Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 30: COSTS AND COMPETITIVE PRICES - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
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CHAPTER 30: COSTS AND COMPETITIVE PRICES - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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COSTS AND COMPETITIVE PRICES
§ 1. Competitive prices and unequal costs of competition. § 2. Selling and cost-finding. § 3. Examples of joint costs. § 4. Main classes of costs. § 5. The problem of cost accounting. § 6. Homogeneous products with unequal costs. § 7. Principle of charging what the traffic will bear. § 8. How prices are limited under competition. § 9. Borderland of monopoly. § 10. Difficulty of departing from average costs in competition.
§ 1. Competitive prices and unequal costs of competition. The product of a business must be sold, and for this some special selling management and selling organization is required. In a mercantile business selling is the largest part of the activity, and to this end well-located stores, window displays, clerks, agents, expensive advertising, and delivery wagons are needed. The prime cost of the articles at wholesale, plus certain minor expenses, plus the selling cost, make up the whole cost of doing business. In all other kinds of business whether agricultural, manufacturing, transportation, etc., selling is an important task, which must be well done if all the other labors of management are not to be in vain. The products of a factory will not sell themselves, and the obtaining of a regular series of orders sufficient to use the equipment fully is one of the most essential conditions of a low unit cost of production.
The selling price must as a whole equal cost or there will be a loss. New factories are constantly arising with new and better adjustments and the processes are always changing. No two enterprises have exactly equal advantages of location for materials or markets, etc., or are managed with exactly equal ability. Hence there is always a pressure of competition on some managers who constantly complain that they must sell below the cost of production. Business men say that competition is destructive, and it certainly does destroy the less favorably situated enterprises. Each enterpriser’s price is the highest he can get in the market for his product; it may far exceed his costs; it may fall below them, but only temporarily, for if sales continue to encroach on capital, the sheriff soon closes the doors. Successful competitors are constantly pressing upon the marginal enterpriser, fixing a price that leaves themselves a profit, but is below his cost. Even the most successful manager comes into contact with cost, and seems to be compelled by it. He reaches out for trade, and sells some (not all) goods at a price which leaves him little if any profit. He enlarges his factory and ships goods farther, paying the freight, which means a lower price at the factory. The expanding business, therefore, comes at length to the point where it can not go farther at the prevailing prices. Hence the business man’s view of the costs is that they determine price. It is true in the sense that the supply of a particular product in any market is at last limited by cost to marginal producers or of marginal portions of supply. But it is not true of all the units of product that costs determine, or equal, market-price. There is a margin above costs to the successful enterpriser on a large portion of his output. The margin may be narrow or wide, according to the business. The margin is “profit,” on the particular sale, and helps to determine the true profit remaining at the end of the year.
§ 2. Selling and cost-finding. Speaking generally, there is no upper limit to the selling price the seller would take, but he can never get an unlimited, and rarely what he deems a really liberal price. Buyers are striving to buy as low as they can. The seller must often decide whether to sell at an offered price or to refuse the offer. Success in getting orders requires under most circumstances that the cost of each article to the seller shall be pretty exactly determined, or at least a minimum fixed below which the selling agent must not go. The ascertaining of the cost of particular articles, which before a study of the facts appears so simple, is in a literal sense well nigh impossible. It is easiest where the whole undertaking is treated as one transaction, as the buying of a house, perhaps making some improvements in it, and selling it. There the total of first cost, plus costs of improvements, taxes, insurance, repairs, fixed charges, etc., subtracted from selling-price plus other receipts as rents, etc., give the balance as profit. Similarly it is easy to determine with sufficient practical accuracy the cost of the whole business in a year, which, subtracted from total receipts (and taking due account of the difference in inventory and appraisement of the plant at the beginning and end of the year), gives the profit. But the difficulty is in deciding how much of this total cost should be allotted to particular units of product, for most of the costs have been incurred for a number of different units which must be produced at once. The costs are joint, and not several. Some simple illustrations will make this clearer.
