Archive for the 'Supply/Demand' Category

Nov 01 2012

Has the Baby Market Failed?

The tools of economics can be applied to almost any social institution, even the decision of individuals in society whether or not to have children. All over the rich world today, potential parents have decided against having babies, the result being lower fertility rates across much of Europe and the richer countries in Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Lower fertility rates have some advantages, such as less pressure on the country’s natural resources, but the disadvantages generally outweigh the benefits.

The story below, from NPR, explains in detail some of the consequences of declining fertility rates in the rich world, and identifies some of the ways governments have begun to try to increase the fertility rates.

The problem of declining fertility rates can be analyzed using simple supply and demand analysis. In the graph below, we see that the marginal private cost of having children in rich countries is very high. The costs of having children include not only the monetary costs of raising the child, but the opportunity costs of forgone income of the parent who has to quit his or her job to raise the child or the explicit costs of child care, which in some countries can cost thousands of dollars per month. Marginal private cost corresponds with the supply of babies, since private individuals will only choose to have children if the perceived benefit of having a baby exceeds the explicit and implicit costs of child-rearing.

The marginal private benefit of having babies is downward sloping. This reflects the fact that if parents have just one or two children, the benefit of these children is relatively high, due to the emotional and economic contributions a first and second child will  bring to parents’ lives. But the more babies a couple has, the less additional benefit each successive child provides the parents. This helps explain why in an era of increased gender equality, families with three or more children are incredibly rare. The diminishing marginal benefit experienced by individual couples applies to society as a whole as well, therefore the market above could represent either the costs and benefits of individual parents or of society at large.

Notice, however, that that the marginal social benefit of having babies is greater than the marginal private benefit. In economics terminology, there are positive externalities of having babies; in other words, additional children provide benefits to society beyond those emotional and economic benefits enjoyed by the parents. The podcast explained some of these external, social benefits of having children: a larger workforce for firms to employ in the future, more people paying taxes, allowing the government to provide more public goods, more workers supporting the non-working retirees of a nation, and more competitive wages in the global market for goods and services. Higher fertility rates, in short, result in more economic growth and higher incomes for a nation.

When individuals decide how many children to have, they make this decision based solely on their private costs and benefits, since the external benefits of having more babies are enjoyed by society, but not necessarily by the parents themselves. Therefore, left entirely alone, the “free market” will produce fewer babies (Qe) than is socially optimal (Qso).

So what are Western governments doing about low fertility rates? The podcast identifies several strategies being employed to narrow the gap between Qe and Qso. In Australia households receive a $1000 subsidy for each baby born. In Germany mothers receive a year of paid leave from work. Here in Switzerland mothers get three months of government paid leave and $200 a month subsidy to help pay for child care after that. Each of these government policies represents a “baby subsidy”. In the graph above, we can see the intended effect of these policies. By making it more affordable to have children, governments are hoping to reduce the marginal private cost to parents, encouraging them to have more children, which on a societal level should increase the number of babies born so that it is closer to the socially optimal level (Qso).

Unfortunately, as the podcast explains, it appears that parents are relatively unresponsive to the monetary incentives governments are providing. This can be explained by the fact that the private demand (MPB) for babies is highly inelastic. Even if the “cost” of having a baby falls due to government subsidies, parents across the Western world are reluctant to increase the number of babies they have.

As we can see in the graph above, a subsidy for babies reduces the marginal private cost of child-rearing to parents. But the MPB curve, representing the private demand for babies, is highly inelastic, meaning the large subsidy has minimal effect on the quantity of babies produced. Without the subsidy, Qe babies would be born, while with the subsidy only Qs are born, which is closer to the socially optimal number of births at Qso, but still short of the number of births society truly needs.

The “market for babies” in rich countries is failing. Because of the positive externalities of having children, parents are currently under-producing this “merit good”. One of two things must happen to resolve this market failure. Either the marginal private costs of having babies must fall by much more than the government subsidies for babies have allowed, or the marginal private benefit must increase. Either larger subsidies are needed, or some moral revival aimed at encouraging potential parents to consider both the private and social benefits of having children when making their decisions.

Don’t you love economics? We make everything seem so logical! And like they say, it all comes down to supply and demand!

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes low fertility rates among parents in the rich world an example of a “market failure”?
  2. What are the primary reasons fertility rates are lower in the rich world than they are in the developing world?
  3.  What are the economic consequences of lower birth rates? What are the environmental consequences of lower birth rates? Should government be trying to increase the number of babies born?
  4. Why have government incentives for parents to have more babies failed to achieve the fertility rates that government wish they would achieve?
  5. Do you believe that government can create strong enough incentives for parents to have more babies? If not, what will become of the populations of Western Europe and the rich countries of Asia given today’s low fertility rates? Should we be worried?

