Tag: Supply and Demand

Mental Model: Equilibrium

There are many ways in which you can visualize the concept of equilibrium, but one of the simplest comes from Boombustology where a ball sits on a simple curved shape.

equilibrium

A situation in which equilibrium is possible is one in which over time, if left to its own devices, the ball will find one unique location. Overshooting and undershooting this unique location is self-correcting. A situation of disequilibrium, however, is one in which the ball is unable to find a unique location. A ball in such a state does not generate self-correcting moves that dampen its moves toward a theoretical “equilibrium” or resting spot; rather, disequilibrium generates motion that is self-reinforcing and accelerates the ball’s move away from any stable state.

Let’s take a step back and thank Netwon.

In the Principia he describes his three laws of motion. Using planets, these laws allowed Newton to demonstrate how gravitational forces act between two bodies. He showed that the force of the sun’s gravity (pulling planets toward the sun) is offset by their forward velocity. These two forces, equal in nature, create a state of equilibrium.

Equilibrium is a balance between one or more opposing forces. As you can imagine, different types of equilibrium exist. Static equilibrium is when a system is at rest. Dynamic equilibrium is when two or more forces are equally matched. Robert Hagstorm, in the Last Liberal Art, helps illustrate the difference between the two:

A scale that is equally weighted on both sides is an example of static equilibrium. Fill a bathtub full of water and then turn off the faucet and you will observe static equilibrium. But if you unplug the drain and then turn on the faucet so the level of the bathtub does not change, you are witnessing dynamic equilibrium. Another example is the human body. It remains in dynamic equilibrium so long as the heat loss from cooling remains in balance with the consumption of sugars.

Supply and Demand + Equilibrium

The rule of supply and demand, from economics, is also an example of the law of equilibrium.

In 1997 Warren Buffett, through his company Berkshire Hathaway, purchased 11.2 million ounces of silver based on his understanding of equilibrium. In his annual letter for that year, he succinctly sums up the investment:

In recent years, bullion inventories have fallen materially, and last summer Charlie (Munger) and I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand.

Too little supply and equilibrium is out of balance. Buffett (correctly) bet that the only way to bring the market back into a state of equilibrium was rising prices. Demand, the balancing force to supply, can also result in successful investments.

In his 2011 shareholder letter, Buffett again illustrates the concept of equilibrium through supply and demand.

Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.) At $1,750 per ounce – gold’s price as I write this – its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A. Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge). Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B?

Beyond the staggering valuation given the existing stock of gold, current prices make today’s annual production of gold command about $160 billion. Buyers – whether jewelry and industrial users, frightened individuals, or speculators – must continually absorb this additional supply to merely maintain an equilibrium at present prices.

A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.

Admittedly, when people a century from now are fearful, it’s likely many will still rush to gold. I’m confident, however, that the $9.6 trillion current valuation of pile A will compound over the century at a rate far inferior to that achieved by pile B.

In Boombustology, Mansharamani writes:

Inherent in most equilibrium-oriented approaches is a belief that higher prices generate new supply that tends to push prices down. Likewise, it is believed that lower prices generate new demand that tends to push prices up. In this way, deviations from an appropriate price level are self-correcting.

A grasp of supply and demand can help us make better investment decisions. The producers of undifferentiated goods, (e.g., an aluminium can), are (usually) poor investments because the only way they will make adequate returns is under conditions of tight supply. If any excess capacity exists in the industry, prices will trend down towards the cost of producing. In this case, owners are left with unsatisfactory returns on their investment.

The only real winners are the low cost producers. As prices trend down only they can maintain full production whereas high cost competitors must cut production, which starts reducing supply and moves the industry towards equilibrium. When business picks up again, as it inevitably does, the production that was once shuttled comes back online. Only low cost producers can operate through the cycle. Opportunities to profit from equilibrium exist when demand outstrips capacity, which usually results from: (1) a positive change in demand or (2) a negative change in supply.

While seductively simple, this model of equilibrium in financial markets is somewhat incomplete. We must consider reflexivity.

