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Posts Tagged ‘variable costs’

An oil glut

The demand for oil is growing and yet the price of oil, at around $46 per barrel over the past few weeks, remains at less than half that of the period from 2011 to mid 2014. The reason is that supply has been much larger than demand. The result has been a large production surplus and a growth in oil stocks. Supply did fall somewhat in October, which reduced the surplus in 2015 Q3 below than of the record level in Q2 – but the surplus was still the second highest on record.

What is more, the modest growth in demand is forecast to slow in 2016. Supply, however, is expected to decrease through the first three quarters of 2016, before rising again at the end of 2016. The result will be a modest rise in price into 2016, to around $56 per barrel, compared with an average of just over $54 per barrel so far for 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below).

But why does supply remain so high, given such low prices? As we saw in the post The oil industry and low oil prices, it is partly the result of increases in supply from large-scale investment in new sources of oil over the past few years, such as the fracking of shale deposits, and partly the increased output by OPEC designed to keep prices low and make new investment in shale oil unprofitable.

So why then doesn’t supply drop off rapidly? As we saw in the post, A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2), even though shale oil producers in the USA need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable, the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel. This means that shale oil production will continue until the end of the life of the wells. Given that wells typically have a life of at least three years, it could take some time for the low prices to have a significant effect on supply. According to the US Energy Information Administration’s forecasts, US crude oil production will drop next year by only just over 5%, from an average of 9.3 million barrels per day in 2015 to 8.8 million barrels per day in 2016.

In the meantime, we can expect low oil prices to continue for some time. Whilst this is bad news for oil exporters, it is good news for oil importing countries, as the lower costs will help aid recovery.

Webcasts
IEA says oil glut could worsen through 2016 Euronews (13/11/15)
IEA Says Record 3 Billion-Barrel Oil Stocks May Deepen Rout BloombergBusiness, Grant Smith (13/11/15)

Articles
IEA Offers No Hope For An Oil-Price Recovery Forbes, Art Berman (13/11/15)
Oil glut to swamp demand until 2020 Financial Times, Anjli Raval (10/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3bn barrels BBC News (13/11/15)
Global oil glut highest in a decade as inventories soar The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (12/11/15)
The Oil Glut Was Created In Q1 2015; Q3 OECD Inventory Movements Are Actually Quite Normal Seeking Alpha (13/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3 billion barrels Arab News (14/11/15)
OPEC Update 2015: No End To Oil Glut, Low Prices, As Members Prepare For Tense Meeting International Business Times, Jess McHugh (12/11/15)
Surviving The Oil Glut Investing.com, Phil Flynn (11/11/15)

Reports and data
Oil Market Report International Energy Agency (IEA) (13/11/15)
Short-term Energy Outlook US Energy Information Administration (EIA) (10/11/15)
Brent Crude Prices US Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Questions

  1. Using demand and supply diagrams, demonstrate (a) what has been happening to oil prices in 2015 and (b) what is likely to happen to them in 2016.
  2. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant in explaining the magnitude of oil price movements?
  3. What are oil prices likely to be in five years’ time?
  4. Using aggregate demand and supply analysis, demonstrate the effect of lower oil prices on a national economy.
  5. Why might the downward effect on inflation from lower oil prices act as a stimulus to the economy? Is this consistent with deflation being seen as requiring a stimulus from central banks, such as lower interest rates or quantitative easing?
  6. Do you agree with the statement that “Saudi Arabia is acting directly against the interests of half the cartel and is running OPEC over a cliff”?
  7. If the oil price is around $70 per barrel in a couple of years’ time, would it be worth oil companies investing in shale oil wells at that point? Explain why or why not.
  8. Distinguish between short-run and long-run shut down points. Why is the short-run shut down price likely to be lower than the long-run one?
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Milk prices: who gets the cream?

‘Farm-gate’ milk prices (the price paid to farmers) have been rising in the UK. In July they reached a record high of 31.4p per litre (ppl). This was 5.1ppl higher than in July 2012. There were further price rises this month (October). Sainsbury’s increased the price it pays farmers by nearly 2ppl to 34.15ppl and Arla Foods by 1.5ppl to 33.13ppl. Muller Wiseman is set to raise the price it pays to 32.5p per litre.