12 responses so far

Oct 28 2011

How China’s demand for coal may help make America greener, or not…

The Global Coal Trade’s Complex Calculation : NPR

Sometimes when I read the news, I wonder what it would be like to NOT understand basic economics, and then I realize how much of what goes on around us can be explained by two simple concepts: demand and supply. The NPR story below talks about how the construction of two proposed coal exporting facilities on America’s west coast could, indirectly, lead to a greener future for America. Listen to the story then read on for more analysis:

China, already the world’s largest coal consumer, continues to build new coal burning electricity plants at an alarming rate. Its appetite for the “black gold” has driven the world price up to $100 per ton, as it has demanded increasing quantities from its own coal producers, but also those in other coal rich areas like Australia and the United States.

However, because of America’s lack of coal transporting and shipping infrastructure, US coal producers have been unable to sell their abundant coal to the Chinese, who are willing to pay 500% the equilibrium price in the US. The US market has remained isolated from the world market, not due to any explicit, government-imposed barriers to trade, rather due to fact that they simply can’t get their coal to the Chinese energy producers who demand it most.

Graphically, this situation can be illustrated as follows:

If the export facilities on the West coast of the US are not constructed, it will remain difficult for US coal producers to sell their output to China at the high price of $100, and the domestic quantity (Q2) will continue to be produced and sold for $20 per ton. But with the new port facilities, US energy producers will now have to compete with Chinese energy producers for American coal, and the US price will be driven up to the world price, since demand now includes thousands of Chinese coal-fired power plants. As the price rises from $20 to $100, the domestic quantity demanded in the US will fall to Q1, as domestic energy producers seek alternative sources of energy, switching instead gas, solar, or wind power.

The irony is that through increasing the ease with which American coal producers can sell their product to China, the US may reduce its own consumption of coal and its emissions of greenhouse gasses. Overall coal production in the US will rise with increased trade, but overall consumption within the US will fall.

Now, this may sound great if you’re the kind of person who thinks only locally. Air pollution will be reduced in the US, health will be improved, our electricity production will be greener and more sustainable. But globally, by making its coal available to China, the US market will contribute to the continued dependence on carbon-intensive energy production, and delay any progress among Chinese energy producers towards a transisttion to greener fuel sources.

The podcast also points out the fact that if the US did undertake the construction of the new coal-exporting facilities, it could be that the current high price of coal will have led to the entrence of several other large coal prodcuing countries into the world market, reducing China’s demand for US coal, reducing the price at which American producers can sell to China and thereby off-setting any domestic environmental benefit that may have resulted from the large decrease in quantity demanded among US producers at the current price of $100 per ton.

The whole conversation about the coal industry is somewhat depressing when the environmental costs of the industry are considered. Another NPR show, Planet Money, ran a story this week about the “gross external damages” caused by the production of coal-powered electricity.

They cited a study which found that the damages caused by coal to human health and the environment outweight the benefits enjoyed by society from the generation of cheap electricity by around $10 billion in the United States alone. This means that if the US shut down every coal-powered energy plant in the country immediately, total welfare in the US would increase by $10 billion. There’s no doubt that energy prices would rise, but the gains in human and environmental health would outweight the added costs of electricity generation by $10 billion. If a similar analysis were undertakein in China, I would guess the potential welfare gain of transitioning to alternative energies would be far greater for the Chinese people.

Here’s the chart from Planet Money’s blog showing the net welfare loss of coal-generated electricity and other economic activities in the United States.

*GED = Gross external damages from pollution

Notice that although generating electricity by burning coal adds nearly $25 billion of value to America’s economy, its negative environmental externalities create nearly $35 billion in damage to the US economy. The net effect of using coal to make electricity, therefore, is around -$10 billion. America would be better off without coal-generated electricity, if we include environmental and health factors in our measure of well-being. Unfortunately, the negative environmental and health costs of coal-electricity generation are currently externalized by the industry, indicating that this industry may be experiencing a market failure.

Discussion questions:

  1. How would the construction of two coal-exporting facilities on America’s West coast ultimately lead to a cleaner environment in the United States? Do you think this prediction is realistic?
  2. Who stands to gain the most if the coal-exporting facilities are constructed? Who would suffer? In your opinion, should the facilities be constructed? Why or why not?
  3. Interpret the colorful diagram above. What do the green bars represent? What do the yellow and red bars represent? According to the graphic, which type of activity is most harmful to American society? How do you know?
  4. True, false, or uncertain. Explain your reasoning. “The burning of coal to make electricity should be completely banned in China, since China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.”

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?

2 responses so far

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

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

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