Archive for the 'Price Theory' Category

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.


2 responses so far

May 12 2009

Looks like the Financial Times could use a high school economics lesson! / MARKETS / Commodities – Shortages stir coffee and sugar prices

My favorite economics blog, Environmental Economics, points to an article from the Financial times that appears to make a very elementary mistake in its use of basic economics terminology. Read the excerpt and answer the questions that follow.

Shortages stir coffee and sugar prices
By Javier Blas and Jenny Wiggins in London
Published: May 10 2009

Caffeine addicts face higher prices for their daily fix as the wholesale cost of both coffee and sugar rise sharply because of poor crops and robust demand.

“We are in a dangerous situation,” Andrea Illy, chief executive of Italy’s leading coffee ­company, told the Financial Times, warning that prices could “explode” due to supply shortages.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Define “shortage”.
  2. Does the rising price of coffee indicate that there are shortages in the market? Why or why not?
  3. Would “poor crops and robust demand” necessarily combine to create a shortage of coffee? Why or why not?
  4. What would lead to a shortage of coffee, based on the economic definition of the term “shortage”.

6 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

Feb 06 2009

Price Discrimination 101

YOUmoz | Price Discrimination in Pay Per Click AdvertisingSingle price vs. price discriminating monopolist

The article above gives a great introduction to and several examples of price discrimination among firms with market power. Read the excerpt below then discuss the questions that follow in your comments:

For any product or service, different people have different prices they are willing to pay. If you ever took an Economics course you surely remember the downward sloping demand curve, which is a graphical way of saying that you’ll get more buyers at a low price and fewer buyers at a high price. For a business that cannot price discriminate, this poses a problem. What price to offer?

There might be some consumers willing to pay 80, but twice as many consumers willing to pay 50. If you set the price at 50, you get more revenue, but the people who are willing to pay 80 are happy that your offering was 30 less than they were willing to pay. (Economists call this consumer surplus.) The ideal situation for the business would be to sell to some consumers at 80 and others (the price sensitive ones) at 50. Price discrimination – charging each consumer close to what he or she is willing to pay – increases revenue for the business.

Business strategists are forever trying to figure out ways to price discriminate. For commodities it can be difficult, but some markets are conducive to price discrimination. The classic example is the airline industry. Travelers have different itineraries and routes, and the airlines purposely impose complex pricing rules (e.g. cheaper if you stay over a Saturday) in order to price discriminate. Business travelers typically end up paying more than leisure travelers, and if you fly into or out of a small city you pay more than between large cities. On a flight with 100 passengers, it is possible that everyone paid a different price for the seat – 100 different prices for the same product. Consumers often resent these schemes, but economists love them.

Movie theaters price discriminate by charging lower admission for kids and seniors. Everyone gets the same product – a seat in the theater – but consumers that are more price sensitive pay less. Car dealers discriminate based on how much the customer haggles. Sellers of new products, especially consumer electronics, often price discriminate over time. When the iPhone was first released, consumers willing to pay $600 got to buy it. A couple months later, Apple lowered the price and a larger segment of the public was willing to buy. Apple could have charged $400 from the beginning, but then they would have lost all that revenue from the people willing to pay $600.

Buyers often feel like they are being played for chumps when they learn about price discrimination, but many economists absolutely are crazy about it and wish we had more price discrimination. Businesses are encouraged to make prices secret – create a fog of uncertainty – to get customers to accept prices offered to them. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at the California Institute of Technology, gave a talk about prices. He raves about Dell selling the same computer at different prices based on how the consumer identifies themselves at the website (small business, large business, home users).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who suffers as a result of price discrimination?
  2. Who benefits from price discrimination and how do they gain?
  3. Is society as a whole better or worse off when a monopolist is able to price discriminate? Explain…

56 responses so far

Dec 17 2008

The questions no one seems to be asking about the auto industry bailout! | The Economists’ Forum | Will Americans demand the cars that Congress wants the big three to build?

