Archive for the 'Product markets' Category

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?

93 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

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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38 responses so far

Oct 20 2009

Would a soda tax make Americans better off?

Econ professor and blogger Tim Haab has posted a great story on market failure, efficiency and corrective taxes at his blog, Environmental Economics: I love when someone else does my work for me.

With appreciation, I re-post his blog here in its entirety. Tim’s “Questions to consider” are perfect for IB and AP Econ students to answer in their Market Failure unit. Read and answer Tim’s discussion questions in the comments:

Today’s Econ 101 topic–actually AED Economics 200 but same diff–the deadweight loss from taxes in otherwise well-functioning markets. In my neverending–futile?–attempt to stay current, I plan to use this example from today’s Wall Street Journal:

Senate leaders are considering new federal taxes on soda and other sugary drinks to help pay for an overhaul of the nation’s health-care system.

The taxes would pay for only a fraction of the cost to expand health-insurance coverage to all Americans and would face strong opposition from the beverage industry. They also could spark a backlash from consumers who would have to pay several cents more for a soft drink.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based watchdog group that pressures food companies to make healthier products, plans to propose a federal excise tax on soda, certain fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and ready-to-drink teas. It would not include most diet beverages. Excise taxes are levied on goods and manufacturers typically pass them on to consumers.

The Congressional Budget Office, which is providing lawmakers with cost estimates for each potential change in the health overhaul, included the option in a broad report on health-system financing in December. The office estimated that adding a tax of three cents per 12-ounce serving to these types of sweetened drinks would generate $24 billion over the next four years. So far, lawmakers have not indicated how big a tax they are considering.

Proponents of the tax cite research showing that consuming sugar-sweetened drinks can lead to obesity, diabetes and other ailments. They say the tax would lower consumption, reduce health problems and save medical costs. At least a dozen states already have some type of taxes on sugary beverages, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Questions to consider:

  1. How do you reconcile the seemingly conflicting goals of reducing soda consumption and raising revenues to pay for health care?
  2. Which effect do you expect to dominate: reduction in quantity demanded due to higher prices or increased revenue from higher prices?
  3. Assuming the market for sodas (pop around here) is currently working efficiently, what effect do you expect a new tax to have on consumer well-being, producer well-being, government revenue and total social welfare?
  4. What role do the elasticity of demand and elasticity of supply play in your answers to 1,2 and 3?

5 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?

41 responses so far

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