George Soros writes, “Reflexivity is, in effect, a two-way feedback mechanism in which reality helps shape the participants’ thinking and the participants’ thinking helps shape reality in an unending process in which thinking and reality may come to approach each other but can never become identical.”

The implications of reflexivity on financial markets are quite profound, particularly with regard to the existence of an equilibrium price. Soros describes these implications in his own words succinctly:

Instead of a tendency towards some kind of theoretical equilibrium, the participants’ views and actual state of affairs enter into a process of dynamic disequilibrium, which may be self-reinforcing at first, moving both thinking and reality in a certain direction, but is bound to become unsustainable in the long run and engender a move in the opposite direction.

Soros’ testimony in 1994 to the House Banking Committee summarizes his theory of reflexivity and how it manifests itself in financial markets:

I must state at the outset that I am in fundamental disagreement with the prevailing wisdom. The generally accepted theory is that markets tend towards equilibrium and on the whole discount the future correctly. I operate using a different theory, according to which financial markets cannot possibly discount the future correctly because they do not merely discount the future, they help to shape it. In certain circumstances, financial markets can affect the so-called fundamentals which they are supposed to reflect. When that happens, markets enter into a state of dynamic disequilibrium and behave quite differently than what would be considered normal by the theory of efficient markets. Such boom/bust sequences do not arise very often, but when they do, they can be very disruptive, precisely because they affect the fundamentals of the economy.

In Boombustology, Mansharamani writes:

… financial extremes are characterized by two primary components: a prevailing trend that exists in reality and a misconception relating to it. He often uses real estate as an example to illustrate this point. The prevailing trend in reality is that there is an increased willingness to lend and a corresponding rise in prices. The misconception relating to this trend is that the prices of real estate are independent of the willingness to lend. Further, as more banks become willing to lend, and the number of buyers therefore rises, the prices of real estate rise—thereby making the banks feel more secure (given higher collateral values) and driving more lending.

Feedback Loops and Equilibrium

In Universal Principles of Design, William Lidwell & co. write:

Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. When reactions loop back to affect themselves, a feedback loop is created. All real-world systems are composed of many such interacting feedback loops — animals, machines, businesses, and ecosystems, to name a few. There are two types of feedback loops: positive and negative. Positive feedback amplifies system output, resulting in growth or decline. Negative feedback dampers output, stabilizes the system around an equilibrium point.

Positive feedback loops are effective for creating change, but generally result in negative consequences if not moderated by negative feedback loops. For example, in response to head and neck injuries in football in the late 1950s, designers created plastic football helmets with internal padding to replace leather helmets. The helmets provided more protection, but induced players to take increasingly greater risks when tackling. More head and neck injuries occurred (after the introduction of plastic helmets) than before. By concentrating on the problem in isolation (e.g., not considering changes in player behavior designers inadvertently created a positive feedback loop in which players used their head and neck in increasingly risky ways. This resulted in more injuries which resulted in additional redesigns that made the helmet shells harder and more padded and so on.

Negative feedback loops are effective for resisting change. For example, the Segway Human Transported uses negative feedback lops to maintain equilibrium. As a rider leans forward or backward, the Segway accelerates or decelerates to keep the system in equilibrium. To achieve this smoothly, the Segway makes hundreds of adjustments every second. Given the high adjustment rate, the oscillations around the point of equilibrium are so small as to not be detectable. However, if fewer adjustments were made per second, the oscillations would increase in size and the ride would become increasingly jerky.

Diseases and Equilibrium

Malcolm Gladwell illustrates this in The Tipping Point with a hypothetical outbreak of the flu.

Suppose, for example, that one summer 1,000 tourists come to Manhattan from Canada carrying an untreatable strain of twenty-four-hour virus. This strain of flu has a 2 percent infection rate, which is to say that one out of every 50 people who come into close contact with someone carrying it catches the bug himself. Let’s say that 50 is also exactly the number of people the average Manhattanite — in the course of riding the subways and mingling with colleagues at work — comes into contact with every day. What we have, then, is a disease in equilibrium. Those 1,000 Canadian tourists pass on the virus to 1,000 new people on the day they arrive. And the next day those 1,000 newly infected people pass on the virus to another 1,000 people, just as the original 1,000 tourists who started the epidemic are returning to health. With those getting sick and those getting well so perfectly in balance, the flu chugs along at a steady but unspectacular clip through the test of summer and fall.

