Week 4: International Trade, Measuring a Nation's Income, and Measuring the Cost of Living
Cost and Industry Structure
AmazonIn less than two decades, Amazon.com has transformed the way books are sold, bought, and even read. Prior to Amazon, books were primarily sold through independent bookstores with limited inventories in small retail locations. There were exceptions, of course; Borders and Barnes & Noble offered larger stores in urban areas. In the last decade, however, independent bookstores have become few and far between, Borders has gone out of business, and Barnes & Noble is struggling. Online delivery and purchase of books has indeed overtaken the more traditional business models. How has Amazon changed the book selling industry? How has it managed to crush its competition?
A major reason for the giant retailer’s success is its production model and cost structure, which has enabled Amazon to undercut the prices of its competitors even when factoring in the cost of shipping. Read on to see how firms great (like Amazon) and small (like your corner deli) determine what to sell, at what output and price.
Introduction to Cost and Industry StructureThis chapter explores the theory of the firm. This theory explains that firms behave in much the same way as consumers behave. What does that mean? Let’s define what is meant by the firm. A firm (or business) combines inputs of labor, capital, land, and raw or finished component materials to produce outputs. If the firm is successful, the outputs are more valuable than the inputs. This activity of production goes beyond manufacturing (i.e., making things). It includes any process or service that creates value, including transportation, distribution, wholesale and retail sales. Production involves a number of important decisions that define the behavior of firms. These decisions include, but are not limited to:
- What product or products should the firm produce?
- How should the products be produced (i.e., what production process should be used)?
- How much output should the firm produce?
- What price should the firm charge for its products?
- How much labor should the firm employ?
The answers to these questions depend on the production and cost conditions facing each firm. The answers also depend on the structure of the market for the product(s) in question. Market structure is a multidimensional concept that involves how competitive the industry is. It is defined by questions such as these:
- How much market power does each firm in the industry possess?
- How similar is each firm’s product to the products of other firms in the industry?
- How difficult is it for new firms to enter the industry?
- Do firms compete on the basis of price, advertising, or other product differences?
Figure 2 illustrates the range of different market structures.
First let’s take a look at how firms determine their costs and desired profit levels. Then we will discuss costs in the short run and long run and the factors that can influence each.
Explicit and Implicit Costs, and Accounting and Economic ProfitPrivate enterprise, the ownership of businesses by private individuals, is a hallmark of the U.S. economy. When people think of businesses, often giants like Wal-Mart, Microsoft, or General Motors come to mind. But firms come in all sizes, as shown in Table 1. The vast majority of American firms have fewer than 20 employees. As of 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 5.7 million firms with employees in the U.S. economy. Slightly less than half of all the workers in private firms are at the 17,000 large firms, meaning they employ more than 500 workers. Another 35% of workers in the U.S. economy are at firms with fewer than 100 workers. These small-scale businesses include everything from dentists and lawyers to businesses that mow lawns or clean houses. Indeed, Table 1 does not include a separate category for the millions of small “non-employer” businesses where a single owner or a few partners are not officially paid wages or a salary, but simply receive whatever they can earn.
|Number of Employees||Firms (% of total firms)||Number of Paid Employees (% of total employment)|
|0–9||4,543,315 (79.2%)||12.3 million (11.0%)|
|10–19||617,089 (10.8%)||8.3 million (7.4%)|
|20–99||475,125 (8.3%)||18.6 million (16.6%)|
|100–499||81,773 (1.4%)||15.9 million (14.2%)|
|500 or more||17,236 (0.30%)||50.9 million (49.8%)|
Profit = Total Revenue – Total CostTotal revenue is the income brought into the firm from selling its products. It is calculated by multiplying the price of the product times the quantity of output sold:
Total Revenue = Price × QuantityWe will see in the following chapters that revenue is a function of the demand for the firm’s products. We can distinguish between two types of cost: explicit and implicit. Explicit costs are out-of-pocket costs, that is, payments that are actually made. Wages that a firm pays its employees or rent that a firm pays for its office are explicit costs. Implicit costs are more subtle, but just as important. They represent the opportunity cost of using resources already owned by the firm. Often for small businesses, they are resources contributed by the owners; for example, working in the business while not getting a formal salary, or using the ground floor of a home as a retail store. Implicit costs also allow for depreciation of goods, materials, and equipment that are necessary for a company to operate. These two definitions of cost are important for distinguishing between two conceptions of profit, accounting profit and economic profit. Accounting profit is a cash concept. It means total revenue minus explicit costs—the difference between dollars brought in and dollars paid out. Economic profit is total revenue minus total cost, including both explicit and implicit costs. The difference is important because even though a business pays income taxes based on its accounting profit, whether or not it is economically successful depends on its economic profit.
