Figure 1.

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 Depending upon the competition and prices offered, a wheat farmer may choose to grow a different crop. (Credit: modification of work by Daniel X. O’Neil/Flickr Creative Commons)

A Dime a Dozen

When you were younger did you babysit, deliver papers, or mow the lawn for money? If so, you faced stiff competition from a lot of other competitors who offered identical services. There was nothing to stop others from offering their services too.

All of you charged the “going rate.” If you tried to charge more, your customers would simply buy from someone else. These conditions are very similar to the conditions agricultural growers face.

Growing a crop may be more difficult to start than a babysitting or lawn mowing service, but growers face the same fierce competition. In the grand scale of world agriculture, farmers face competition from thousands of others because they sell an identical product. After all, winter wheat is winter wheat. But it is relatively easy for farmers to leave the marketplace for another crop. In this case, they do not sell the family farm, they switch crops.

Take the case of the upper Midwest region of the United States—for many generations the area was called “King Wheat.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, statistics by state, in 1997, 11.6 million acres of wheat and 780,000 acres of corn were planted in North Dakota. In the intervening 15 or so years has the mix of crops changed? Since it is relatively easy to switch crops, did farmers change what was planted as the relative crop prices changed? We will find out at chapter’s end.

In the meantime, let’s consider the topic of this chapter—the perfectly competitive market. This is a market in which entry and exit are relatively easy and competitors are “a dime a dozen.”

Introduction to Perfect Competition

All businesses face two realities: no one is required to buy their products, and even customers who might want those products may buy from other businesses instead. Firms that operate in perfectly competitive markets face this reality. In this chapter you will learn how such firms make decisions about how much to produce, how much profit they make, whether to stay in business or not, and many others. Industries differ from one another in terms of how many sellers there are in a specific market, how easy or difficult it is for a new firm to enter, and the type of products that are sold. This is referred to as the market structure of the industry. In this chapter we focus on perfect competition. However, in other chapters we will examine other industry types: monopoly and monopolistic competition and oligopoly.

Perfect Competition and Why It Matters

Firms are said to be in perfect competition when the following conditions occur: (1) many firms produce identical products; (2) many buyers are available to buy the product, and many sellers are available to sell the product; (3) sellers and buyers have all relevant information to make rational decisions about the product being bought and sold; and (4) firms can enter and leave the market without any restrictions—in other words, there is free entry and exit into and out of the market.

A perfectly competitive firm is known as a price taker, because the pressure of competing firms forces them to accept the prevailing equilibrium price in the market. If a firm in a perfectly competitive market raises the price of its product by so much as a penny, it will lose all of its sales to competitors. When a wheat grower wants to know what the going price of wheat is, he or she has to go to the computer or listen to the radio to check. The market price is determined solely by supply and demand in the entire market and not the individual farmer. Also, a perfectly competitive firm must be a very small player in the overall market, so that it can increase or decrease output without noticeably affecting the overall quantity supplied and price in the market.

A perfectly competitive market is a hypothetical extreme; however, producers in a number of industries do face many competitor firms selling highly similar goods, in which case they must often act as price takers. Agricultural markets are often used as an example. The same crops grown by different farmers are largely interchangeable. According to the United States Department of Agriculture monthly reports, in 2012, U.S. corn farmers received an average price of $6.07 per bushel and wheat farmers received an average price of $7.60 per bushel. A corn farmer who attempted to sell at $7.00 per bushel, or a wheat grower who attempted to sell for $8.00 per bushel, would not have found any buyers. A perfectly competitive firm will not sell below the equilibrium price either. Why should they when they can sell all they want at the higher price? Other examples of agricultural markets that operate in close to perfectly competitive markets are small roadside produce markets and small organic farmers.

This chapter examines how profit-seeking firms decide how much to produce in perfectly competitive markets. Such firms will analyze their costs. In the short run, the perfectly competitive firm will seek the quantity of output where profits are highest or, if profits are not possible, where losses are lowest. In this example, the “short run” refers to a situation in which firms are producing with one fixed input and incur fixed costs of production. (In the real world, firms can have many fixed inputs.)

In the long run, perfectly competitive firms will react to profits by increasing production. They will respond to losses by reducing production or exiting the market. Ultimately, a long-run equilibrium will be attained when no new firms want to enter the market and existing firms do not want to leave the market, as economic profits have been driven down to zero.

A perfectly competitive firm has only one major decision to make—namely, what quantity to produce. To understand why this is so, consider a different way of writing out the basic definition of profit:

eginarray ext extProfithfill&= extTotal Revenue- extTotal cost \ hfill&=left( extPrice ight)left( extQuantity produced ight)-left( extAverage cost ight)left( extQuantity produced ight)endarray

How Perfectly Competitive Firms Make Output Decisions

Since a perfectly competitive firm must accept the price for its output as determined by the product’s market demand and supply, it cannot choose the price it charges. This is already determined in the profit equation, and so the perfectly competitive firm can sell any number of units at exactly the same price. It implies that the firm faces a perfectly elastic demand curve for its product: buyers are willing to buy any number of units of output from the firm at the market price. When the perfectly competitive firm chooses what quantity to produce, then this quantity—along with the prices prevailing in the market for output and inputs—will determine the firm’s total revenue, total costs, and ultimately, level of profits.