And yet many farmers are struggling to make a profit from milk production, claiming that their costs have risen faster than the prices they receive. Feed costs, for example, have risen by 2.12ppl. On average, farmers would need over 38p per litre just to cover their average variable costs. What is more, exceptional weather has reduced yields per cow by some 7%.

Meanwhile, in the USA, supply has risen by some 1.3% compared with a year ago. But despite this, the prices of dairy products are rising, thanks to strong demand. Cheese and butter prices, in particular, are rising rapidly, partly because of high demand from overseas. Demand for imported dairy products is particularly high in China, where supply has fallen by some 6% in the past couple of months.

The problem for dairy farmers in the UK is partly one of the power balance in the industry. Farmers have little or no market power. Supermarkets, however, have considerable market power. As large oligopsonistic buyers, they can put downward pressure on the prices paid to their suppliers. These are mainly large processing firms, such as Robert Wiseman Dairies, Arla Foods and Dairy Crest. They, in turn, can use their market power to keep down the price they pay to farmers.

Articles
Dairy farmers renew protests over milk prices Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (5/9/13)
Dairy farmers ‘lost more than 1p/litre last year’ Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (2/10/13)
South West farming businesses and producers still making a loss on milk South West Business (3/10/13)
Q&A: Milk prices row and how the system works BBC News (23/7/12) (note date of this)
Positive Dairy Trend: Rising Milk Production and Strong Demand The Farmer’s Exchange, Lee Mielke (27/9/13)
Chinese supply crisis to delay dairy price adjustment Rabobank (25/9/13)
China milk ‘crisis’ fuels world dairy price rise Agrimoney (1/10/13)

Data
UK milk prices and composition of milk ONS
Combined IFCN world milk price indicator IFCN

Questions

  1. Give some examples of (a) variable costs and (b) fixed costs in milk production.
  2. Why may farmers continue in dairy production, at least for a time, even if they are not covering their average variable costs?
  3. What factors determine (a) the price of milk paid to farmers; (b) the retail price in supermarkets?
  4. Explain how dairy futures markets work.
  5. Could the milk processors use their market power in the interests of farmers? Is it in the interests of milk processors to do so?
  6. Why is there a Chinese “dairy supply crisis”? What is its impact on the rest of the world? What is the relevance of the price elasticity of demand for dairy products in China to this impact?
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Easy or not so easyPricing?

The pricing model for low-cost airline seats seems simple. As the seats get booked, so the price rises. Thus the later you leave it to book, the more expensive it will be. But, in fact, it’s not as simple as this. Seat prices sometimes come down as the take-off date approaches. So what is the pricing model?

The general principle of raising prices as the plane fills up still applies. This enables the airline to discriminate between passengers. Holidaymakers and those with flexibility about when, and possibly where, to travel tend to have a relatively high price elasticity of demand. People who wish to travel at the last minute, such as businesspeople and those facing a family emergency, tend to have a much lower price elasticity of demand and would be prepared to pay a higher, possibly much higher, price.

With relatively high fixed costs for each flight, low-cost airlines need to fill, or virtually fill, their planes if they are to make a profit. And it’s not just about the direct revenue from ticket sales. Low-cost carriers also rely on the revenue from selling extras, such as on-board refreshments, hold luggage, hotels, car hire and travel insurance. With variable costs being tiny, the pricing model is about maximising revenue for each flight. So the fuller the plane, the better it is for the airline.

The airlines are very experienced in estimating demand over the period from a flight coming on sale and the departure date. If they get it right, then prices will indeed rise as take-off approaches. But sometimes they get it wrong. If, as time passes, a given flight is filling up too slowly, then it makes sense to be more flexible on prices, cutting them if necessary. Pricing may be easy in principle; but not always easy in practice!