Calculating Implicit CostsConsider the following example. Fred currently works for a corporate law firm. He is considering opening his own legal practice, where he expects to earn $200,000 per year once he gets established. To run his own firm, he would need an office and a law clerk. He has found the perfect office, which rents for $50,000 per year. A law clerk could be hired for $35,000 per year. If these figures are accurate, would Fred’s legal practice be profitable?
Step 1. First you have to calculate the costs. You can take what you know about explicit costs and total them:
Step 2. Subtracting the explicit costs from the revenue gives you the accounting profit.
But these calculations consider only the explicit costs. To open his own practice, Fred would have to quit his current job, where he is earning an annual salary of $125,000. This would be an implicit cost of opening his own firm. Step 3. You need to subtract both the explicit and implicit costs to determine the true economic profit:
Fred would be losing $10,000 per year. That does not mean he would not want to open his own business, but it does mean he would be earning $10,000 less than if he worked for the corporate firm. Implicit costs can include other things as well. Maybe Fred values his leisure time, and starting his own firm would require him to put in more hours than at the corporate firm. In this case, the lost leisure would also be an implicit cost that would subtract from economic profits.
The Structure of Costs in the Short RunThe cost of producing a firm’s output depends on how much labor and physical capital the firm uses. A list of the costs involved in producing cars will look very different from the costs involved in producing computer software or haircuts or fast-food meals. However, the cost structure of all firms can be broken down into some common underlying patterns. When a firm looks at its total costs of production in the short run, a useful starting point is to divide total costs into two categories: fixed costs that cannot be changed in the short run and variable costs that can be changed.
Fixed and Variable CostsFixed costs are expenditures that do not change regardless of the level of production, at least not in the short term. Whether you produce a lot or a little, the fixed costs are the same. One example is the rent on a factory or a retail space. Once you sign the lease, the rent is the same regardless of how much you produce, at least until the lease runs out. Fixed costs can take many other forms: for example, the cost of machinery or equipment to produce the product, research and development costs to develop new products, even an expense like advertising to popularize a brand name. The level of fixed costs varies according to the specific line of business: for instance, manufacturing computer chips requires an expensive factory, but a local moving and hauling business can get by with almost no fixed costs at all if it rents trucks by the day when needed. Variable costs, on the other hand, are incurred in the act of producing—the more you produce, the greater the variable cost. Labor is treated as a variable cost, since producing a greater quantity of a good or service typically requires more workers or more work hours. Variable costs would also include raw materials. As a concrete example of fixed and variable costs, consider the barber shop called “The Clip Joint” shown in Figure 3. The data for output and costs are shown in Table 2. The fixed costs of operating the barber shop, including the space and equipment, are $160 per day. The variable costs are the costs of hiring barbers, which in our example is $80 per barber each day. The first two columns of the table show the quantity of haircuts the barbershop can produce as it hires additional barbers. The third column shows the fixed costs, which do not change regardless of the level of production. The fourth column shows the variable costs at each level of output. These are calculated by taking the amount of labor hired and multiplying by the wage. For example, two barbers cost: 2 × $80 = $160. Adding together the fixed costs in the third column and the variable costs in the fourth column produces the total costs in the fifth column. So, for example, with two barbers the total cost is: $160 + $160 = $320.
