Archive for the 'Product markets' Category

Feb 27 2012

A closer look at Apple’s iPad and iPhone – “made in America”?

I have two  interesting stories on Apple and the iPad to reflect on today.

First, ABC’s Nightline recently became the first Western journalists actually welcomed into an Apple assembly plant in China. The show recently aired a 15 minute feature on working conditions inside Apple’s Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China last week. Watch the video and then scroll down for what may be some additional surprising news about Apple’s operations in China.

Next, the story that has gone unreported lately is a University of California study titled “Capturing Value in Global Networks: Apple’s iPad and iPhone”. The study’s most interesting finding, in my opinion, is the tiny percentage of the total value of Apple’s iPhone and iPad that actually goes to the Chinese manufacturers of the products. The charts below, from the study, show how the value is divided among the various groups involved it their production and sales:

The Economist provides the analysis:

The chart shows a geographical breakdown of the retail price of an iPad. The main rewards go to American shareholders and workers. Apple’s profit amounts to about 30% of the sales price. Product design, software development and marketing are based in America. Add in the profits and wages of American suppliers, and distribution and retail costs, and America retains about half the total value of an iPad sold there. The next biggest gainers are South Korean firms like Samsung and LG, which provide the display and memory chips, whose profits account for 7% of an iPad’s value. The main financial benefit to China is wages paid to workers for assembling the product and for manufacturing some inputs—equivalent to only 2% of the retail price.

A student today asked why Apple doesn’t produce its products in the United States, where an economic downturn has left 14 million American out of work for the last three or four years. If iPads and iPhones were just made in America, jobs could be created, households would have more income to spend on Apples products, and both the country and the economy would benefit.

The data in the UC study indicates that in fact, more than half the value of an iPad or iPhone does end up in the hands of Americans. But Apple could never achieve the low costs and high profits that it does by assembling its products in the US. After watching the Nightline video above, it should be clear that the type of production involved in Apple factories’ is very low-skilled and labor-intensive. Using American labor, with its unions, minimum wages and 40 hour work weeks, would require Apple to employ such large numbers of workers and raise the company’s variable cost to such a level that the firm’s profits would be reduced significantly and its sales would fall dramatically. Apple would lose out to foreign producers of smart phones and tablet computers, such as LG, Samsung, Sony and others, which would continue assembling their goods with Chinese labor.

Ultimately, any gain to the low-skilled American workers (presuming Apple could even find enough to do the work of the 400,000 Chinese employed in the production of Apple products in China), would be offset by a loss of profits enjoyed by the millions of Americans who hold shares in Apple Computer and the thousands of American who are employed engineering and designing its products, as the firm’s sales would slip in the face of lower-cost competitors.

So this student’s question identifies an interesting paradox: America, with its large pool of unemployed workers, will never be attractive as a place to produce labor-intensive products such as phones and tablet computers, due to the vast wage differential between the US and China. And even if one firm did decide to produce its products in America, the gains to low-skilled workers who may find minimum wage work in the new assembly plants would be off-set by losses to the firms’ shareholders and the high-skilled workers whose jobs would be lost as sales decline due to the lower prices offered by lower-cost competitors.

The lesson here is two-fold: First, Apple and other American technology companies should continue using Chinese labor to assemble their products, and second, America is better off for it: lower costs mean cheaper products and higher sales, thus greater employment in the high-skilled sectors of the US economy, and more profits and returns on the investments of shareholders in American corporations. Americans are richer and enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to the millions of Chinese working in factories assembling the goods we consume.

Keep in mind, this analysis did not even consider the effect on the Chinese economy and the millions of Chinese workers (whose lives are much harder than the typical American) should companies like Apple shut down their Chinese manufacturing plants. That’s a whole other blog post!

One response so far

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?

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Mar 10 2011

The economic benefits of bike commuting

I feel like I’ve been here before. Gas prices are rising, approaching $4 per gallon. American drivers are freaking out, demanding the government “does something” to halt rising fuel costs. The next thing you know, people start buying bikes and riding them to work. Just like that, Americans change their lifestyles, abandon their cars, and reinvent themselves as bike commuters!