Article
Low-cost air fares: How ticket prices fall and rise BBC News, Erica Gornall (21/6/13)

Papers
Pricing strategies of low cost airlines Air Transport Group, Cranfield University, Keith J Mason (2002)
Pricing strategies of low-cost airlines: The Ryanair case study Journal of Air Transport Management, 15, Paolo Malighetti, Stefano Paleari and Renato Redondi (2009)

Questions

  1. Does a low-cost airline always charge lower prices than a traditional scheduled airline? If not, why not?
  2. Identify the various reasons why holidaymakers may have a relatively elastic demand for a particular flight?
  3. Explain the system of ‘buckets’ of seats?
  4. Are low-cost airlines engaging in price discrimination and, if so, which type?
  5. Are there any variable costs of operating a particular flight (assuming that the flight does actually take place)?
  6. If demand for a flight becomes less elastic as the date of departure gets nearer, why might a budget airline choose to lower the price, at least for a few days?
  7. Why can Ryanair operate with lower costs than easyJet?
  8. Would it be in low-cost airlines’ interests to charge more (a) to overweight people; (b) for using the toilet?
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Market traders get a technology boost

Market trading has existed for centuries and in many respects it hasn’t changed very much. One thing that has developed is the means of exchange. Goods used to be traded for other goods – for example 1 pig for 4 chickens! But then money was developed as a means of exchange and then came cheques and plastic.

However, for many market traders, accepting credit and debit cards is relatively costly. It involves paying a monthly contract, which for many traders is simply not worthwhile, based on the quantity and value of the transactions. But, for many customers using debit or credit cards is the preferred method of payment and the fact that some traders only accept cash can be a deterrent to them making purchases and this therefore reduces the sales of the market traders.

But, with advances in technology a new way of paying has emerged. Small card readers can now be plugged into iphones, ipads, other tablets and smartphones. By putting a customer’s card into this device customers can then pay by card and either sign for their purchase or use the phone to enter their security details. There are plan for these companies to offer chip and pin technology to further ease payment by card on market stalls. The traders pay a small commission per transaction, but aside from that, the initial start-up cost is minimal and it is likely to encourage more customers to use markets. Jim Stewart, the Director of a firm that has begun using this technology said:

I think it’s definitely going to take off, the world is going that way … The money has always appeared in my bank account, no transactions have been declined, my accountant is happy, it’s all been good.

Some customers have raised concerns about the security of these transactions, as they have to put their cards into someone else’s ipad. However, traders have said that there are no risks and that customers can be sent a receipt for their purchase. The following few articles look at this latest (and other) technological developments.

Smartphone card payment system seeks small firms BBC News, Rob Howard (19/1/13)
POS Trends: What’s new for 2013 Resource News (17/1/13)
Payments by text message service to launch in UK in Spring 2014 BBC News (15/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are fixed cost and why does having a traditional card payment machine represent a fixed cost for a firm?
  2. How might this new technology affect a firm’s sales and profits?
  3. Will there be an increase in the firm’s variable costs from adopting this technology?
  4. Using a cost and revenue diagram, put your answers to questions 1 – 3 into practice and show how it will shift them and thus how the equilibrium may change for a market trader.
  5. What are the properties of money that allow it to be a good medium of exchange?
  6. How will this increased use of debit and credit cards affect the demand for money? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
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Comet fall from the sky

For those looking to buy larger electrical appliances at cheaper prices, things might be looking up, as Comet have begun heavy discounting after entering administration. Deloitte, as the administrator, will now begin the search for a buyer for this retailer, while Comet aims to raise the funds to rescue the company.

Comet was bought by OpCapita last year, but with poor performance continuing across the 200+ stores, we could be about to see the demise of this retailer. Over 6,000 jobs are now at risk, although Deloitte has maintained that stores will continue to trade and that redundancies will not be made. One of the administrators said:

‘Our immediate priorities are to stabilise the business, fully assess its financial position, and begin an urgent process to seek a suitable buyer which would also preserve jobs.’