But then comes the Christmas season. The subways and buses get more crowded with tourists and shoppers, and instead of running into an even 50 people a day, the average Manhattanite now has close contact with, say, 55 people a day. All of a sudden, the equilibrium is disrupted. The 1,000 flu carriers now run into 55,000 people a day and at a 2 percent infection rate, that translates into 1,100 cases the following day. Those 1,100, in turn, are now passing on their virus to 55,000 people as well, so that by day three there are 1,210 Manhattanites with the flu and by day four 1,331 and by the end of the week there are nearly 2,000, and so on up, in an exponential spiral until Manhattan has a full-blow flu epidemic on its hands by Christmas Day. That moment when the average flu carrier went from running into 50 people a day to running into 55 was the Tipping point. It was the point at which an ordinary and stable phenomenon — a low-level flu outbreak — turned into a public health crisis. If you were to draw a graph of the progress of the Canadian flu epidemic, the Tipping point would be the point on the graph where is suddenly turned upward.

The Equilibrium is a part of the Farnam Street latticework of Mental Models.

The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences

What are the most important ideas ever put forward in social science?

I’m not asking what are the best ideas, so the truth of them is only obliquely relevant: a very important idea may be largely false. (I think it still must contain some germ of truth, or it would have no plausibility.) Think of it this way: if you were teaching a course called “The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences,” what would you want to make sure you included?

The list:

  • The state as the individual writ large (Plato)
  • Man is a political/social animal (Aristotle)
  • The city of God versus the city of man (Augustine)
  • What is moral for the individual may not be for the ruler (Machiavelli)
  • Invisible hand mechanisms (Hume, Smith, Ferguson)
  • Class struggle (Marx, various liberal thinkers)
  • The subconscious has a logic of its own (Freud)
  • Malthusian population theory
  • The labor theory of value (Ricardo, Marx)
  • Marginalism (Menger, Jevons, Walras)
  • Utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill, Mill)
  • Contract theory of the state (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau)
  • Sapir-Worf hypothesis
  • Socialist calculation problem (Mises, Hayek)
  • The theory of comparative advantage (Mill, Ricardo)
  • Game theory (von Neumann, Morgenstern, Schelling)
  • Languages come in families (Jones, Young, Bopp)
  • Theories of aggregate demand shortfall (Malthus, Sismondi, Keynes)
  • History as an independent mode of thought (Dilthey, Croce, Collingwood, Oakeshott)
  • Public choice theory (Buchanan, Tullock)
  • Rational choice theory (who?)
  • Equilibrium theorizing (who?)

How Raising Prices Can Increase Sales

I have posed at two different business schools the following problem. I say, “You have studied supply and demand curves. You have learned that when you raise the price, ordinarily the volume you can sell goes down, and when you reduce the price, the volume you can sell goes up. Is that right? That’s what you’ve learned?” They all nod yes. And I say, “Now tell me several instances when, if you want the physical volume to go up, the correct answer is to increase the price?” And there’s this long and ghastly pause. And finally, in each of the two business schools in which I’ve tried this, maybe one person in fifty could name one instance. They come up with the idea that occasionally a higher price acts as a rough indicator of quality and thereby increases sales volumes.

This happened in the case of my friend Bill Ballhaus. When he was head of Beckman Instruments it produced some complicated product where if it failed it caused enormous damage to the purchaser. It wasn’t a pump at the bottom of an oil well, but that’s a good mental example. And he realized that the reason this thing was selling so poorly, even though it was better than anybody else’s product, was because it was priced lower. It made people think it was a low quality gizmo. So he raised the price by 20% or so and the volume went way up.

That’s from a 2003 talk by Charlie Munger.

