Here’s an interesting example of oligopoly – one you probably haven’t considered before. It’s the art market. And it’s not just one market, but a whole pyramid of markets. At the bottom are the ‘yearning masses’ of penny-poor artists, from students to those struggling to make a living from their art, with studios in their attic, garden shed or kitchen table. At the top of the pyramid are those very few artists that can earn fantastic sums of money by selling to collectors or top galleries. Then there are all the layers of markets in between, where artists can earn everything from a modest to a reasonable income.
The pyramid is itself depicted as a work of art, which you can see in the linked article below. It’s worth studying this piece of art carefully as well as reading the article.
A guide to the market oligopoly system Reuters, Felix Salmon (28/12/10)
- Identify the increasing barriers to entry as you work up the art market pyramid.
- Are there any other market imperfections in the art market that you can identify from the diagram?
- What are the key differences between the ‘primary market, tier 1’, the ‘primary market, tier 2’ and ‘the secondary market’?
- Are artists ‘rational maximisers’? If so, what is it they are trying to maximise? If not, why not?
- How would you set about determining the ‘worth’ of a piece of art? How do possible future value of a piece of art determine its present value?
You will probably have come across the concept of consumer sovereignty. In the mythical world of perfect markets, producers are at the beck and call of consumers. Firms that are not responsive to consumer demand go out of business. In other words, in order to survive they have to respond to any shifts in consumer demand. These in turn can be the result of changes in tastes, changes in income, changes in the prices of other goods, and so on.
Of course, the real world is not perfect, but it is still often assumed that consumers are powerful in influencing what firms sell and at what prices. Well, firms would much rather be in a position of manipulating consumer tastes and hence the huge amounts spent on advertising and marketing.
And it doesn’t end there. Firms use many pricing practices which, to put it mildly, try to confuse consumers or lure them into buying things by making them think they are getting something much cheaper than they really are. Take the case of airline tickets. Some budget airlines offer tickets at extremely low prices, such as 99p. But if you select such a flight, by the time you get to the final screen where taxes, charges, supplements, luggage, etc. are added, the price could exceed £100! And ask yourself this, when you buy something with 20% off, or when you buy ‘three for the price of two’ how rational was your decision? Did you really want the product? Was the offer really ‘genuine’?
The Office of Fair Trading has recently completed two investigations into pricing. As it stated 14 months ago when the investigations were launched:
The first, into online targeting of advertising and prices will cover behavioural advertising and customised pricing, where prices are individually tailored using information collected about a consumer’s internet use. It is expected that this study will be completed by spring 2010.
The second, into advertising of prices, will consider various pricing practices which may potentially mislead consumers. The study will look in particular, but not exclusively, at how these practices are used online.
The following articles look at some of the practices that firms use to drive sales – practices that deliberately attempt to manipulate the consumer. The assumption of ‘perfect knowledge’ by consumers may be a long way from the truth.
Shoppers lose out on ‘billions’ because of ‘deceitful’ marketing The Telegraph, Harry Wallop (2/12/10)
OFT warns retailers about ‘misleading’ price offers BBC News (2/12/10)
OFT cracks down on price gimmicks Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (2/12/10)
We’re all gulled by special offers BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (2/12/10)
OFT warning on misleading pricing practices, OFT Press Release 124/10 (2/12/10)
OFT launches market studies into advertising and pricing practices, OFT Press Release 126/09 (15/10/09)
Advertising of Prices, Office of Fair Trading, OFT1291 (December 2010)
Advertising of Prices, Office of Fair Trading, project page
Advertising of Prices Study Overview, Office of Fair Trading, video
- Explain each of the different types of pricing practice investigated by the OFT.
- Which of the pricing practices are the most misleading for customers?
- What is meant by ‘invisible price increases’? How can they be used to mislead the consumer?
- Why do certain pricing practices make it hard for the Office for National Statistics to work out the rate of inflation?
- Explain the new framework the OFT is adopting for ‘prioritising enforcement action’.
- If we end up buying something that we didn’t really intend to buy, does this mean that we were being irrational?
- Is advertising generally in or against the interest of consumers? Explain your answer
Most people, when asked, would like to earn more and many people are prepared to make sacrifices to do so. They may devote considerable time to obtaining qualifications; work much harder in order to gain promotion; work longer hours. What is more, when people do earn more, they take on extra commitments: a bigger house with a bigger mortgage; sending their kids to a private school; getting used to a more luxurious lifestyle. In fact, many people have to spend more on things such as home help, convenience foods and all sorts of labour-saving devices in order to cope with their longer hours.
Some people get so fed up with this pressurised lifestyle that they say ‘enough is enough; let me off this merry-go-round’. They may be happy to take a cut in income to live a simpler life and have more leisure time. Others, however, find that the merry-go-round just keeps going faster and faster and that they cannot get off; except, perhaps, if they make themselves ill, or worse still, die!