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The economics of this phenomenon barely requires explanation, but since this is an Economics teacher’s blog, I suppose I should explain it. A major determinant of the demand for a product is the price of related goods. In the US right now, fuel and cars are related goods; in economics terms, they are complementary goods. “You can’t have one without the other”. As gas prices rise, demand for driving cars begins to fall, since it becomes more costly to drive. The other good related to cars in this picture is a substitute mode of transportation, bicycles. The more expensive it becomes to drive a car, the greater the demand for bicycles.

Now, allow me to take my econ teacher hat off and put my avid cyclist hat (or helmet?) on. Bikes are way more than just a substitute for cars. The fact that every time gas prices approach $4 per gallon bicycle sales start to spike is bewildering to me. Do consumers really not know that riding a bike is always cheaper than driving a car? Why does it take slightly more expensive gas to motivate consumers to think about buying a bike?!

Okay, economist had back on now: You see, operating a car involves monetary costs that far exceed the price of gas. When I last had a car in the US, I paid nearly $200 per month in insurance (young males always pay the most), far exceeding my expenditures on fuel. In addition, there’s the fixed cost of the car itself, which once spent is a “sunk cost”, so should not affect an individual’s decision to drive or not to drive when the price of gas changes.

In addition to these explicit, monetary costs, however, there are also external, invisible costs of operating cars that make them an even less perfect substitutes for bicycles. More traffic on the roads, more accidents, more air and noise pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental impact of the production and ultimate disposal of the car itself: these external costs are not even born by the driver when he or she decides to drive to work every day, rather they are born by society, taxpayers, and the environment.

My point is, making the decision to switch to commuting by bicycle should not require a 25% spike in fuel prices. The cost of filling your tank is in fact the least significant cost associated with driving a car when you look at the whole picture, and include not only those explicit, monetary costs paid by the driver, but include the external, social and environmental costs born by society as a whole.

Maybe I’m just on a bike high right now, since I got my new 29 inch wheeled fully two weeks ago and have ridden the 30 km round trip to work nearly every day since! Then again, maybe it really would make more economic, environmental, physical, spiritual and social sense if more people would park their cars and hop on a bike tomorrow morning!

5 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?

71 responses so far

Sep 30 2010

From disequilibrium to equilibrium – how prices allocate resources in a free market

Energy Roundup – WSJ.com : In Today’s Journal: Easing Back on the Gas

Here’s a great example of a market in disequilibrium:

“Amid an abundance of natural-gas supplies and soft prices, gas producers are starting to pull the plug. Chesapeake Energy Corp. said it will cut 6% of its gas production in September in response to low natural-gas prices. The Oklahoma City-based company will also reduce its capital spending by 10% in 2008 and 2009. Other natural-gas producers are cutting back their output as well, analysts said.”

We learn in IB and AP Economics that markets are generally efficient thanks to the signals that prices send from consumers to producers to determine where scarce resources should be allocated. We’ve also learned how supply and demand interact in a market (such as that for natural gas) to determine equilibrium price and quantity. In the above example, there exists a disequilibrium, where either the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supply (a shortage), or the quantity supplied exceeds the quantity demanded (a surplus).

Based on the excerpt above, discuss the causes and effects of the disequilibrium in the natural gas market. Are resources being under or over-allocated towards gas production right now? What about in a month or two? On a piece of scratch paper, sketch a supply/demand diagram and illustrate the above scenario. Describe the shifts you would draw in such a diagram.

Discussion questions:

  1. What is meant by “soft prices” in the natural gas market? Assuming output by gas producers remained constant, what must have changed to cause the soft prices?
  2. How have firms responded to soft prices? Does the reaction of the gas companies support the law of supply? Explain
  3. In the next month, what will happen to supply of natural gas?
  4. What may happen in the natural gas market  if firms reduce capital spending in the next two years?

Once you’ve read this post, thought about the situation in the gas market, and commented below, read this for a clear, concise explanation of the situation from a college professor, or click here: Environmental Economics: A demand and supply example

10 responses so far

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