I was reminded of that lecture when I came across this recent article in Forbes:

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini suggests that in some cases, businesses can actually increase their sales by raising prices. The reason behind this surprising phenomenon, he revealed in a recent podcast interview, is that in “markets in which people are not completely sure of how to assess quality, they use price as a stand-in for quality.” While most customers wouldn’t pay $20 for paper towels because it’s easy to compare them to other products on the store shelves, it’s much harder to evaluate certain categories of products or services.

Art is notoriously challenging – what makes a Damien Hirst sell for millions while a similar piece by someone else might languish? Consulting or other professional services are also hard to compare, because practitioners may have different approaches or skill levels, so you’re not comparing apples to apples. Thus, says Cialdini, “especially when they’re not very confident about being able to discern quality in their own right, people who are unfamiliar with a market will be especially led by price increases to go in that direction [and purchase more expensive offerings].”

Pricing is such an important signifier, says Cialdini, that “organizations will sometimes raise their prices and as a consequence, will be seen as the quality leader in their market,” regardless of whether they’ve upgraded their offerings.

Still curious? Robert Cialdini’s is the author of two books: Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

How credit cards bribe the purchasing agent

“They competed on the basis of raising prices. What other industry do you know that gets away with that?”

Charlie Munger talks about how you can bribe the purchaing agent.

I have one more anecdote: I have fun with this when I speak in front of students and professors. I say, “You all understand supply and demand curves. If you raise price, you sell less, but make more margin. So, give me four instances where the correct answer is to raise the price [meaning volume will go up].” I’ve done this about four times, and maybe one person in 50 can give me one answer that’s correct.

A recent New York Times article illuminates how Visa raises prices and bribes the purchasing agent (in this case, bank) with some of the proceeds.

Competition, of course, usually forces prices lower. But for payment networks like Visa and MasterCard, competition in the card business is more about winning over banks that actually issue the cards than consumers who use them. Visa and MasterCard set the fees that merchants must pay the cardholder’s bank. And higher fees mean higher profits for banks, even if it means that merchants shift the cost to consumers.

Seizing on this odd twist, Visa enticed banks to embrace signature debit — the higher-priced method of handling debit cards — and turned over the fees to banks as an incentive to issue more Visa cards. At least initially, MasterCard and other rivals promoted PIN debit instead.

As debit cards became the preferred plastic in American wallets, Visa has turned its attention to PIN debit too and increased its market share even more. And it has succeeded — not by lowering the fees that merchants pay, but often by pushing them up, making its bank customers happier.

In an effort to catch up, MasterCard and other rivals eventually raised fees on debit cards too, sometimes higher than Visa, to try to woo bank customers back.

“What we witnessed was truly a perverse form of competition,” said Ronald Congemi, the former chief executive of Star Systems, one of the regional PIN-based networks that has struggled to compete with Visa. “They competed on the basis of raising prices. What other industry do you know that gets away with that?”

Mental Model: Supply and Demand

The law of demand states that there is an inverse relationship between the price of a good and the quantity of the good demanded. Demand can be influenced by: the income level of the buyer, the price of the good, the availability of substitutes. Stepping outside of economics, demand can be influenced by, among other things, social proof, envy and jealousy, incentives, feedback loops, association, commitment and consistency, over-influence from authority (or celebrity), contrast, and ideological bias.

The law of supply states there there is a positive relationship between the price of a good and the quantity supplied. The price levels of the good, the costs of inputs to produce the good, and the technological costs to produce a good are all factors that influence the level of goods supplied.

In Principles of Microeconomics, Greg Mankiw offers the following introduction to Supply and Demand:

When a cold snap hits Florida, the price of orange juice rises in supermarkets throughout the country. When the weather turns warn in New England every summer the price of hotel rooms in the Caribbean plummets. When a war breaks out in the Middle East, the price of gasoline in the United States rises, and the price of a used Cadillac falls. What doe these events have in common? They all show the workings of supply and demand.

Supply and demand are the two words that economists use most often–and for good reason. Supply and demand are the forces that make market economics work. They determine the quantity of each good produced and the price at which it is sold. If you want to know how any event will affect the economy, you must think first about how it will affect the supply and demand.