§ 3. Examples of joint costs. A woman at the death of her husband is left with an excellent, well-furnished house and a scanty income. For sentimental or family reasons, whatever they be, she is determined to keep the house in any case, tho it is larger than she needs. To lighten the burden of taxes, repairs, and family expenses, she wishes to let some rooms if she can at anything above cost. Now what is cost in that case? To her it would consist of, first, the price of the extra service that must be hired, of the extra washing, light, and heat, of the extra wear and tear on furniture, linen, etc., as compared with leaving the rooms empty, and secondly, enough additional to make it “worth while” for herself—either in merely psychic terms, trouble, or in this plus the worth of her time in doing something else that might pay better. She would not need to count a fair normal return on the original cost, or the present cost, of new rooms and furniture, for she has them and intends to keep them in any case. It is only the extra cost attributable to taking roomers that need be considered, and the minimum addition to her income need be no more than the meagerest pay at which she values her own services. This minimum price of bare cost, yielding nothing to the main investment, may be also the maximum she can get if there is little demand for rooms in the neighborhood. If, however, there is a brisk or growing demand for rooms of that kind, the price she can get may be higher in any degree, up to the point where more houses will be built, and rooms let at prices that include a full estimate of the cost of building, of new furniture, etc. The price at that point may be called a normal supply price, or normal cost price; but before there has been time to build new houses the price of room rent might go much above, as it had before been much below, this normal cost.
Another illustration of the same problem in a different set of conditions may be helpful. An autobus service was begun between a small city and a village a few miles away. A few months later the proprietor declared it did not pay the cost of running it, which he estimated to be $7.50 a day, including repairs, interest on the cost of the car, depreciation, etc. This was $1.87½ for each of the four round trips, whereas on some trips the receipts were nothing at all. He admitted, however, that it would be a mistake to count the cost and receipts of each trip separately, and that the success of the whole enterprise depended on maintaining a regular, dependable service, even tho sometimes the car traveled empty. The light trips were helping to secure the traffic that paid on the heavy trips, on some of which, every week, receipts were as much as $5. Taking all the receipts of the service together, however, there was still a deficit of a few dollars a week on the average, which the owner had to make up out of the earnings of his garage. After the auto service was started it helped to advertise the garage, and many bicyclists and autoists along that line who had never come to the garage found it a very convenient place to send for repairing and for supplies. The increased profits of the garage about offset the loss on the bus service. Another new kind of business was developed, as the autobus in summer was often hired for parties to the shore at $15 to $20 a day, and at such times a smaller car could be sent on the regular trip. And there were some other incidental advantages that at length converted a tale of loss into a story of business success.
§ 4. Main classes of costs. These two cases present in comparatively simple form the problem which every larger business involves in very much more difficult form. The total costs of any business are roughly distinguishable as fixed costs (or fixed charges) and variable costs. Fixed costs are those which remain unchanged on the business as a whole, or on some department, no matter what the size of the output. There are some costs, as the rent of office, factory and store, salary of manager and clerks, etc., which would go on if nothing were sold, unless the business were closed. Variable costs are those which are attributable solely and exactly to particular units of product, rising and falling exactly in proportion to the output.1 In truth, costs share these characteristics in a great many degrees, are more or less fixed or variable, and are never (or with very meager exceptions) either absolutely fixed or absolutely variable.
The variable costs are also called direct because put upon the particular unit of goods, and the fixed costs are correspondingly called indirect, or overhead charges. It is a very difficult matter, and yet one of very great importance, to arrive at principles and practical working rules by which in each business the various elements of cost may be allocated to different departments, classes of goods, and particular units of output. For this end a special art of cost accounting has been developed, and a special class of expert cost accountants. The principal elements of costs distinguished in cost accounting are represented in Figure 46.
§ 5. The problem of cost accounting. The difficult task of cost accounting is to break up this annual total into minute fractions and to distribute them in due proportion so as to tell if need be the cost and profit on any unit of product. Sometimes a large undertaking turns out a single, homogeneous physical product, as gas, electricity, water, bricks, salt, paper of a certain grade, spools, pig iron, etc. Here a unit cost and profit can easily be estimated from the total annual figures; but if the management desires to ascertain the cost of each of the series of processes through which each unit goes, the problem becomes more complex. Another type of undertaking makes numerous kinds of goods, but in standard patterns, such as tools, machines, stoves, wooden furniture, carpets, cloth, etc. Here the unit cost is estimated by following the product through the various departments, and this cost figure once fixed can be used continuously and repeatedly tested. Another type of business does all its work on special orders, such as job printing, electric installation, house contracting, etc. The constant recurrence of somewhat similar kinds of jobs tests the estimates and permits a pretty exact allowance to be made for the usual delays and losses.