|Labor||Quantity||Fixed Cost||Variable Cost||Total Cost|
The relationship between the quantity of output being produced and the cost of producing that output is shown graphically in the figure. The fixed costs are always shown as the vertical intercept of the total cost curve; that is, they are the costs incurred when output is zero so there are no variable costs. You can see from the graph that once production starts, total costs and variable costs rise. While variable costs may initially increase at a decreasing rate, at some point they begin increasing at an increasing rate. This is caused by diminishing marginal returns, which is easiest to see with an example. As the number of barbers increases from zero to one in the table, output increases from 0 to 16 for a marginal gain of 16; as the number rises from one to two barbers, output increases from 16 to 40, a marginal gain of 24. From that point on, though, the marginal gain in output diminishes as each additional barber is added. For example, as the number of barbers rises from two to three, the marginal output gain is only 20; and as the number rises from three to four, the marginal gain is only 12. To understand the reason behind this pattern, consider that a one-man barber shop is a very busy operation. The single barber needs to do everything: say hello to people entering, answer the phone, cut hair, sweep up, and run the cash register. A second barber reduces the level of disruption from jumping back and forth between these tasks, and allows a greater division of labor and specialization. The result can be greater increasing marginal returns. However, as other barbers are added, the advantage of each additional barber is less, since the specialization of labor can only go so far. The addition of a sixth or seventh or eighth barber just to greet people at the door will have less impact than the second one did. This is the pattern of diminishing marginal returns. At some point, you may even see negative returns as the additional barbers begin bumping elbows and getting in each other’s way. In this case, the addition of still more barbers would actually cause output to decrease, as shown in the last row of Table 2. As a result, the total costs of production will begin to rise more rapidly as output increases. This pattern of diminishing marginal returns is common in production. As another example, consider the problem of irrigating a crop on a farmer’s field. The plot of land is the fixed factor of production, while the water that can be added to the land is the key variable cost. As the farmer adds water to the land, output increases. But adding more and more water brings smaller and smaller increases in output, until at some point the water floods the field and actually reduces output. Diminishing marginal returns occur because, at a given level of fixed costs, each additional input contributes less and less to overall production.
Average Total Cost, Average Variable Cost, Marginal CostThe breakdown of total costs into fixed and variable costs can provide a basis for other insights as well. The first five columns of Table 3 duplicate the previous table, but the last three columns show average total costs, average variable costs, and marginal costs. These new measures analyze costs on a per-unit (rather than a total) basis and are reflected in the curves shown in Figure 4.
|Labor||Quantity||Fixed Cost||Variable Cost||Total Cost||Marginal Cost||Average Total Cost||Average Variable Cost|
Where do marginal and average costs meet?The marginal cost line intersects the average cost line exactly at the bottom of the average cost curve—which occurs at a quantity of 72 and cost of $6.60 in Figure 4. The reason why the intersection occurs at this point is built into the economic meaning of marginal and average costs. If the marginal cost of production is below the average cost for producing previous units, as it is for the points to the left of where MC crosses ATC, then producing one more additional unit will reduce average costs overall—and the ATC curve will be downward-sloping in this zone. Conversely, if the marginal cost of production for producing an additional unit is above the average cost for producing the earlier units, as it is for points to the right of where MC crosses ATC, then producing a marginal unit will increase average costs overall—and the ATC curve must be upward-sloping in this zone. The point of transition, between where MC is pulling ATC down and where it is pulling it up, must occur at the minimum point of the ATC curve. This idea of the marginal cost “pulling down” the average cost or “pulling up” the average cost may sound abstract, but think about it in terms of your own grades. If the score on the most recent quiz you take is lower than your average score on previous quizzes, then the marginal quiz pulls down your average. If your score on the most recent quiz is higher than the average on previous quizzes, the marginal quiz pulls up your average. In this same way, low marginal costs of production first pull down average costs and then higher marginal costs pull them up.
Lessons from Alternative Measures of CostsBreaking down total costs into fixed cost, marginal cost, average total cost, and average variable cost is useful because each statistic offers its own insights for the firm. Whatever the firm’s quantity of production, total revenue must exceed total costs if it is to earn a profit. Fixed costs are often sunk costs that cannot be recouped. In thinking about what to do next, sunk costs should typically be ignored, since this spending has already been made and cannot be changed. However, variable costs can be changed, so they convey information about the firm’s ability to cut costs in the present and the extent to which costs will increase if production rises.
