Social Goals vs. Market Efficiency
Occasionally a government may try to influence prices in the market to achieve a social or economic goal of the country. Price ceilings and price floors occur when the government inserts itself into the marketplace to achieve a specific social situation. Depending on your point of view, you may consider this to be either a necessary situation or the government overstepping its’ boundaries. In either case, prices are a very important aspect of any economic system and impact everyone who enters into the marketplace.
Price ceilings prevent a price from rising above a certain level. When a price ceiling is set below the equilibrium price, quantity demanded will exceed quantity supplied, and excess demand or shortages will result. Price floors prevent a price from falling below a certain level. When a price floor is set above the equilibrium price, quantity supplied will exceed quantity demanded, and excess supply or surpluses will result. Price floors and price ceilings often lead to unintended consequences.
- To achieve one or more social goals, the government sometimes sets prices.
- Price ceilings and price floors can distort market outcomes.
- Price ceilings and price floors prevent equilibrium prices in the market.
- Why would the government interfere in the marketplace?
- How can the government help to create equity and security in the free market economy?
Price Ceilings and Price Floors
Controversy sometimes surrounds the prices and quantities established by demand and supply, especially for products that are considered necessities. In some cases, discontent over prices turns into public pressure on politicians who may then pass legislation to prevent a certain price from climbing “too high” or falling “too low.”
The demand and supply model shows how people and firms will react to the incentives provided by these laws to control prices, in ways that will often lead to undesirable consequences. Alternative policy tools can often achieve the desired goals of price control laws, while avoiding at least some of their costs and tradeoffs.
Video: Price Ceilings and Floors
Laws that government enacts to regulate prices are called price controls. Price controls come in two flavors. A price ceiling keeps a price from rising above a certain level (the “ceiling”), while a price floor keeps a price from falling below a certain level (the “floor”). This section uses the demand and supply framework to analyze price ceilings. The next section discusses price floors.
In many markets for goods and services, demanders outnumber suppliers. Consumers, who are also potential voters, sometimes unite behind a political proposal to hold down a certain price. In some cities, for example, renters have pressed political leaders to pass rent control laws, a price ceiling that usually works by stating that rents can be raised by only a certain maximum percentage each year.
Rent control becomes a politically hot topic when rents begin to rise rapidly. Everyone needs an affordable place to live. Perhaps a change in tastes makes a certain suburb or town a more popular place to live. Perhaps locally-based businesses expand, bringing higher incomes and more people into the area. Changes of this sort can cause a change in the demand for rental housing, as Figure 1 illustrates. The original equilibrium (E0) lies at the intersection of supply curve S0 and demand curve D0, corresponding to an equilibrium price of $500 and an equilibrium quantity of 15,000 units of rental housing. The effect of greater income or a change in tastes is to shift the demand curve for rental housing to the right, as shown by the data in Table 1 and the shift from D0 to D1 on the graph. In this market, at the new equilibrium E1, the price of a rental unit would rise to $600 and the equilibrium quantity would increase to 17,000 units.
The original intersection of demand and supply occurs at E0. If demand shifts from D0 to D1, the new equilibrium would be at E1—unless a price ceiling prevents the price from rising. If the price is not permitted to rise, the quantity supplied remains at 15,000. However, after the change in demand, the quantity demanded rises to 19,000, resulting in a shortage.
|Price||Original Quantity Supplied||Original Quantity Demanded||New Quantity Demanded|
Suppose that a rent control law is passed to keep the price at the original equilibrium of $500 for a typical apartment. In Figure 1, the horizontal line at the price of $500 shows the legally fixed maximum price set by the rent control law. However, the underlying forces that shifted the demand curve to the right are still there. At that price ($500), the quantity supplied remains at the same 15,000 rental units, but the quantity demanded is 19,000 rental units. In other words, the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied, so there is a shortage of rental housing. One of the ironies of price ceilings is that while the price ceiling was intended to help renters, there are actually fewer apartments rented out under the price ceiling (15,000 rental units) than would be the case at the market rent of $600 (17,000 rental units).
Price ceilings do not simply benefit renters at the expense of landlords. Rather, some renters (or potential renters) lose their housing as landlords convert apartments to co-ops and condos. Even when the housing remains in the rental market, landlords tend to spend less on maintenance and on essentials like heating, cooling, hot water, and lighting. The first rule of economics is you do not get something for nothing—everything has an opportunity cost. So if renters get “cheaper” housing than the market requires, they tend to also end up with lower quality housing.
Price ceilings have been proposed for other products. For example, price ceilings to limit what producers can charge have been proposed in recent years for prescription drugs, doctor and hospital fees, the charges made by some automatic teller bank machines, and auto insurance rates. Price ceilings are enacted in an attempt to keep prices low for those who demand the product. But when the market price is not allowed to rise to the equilibrium level, quantity demanded exceeds quantity supplied, and thus a shortage occurs. Those who manage to purchase the product at the lower price given by the price ceiling will benefit, but sellers of the product will suffer, along with those who are not able to purchase the product at all. Quality is also likely to deteriorate.
