Economics: Principles and Practices © 2008
Prices and Decision Making
Section 1: Prices As Signals
Price is the monetary value of a product, which is normally established by supply and demand and is an important economic concept. Prices can be described as signals to both producers and consumers. High prices are signals for businesses to produce more and for consumers to buy less. Low prices signal the reverse. Prices have the advantage of being neutral and flexible. In addition, they permit freedom of choice, have no administrative costs, are highly efficient, and are easily understood by everyone. Non-price allocations systems such as rationing exist, but they suffer from a number of problems, including the issue of allocating ration coupons in a fair and equitable manner. Therefore, economists prefer the price system.
Section 2: The Price System at Work
Economists develop economic models of markets with supply and demand curves in order to analyze and predict outcomes. In a competitive market, the forces of supply and demand establish prices. A temporary surplus drives prices down; a temporary shortage forces prices up. Eventually, the market reaches the equilibrium price where there are neither shortages nor surpluses. Changes in supply or demand can disturb the market, but the market will tend to find its new equilibrium with the help of temporary shortages and/or surpluses. Whenever supply or demand for a product fluctuates, the elasticity of the two curves affects the size of the price change. Competitive markets represent the ideal, but the lessons learned from them apply to other markets as well.
Section 3: Social Goals and Market Efficiency
Prices work as a system to allocate resources between markets. However, if prices are fixed in one market, temporary shortages and surpluses tend to become permanent. A price ceiling, such as rent control, is one form of fixed price; a price floor, such as the minimum wage, is another example. Agriculture is especially hard-hit by price changes, because demand and supply tend to be inelastic, while weather often causes the supply curve to change. Therefore, to help farmers, the federal government established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), an agency in the Department of Agriculture. The CCC then used a target price, which is essentially a price floor, to help stabilize farm prices. As a result, over the years, the government has established other forms of support for agriculture in the economy.