Industry Studies

Tag: Industry Studies

Tirole wins Nobel; Galambos wins Nobel-Picking Contest

Jean Tirole is the sole winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, for his work on industrial organization. He is certainly well-known among graduate students, as his industrial organization textbook was the industry standard for decades.  He is a favorite on Briggs 2nd for, among other things, his classic 1980s co-authored piece, “The Fat-Cat Effect,the Puppy-Dog Ploy, and the Lean and Hungry Look.”

Some of his more recent work is on platform markets, which is the subject of our ECON 495 course this term!   Here is Alex Tabarrok’s take:

Platform markets or two-sided markets are markets where a firm brings together two or more sides both of whom benefit by the existence of the platform and both of whom may (or may not) be charged. A trivial but telling example is the singles bar that brings together men and (usually) women. Other examples are the Xbox a platform for game players and game developers, credit cards bring together buyers and firms that accept that card, newspapers bring together readers and advertisers, mall brings together stores and customers.

A key difficulty in these markets is that the price charged to one side of the market influences the demand on the other side of the market… [T]he cost of the technology that goes into an X-box console is often more than or not much less than the price of the console. So Microsoft sells the console at near cost and instead makes it money by charging game developers for the right to write games for the Xbox.  Antitrust and regulation issues come into play here because the two sets of prices may look discriminatory or unfair. In a mall, for example, it’s often the largest firm (the anchor) that gets the lowest price (sometimes even zero!). Does this represent an unfair advantage that a large firm has over smaller rivals or is it a rational consequence of the fact that the anchor store may bring the most customers to the other, smaller stores in the mall so that the total package is welfare maximizing? Is Microsoft engaging in predatory pricing if it prices the Xbox at or below cost?…  Platform markets mean that pricing at marginal cost can no longer be considered optimal in every market and pricing above marginal cost can no longer be considered as an indication of monopoly power.

Professor Galambos picks up the department prize for his selection.

I’m Lovin’ It. But if that Counter Guy Gets $15/hour, I’m Lovin’ Less of It

I see that McDonalds employees from around the country have been walking off the job to protest low wages, even causing some restaurants to shut down temporarily.  What would happen, do you suppose, if McDonalds started paying its employees more?

Writing in ForbesTim Worstall makes the extraordinary claim that McDonalds could raise workers wages to $15 an hour and it would have no impact on the price of a Big Mac!  This is such an extraordinary claim that I will go ahead and quote it at length:

Hmm. Well, what else can we surmise about a rapacious capitalist organisation? In that ruthless pursuit of gelt and pilf for its shareholders it is going to gouge the customers for the absolute maximum that it can, yes? … What limits McDonald’s ability to entirely empty our wallets every time we want a hamburger is that there are other people who will also sell us one. Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, In and Out, there’s a multiplicity of places where we can go to fur our arteries. Which leads to our conclusion on pricing in a capitalist and free market economy. The capitalists charge the absolute maximum they can get away with, that ability being limited by the competition that comes from alternative suppliers.

Thus the price is not determined by the cost of production of an item. Which means that, if we raise McDonald’s production costs by increasing the wages of the workers, the price isn’t going to change. For it’s not production costs that determine prices: it’s competition that does. Another way to put this is that McDonald’s is already charging us the absolute maximum that it can for its current level of sales. Thus it cannot raise its prices if its production costs go up.

All of which means that the real change in the cost of a Big Mac, or the dollar menu, if McDonald’s workers were paid $15 an hour is: nothing. For production costs simply do not determine the prices that can be achieved in a competitive market.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone argue that costs don’t matter in determining prices:  Every text that I’ve taught out of walks through the logic of a firm’s profit maximizing decision — firms maximize profits by setting output where marginal revenue equals marginal cost.  So, costs do help to determine prices, at least the way I teach it. Continue reading I’m Lovin’ It. But if that Counter Guy Gets $15/hour, I’m Lovin’ Less of It

Streaming Profitability

The Atlantic Monthly pauses from its Ideas Report to try to explain why Netflix is so successful. Here’s the gist:

An Oldie but Goodie

In fact, the dirty little secret of the media industry is that content aggregators, not content creators, have long been the overwhelming source of value creation…

The economic structure of the media business is not fundamentally different from that of business in general. The most-prevalent sources of industrial strength are the mutually reinforcing competitive advantages of scale and customer captivity. Content creation simply does not lend itself to either, while aggregation is amenable to both.

I’m not sure what to make of this piece.  It reads something like a five-forces analysis, and argues not only that Netflix is the real deal, but that there are significant barriers to entry in the streaming content business.  It will be interesting to send this balloon up in next year’s IO class and see if anyone cares to shoot it down.

Streaming Econ 400

Many students have asked me about the types of things covered in Industrial Organization (Econ 400), and I typically respond with blah blah blah price theory blah blah blah structure-conduct-performance until the student leaves my office.  Perhaps a better response would simply be to give students a list of interesting topics that would come under an IO umbrella, such as Comcast’s dispute with Netflix. There’s many issues embedded there, including this tasty one:

A recent study found that at peak times, Netflix represented 20 percent of Internet download traffic in the United States. That makes it a de facto competitor for incumbent distributors like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which are eager to protect both the subscription television business and the emerging video-on-demand business.

I wonder how soon cable and satellite television will be relegated to economic history courses, a la the video rental business.

Perhaps you can write a paper on that next term.