Elasticity and Pricing

Can Businesses Pass Costs on to Consumers?

Most businesses face a day-to-day struggle to figure out ways to produce at a lower cost, as one pathway to their goal of earning higher profits. However, in some cases, the price of a key input over which the firm has no control may rise. For example, many chemical companies use petroleum as a key input, but they have no control over the world market price for crude oil. Coffee shops use coffee as a key input, but they have no control over the world market price of coffee. If the cost of a key input rises, can the firm pass those higher costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices? Conversely, if new and less expensive ways of producing are invented, can the firm keep the benefits in the form of higher profits, or will the market pressure them to pass the gains along to consumers in the form of lower prices? The price elasticity of demand plays a key role in answering these questions.

Imagine that as a consumer of legal pharmaceutical products, you read a newspaper story that a technological breakthrough in the production of aspirin has occurred, so that every aspirin factory can now produce aspirin more cheaply. What does this discovery mean to you? Figure illustrates two possibilities. In Figure (a), the demand curve is highly inelastic. In this case, a technological breakthrough that shifts supply to the right, from S0 to S1, so that the equilibrium shifts from E0 to E1, creates a substantially lower price for the product with relatively little impact on the quantity sold. In Figure (b), the demand curve is highly elastic. In this case, the technological breakthrough leads to a much greater quantity sold in the market at very close to the original price. Consumers benefit more, in general, when the demand curve is more inelastic because the shift in the supply results in a much lower price for consumers.

The two graphs show a highly elastic demand curve (on the left) and highly inelastic demand curve (on the right).
Passing along Cost Savings to Consumers Cost-saving gains cause supply to shift out to the right from S0 to S1; that is, at any given price, firms will be willing to supply a greater quantity. If demand is inelastic, as in (a), the result of this cost-saving technological improvement will be substantially lower prices. If demand is elastic, as in (b), the result will be only slightly lower prices. Consumers benefit in either case, from a greater quantity at a lower price, but the benefit is greater when demand is inelastic, as in (a).

Aspirin producers may find themselves in a nasty bind here. The situation in Figure, with extremely inelastic demand, means that a new invention may cause the price to drop dramatically while quantity changes little. As a result, the new production technology can lead to a drop in the revenue that firms earn from aspirin sales. However, if strong competition exists between aspirin producer, each producer may have little choice but to search for and implement any breakthrough that allows it to reduce production costs. After all, if one firm decides not to implement such a cost-saving technology, other firms that do can drive them out of business.

Since demand for food is generally inelastic, farmers may often face the situation in Figure (a). That is, a surge in production leads to a severe drop in price that can actually decrease the total revenue that farmers receive. Conversely, poor weather or other conditions that cause a terrible year for farm production can sharply raise prices so that the total revenue that the farmer receives increases. The Clear It Up box discusses how these issues relate to coffee.

How do coffee prices fluctuate?

Coffee is an international crop. The top five coffee-exporting nations are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. In these nations and others, 20 million families depend on selling coffee beans as their main source of income. These families are exposed to enormous risk, because the world price of coffee bounces up and down. For example, in 1993, the world price of coffee was about 50 cents per pound. In 1995 it was four times as high, at $2 per pound. By 1997 it had fallen by half to $1.00 per pound. In 1998 it leaped back up to $2 per pound. By 2001 it had fallen back to 46 cents a pound. By early 2011 it rose to about $2.31 per pound. By the end of 2012, the price had fallen back to about $1.31 per pound.

The reason for these price fluctuations lies in a combination of inelastic demand and shifts in supply. The elasticity of coffee demand is only about 0.3; that is, a 10% rise in the price of coffee leads to a decline of about 3% in the quantity of coffee consumed. When a major frost hit the Brazilian coffee crop in 1994, coffee supply shifted to the left with an inelastic demand curve, leading to much higher prices. Conversely, when Vietnam entered the world coffee market as a major producer in the late 1990s, the supply curve shifted out to the right. With a highly inelastic demand curve, coffee prices fell dramatically. Figure (a) illustrates this situation.

Elasticity also reveals whether firms can pass higher costs that they incur on to consumers. Addictive substances, for which demand is inelastic, are products for which producers can pass higher costs on to consumers. For example, the demand for cigarettes is relatively inelastic among regular smokers who are somewhat addicted. Economic research suggests that increasing cigarette prices by 10% leads to about a 3% reduction in the quantity of cigarettes that adults smoke, so the elasticity of demand for cigarettes is 0.3. If society increases taxes on companies that produce cigarettes, the result will be, as in Figure (a), that the supply curve shifts from S0 to S1. However, as the equilibrium moves from E0 to E1, governments mainly pass along these taxes to consumers in the form of higher prices. These higher taxes on cigarettes will raise tax revenue for the government, but they will not much affect the quantity of smoking.

If the goal is to reduce the quantity of cigarettes demanded, we must achieve it by shifting this inelastic demand back to the left, perhaps with public programs to discourage cigarette use or to help people to quit. For example, anti-smoking advertising campaigns have shown some ability to reduce smoking. However, if cigarette demand were more elastic, as in Figure (b), then an increase in taxes that shifts supply from S0 to S1 and equilibrium from E0 to E1 would reduce the quantity of cigarettes smoked substantially. Youth smoking seems to be more elastic than adult smoking—that is, the quantity of youth smoking will fall by a greater percentage than the quantity of adult smoking in response to a given percentage increase in price.

These two graphs show how a supply shift affects price and quantity. Figure (a) shows how supply shifts when demand is inelastic and figure (b) shows how supply shifts when demand is elastic.
Passing along Higher Costs to Consumers Higher costs, like a higher tax on cigarette companies for the example we gave in the text, lead supply to shift to the left. This shift is identical in (a) and (b). However, in (a), where demand is inelastic, companies largely can pass the cost increase along to consumers in the form of higher prices, without much of a decline in equilibrium quantity. In (b), demand is elastic, so the shift in supply results primarily in a lower equilibrium quantity. Consumers suffer in either case, but in (a), they suffer from paying a higher price for the same quantity, while in (b), they suffer from buying a lower quantity (and presumably needing to shift their consumption elsewhere).