§ 6. Homogeneous products with unequal costs. But no matter how carefully these unit-cost figures are worked out, the salesman is tempted repeatedly to ignore them. He sees a chance to sell below cost and still make a profit. This is the paradox of price cutting. It is an ever-besetting temptation of the business man, sometimes leading him to profits, but often to his undoing. The key to the mystery is already in our hands: it is that all costs are in some measure joint-costs, and that every estimated several-cost has something of arbitrariness in it. Take a case where this would seem to be least true, where the entire output of a large industry is a single homogeneous product, such as water, electric current, etc. Here surely, if anywhere, the unit cost is certain, being the simple arithmetic quotient of total cost divided by the number of units. But, no, as frequently here as in any business the seller finds differences of a real character and is forced to assume differences in other cases in order to make a sale. In some cases he finds the estimated cost to be incorrect, in others he finds it to be futile. The cost of reading meters, keeping up the service pipes, and rendering bills is greater per unit of water, gas, or electricity, for small users than for larger ones. This can be adjusted by making a flat fixed charge to each consumer for meter and labor, little if any more for large than for small consumers, and a separate charge per unit of product alike to all. For example, if electricity is charged at 13 cents a kilowatt hour, the bills would be
Customer A, using 10 kilowatts monthly @ 13 cents = $ 1.30
Customer B, using 100 kilowatts monthly @ 13 cents = $13.00
If a charge of $1 a month per customer is made for meter, etc., and a separate charge of 3 cents per kilowatt hour, the bills would be
Customer A, uniform charge $1.00 plus $ .30 = $1.30, actual price, 13 cents per k. h.
Customer B, uniform charge $1.00 plus $3.00 = $4.00, actual price, 4 cents per k. h.
§ 7. Principle of charging what the traffic will bear. But where no such reasonable explanation can be found,2 and the outward conditions all point to a uniform cost, the seller is repeatedly faced with a situation where at the moment and, as he says, “for practical purposes,” he is impelled to assume a difference. The business is there as “a going concern,” a large part of the charges are, or appear to be, fixed charges—in any event will not be increased by the particular increase of product in question, which will more fully and proportionally utilize certain parts of the equipment. The new business can not be secured at the average rate paid by a similar class of customers (possibly because of this customer’s advantageous position to buy somewhere else, or because he can produce for himself more cheaply than the average customer, etc.). A lower rate is made to get the new business, while the old customers continue to pay the old rates, the result being that the total profits of the enterprise are increased. There is scarcely an enterprise, large or small, in which essentially this situation does not sometimes present itself.
But note this: unless the price to the other customers is reduced to the new rate, there is here discrimination in prices, unlike charges to like customers, for substantially the same service. The price is on the principle of charging what the traffic will bear. A portion of the customers may be bearing all or nearly all the fixed charges, while another portion is bearing little more than the variable charges occasioned by their part of the output. By a sort of historical accident the late comers get the benefit of the economies of an established business which the early comers made possible. Altho the old customers are charged no more than they were before, they are now charged more than are other customers, possibly their competitors; and this may have practical effects quite as serious to them as if they were charged absolutely more than they were before.
§ 8. How prices are limited under competition. The phrase “charging what the traffic will bear” is usually heard in connection with monopoly-price. Yet every competitive seller gets all he can for his goods, and still make a sale. This is “charging all the traffic will bear,” but under competition the traffic will not bear as much as under monopoly. Each buyer is following the same principle, giving as little of the price-good as he needs to give to get the sale-good; in popular phrase, he is trying to get the most for his money. Still out of these various desires to get indefinitely high prices, emerges, under true competitive conditions in a market, one common market-price. (See above, Chapter 7.) This is the best price any trader can get on the principle of charging what the traffic will bear in a truly competitive market. In a market for homogeneous products where there are on each side of the market at least two truly competing traders, the attempt of any trader to discriminate, to get more than the common market-price, simply deprives him of that sale. He eliminates himself as a seller in respect to that unit.