Determining the Highest Profit by Comparing Total Revenue and Total Cost

A perfectly competitive firm can sell as large a quantity as it wishes, as long as it accepts the prevailing market price. Total revenue is going to increase as the firm sells more, depending on the price of the product and the number of units sold. If you increase the number of units sold at a given price, then total revenue will increase. If the price of the product increases for every unit sold, then total revenue also increases. As an example of how a perfectly competitive firm decides what quantity to produce, consider the case of a small farmer who produces raspberries and sells them frozen for $4 per pack. Sales of one pack of raspberries will bring in $4, two packs will be $8, three packs will be $12, and so on. If, for example, the price of frozen raspberries doubles to $8 per pack, then sales of one pack of raspberries will be $8, two packs will be $16, three packs will be $24, and so on.

Total revenue and total costs for the raspberry farm, broken down into fixed and variable costs, are shown in Table 1 and also appear in Figure 2. The horizontal axis shows the quantity of frozen raspberries produced in packs; the vertical axis shows both total revenue and total costs, measured in dollars. The total cost curve intersects with the vertical axis at a value that shows the level of fixed costs, and then slopes upward.


Figure 2. Total revenue for a perfectly competitive firm is a straight line sloping up. The slope is equal to the price of the good. Total cost also slopes up, but with some curvature. At higher levels of output, total cost begins to slope upward more steeply because of diminishing marginal returns. The maximum profit will occur at the quantity where the gap of total revenue over total cost is largest.

Table 1. Total Cost and Total Revenue at the Raspberry FarmQuantity (Q)Total Cost (TC)Fixed Cost (FC)Variable Cost (VC)Total Revenue (TR)Profit
 0$62$62 –$0–$62

Based on its total revenue and total cost curves, a perfectly competitive firm like the raspberry farm can calculate the quantity of output that will provide the highest level of profit. At any given quantity, total revenue minus total cost will equal profit. One way to determine the most profitable quantity to produce is to see at what quantity total revenue exceeds total cost by the largest amount. On Figure 2, the vertical gap between total revenue and total cost represents either profit (if total revenues are greater that total costs at a certain quantity) or losses (if total costs are greater that total revenues at a certain quantity). In this example, total costs will exceed total revenues at output levels from 0 to 40, and so over this range of output, the firm will be making losses. At output levels from 50 to 80, total revenues exceed total costs, so the firm is earning profits. But then at an output of 90 or 100, total costs again exceed total revenues and the firm is making losses. Total profits appear in the final column of Table 1. The highest total profits in the table, as in the figure that is based on the table values, occur at an output of 70–80, when profits will be $56.

A higher price would mean that total revenue would be higher for every quantity sold. A lower price would mean that total revenue would be lower for every quantity sold. What happens if the price drops low enough so that the total revenue line is completely below the total cost curve; that is, at every level of output, total costs are higher than total revenues? In this instance, the best the firm can do is to suffer losses. But a profit-maximizing firm will prefer the quantity of output where total revenues come closest to total costs and thus where the losses are smallest.

Comparing Marginal Revenue and Marginal Costs

Firms often do not have the necessary data they need to draw a complete total cost curve for all levels of production. They cannot be sure of what total costs would look like if they, say, doubled production or cut production in half, because they have not tried it. Instead, firms experiment. They produce a slightly greater or lower quantity and observe how profits are affected. In economic terms, this practical approach to maximizing profits means looking at how changes in production affect marginal revenue and marginal cost.

Figure 3 presents the marginal revenue and marginal cost curves based on the total revenue and total cost in Table 1. The marginal revenue curve shows the additional revenue gained from selling one more unit. As mentioned before, a firm in perfect competition faces a perfectly elastic demand curve for its product—that is, the firm’s demand curve is a horizontal line drawn at the market price level. This also means that the firm’s marginal revenue curve is the same as the firm’s demand curve: Every time a consumer demands one more unit, the firm sells one more unit and revenue goes up by exactly the same amount equal to the market price. In this example, every time a pack of frozen raspberries is sold, the firm’s revenue increases by $4. Table 2 shows an example of this. This condition only holds for price taking firms in perfect competition where:

extmarginal revenue= extprice

The formula for marginal revenue is:

extmarginal revenue=frac extchange in total revenue extchange in quantity

Table 2PriceQuantityTotal RevenueMarginal Revenue

Notice that marginal revenue does not change as the firm produces more output. That is because the price is determined by supply and demand and does not change as the farmer produces more (keeping in mind that, due to the relative small size of each firm, increasing their supply has no impact on the total market supply where price is determined).

Since a perfectly competitive firm is a price taker, it can sell whatever quantity it wishes at the market-determined price. Marginal cost, the cost per additional unit sold, is calculated by dividing the change in total cost by the change in quantity. The formula for marginal cost is:

extmarginal cost=frac extchange in total cost extchange in quantity

Ordinarily, marginal cost changes as the firm produces a greater quantity.

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In the raspberry farm example, shown in Figure 3, Figure 4, and Table 3, marginal cost at first declines as production increases from 10 to 20 to 30 packs of raspberries—which represents the area of increasing marginal returns that is not uncommon at low levels of production. But then marginal costs start to increase, displaying the typical pattern of diminishing marginal returns. If the firm is producing at a quantity where MR > MC, like 40 or 50 packs of raspberries, then it can increase profit by increasing output because the marginal revenue is exceeding the marginal cost. If the firm is producing at a quantity where MC > MR, like 90 or 100 packs, then it can increase profit by reducing output because the reductions in marginal cost will exceed the reductions in marginal revenue. The firm’s profit-maximizing choice of output will occur where MR = MC (or at a choice close to that point). You will notice that what occurs on the production side is exemplified on the cost side. This is referred to as duality.