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Economic Myths: Cost-plus

Thursday, November 24, 2016 7:50
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The point of the post Economic Myths: Business Rates hike may force UK’s shops to raise prices is that prices are set by where marginal revenue and marginal costs per unit happen to cross on the supply-demand chart.

Fixed costs quite simply have nothing to do with it. In the very long run, most fixed costs are actually variable costs. It is a question of fact and degree. But clearly rent and rates are a fixed cost for these purposes (from the point of view of the tenant).

The chart showed the supply-demand curves for monopolistic competition, but the same principles apply wherever a business is on a sliding scale between perfect competition and absolute monopoly. Most businesses are somewhere in the middle.

(Land ownership is a not a business for these purposes, that is a pure monopoly. By putting up and maintaining buildings, land owners act like businesses of course, they have a dual role and it helps if you don’t confuse the two distinct functions.)

From the comments:

Dinero: However I don’t see the relevance of the chart from Economics help.

Me: A change in variable costs per unit = changes the optimum price/output level. A change in fixed costs = has no effect. Business Rates and rent = fixed cost = have no effect. That is why the linked chart and article ONLY mention variable unit costs (or marginal costs or whatever you want to call them).

Dinero: The chart is a diagram of profit maximizing price setting for a monopolistic supplier (1). Retail is competitive market (2), where prices are a competitive level of profit plus variable costs (3) plus fixed costs.(4)

Wrong on so many levels.

1. Even with perfect competition, the market clearing price is where revenue and marginal costs per unit happen to cross on the supply-demand chart. Same for monopolistic competition, cartels and a pure monopoly. Fixed costs have no impact on prices; they affect profits.

2. Yes, bricks and mortar retail is competitive, but not that competitive. Most shops have their own niche, customer base or brands etc. And by occupying space (and crowding out competitors), most shops have some degree of local monopoly. Even if it were competitive, see 1.

3. That misses the whole point of the article and pretty much everything else you need to know about economics. With most industries without absolute barriers to entry and even with cartels, abnormal or super profits are competed away, so that prices end up at a level of what looks like cost-plus. This is not because each individual business decides to aim for cost-plus, it is because of the competition.

4. For ‘fixed costs’ read ‘rent’. Rent is not a ‘cost’ in economic terms, it is an appropriation of the earned profits of the business. Profits (or the profits of potential other tenants) are what dictates rents, not the other way round!

I’ve done this one dozens of times.

Imagine a partnership running a business, the two partners share profits 50/50. One partner might secretly consider himself the senior partner and consider the other partner’s profit share to be a ‘cost’. It might be a cost to him personally, but it is not a cost to the business. Perhaps they change the profit share ratio to 60/40. Does that change what customers are prepared to pay or the optimum level of output of that business?

Does it heck.

In the same way, maybe this year, the landlord is taking half the profits in rent and next year ups the rent to 60% of the profits, makes bugger all difference to prices and output. That’s a dispute between the business owner and the land owner.

In the same way, the local council takes a slice of the rent from the landlord (Business Rates). The business tenant, as ‘customer’ of landlord (who provides the building) and the local council (which provides pretty much everything else) couldn’t care less how they split up the rent between them. Each tenant has his own pain threshold, if landlord and local council demand more than he is prepared to pay, that’s it, he vacates the premises, end of.


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