Why are total cost and average cost not on the same graph?Total cost, fixed cost, and variable cost each reflect different aspects of the cost of production over the entire quantity of output being produced. These costs are measured in dollars. In contrast, marginal cost, average cost, and average variable cost are costs per unit. In the previous example, they are measured as cost per haircut. Thus, it would not make sense to put all of these numbers on the same graph, since they are measured in different units ($ versus $ per unit of output).
It would be as if the vertical axis measured two different things. In addition, as a practical matter, if they were on the same graph, the lines for marginal cost, average cost, and average variable cost would appear almost flat against the horizontal axis, compared to the values for total cost, fixed cost, and variable cost. Using the figures from the previous example, the total cost of producing 40 haircuts is $320. But the average cost is $320/40, or $8. If you graphed both total and average cost on the same axes, the average cost would hardly show.
But note that:
This is the firm’s profit margin. This definition implies that if the market price is above average cost, average profit, and thus total profit, will be positive; if price is below average cost, then profits will be negative. The marginal cost of producing an additional unit can be compared with the marginal revenue gained by selling that additional unit to reveal whether the additional unit is adding to total profit—or not. Thus, marginal cost helps producers understand how profits would be affected by increasing or decreasing production.
A Variety of Cost PatternsThe pattern of costs varies among industries and even among firms in the same industry. Some businesses have high fixed costs, but low marginal costs. Consider, for example, an Internet company that provides medical advice to customers. Such a company might be paid by consumers directly, or perhaps hospitals or healthcare practices might subscribe on behalf of their patients. Setting up the website, collecting the information, writing the content, and buying or leasing the computer space to handle the web traffic are all fixed costs that must be undertaken before the site can work. However, when the website is up and running, it can provide a high quantity of service with relatively low variable costs, like the cost of monitoring the system and updating the information. In this case, the total cost curve might start at a high level, because of the high fixed costs, but then might appear close to flat, up to a large quantity of output, reflecting the low variable costs of operation. If the website is popular, however, a large rise in the number of visitors will overwhelm the website, and increasing output further could require a purchase of additional computer space. For other firms, fixed costs may be relatively low. For example, consider firms that rake leaves in the fall or shovel snow off sidewalks and driveways in the winter. For fixed costs, such firms may need little more than a car to transport workers to homes of customers and some rakes and shovels. Still other firms may find that diminishing marginal returns set in quite sharply. If a manufacturing plant tried to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, little time remains for routine maintenance of the equipment, and marginal costs can increase dramatically as the firm struggles to repair and replace overworked equipment. Every firm can gain insight into its task of earning profits by dividing its total costs into fixed and variable costs, and then using these calculations as a basis for average total cost, average variable cost, and marginal cost. However, making a final decision about the profit-maximizing quantity to produce and the price to charge will require combining these perspectives on cost with an analysis of sales and revenue, which in turn requires looking at the market structure in which the firm finds itself. Before we turn to the analysis of market structure in other chapters, we will analyze the firm’s cost structure from a long-run perspective.
The long run is the period of time when all costs are variable. The long run depends on the specifics of the firm in question—it is not a precise period of time. If you have a one-year lease on your factory, then the long run is any period longer than a year, since after a year you are no longer bound by the lease. No costs are fixed in the long run. A firm can build new factories and purchase new machinery, or it can close existing facilities. In planning for the long run, the firm will compare alternative production technologies (or processes). In this context, technology refers to all alternative methods of combining inputs to produce outputs. It does not refer to a specific new invention like the tablet computer. The firm will search for the production technology that allows it to produce the desired level of output at the lowest cost. After all, lower costs lead to higher profits—at least if total revenues remain unchanged. Moreover, each firm must fear that if it does not seek out the lowest-cost methods of production, then it may lose sales to competitor firms that find a way to produce and sell for less.