Now, if you are struggling as a student to make ends meet and find your debts are inexorably mounting, you may have little sympathy for people earning six-figure salaries! But are you in danger of trying to achieve this lifestyle for yourself? Do you see the main goal of your degree as getting you a better-paid job? What would count as ‘rational behaviour’ here and what would an economist advise you to do?
Then there is the question of whether the high paid are worth their high salaries. Are these salaries a reflection of the value of their output and the sacrifices they make? Or do they reflect economic power, custom and practice or asymmetry of information? And what do we mean by ‘worth’?
The following articles look at some of the highest paid people in the public sector. Some 38,000 public-sector employees earn more than £100,000. In the private sector the figures are much higher: some 545,000 people.
The perils of earning a £100,000 salary BBC News Magazine, Jon Kelly (22/9/10)
Ranking the pay packets of the public sector’s top dogs BBC Panorama programme, Vivian White (19/9/10)
Public Sector pay: The numbers BBC News (20/9/10)
Over 9,000 in public sector earn more than David Cameron, survey claims Guardian, Nicholas Watt (19/9/10)
On the inequality myth The Economist blogs (20/9/10)
Portal to Annual survey of hours and earnings (ASHE) Office for national Statistics
Family Spending – A report on the 2008 Living Costs and Food Survey (see Chapter 3) Office for national Statistics
Income inequality Office for national Statistics (10/6/10)
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, 2008/09 Statistical Bulletin (ONS) (10/6/10)
Data: The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, 2008/09 Office for national Statistics
- Use Gini coefficients to examine what has happened to income distribution in the UK in recent years.
- Are high-paid earners ‘worth’ what they are paid? How would set about establishing what they are worth?
- Is it rational to seek a higher paid job if it involves longer hours and more stress? Why may it be difficult to make a ‘rational’ decision?
- Should the Prime Minister be the highest paid public-sector employee? Explain your answer.
- What factors will you take into account when deciding what jobs to apply for?
- To what extent can imperfect information explain people’s choices about work-life balance?
- To what extent can marginal productivity explain the huge salaries and bonuses paid to top executives in both the public and the private sectors?
If we are faced with simple and limited choices, we may make careful decisions based on a number of criteria: in other words, we will identify various characterisitics we are looking for and see how well the various alternative products or activities meet our criteria. When we have lots of choice, however, we may be less careful or get confused.
In this Guardian podcast, the panelists discuss complex choices between many products and/or characteristics. Are people being ‘rational’ when making such choices? Is being less careful simply a rational use of scarce time? Do people really want lots of choice or would they prefer more limited choice? Can experiments where people are given choices help us to understand how people choose and how much choice businesses or government should give people? Then there is the question of producers/suppliers of products. Does choice promote competition and product development and is there an optimum amount of choice to achieve this?
The Business: Choice Guardian Podcasts, Sheena Iyengar, Julian Glover and Andrew Lilico in conversation with Aditya Chakrabortty (1/9/10)
- Are people ‘rational’ when they make choices? For what reasons may they not be rational?
- Can you make rational choices if your information is imperfect?
- Is there an optimum amount of choice and how would you set about establishing that optimum?
- How useful are experiments in understanding the process of choice? What are the weaknesses of such experiments?
- Should people be limited in the amount of choice they are given over medical treatment and schools?
- What are the advantages to other people of giving people more choice?
- How much does culture influence our attitudes towards choice?
Are consumers ‘rational’ is the sense of trying to maximise consumer surplus? In some circumstances the answer is yes. When we go shopping we do generally try to get best value for money, where value is defined in terms of utility. With limited incomes, we don’t want to waste money. If we were offered two baskets of goods costing the same amount, we would generally choose basket A if its contents gave us more utility than basket B.
So why do we frequently buy things that are bad for us? Take the case of food. Why do we consume junk food if we know fresh produce is better for us? To answer this we need to look a little closer at the concept of utility and what motivates us when we consumer things. The following article does just that. It reports on writings of Michael Pollan. Pollan looks at our motivation when choosing what and how much to eat. For much of the time our choices are governed by our subconscious and by habit.
“Millions of humans, while believing they govern their actions with conscious intelligence, clean every morsel from their dinner plates, mainly because their parents told them to. And we do this even if we don’t particularly like the food on the plate and even if we know we should be eating less of it. Unthinkingly, we follow a habit we would condemn if we looked at it clearly.”
You mar what you eat and the politics of Michael Pollan National Post (Canada), Robert Fulford (18/1/10)
- What is meant by ‘rational behaviour’? Is it reasonable to assume that people are rational in most circumstances?
- Is eating junk food consistent with the attempt to maximise consumer surplus?
- How relevant is the principle of diminishing marginal utility in explaining the amount of junk food we eat?
- To what extent are the problems that Pollan identifies examples of (a) imperfect information; (b) irrationality?
- What does people’s eating behaviour reveal about their preferences for the present over the future and hence their personal discount rate?
- What are the policy implications of Pollan’s analysis for governments trying to get people to eat more healthily?