The terms supply and demand refer to the behavior of people as they interact with one another in markets. A market is a group of buyers and sellers of a particular good or service. The buyers as a group determine the demand for the product and the sellers as a group determine the supply of the product.

We assume (in this chapter) that markets are perfectly competitive. Perfectly competitive markets are defined by two primary characteristics: (1) the goods being offered for sale are all the same, and (2) the buyers and sellers are so numerous that no single buyer or seller can influence the market price. Because buyers and sellers in perfectly competitive markets must accept the price the market determines, they are said to be price takers.

The determinants of individual demand.

Consider your own demand for ice cream. How do you decide how much ice cream to buy each month, and what factors affect your decision. Here are some of the answers you might give.

Price: If the price of ice cream rose to $20 per scoop, you would buy less ice cream. You might buy frozen yogurt instead. If the price of ice cream fell to .20 per scoop, you would buy more. Because the quantity demanded falls the the price rises and as the price falls, we say that the quantity demanded is negatively related to the price. This is what the economists call the law of demand: Other things being equal, when the price of a good rises, the quantity demanded of the good falls.

Income: What would happen to your demand for ice cream if you lost your job one summer? Most likely it would fall. If the demand falls when income falls, the good is called a normal good. Not all goods are normal goods. If the demand for a good rises when income falls the cood is called an inferior good. An example of an inferior good might be bus rides. As your income falls, you are less likely to buy a car or take a cab and more likely to ride the bus.

Price of related goods: Suppose that the price of frozen yogurt falls. The law of demand says that you will buy more frozen yogurt. At the same time you will probably buy less ice cream. When a fall in the price of one good reduces the demand for another good, the two goods are called substitutes.

Tastes: The most obvious determinant of your demand is your tastes. If you like ice cream you buy more of it.

Expectations: Your expectations about the future may affect your demand for a good or service today. For example, if you expect to earn a higher income next month, you may be more willing to spend some of your current savings to buy ice cream.

* * *

In his speech, entitled ‘Academic Economics Strengths and Faults after Considering Interdisciplinary needs,’ Charlie Munger said:

I have posed at two different business schools the following problem. I say, “You have studied supply and demand curves. You have learned that when you raise the price, ordinarily the volume you can sell goes down, and when you reduce the price, the volume you can sell goes up. Is that right? That’s what you’ve learned?” They all nod yes. And I say, “Now tell me several instances when, if you want the physical volume to go up, the correct answer is to increase the price?” And there’s this long and ghastly pause. And finally, in each of the two business schools in which I’ve tried this, maybe one person in fifty could name one instance. They come up with the idea that occasionally a higher price acts as a rough indicator of quality and thereby increases sales volumes.

This happened in the case of my friend Bill Ballhaus. When he was head of Beckman Instruments it produced some complicated product where if it failed it caused enormous damage to the purchaser. It wasn’t a pump at the bottom of an oil well, but that’s a good mental example. And he realized that the reason this thing was selling so poorly, even though it was better than anybody else’s product, was because it was priced lower. It made people think it was a low quality gizmo. So he raised the price by 20% or so and the volume went way up.

But only one in fifty can come up with this sole instance in a modern business school – one of the business schools being Stanford, which is hard to get into. And nobody has yet come up with the main answer that I like. Suppose you raise that price, and use the extra money to bribe the other guy’s purchasing agent? (Laughter). Is that going to work? And are there functional equivalents in economics – microeconomics – of raising the price and using the extra sales proceeds to drive sales higher? And of course there are zillion, once you’ve made that mental jump. It’s so simple.

One of the most extreme examples is in the investment management field. Suppose you’re the manager of a mutual fund, and you want to sell more. People commonly come to the following answer: You raise the commissions, which of course reduces the number of units of real investments delivered to the ultimate buyer, so you’re increasing the price per unit of real investment that you’re selling the ultimate customer. And you’re using that extra commission to bribe the customer’s purchasing agent. You’re bribing the broker to betray his client and put the client’s money into the high-commission product. This has worked to produce at least a trillion dollars of mutual fund sales.