Choice of Production TechnologyMany tasks can be performed with a range of combinations of labor and physical capital. For example, a firm can have human beings answering phones and taking messages, or it can invest in an automated voicemail system. A firm can hire file clerks and secretaries to manage a system of paper folders and file cabinets, or it can invest in a computerized recordkeeping system that will require fewer employees. A firm can hire workers to push supplies around a factory on rolling carts, it can invest in motorized vehicles, or it can invest in robots that carry materials without a driver. Firms often face a choice between buying a many small machines, which need a worker to run each one, or buying one larger and more expensive machine, which requires only one or two workers to operate it. In short, physical capital and labor can often substitute for each other. Consider the example of a private firm that is hired by local governments to clean up public parks. Three different combinations of labor and physical capital for cleaning up a single average-sized park appear in Table 4. The first production technology is heavy on workers and light on machines, while the next two technologies substitute machines for workers. Since all three of these production methods produce the same thing—one cleaned-up park—a profit-seeking firm will choose the production technology that is least expensive, given the prices of labor and machines.
|Production technology 1||10 workers||2 machines|
|Production technology 2||7 workers||4 machines|
|Production technology 3||3 workers||7 machines|
|Example A: Workers cost $40, machines cost $80|
|Labor Cost||Machine Cost||Total Cost|
|Cost of technology 1||10 × $40 = $400||2 × $80 = $160||$560|
|Cost of technology 2||7 × $40 = $280||4 × $80 = $320||$600|
|Cost of technology 3||3 × $40 = $120||7 × $80 = $560||$680|
|Example B: Workers cost $55, machines cost $80|
|Labor Cost||Machine Cost||Total Cost|
|Cost of technology 1||10 × $55 = $550||2 × $80 = $160||$710|
|Cost of technology 2||7 × $55 = $385||4 × $80 = $320||$705|
|Cost of technology 3||3 × $55 = $165||7 × $80 = $560||$725|
|Example C: Workers cost $90, machines cost $80|
|Labor Cost||Machine Cost||Total Cost|
|Cost of technology 1||10 × $90 = $900||2 × $80 = $160||$1,600|
|Cost of technology 2||7 × $90 = $630||4 × $80 = $320||$950|
|Cost of technology 3||3 × $90 = $270||7 × $80 = $560||$830|
Economies of ScaleOnce a firm has determined the least costly production technology, it can consider the optimal scale of production, or quantity of output to produce. Many industries experience economies of scale. Economies of scale refers to the situation where, as the quantity of output goes up, the cost per unit goes down. This is the idea behind “warehouse stores” like Costco or Walmart. In everyday language: a larger factory can produce at a lower average cost than a smaller factory. Figure 5 illustrates the idea of economies of scale, showing the average cost of producing an alarm clock falling as the quantity of output rises. For a small-sized factory like S, with an output level of 1,000, the average cost of production is $12 per alarm clock. For a medium-sized factory like M, with an output level of 2,000, the average cost of production falls to $8 per alarm clock. For a large factory like L, with an output of 5,000, the average cost of production declines still further to $4 per alarm clock.
The average cost curve in Figure 5 may appear similar to the average cost curves presented earlier in this chapter, although it is downward-sloping rather than U-shaped. But there is one major difference. The economies of scale curve is a long-run average cost curve, because it allows all factors of production to change. The short-run average cost curves presented earlier in this chapter assumed the existence of fixed costs, and only variable costs were allowed to change. One prominent example of economies of scale occurs in the chemical industry. Chemical plants have a lot of pipes. The cost of the materials for producing a pipe is related to the circumference of the pipe and its length. However, the volume of chemicals that can flow through a pipe is determined by the cross-section area of the pipe. The calculations in Table 6 show that a pipe which uses twice as much material to make (as shown by the circumference of the pipe doubling) can actually carry four times the volume of chemicals because the cross-section area of the pipe rises by a factor of four (as shown in the Area column).
