, we can assume that the price last year was $5.50. However, the price reached as high as $15 earlier in the summer, indicating that the reduced supply of 59 milliion bushels, which is “a little more than half of last years” (which we’ll assume was around 100 million bushels), caused the price to peak at $15 this year. All this is a complicated way of saying that as the output of wheat fell, wheat prices rose because demand remained constant.

Additionally, the price of the product for which wheat in an input also rose. Pasta prices have jumped “20 cents in the past few months” to $1.48. Since the price of wheat is a resource cost for pasta producers, higher wheat prices lead to a fall in the supply of pasta, making pasta more scarce and driving the price up for pasta consumers.

All this can be demonstrated graphically using simple supply and demand analysis.

Based on the figures in the graphs above, the responsiveness of wheat consumer (which are mostly pasta producers) to the rising price of wheat can be easily calculated. Price elasticity of demand (PED) is the measure of consumers’ sensitivity to price changes. It is measured by calculating the percentage change in quantity following a price change divided by the percentage change in price. The quantity demanded of wheat fell by 41%, while the price rose by 272%, meaning that the PED for wheat is 41/272, or 0.15. This is considered relatively inelastic since such a large price increase led to a relatively small fall in the quantity of wheat demanded.

It is likely that if wheat prices remain elevated throughout 2011, next spring farmers across the American Midwest will have a strong incentive to plant more acres of wheat than they have in years past. Assuming the weather conditions improve and the fields are dry enough to grow wheat, it would be expected that a year from now wheat prices will be much lower than they are today, as supply returns to or exceeds historical levels next year. High prices for wheat today have harmed pasta consumers, but in the long run everyone, both pasta producers and pasta consumers, will likely enjoy lower prices thanks to the high prices of today.

This is how the market system works. When resources are under-allocated towards a particular good, as they have been towards wheat in 2011, price rises in response to the good’s increased scarcity. But the higher prices incentivize producers to allocate more resources towards those goods’ production, and over time the supply increases once more, reducing its scarcity and bringing the price back down.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did wheat become more scarce in 2011, even though the demand for wheat did not change?
  2. Interpret the claim that “wheat consumers are relatively unresponsive to higher wheat prices”. Can you think of a reason why this is the case? Can you think of an example of a product for which consumers would likely be much more responsive to a change in the price?
  3. How does the high price of wheat and pasta in 2011 likely assure that a year from now, prices will be much lower than they are today, assuming there are not further problems with flooding in wheat growing areas?
  4. How do prices “allocate resources” in a market economy? What do you think would have happened to the number of acres farmers would plant in wheat next year if instead of the price doubling this summer, it had been half of what it was in previous years?

2 responses so far

Oct 05 2010

From heart transplants to watermelons: Understanding price elasticity of demand

Consumers are interesting creatures to study. Economics offers us a unique set of tools for understanding the behavior of consumers in various markets. Elasticity is one of those tools, one which helps us understand how consumers will respond to the change in price of some goods more or less than others. Some of the questions about consumer behavior elasticity helps answer are:

  • Why do governments place such huge taxes on cigarettes?
  • Why did Apple cut the price of the new iPhone in half from the original one, despite the fact that it had so many new features?
  • Why do movie theaters seem to raise their prices so steadily over the years, rather than doubling the price of tickets each year?

These and other questions can be answered by knowing something about the relative price elasticities of demand for the goods in question. Price elasticity of demand refers to the sensitivity of consumers to a change in price. For some goods, even the slightest increase in price will scare consumers away, while for others, price can go up and up and up and the quantity demanded won’t budge!

Here’s just one illustration of a good for which consumers are extremely sensitive to changes in price: Every autumn, around the city of Shanghai thousands of small farms harvest the Chinese watermelon, a small, green, juicy melon that looks and tastes the same regardless of which farm it came from. The farmers sell their melons to one of the hundreds of melon vendors who drive their big blue trucks into the city of Shanghai during about two weeks in October to sell the watermelons to the city folk who love their refreshing taste.

During the two weeks of the melon harvest, there are hundreds of blue trucks parked two or three per block all over the city. The hundreds of melon vendors sell an identical product, acquired at identical costs from thousands of farms using identical techniques for farming. In other words, the melon market in Shanghai during these two weeks is close to being perfectly competitive.

The price of melons is established through competition at something very close to the exact cost to the vendor of getting the melons into the city. Consumers know this, and therefore if one vendor tries to sell his melons for more than the equilibrium price, consumers will respond by buying NONE of that vendors melons. Conversely, if a vendor were to lower his price at all, rationally EVERY consumer would want to buy from that vendor, but since the price is already at the cost to the vendor, no vendor is able to lower the price without losing money. The outcome in the market for melons in Shanghai is that demand for melons is close to being perfectly elastic, meaning that consumers are completely sensitive to changes in price of watermelons.

Not all goods are like watermelons. In fact, for some goods demand is close to perfectly inelastic. Study the graph below, showing the relative elasticities of five different products, then answer the questions below in your comment!

Discussion Questions:

  1. For which product is demand pefectly inelastic? Perfectly elastic? Unit elastic?
  2. What relationship exists between relative slopes of demand curves and elasticity?
  3. What are two characteristics of cigarettes that make demand for them inelastic?
  4. What are two characteristics of heart transplants that make demand perfectly inelastic?
  5. What are the characteristics of a good for which demand is perfectly elastic?

72 responses so far

Sep 22 2010

Luxury goods: the biggest rip off in the world or the “must have items” for any self-respecting European?

TDeluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster – Dana Thomas – Books – Review – New York Times

Unit 2 in IB and AP Economics begins by examining the interaction of supply and demand in product markets, and the importance of these factors in determining the equilibrium price in any particular product market.

In the above article from the NY times, the author reviews a book that exposes the diminished quality and attention to detail among manufacturers of luxury goods (think Prada, Gucci, etc…) The era of globalization and off-shoring of manufacturing has aided luxury firms in their quest for profits, as they’ve been able to significantly cut costs while maintaining exorbitant prices for their product.

The author takes issue with the alleged demise in the luxury market of attention to detail and craftsmanship, as competition and profit seeking behavior have led to an industry where the back alley workshops of Milan and Paris have been replaced by the factory floors of China and Vietnam. Free trade has allowed European luxury brands to produce more of their products at lower costs, which leads the author to her current question: “Why is this stuff still so expensive even as the cost of producing it goes down?”

Despite her accusations of poor quality and greedy, profit seeking managers in the luxury goods industry, the author seem unable to resist the luxury goods she claims to despise:

When, I asked myself, did it become commonplace to charge several thousand dollars for a mass-produced handbag? How could the flimsy designer sundress I bought on sale (a “steal”, the saleswoman assured me) still wind up costing a whole month’s salary? Why is my favorite brand of lipstick more expensive than a nice bottle of Italian wine? When did these products’ values grow so distorted, and what is the would-be customer to make of it all?

The author continues…

the luxury industry is a sham because its offerings in no way merit the high price tags they command. Yet once upon a time, they most certainly did. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when many of luxury’s founding fathers first set up shop, paying more money meant getting something truly exceptional. Dresses from Christian Dior, luggage from Louis Vuitton, jewelry from Cartier: in the golden period of luxury, these items carried prestige because of their superior craftsmanship and design. True, only the very privileged could afford them, but it was this exclusivity that gave them their cachet. Although they may have “cared about making a profit” the merchants who served this pampered class aimed chiefly to produce the finest products possible.

It appears that the author never took an introductory economics course. If she had, she would clearly understand that price is not determined by the level of craftsmanship, the attention to detail, nor the level of exclusivity represented by a particular purse, shoe or dress. Rather, price is determined by the interaction of Demand AND Supply in the market for all goods, EVEN luxury goods!

When she claims that “the merchents who served this pampered class aimed chiefly ‘to produce the finest products possible’”, the reviewer is forgetting some of the basic teachings of capitalism’s founding father. Adam Smith himself could have corrected the NYT reviewer when he said,

Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer…

Smith knew as any economics student should know that exchanges in any market happen not because of a mutual appreciation for craftsmanship or artistry, rather because a producer (firm) wants to make a profit by charging as high a price possible to a consumer (household). In the case of luxury goods, Gucci and Prada never made high quality goods because they loved making high quality goods, rather they made them cause consumers demanded them and were willing to pay top dollar for them.

What the author is missing is a basic understanding of the determinants of Demand. The price a good commands in the market has little to do with how much it cost to produce or where it was produced, and everything to do with the level of demand relative to the level of supply.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why do Prada, Gucci, Cartier and other luxury brands command such high prices relative to cheaper substitutes widely available to consumers?
  2. As nothing else changes and the price of luxury goods goes up, how is demand affected? Explain.
  3. What are some of the determinants of demand that have kept the price of luxury brand goods high even as the costs of production have been reduced due to cheap overseas manufacturing?

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36 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.

50 responses so far

Nov 27 2009

Forget bonds, gold, stocks, or real estate; try investing in some Garlic!

Swine flu fear leads to shortage of garlic in China – Telegraph.

My colleague this morning happened to ask if I had heard about the garlic bubble in China. A quick news search led me to the story:

Garlic prices have increased fifteen fold in China in under a year because Chinese investors are said to be attempting to create an artificial shortage and drive up prices.

Chefs and housewives in some cities are struggling to get hold of one of the nation’s favourite ingredients, which has passed gold and oil to become the China’s best-performing asset.

Several factors have led to the “garlic bubble” in China. Firstly, low prices of garlic last year:

Falling garlic prices last year have contributed to the shortage with many farmers discouraged from planting the crop again…

To compound the problem, supplies of garlic have been further reduced due to speculation. Yes, speculators are hoarding warehouses full of garlic to drive price up in the face of rising demand. Chinese believe that garlic has medicinal properties and is therefore a remedy for swine flu. This year’s unusually high level of demand is attributable to the flu epidemic and Chinese desire to consume more garlic to fend off the illness.

The result of all these combined factors is illustrated below. The low prices in 2008 led to farmers to cut back on production, reducing supply to S2009normal. What the farmers did not predict, however, is the rise in demand due to swine flu. The reduced supply is exacerbated by speculators buying up output and warehousing it, shifting supply further left to S2009w/speculation.

As can be seen, prices have risen, but shortages persist. It should be expected, therefore, that prices will continue to rise until the shortages are eliminated. On the other hand, the speculators may begin to release their hoarded supplies, shifting supply outward and restoring equilibrium closer to the current price.

A third possibility is that the swine flu epidemic will subside and demand will return to a normal level. This, of course, would spell doom for speculators who put millions of RMB into garlic who would then find themselves with “assets” that had lost their value. This would mean the proverbial “bursting of the bubble”. This final possibility seems unlikely anytime soon, for among the Chinese, traditional beliefs run deep, and with the lack of widespread access to a swine flu vaccine, garlic will likely remain the remedy of choice for the country’s masses.

ChinaGarlic

2 responses so far

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