It’s been driving me nuts, this whole bailout debate. My frustrations are definitely appartent to my students, who have had to put up with my occasional rants about the insanity of the whole affair since the issue came to the media forefront over a month ago. Here are some of the issues that just don’t add up from the perspective of a high school economics teacher:

The three companies asking for a bridge-loan supposedly want the money so that hundreds of thousands (some reports say as many as 2.6 million) jobs can be saved. But how could Ford, Chrystler and GM possibly maintain their labor force in a time of a recession when nobody is buying new cars in the first place? In the parlance of AP or IB Economics, automobiles are normal goods, ones for which demand falls as incomes fall. By definition, a recession in the United States means falling incomes. A government loan may allow the Big Three t keep making cars for the time being, but WHY WOULD THEY KEEP MAKING CARS when falling incomes point to falling demand in the immediate future? Making cars that nobody will buy represents a gross misallocation of the nation’s productive resources, not to mention taxpayers’ money. What is required of these industries is precisely what the government loan will prevent them from doing, DOWNSIZING, meaning the shrinking of their labor force as well as the number of plants in operation.

The US recession can not be avoided by allocating the nation’s scarce resources towards a bailout of the auto industry. In fact, it will be worsened because the capacity of any nation to emerge from a cyclical downturn requires the flexibility of the country’s labor force to adapt to the structural changes the country is experiencing in the era of globalization and free trade. America’s future does not reside in labor-intensive manufactured goods, especially in the production of a very expensive durable good for which demand falls drastically during recessions; specifically, automobiles.

The Finanacial Times Economists Forum approaches the issue of long-term falling demand for automobiles from another perspective. One of the conditions of the Big Three accepting a loan from the federal government is the mandate that Detroit will begin producing more fuel efficient automobiles to assure Americans more affordable, more environmentally friendly alternatives to the gas-guzzling SUVs that have dominated the industry for the last two decades. But here’s the problem, gasoline has fallen to a price as low as it was when SUVs were at their peak popularity back in the early 2000s! As any high school economics student knows, gasoline and SUVs are what we call complementary goods, or two goods for which demand and price are inversely related. As gas prices fall to their 2000 levels, demand for SUVs promises to rise once again, while demand for fuel-efficient automobiles will likely decline, creating market pressures for the Big Three to make not more fuel-efficient cars, but more SUVs instead! From the Financial Times:

The basic problem is that Americans like to drive sport-utility vehicles, minivans and small trucks when gasoline costs $1.50 a gallon…

Consumers may have regretted their behaviour when gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon, but as gas prices descend, there is no reason to believe that left unchecked they will not return to their gas-guzzling ways.

Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that if they really do increase their small car production, in a few years the big three will be back asking for more help, on the grounds that they are losing money by doing exactly what Congress asked.

The only reasonable solution to this dilemma? If Congress DOES begin mandating that Detroit increase its production of fuel-efficient cars and phase out its manufacture of SUVs, any such requirement should be accompanied by a government-set price floor on gasoline. Several months ago, my colleague and fellow blogger Steve Latter blogged about a proposed price floor of $4 per gallon on gasoline. Such a scheme would likely prove nearly impossible to initiate politcally, but may be exactly what’s necessary to add legitimacy to any government requiremens of Detroit to manufacture fuel efficient automobiles. The FT appears to support such a scheme:

Congress should put their mouths where their money is. They should make binding commitments to ensure higher US oil prices and thereby sufficient demand for fuel-efficient cars and trucks in the future.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What message does falling demand in the auto market send from buyers to sellers, and what contradictory message does a subsidy from the government send to auto makers?
  2. If the auto makers receive a low-interest bridge loan (subsidy) from the government, how will this actually undermine the efficient functioning of markets in America?
  3. Why would a price floor on gasoline be needed to accompany a government requirement that the Big Three make more fuel efficient automobiles after receiving a government loan?

13 responses so far

« Prev - Next »