The retail environment has inevitably suffered over the past few years, with well-known companies such as Woolworths, Optical Express and JJB Sports (to name a few) entering administration. Comet, therefore seems to be the latest in a long line of sad trading stories. So, which factors have contributed towards the collapse of this giant retailer?

Over the past few years, online retailers have gained a larger and larger market share. These internet retailers do not have the same overhead costs that Comet and other high street retailers face. To open a store in an area where customers are in high supply, premium rents must be paid and this adds to the cost of running any given store. In order to cover these higher costs, higher prices can result and this, together with consumers facing tight budgets, has led many customers to look at the cheaper alternatives online. Deloitte has also said that Comet has been suffering from a lack of credit, which has meant that it has not been able to purchase stock in the run-up to Christmas. Deloitte commented that:

‘The inability to obtain supplier credit for the peak Christmas trading period means that the company had no realistic prospect of raising further capital to build up sufficient stock to allow it to continue trading.’

Concerned customers are naturally emerging, wondering whether items they have ordered and paid for will actually turn up. However, Deloitte’s reassurance that trading will continue may go some way to relieving their concern. The following articles consider how Comet has fallen from the sky.

Comet officially enters administration, stores re-open for expected firesale The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick and Helia Ebrahimi (2/11/12)
Comet calls in Deloitte as administrators BBC News (2/11/12)
Apple sky-high as Comet falls to earth The Guardian, Zoe Wood (2/11/12)
Comet enters administration, Deloitte seeks buyer Reuters (2/11/12)
Comet electricals administrators formally begin search for saviour The Guardian, Zoe Wood (2/11/12)
Comet goes into administration Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (3/11/12)
Comet collapse: Deloitte blames internet and lack of first-time home buyers The Telegraph(2/11/12)
Collapse of Comet puts 7000 jobs in danger Independent, James Thompson (2/11/12)

Questions

  1. Why does the retail environment remain very weak?
  2. Explain why Deloitte suggest that a lack of first time home buyers has played a part in the demise of Comet.
  3. Why has a lack of credit contributed towards Comet’s downfall?
  4. Should customers be concerned about how Comet’s demise (if indeed a buyer is not found) might affect prices in other retailers such as Currys, given that they will now have a larger share of the market?
  5. Why has online trading contributed towards the harsher retail environment for the high street stores? You should think about fixed and variable costs in your answer.
  6. Why are companies such as Apple doing so well relative to other companies, such as Comet and JJB Sports? Is there a secret to their success?
  7. What impact might this collapse have on local labour markets, given Comet employs so many people? Think about the effect on wages, unemployment and on claimants of benefits.
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Not-so-cheap cheap fashion

Rising costs of cloth and a rise in VAT could mean that clothes prices are set to rise. Does this spell the end of cheap fashion from the likes of Primark and H&M? Or can they absorb the cost increases?

The following articles look at the causes of the rise in costs of clothing and what the cheap fashion chains can do about it.

Articles
Primark follows fashion rivals as it warns of rising costs Guardian, David Teather and Zoe Wood (13/9/10)
Primark warns on costs as growth slows Telegraph, James Hall (14/9/10)
Is this the end of cheap clothes era? Price of cotton has rocketed because of floods, Primark warns Mail Online, Sean Poulter (14/9/10)
Fashion chains far from cheerful about future of cheap chic Observer, Zoe Wood, David Teather and Julia Finch (19/9/10)

Data
Commodity prices (including cotton) Index Mundi
Cotton futures BBC Business: Commodities

Questions

  1. Why have cotton prices been rising? Illustrate your arguments with a demand and supply diagram.
  2. Would you expect a rise in the price of cotton of 45% to lead to a rise in the price of cotton clothes of 45%, or of more than 45% or of less than 45%? Explain.
  3. For what other reasons are the prices of clothing rising?
  4. How did the process of globalisation keep the price of clothing down?
  5. Next’s chief executive, Lord (Simon) Wolfson said that if prices of Next’s clothes go up 8% then the number of units sold will fall by 10%. What is the value of the price elasticity of demand that he is assuming?
  6. Why is the ‘Fairtrade system so important’?
  7. “Some retailers have already increased prices but there is more to come. The products most under threat are T-shirts, underwear and socks. More complicated garments such as heavy jeans will be less affected.” Why are the prices of more complicated garments likely to rise by a smaller percentage than those of simple garments?
  8. What has been happening to the demand for cheap fashion clothing and why? Combine this effect with those of costs on a demand and supply diagram.
  9. What type of market structure is the market for fashion clothing? What are the implications of this for the profits of retailers?
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Illogical logistics?