This condition of two-sided competition is lacking in countless cases and in many respects in the business world. The slightest lack of homogeneousness in the goods to be sold breaks the market up into more or less separate markets, and there is a chance for the seller to sell the different qualities at different prices, still, however, at a competitive price, alike to all for the same quality.
§ 9. Borderland of monopoly. Ownership of a particular knife, pencil, book, makes one the unique seller of it, but confers no monopoly power, as the power of substitution is practically absolute; the welfare of no one depends in any appreciable measure on that particular pencil. The simplest substitution a buyer can make, ordinarily, is that of a commodity of the same kind, offered by another seller. The effective limitation of the competitive seller is that if he tries to charge more than the fair market price, the buyer is able to buy of some one else.
In many enterprises in this same manner the surplus of selling price over costs as a whole is ruled by a very strict competition in the long run, and yet the prices of the separate products of the enterprise have the appearance of being quite noncompetitive. The organizers of an entertainment, whether for private profit or for charity, hire a hall and assume the expense of the entertainment, the whole cost becoming thus a fixed charge. The prices of the various seats are then fixed with a view to getting the maximum total receipts. As regards that particular entertainment there is literally a monopoly. If half the seats are likely to be empty it will not “pay” to reduce the prices so low that all the seats could be sold. That might cause the price to be a negative one—payment for attending. It pays better to have a graded scale of prices to different parts of the house, and let some seats go unsold.
These examples serve to show that in a literal sense every man is the exclusive seller of the identical thing he has to sell and yet may have no monopoly power to raise prices above a normal, competitive rate. He may withhold the sale-good or place any reserve valuation upon it that he pleases, and a customer must pay that or go without that particular unit of labor or product. But this in most cases gives to the seller a quite negligible degree of power to influence price, and in many other cases where there is some power, there is no motive. There is, therefore, despite some measure of power to restrict supply, no exercise of the power sufficient to constitute a social problem of monopoly.
§ 10. Difficulty of departing from average costs in competition. Consider the case of a manufacturer who has no advantages not open to capable competitors and who can sell his small and easily transported products over a wide area. Such products, which by their nature seem typically competitive, are shoes, hardware specialties, writing tablets, etc. The manufacturer makes and sells them through agents both to wholesale and retail merchants, realizing a good average profit on the whole. Let him apply the principle (paradox) of price cutting to one pattern and sell it at a price which is nearer to bare cost. He will sell it more easily but it will contribute little or nothing to profits except as it may be an advertisement, “a leader.” Another pattern gives a large unit-profit, and is “a money maker.” This will be the special target of competition, and will be more difficult to sell. If each competitor has his leaders, keen buyers can make leaders a good share of their purchases. Thus real competition searches out each inconsistency of cost accounting and is constantly leveling down the “money-makers” to a normal profit. Again and again a growing and seemingly prosperous business fails. The management have produced and sold the goods, but have cut the margin of profit too close. Meantime other more conservative competitors, trying to maintain prices, have been pushed almost if not quite into bankruptcy. Many a firm with a stable policy, a golden mean between rash and timid, has passed through many such an ordeal, and has won a substantial success through generations from grandsire to grandson, while competitors have risen and fallen.
In a competitive market, there being several sellers, the buyer stands ready to take from any one of the sellers. If any one of the sellers, whether formerly marginal or not, dropped out, and no one took his place, the price would rise. But the very essence of a condition of competition is this, that it would not pay any one seller to drop out for the purpose of raising the general market-price. He would lose more because of withholding these units (or ceasing to produce them) than he could gain by the additional profit he would make on the units he continued to sell. He has, virtually, to take the market-price as a fixed fact for the time, so far as he is concerned, and to decide whether at that price and the profit it yields him, he cares to continue selling. To put the same thing slightly differently: if he does not continue, other competitors stand ready to sell at the same price, or at a price so little higher that he will not profit on the whole by the change. His limitation of production yields a net gain to his competitors but a net loss to himself.
[1 ]“Variable” does not mean that the unit price of the factor necessarily changes, e.g., that the wage paid per piece for making the articles varies; nor “fixed” that the unit price of these factors is unchanging. The meaning is that in the one case more are needed, and in the other the amount needed remains unchanged, regardless of the size of the output.
[2 ]There are numerous other reasons for classifying customers, which must be reserved for discussion with practical problems. The example is sufficient for our present purpose of explaining the principle.