This tactic is not an attractive part of human nature, and I want to tell you that I pretty completely avoided it in my life. I don’t think it’s necessary to spend your life selling what you would never buy. Even though it’s legal, I don’t think it’s a good idea. But you shouldn’t accept all my notions because you’ll risk becoming unemployable. You shouldn’t take my notions unless you’re willing to risk being unemployable by all but a few.

I think my experience with my simple question is an example of how little synthesis people get, even in advanced academic settings, considering economic questions. Obvious questions, with such obvious answers. Yet people take four courses in economics, go to business school, have all these IQ points and write all these essays, but they can’t synthesize worth a damn. This failure is not because the professors know all this stuff and they’re deliberately withholding it from the students. This failure happens because the professors aren’t all that good at this kind of synthesis. They were trained in a different way. I can’t remember if it was Keynes or Galbraith who said that economics professors are most economical with ideas. They make a few they learned in graduate school last a lifetime.

Warren Buffett on Supply and Demand

Our second non-traditional commitment is in silver. Last year, we purchased 111.2 million ounces. Marked to market, that position produced a pre-tax gain of $97.4 million for us in 1997. In a way, this is a return to the past for me: Thirty years ago, I bought silver because I anticipated its demonetization by the U.S. Government. Ever since, I have followed the metal’s fundamentals but not owned it. In recent years, bullion inventories have fallen materially, and last summer Charlie and I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand. Inflation expectations, it should be noted, play no part in our calculation of silver’s value.

In the 1978 shareholder letter, Buffett offered the following comment on supply and demande as it relates to commodity businesses earning a profit:

The textile industry illustrates in textbook style how producers of relatively undifferentiated goods in capital intensive businesses must earn inadequate returns except under conditions of tight supply or real shortage. As long as excess productive capacity exists, prices tend to reflect direct operating costs rather than capital employed. Such a supply-excess condition appears likely to prevail most of the time in the textile industry, and our expectations are for profits of relatively modest amounts in relation to capital.

In the 1982 annual letter to shareholders, Buffett wrote:

If, however, costs and prices are determined by full-bore competition, there is more than ample capacity, and the buyer cares little about whose product or distribution services he uses, industry economics are almost certain to be unexciting. They may well be disastrous.

Hence the constant struggle of every vendor to establish and emphasize special qualities of product or service. This works with candy bars (customers buy by brand name, not by asking for a “two-ounce candy bar”) but doesn’t work with sugar (how often do you hear, “I’ll have a cup of coffee with cream and C & H sugar, please”).

In many industries, differentiation simply can’t be made meaningful. A few producers in such industries may consistently do well if they have a cost advantage that is both wide and sustainable. By definition such exceptions are few, and, in many industries, are non-existent. For the great majority of companies selling “commodity”products, a depressing equation of business economics prevails: persistent over-capacity without administered prices (or costs) equals poor profitability.

Of course, over-capacity may eventually self-correct, either as capacity shrinks or demand expands. Unfortunately for the participants, such corrections often are long delayed. When they finally occur, the rebound to prosperity frequently produces a pervasive enthusiasm for expansion that, within a few years, again creates over-capacity and a new profitless environment. In other words, nothing fails like success.

What finally determines levels of long-term profitability in such industries is the ratio of supply-tight to supply-ample years. Frequently that ratio is dismal. (It seems as if the most recent supply-tight period in our textile business – it occurred some years back – lasted the better part of a morning.)

In some industries, however, capacity-tight conditions can last a long time. Sometimes actual growth in demand will outrun forecasted growth for an extended period. In other cases, adding capacity requires very long lead times because complicated manufacturing facilities must be planned and built.

And In the 1991 letter, Buffett wrote:

In contrast, “a business” earns exceptional profits only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight. Tightness in supply usually does not last long. With superior management, a company may maintain its status as a low-cost operator for a much longer time, but even then unceasingly faces the possibility of competitive attack. And a business, unlike a franchise, can be killed by poor management.