|4-inch pipe||12.5 inches||12.5 square inches|
|8-inch pipe||25.1 inches||50.2 square inches|
|16-inch pipe||50.2 inches||201.1 square inches|
Shapes of Long-Run Average Cost CurvesWhile in the short run firms are limited to operating on a single average cost curve (corresponding to the level of fixed costs they have chosen), in the long run when all costs are variable, they can choose to operate on any average cost curve. Thus, the long-run average cost (LRAC) curve is actually based on a group of short-run average cost (SRAC) curves, each of which represents one specific level of fixed costs. More precisely, the long-run average cost curve will be the least expensive average cost curve for any level of output. Figure 6 shows how the long-run average cost curve is built from a group of short-run average cost curves. Five short-run-average cost curves appear on the diagram. Each SRAC curve represents a different level of fixed costs. For example, you can imagine SRAC1 as a small factory, SRAC2 as a medium factory, SRAC3 as a large factory, and SRAC4 and SRAC5 as very large and ultra-large. Although this diagram shows only five SRAC curves, presumably there are an infinite number of other SRAC curves between the ones that are shown. This family of short-run average cost curves can be thought of as representing different choices for a firm that is planning its level of investment in fixed cost physical capital—knowing that different choices about capital investment in the present will cause it to end up with different short-run average cost curves in the future.
The long-run average cost curve shows the cost of producing each quantity in the long run, when the firm can choose its level of fixed costs and thus choose which short-run average costs it desires. If the firm plans to produce in the long run at an output of Q3, it should make the set of investments that will lead it to locate on SRAC3, which allows producing q3 at the lowest cost. A firm that intends to produce Q3 would be foolish to choose the level of fixed costs at SRAC2 or SRAC4. At SRAC2 the level of fixed costs is too low for producing Q3 at lowest possible cost, and producing q3 would require adding a very high level of variable costs and make the average cost very high. At SRAC4, the level of fixed costs is too high for producing q3 at lowest possible cost, and again average costs would be very high as a result. The shape of the long-run cost curve, as drawn in Figure 6, is fairly common for many industries. The left-hand portion of the long-run average cost curve, where it is downward- sloping from output levels Q1 to Q2 to Q3, illustrates the case of economies of scale.
In this portion of the long-run average cost curve, larger scale leads to lower average costs. This pattern was illustrated earlier in Figure 5. In the middle portion of the long-run average cost curve, the flat portion of the curve around Q3, economies of scale have been exhausted. In this situation, allowing all inputs to expand does not much change the average cost of production, and it is called constant returns to scale. In this range of the LRAC curve, the average cost of production does not change much as scale rises or falls.
How do economies of scale compare to diminishing marginal returns?The concept of economies of scale, where average costs decline as production expands, might seem to conflict with the idea of diminishing marginal returns, where marginal costs rise as production expands. But diminishing marginal returns refers only to the short-run average cost curve, where one variable input (like labor) is increasing, but other inputs (like capital) are fixed. Economies of scale refers to the long-run average cost curve where all inputs are being allowed to increase together. Thus, it is quite possible and common to have an industry that has both diminishing marginal returns when only one input is allowed to change, and at the same time has increasing or constant economies of scale when all inputs change together to produce a larger-scale operation.
Link It UpVisit this website to read an article about the complexity of the belief that banks can be “too-big-to-fail.”
The Size and Number of Firms in an IndustryThe shape of the long-run average cost curve has implications for how many firms will compete in an industry, and whether the firms in an industry have many different sizes, or tend to be the same size. For example, say that one million dishwashers are sold every year at a price of $500 each and the long-run average cost curve for dishwashers is shown in Figure 7(a). In Figure 7(a), the lowest point of the LRAC curve occurs at a quantity of 10,000 produced. Thus, the market for dishwashers will consist of 100 different manufacturing plants of this same size. If some firms built a plant that produced 5,000 dishwashers per year or 25,000 dishwashers per year, the average costs of production at such plants would be well above $500, and the firms would not be able to compete.
How can cities be viewed as examples of economies of scale?Why are people and economic activity concentrated in cities, rather than distributed evenly across a country? The fundamental reason must be related to the idea of economies of scale—that grouping economic activity is more productive in many cases than spreading it out. For example, cities provide a large group of nearby customers, so that businesses can produce at an efficient economy of scale. They also provide a large group of workers and suppliers, so that business can hire easily and purchase whatever specialized inputs they need. Many of the attractions of cities, like sports stadiums and museums, can operate only if they can draw on a large nearby population base. Cities are big enough to offer a wide variety of products, which is what many shoppers are looking for.