A price floor is the lowest legal price that can be paid in markets for goods and services, labor, or financial capital. Perhaps the best-known example of a price floor is the minimum wage, which is based on the normative view that someone working full time ought to be able to afford a basic standard of living. The federal minimum wage at the end of 2013 was $7.25 per hour, which yields an income for a single person slightly higher than the poverty line. As the cost of living rises over time, the Congress periodically raises the federal minimum wage.
Price floors are sometimes called “price supports,” because they support a price by preventing it from falling below a certain level. Around the world, many countries have passed laws to create agricultural price supports. Farm prices and thus farm incomes fluctuate, sometimes widely. So even if, on average, farm incomes are adequate, some years they can be quite low. The purpose of price supports is to prevent these swings.
The most common way price supports work is that the government enters the market and buys up the product, adding to demand to keep prices higher than they otherwise would be. According to Reuters News, the European Union (EU) will spend about $60 billion per year, or roughly 38% of the EU budget, on price supports for Europe’s farmers from 2014 to 2020.
Figure 2 illustrates the effects of a government program that assures a price above the equilibrium by focusing on the market for wheat in Europe. In the absence of government intervention, the price would adjust so that the quantity supplied would equal the quantity demanded at the equilibrium point E0, with price P0 and quantity Q0. However, policies to keep prices high for farmers keeps the price above what would have been the market equilibrium level—the price Pf shown by the dashed horizontal line in the diagram. The result is a quantity supplied in excess of the quantity demanded (Qd). When quantity supplied exceeds quantity demanded, a surplus exists.
The high-income areas of the world, including the United States, Europe, and Japan, are estimated to spend roughly $1 billion per day in supporting their farmers. If the government is willing to purchase the excess supply (or to provide payments for others to purchase it), then farmers will benefit from the price floor, but taxpayers and consumers of food will pay the costs. Numerous proposals have been offered for reducing farm subsidies. In many countries, however, political support for subsidies for farmers remains strong. Either because this is viewed by the population as supporting the traditional rural way of life or because of the lobbying power of the agro-business industry.
The intersection of demand (D) and supply (S) would be at the equilibrium point E0. However, a price floor set at Pf holds the price above E0 and prevents it from falling. The result of the price floor is that the quantity supplied Qs exceeds the quantity demanded Qd. There is excess supply, also called a surplus.
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Do Price Ceilings and Floors Change Demand or supply?
Neither price ceilings nor price floors cause demand or supply to change. They simply set a price that limits what can be legally charged in the market. Remember, changes in price do not cause demand or supply to change. Price ceilings and price floors can cause a different choice of quantity demanded along a demand curve, but they do not move the demand curve. Price controls can cause a different choice of quantity supplied along a supply curve, but they do not shift the supply curve.
Consumer Surplus, Producer Surplus, Social Surplus
Consider a market for tablet computers, as shown in Figure 3. The equilibrium price is $80 and the equilibrium quantity is 28 million. To see the benefits to consumers, look at the segment of the demand curve above the equilibrium point and to the left. This portion of the demand curve shows that at least some demanders would have been willing to pay more than $80 for a tablet.
For example, point J shows that if the price was $90, 20 million tablets would be sold. Those consumers who would have been willing to pay $90 for a tablet based on the utility they expect to receive from it, but who were able to pay the equilibrium price of $80, clearly received a benefit beyond what they had to pay for. Remember, the demand curve traces consumers’ willingness to pay for different quantities. The amount that individuals would have been willing to pay, minus the amount that they actually paid, is called consumer surplus. Consumer surplus is the area labeled F—that is, the area above the market price and below the demand curve.
The somewhat triangular area labeled by F shows the area of consumer surplus, which shows that the equilibrium price in the market was less than what many of the consumers were willing to pay. Point J on the demand curve shows that, even at the price of $90, consumers would have been willing to purchase a quantity of 20 million. The somewhat triangular area labeled by G shows the area of producer surplus, which shows that the equilibrium price received in the market was more than what many of the producers were willing to accept for their products. For example, point K on the supply curve shows that at a price of $45, firms would have been willing to supply a quantity of 14 million.
The supply curve shows the quantity that firms are willing to supply at each price. For example, point K in Figure 3 illustrates that, at $45, firms would still have been willing to supply a quantity of 14 million. Those producers who would have been willing to supply the tablets at $45, but who were instead able to charge the equilibrium price of $80, clearly received an extra benefit beyond what they required to supply the product. The amount that a seller is paid for a good minus the seller’s actual cost is called producer surplus. In Figure 3, producer surplus is the area labeled G—that is, the area between the market price and the segment of the supply curve below the equilibrium.
The sum of consumer surplus and producer surplus is social surplus, also referred to as economic surplus or total surplus. In Figure 2, social surplus would be shown as the area F + G. Social surplus is larger at equilibrium quantity and price than it would be at any other quantity. This demonstrates the economic efficiency of the market equilibrium. In addition, at the efficient level of output, it is impossible to produce greater consumer surplus without reducing producer surplus, and it is impossible to produce greater producer surplus without reducing consumer surplus.