Ginsters is a large producer of pasties in Cornwall. Most of its ingredients come from Cornwall, but the pasties are sold throughout Britain. But, not surprisingly, they are also sold in Cornwall. In fact, there is a large Tesco virtually next door to the Ginsters’ pasty plant and, as you can imagine, it does a good trade in Ginsters’ pasties, pies and sandwiches. After all, they are a local product.

But are they delivered directly from the Ginsters’ factory? No they are not. In fact, they are sent by lorry to the Avonmouth distribution depot, some 125 miles away, only to be sent back again to the Tesco supermarket next door! So does it make economic sense to incur all the costs of transporting the pasties 250 miles only to end up virtually where they started?

It is a similar story with Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream. It is made with Cornish milk but is also sold nationwide. In this case it is transported some 340 miles to get to another Tesco supermarket virtually next door to the Rodda plant.

The following articles and podcast consider the logistics of manufactured food distribution, and ask whether private costs are the only thing that should be taken into account when judging the sense of the system.

Articles
From here to eternity: 340-mile journey for clotted cream made two miles away Guardian, Steven Morris (3/9/10)
Food miles row as pasties travel 250 miles to the supermarket next door This is Cornwall (30/8/10)
Supermarket food mileage ‘completely bonkers’ BBC Today Programme, Tim Lang (30/8/10)

Questions

  1. Why does Tesco’s distribution system for pasties, clotted cream and other products made in parts of the country away from large centres of population make sense in ‘conventional economic terms’?
  2. What economies of scale are there in pasty production and distribution?
  3. What externalities are involved in the distribution of Ginsters’ pasties?
  4. Consider the arguments for and against locating mass producers of food products nearer to the ‘centre of gravity’ of markets.
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Organic waste?

The recession of the past few months has taken its toll on organic farmers. Until recently, the industry was booming as consumers switched to products perceived as greener, healthier and more ethically produced. Now, as many consumers are feeling the pinch, they are switching to cheaper foodstuffs. The resulting decline in demand for organic food has turned profit into loss for many organic farmers. According to the first of the linked articles below, at least two organic farmers are leaving the movement each week.

But what will happen as the economy recovers and people start turning back to organic products? Given that it takes some two years to convert to organic standards, there could be supply shortages next year.

As UK shoppers tighten their belts, organic farmers feel the squeeze Guardian (11/4/09)
United Kingdom-Organic slowdown Farming UK (12/4/09)
Can the organics survive the current economy? Limerick Post (10/4/09)

Questions

  1. How close to perfect competition is the market for organic foods?
  2. What determines whether an organic farmer should continue in the market even though a loss is being made?
  3. What can you conclude about the income and price elasticities of demand for organic produce and the cross-price elasticity of demand for organic food with eating out?
  4. What is likely to happen to the market for organic food over the next two years?
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What is the true cost of the Olympics?

Having secured the 2012 Olympics, we now have to work out how to pay for it. Recent news has indicated that the cost of hosting the Olympics has risen significantly from the original estimate. However, there is considerable debate in the media about what the real cost is. The figures given are massive, but what will we be left with after the games are over? How can we value these assets? The blog below from Evan Davis looks at some of these issues and discusses the real cost of hosting the Olympics.

Why do costs overrun? BBC News Online (16/3/07)
Real cost of 2012? BBC News Online – Evan Davis blog (15/3/07)

Questions
1. Identify five fixed and five variable costs of running the Olympics.
2. Discuss the value of the opportunity cost of hosting the Olympics.
3. List the direct and indirect benefits of hosting the 2012 Olympics in London.
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