These factors are not exactly economies of scale in the narrow sense of the production function of a single firm, but they are related to growth in the overall size of population and market in an area. Cities are sometimes called "agglomeration economies."
These agglomeration factors help to explain why every economy, as it develops, has an increasing proportion of its population living in urban areas. In the United States, about 80% of the population now lives in metropolitan areas (which include the suburbs around cities), compared to just 40% in 1900. However, in poorer nations of the world, including much of Africa, the proportion of the population in urban areas is only about 30%. One of the great challenges for these countries as their economies grow will be to manage the growth of the great cities that will arise.
If cities offer economic advantages that are a form of economies of scale, then why don't all of most people live in one giant city? At some point, agglomeration economies must turn into diseconomies. For example, traffic congestion may reach a point where the gains from being geographically nearby are counterbalanced by how long it takes to travel. High densities of people, cars, and factories can mean more garbage and air and water pollution. Facilities like parks or museums may become overcrowded. There may be economies of scale for negative activities like crime, because high densities of people and businesses, combined with the greater impersonality of cities, make it easier for illegal activities as well as legal ones. The future of cities, both in the United States and in other countries around the world, will be determined by their ability to benefit from the economies of agglomeration and to minimize of counterbalance the corresponding diseconomies.
Thus, if we see an industry where almost all plants are the same size, it is likely that the long-run average cost curve has a unique bottom point as in Figure 7(a). However, if the long-run average cost curve has a wide flat bottom like Figure 7(b), then firms of a variety of different sizes will be able to compete with each other.
The flat section of the long-run average cost curve in Figure 7(b) can be interpreted in two different ways. One interpretation is that a single manufacturing plant producing a quantity of 5,000 has the same average costs as a single manufacturing plant with four times as much capacity that produces a quantity of 20,000. The other interpretation is that one firm owns a single manufacturing plant that produces a quantity of 5,000, while another firm owns four separate manufacturing plants, which each produce a quantity of 5,000. This second explanation, based on the insight that a single firm may own a number of different manufacturing plants, is especially useful in explaining why the long-run average cost curve often has a large flat segment—and thus why a seemingly smaller firm may be able to compete quite well with a larger firm. At some point, however, the task of coordinating and managing many different plants raises the cost of production sharply, and the long-run average cost curve slopes up as a result.
In the examples to this point, the quantity demanded in the market is quite large (one million) compared with the quantity produced at the bottom of the long-run average cost curve (5,000, 10,000 or 20,000). In such a situation, the market is set for competition between many firms. But what if the bottom of the long-run average cost curve is at a quantity of 10,000 and the total market demand at that price is only slightly higher than that quantity—or even somewhat lower?
Return to Figure 7(a), where the bottom of the long-run average cost curve is at 10,000, but now imagine that the total quantity of dishwashers demanded in the market at that price of $500 is only 30,000. In this situation, the total number of firms in the market would be three. A handful of firms in a market is called an “oligopoly.”
Alternatively, consider a situation, again in the setting of Figure 7(a), where the bottom of the long-run average cost curve is 10,000, but total demand for the product is only 5,000. (For simplicity, imagine that this demand is highly inelastic, so that it does not vary according to price.) In this situation, the market may well end up with a single firm—a monopoly—producing all 5,000 units. If any firm tried to challenge this monopoly while producing a quantity lower than 5,000 units, the prospective competitor firm would have a higher average cost, and so it would not be able to compete in the longer term without losing money.
Thus, the shape of the long-run average cost curve reveals whether competitors in the market will be different sizes. If the LRAC curve has a single point at the bottom, then the firms in the market will be about the same size, but if the LRAC curve has a flat-bottomed segment of constant returns to scale, then firms in the market may be a variety of different sizes.
The relationship between the quantity at the minimum of the long-run average cost curve and the quantity demanded in the market at that price will predict how much competition is likely to exist in the market. If the quantity demanded in the market far exceeds the quantity at the minimum of the LRAC, then many firms will compete. If the quantity demanded in the market is only slightly higher than the quantity at the minimum of the LRAC, a few firms will compete. If the quantity demanded in the market is less than the quantity at the minimum of the LRAC, a single-producer monopoly is a likely outcome.