Inefficiency of Price Floors and Price Ceilings
The imposition of a price floor or a price ceiling will prevent a market from adjusting to its equilibrium price and quantity, and thus will create an inefficient outcome. There is an additional twist here. Along with creating inefficiency, price floors and ceilings will also transfer some consumer surplus to producers, or some producer surplus to consumers.
Imagine that several firms develop a promising but expensive new drug for treating back pain. If this therapy is left to the market, the equilibrium price will be $600 per month and 20,000 people will use the drug, as shown in Figure 4 (a). The original level of consumer surplus is T + U and producer surplus is V + W + X. However, the government decides to impose a price ceiling of $400 to make the drug more affordable. At this price ceiling, firms in the market now produce only 15,000.
As a result, two changes occur. First, an inefficient outcome occurs and the total surplus of society is reduced. The loss in social surplus that occurs when the economy produces at an inefficient quantity is called deadweight loss. In a very real sense, it is like money thrown away that benefits no one. In Figure 4 (a), the deadweight loss is the area U + W. When deadweight loss exists, it is possible for both consumer and producer surplus to be higher, in this case because the price control is blocking some suppliers and demanders from transactions they would both be willing to make.
A second change from the price ceiling is that some of the producer surplus is transferred to consumers. After the price ceiling is imposed, the new consumer surplus is T + V, while the new producer surplus is X. In other words, the price ceiling transfers the area of surplus (V) from producers to consumers. Note that the gain to consumers is less than the loss to producers, which is just another way of seeing the deadweight loss.
(a) The original equilibrium price is $600 with a quantity of 20,000. Consumer surplus is T + U, and producer surplus is V + W + X. A price ceiling is imposed at $400, so firms in the market now produce only a quantity of 15,000. As a result, the new consumer surplus is T + V, while the new producer surplus is X. (b) The original equilibrium is $8 at a quantity of 1,800. Consumer surplus is G + H + J, and producer surplus is I + K. A price floor is imposed at $12, which means that quantity demanded falls to 1,400. As a result, the new consumer surplus is G, and the new producer surplus is H + I.
Figure 4 (b) shows a price floor example using a string of struggling movie theaters, all in the same city. The current equilibrium is $8 per movie ticket, with 1,800 people attending movies. The original consumer surplus is G + H + J, and producer surplus is I + K. The city government is worried that movie theaters will go out of business, reducing the entertainment options available to citizens, so it decides to impose a price floor of $12 per ticket. As a result, the quantity demanded of movie tickets falls to 1,400. The new consumer surplus is G, and the new producer surplus is H + I. In effect, the price floor causes the area H to be transferred from consumer to producer surplus, but also causes a deadweight loss of J + K.
This analysis shows that a price ceiling, like a law establishing rent controls, will transfer some producer surplus to consumers—which helps to explain why consumers often favor them. Conversely, a price floor like a guarantee that farmers will receive a certain price for their crops will transfer some consumer surplus to producers, which explains why producers often favor them. However, both price floors and price ceilings block some transactions that buyers and sellers would have been willing to make, and creates deadweight loss. Removing such barriers, so that prices and quantities can adjust to their equilibrium level, will increase the economy’s social surplus.
Demand and Supply as a Social Adjustment Mechanism
The demand and supply model emphasizes that prices are not set only by demand or only by supply, but by the interaction between the two. In 1890, the famous economist Alfred Marshall wrote that asking whether supply or demand determined a price was like arguing “whether it is the upper or the under blade of a pair of scissors that cuts a piece of paper.” The answer is that both blades of the demand and supply scissors are always involved.
The adjustments of equilibrium price and quantity in a market-oriented economy often occur without much government direction or oversight. If the coffee crop in Brazil suffers a terrible frost, then the supply curve of coffee shifts to the left and the price of coffee rises. Some people—call them the coffee addicts—continue to drink coffee and pay the higher price. Others switch to tea or soft drinks. No government commission is needed to figure out how to adjust coffee prices, which companies will be allowed to process the remaining supply, which supermarkets in which cities will get how much coffee to sell, or which consumers will ultimately be allowed to drink the brew. Such adjustments in response to price changes happen all the time in a market economy, often so smoothly and rapidly that we barely notice them.
Think for a moment of all the seasonal foods that are available and inexpensive at certain times of the year, like fresh corn in midsummer, but more expensive at other times of the year. People alter their diets and restaurants alter their menus in response to these fluctuations in prices without fuss or fanfare. For both the U.S. economy and the world economy as a whole, markets—that is, demand and supply—are the primary social mechanism for answering the basic questions about what is produced, how it is produced, and for whom it is produced.
Consumer surplus is the gap between the price that consumers are willing to pay, based on their preferences, and the market equilibrium price. Producer surplus is the gap between the price for which producers are willing to sell a product, based on their costs, and the market equilibrium price. Social surplus is the sum of consumer surplus and producer surplus. Total surplus is larger at the equilibrium quantity and price than it will be at any other quantity and price. Deadweight loss is loss in total surplus that occurs when the economy produces at an inefficient quantity.
Video: Price Controls, Subsidies, and the Risks of Good Intentions
Self Check Questions
- What is a price ceiling?
- What is a price floor?
- What is a target price?
- What is a deficiency payment?
- What does it mean when "markets talk"?