Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Who Says There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

One of the most popular sayings associated with the “dismal science” of economics is “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The major idea behind this phrase is that even if you aren’t given a bill to pay, there is always an implicit cost associated with any action.

The economic concept supporting this statement is that of opportunity cost, which is defined as the best foregone alternative. Simply stated, it’s what you give up in order to do something else. Consider the following example: you have $10 that you can either spend on a movie or a pizza. The opportunity cost of going to the movie is therefore the pizza that you give up by attending the movie, and vice versa.

But what about when a good is free to consume? What is the opportunity cost in this situation? Usually in cases like this, the opportunity cost is associated with the value of your time or some other implicit cost. For example, if you work hourly, the time it takes to wait in line for a “free” offer is time that you could’ve spent working and earning money; “free” in this case simply means that there is no explicit monetary cost, but it says nothing about the implicit costs of waiting for the item. Another common example is when you receive a “free” weekend getaway, but the cost is that you have to sit through a 2-hour sales pitch with a timeshare organization.

I was thus astonished when I received something truly for free a few weeks ago at Auntie Annie’s pretzel shop. I was at the mall with my friend when the two of us realized we were getting pretty hungry. Wanting to avoid eating a fast-food meal at the food court, we decided to each grab a pretzel at Auntie Annie’s to hold us off for awhile. As we were waiting in line, one of the workers started giving out samples. My friend suggested that we try them since the line was pretty long and we were quite hungry. As I walked over to receive the samples and my friend stayed in line, the worker also instantly handed me a coupon: BUY ONE PRETZEL, GET ANOTHER ONE FREE. Having already committed to wait in line to purchase two pretzels before I got the coupon—it was my friend’s birthday so the two pretzels were on me—I actually received a free pretzel! After consulting with some other economists, none of us could find an implicit cost that I incurred in order to receive the free pretzel (though you could argue that my time to write this blog post is an after-the-fact cost associated with the pretzel purchase). In short, who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

Discussion questions:

1. Can you think of a time in your life where you actually received something for free? That is, there were no explicit monetary costs or implicit opportunity costs.

2. If I was just passing by Auntie Annie’s and received the coupon, why would the second pretzel not be free? What opportunity costs would be associated with using this coupon in that case?

3. Suppose you have a “Buy 10 pretzels, Get One Free” card for Auntie Annie’s. Does it distort your behavior in any way? Is the 11th pretzel actually free?

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Leggo My Eggo! Really!

It’s hard to miss the barren shelves in grocery stores due to a pending Eggo Waffle shortage. The recent run on the popular breakfast food is one of the few times when a very clear-cut piece of microeconomics hits home enough to capture the attention of people without an economics background. What fascinates me the most about this story is how people with no interest in economics still have the shortage on the tips of their tongues. I believe there are two different microeconomics concepts at play here: one covered in nearly every introductory economics class and the other a deeper assumption that deserves more discussion than it normally gets.

First, the shortage in stores essentially comes from Kellogg’s self-imposed price ceiling. It seems that Kellogg has decided to continue selling Eggo Waffles at the same manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) rather than raising it to reflect a decrease in supply since two of their four production plants are out of commission. By leaving the price where it is, there is a shortage in the market because more people would like to buy at the MSRP than Kellogg wants to serve. This decision seems odd to economists because it introduces inefficiency. The price ceiling creates a shortage in the market which leads to the inefficiency. On the corresponding graph, you can see the minimum amount of deadweight loss (DWL) in the market for Eggo waffles given this shortage; the DWL could be larger if those consumers with a lower willingness to pay are the ones who end up buying the existing waffles. One possible reason for the price ceiling is that Kellogg does not want to appear like it is trying to profit off of its own misfortune (the Atlanta plant closed due to heavy rain) and planning (the Tennessee plant closed for repairs).

Operating under typical economic assumptions, unless Kellogg or individual stores decide to raise the price, the shortage in grocery stores should continue. This means that some consumers who would be willing to pay more than the MSRP will be unable to get waffles. Which customers end up with the waffles will only be a matter of timing and luck, and it is very likely that some people who are unable to purchase waffles will value them more than others who buy a box they find on the shelves. One common explanation economists offer about how this situation will be resolved is the emergence of a secondary market or black market. USA Today interviewed Joey Resciniti, a shopper who bought one of the last boxes, who said, “I told my husband that maybe I need to put them on eBay." In secondary markets, people who are lucky enough to buy the boxes at the MSRP are able to turn around and sell them to an unlucky person who is willing to pay above the sticker price but was unable to buy any waffles in the store, exactly what Ms. Resciniti suggested.

The second economic concept at play here is the competitive hypothesis. The classic supply and demand analysis used above rests on some core assumptions of economics, such as rationality of agents, complete information, and the competitive hypothesis. When any of these assumptions are broken, we need a different model to understand what will happen in the world. The competitive hypothesis can be summed up by the assumption that a consumer believes that if they decide to buy a product they can afford, they are able to get it. For example, if I worried that the gas station near my house would run out of coffee before I get there in the morning, I might behave much differently. The same can be said of Eggo Waffle consumers. In the USA Today article, Ms. Resciniti also said, "We have eight of them, and if we ration those—maybe have half an Eggo in one sitting—then it'll last longer.” If consumers believe they will have a hard time finding an item they want to buy, they may instead chose to change what they want to buy. If for example, Ms. Resciniti does start to ration her waffles, then she may need to buy more oatmeal or fresh fruit for breakfast on other days. If consumers start rationing because the competitive hypothesis does not hold, a more complicated model is needed to correctly determine equilibrium behavior.

Discussion Questions:

1. What should the shortage of Eggo Waffles do to the demand for other brands of waffles? What about the demand for maple syrup?

2. Think of some secondary markets you are familiar with, like eBay, ticket scalpers, or craigslist. How are prices determined in these markets? If a secondary market for Eggo Waffles forms, what can you say about the equilibrium price?

3. If a black market for Eggo Waffles did emerge, who would be worse off at the equilibrium? Would anyone be better off?

4. Think of some other real-world examples where the competitive hypothesis is violated. What would need to be added to the basic supply and demand model to accurately predict what people do when they aren’t sure if the store will have the goods they want in stock?

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