Shifting Patterns of Long-Run Average CostNew developments in production technology can shift the long-run average cost curve in ways that can alter the size distribution of firms in an industry.
For much of the twentieth century, the most common change has been to see alterations in technology, like the assembly line or the large department store, where large-scale producers seemed to gain an advantage over smaller ones. In the long-run average cost curve, the downward-sloping economies of scale portion of the curve stretched over a larger quantity of output.
However, new production technologies do not inevitably lead to a greater average size for firms. For example, in recent years some new technologies for generating electricity on a smaller scale have appeared. The traditional coal-burning electricity plants needed to produce 300 to 600 megawatts of power to exploit economies of scale fully. However, high-efficiency turbines to produce electricity from burning natural gas can produce electricity at a competitive price while producing a smaller quantity of 100 megawatts or less. These new technologies create the possibility for smaller companies or plants to generate electricity as efficiently as large ones. Another example of a technology-driven shift to smaller plants may be taking place in the tire industry. A traditional mid-size tire plant produces about six million tires per year. However, in 2000, the Italian company Pirelli introduced a new tire factory that uses many robots. The Pirelli tire plant produced only about one million tires per year, but did so at a lower average cost than a traditional mid-sized tire plant.
Controversy has simmered in recent years over whether the new information and communications technologies will lead to a larger or smaller size for firms. On one side, the new technology may make it easier for small firms to reach out beyond their local geographic area and find customers across a state, or the nation, or even across international boundaries. This factor might seem to predict a future with a larger number of small competitors. On the other side, perhaps the new information and communications technology will create “winner-take-all” markets where one large company will tend to command a large share of total sales, as Microsoft has done in the production of software for personal computers or Amazon has done in online bookselling. Moreover, improved information and communication technologies might make it easier to manage many different plants and operations across the country or around the world, and thus encourage larger firms. This ongoing battle between the forces of smallness and largeness will be of great interest to economists, businesspeople, and policymakers.
AmazonTraditionally, bookstores have operated in retail locations with inventories held either on the shelves or in the back of the store. These retail locations were very pricey in terms of rent. Amazon has no retail locations; it sells online and delivers by mail. Amazon offers almost any book in print, convenient purchasing, and prompt delivery by mail. Amazon holds its inventories in huge warehouses in low-rent locations around the world. The warehouses are highly computerized using robots and relatively low-skilled workers, making for low average costs per sale. Amazon demonstrates the significant advantages economies of scale can offer to a firm that exploits those economies.
Glossaryaccounting profit total revenues minus explicit costs, including depreciation
average profit profit divided by the quantity of output produced; profit margin
average total cost total cost divided by the quantity of output
average variable cost variable cost divided by the quantity of output
constant returns to scale expanding all inputs proportionately does not change the average cost of production
diseconomies of scale the long-run average cost of producing each individual unit increases as total output increases
economic profit total revenues minus total costs (explicit plus implicit costs)
explicit costs out-of-pocket costs for a firm, for example, payments for wages and salaries, rent, or materials
firm an organization that combines inputs of labor, capital, land, and raw or finished component materials to produce outputs.
fixed cost expenditure that must be made before production starts and that does not change regardless of the level of production
implicit costs opportunity cost of resources already owned by the firm and used in business, for example, expanding a factory onto land already owned
long-run average cost (LRAC) curve shows the lowest possible average cost of production, allowing all the inputs to production to vary so that the firm is choosing its production technology
marginal cost the additional cost of producing one more unit
private enterprise the ownership of businesses by private individuals
production technologies alternative methods of combining inputs to produce output
production the process of combining inputs to produce outputs, ideally of a value greater than the value of the inputs
revenue income from selling a firm’s product; defined as price times quantity sold
short-run average cost (SRAC) curve the average total cost curve in the short term; shows the total of the average fixed costs and the average variable costs
total cost the sum of fixed and variable costs of production
variable cost cost of production that increases with the quantity produced