Tag: Greg Mankiw

The Economic Inefficiency of Gift Giving: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

From Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania (now at Minnesota's Carlson School of Management), has taken up the economic inefficiency of gift giving as a personal cause. By “inefficiency,” he means the gap between the value to you (maybe very little) of the $120 argyle sweater your aunt gave you for your birthday, and the value of what you would have bought (an iPod, say) had she given you the cash. In 1993, Waldfogel drew attention to the epidemic of squandered utility associated with holiday gift giving in an article called “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” He updated and elaborated the theme in a recent book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays: “The bottom line is that when other people do our shopping, for clothes or music or whatever, it's pretty unlikely that they'll choose as well as we would have chosen for ourselves. We can expect their choices, no matter how well intentioned, to miss the mark. Relative to how much satisfaction their expenditures could have given us, their choices destroy value.

Applying standard market reasoning, Waldfogel concludes that it would be better, in most cases, to give cash: “Economic theory—and common sense—lead us to expect that buying stuff for ourselves will create more satisfaction, per euro, dollar, or shekel spent, than does buying stuff for others . . . Buying gifts typically destroys value and can only, in the unlikely best special case, be as good as giving cash.”

Waldfogel's conclusion:

“We value items we receive as gifts 20 percent less, per dollar spent, than items we buy for ourselves.”

If gift giving is so massively wasteful why does it persist?

It isn't easy to answer this question within standard economic assumptions. In his economics textbook, Gregory Mankiw tries gamely to do so. He begins by observing that “gift giving is a strange custom” but concludes that it's generally a bad idea to give your boyfriend or girlfriend cash instead of a birthday present.

But why?

Mankiw's explanation is that gift giving is a mode of “signaling,” an economist's term for using markets to overcome “information asymmetries.” So, for example, a firm with a good product buys expensive advertising not only to persuade customers directly but also to “signal” to them that it is confident enough in the quality of its product to undertake a costly advertising campaign. In a similar way, Mankiw suggests, gift giving serves a signaling function. A man contemplating a gift for his girlfriend “has private information that the girlfriend would like to know: Does he really love her? Choosing a good gift for her is a signal of his love.” Since it takes time and effort to look for a gift, choosing an apt one is a way for him “to convey the private information of his love for her.”

Why thoughtfulness matters

“Signaling” love is not the same as expressing it. To speak of signaling wrongly assumes that love is a piece of private information that one party reports to the other. If this were the case, then cash would work as well—the higher the payment, the stronger the signal, and the greater (presumably) the love. But love is not only, or mainly, matter of private information. It is a way of being with and responding to another person. Giving, especially attentive giving, can be an expression of it. On the expressive account, a good gift not only aims to please, in the sense of satisfying the consumer preferences of the recipient. It also engages and connects with the recipient, in a way that reflects a certain intimacy.

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Mental Model: Game Theory

Game Theory

From Game Theory, by Morton Davis:

The theory of games is a theory of decision making. It considers how one should make decisions and to a lesser extent, how one does make them. You make a number of decisions every day. Some involve deep thought, while others are almost automatic. Your decisions are linked to your goals—if you know the consequences of each of your options, the solution is easy. Decide where you want to be and choose the path that takes you there. When you enter an elevator with a particular floor in mind (your goal), you push the button (one of your choices) that corresponds to your floor. Building a bridge involves more complex decisions but, to a competent engineer, is no different in principle. The engineer calculates the greatest load the bridge is expected to bear and designs a bridge to withstand it. When chance plays a role, however, decisions are harder to make. … Game theory was designed as a decision-making tool to be used in more complex situations, situations in which chance and your choice are not the only factors operating. … (Game theory problems) differ from the problems described earlier—building a bridge and installing telephones—in one essential respect: While decision makers are trying to manipulate their environment, their environment is trying to manipulate them. A store owner who lowers her price to gain a larger share of the market must know that her competitors will react in kind. … Because everyone's strategy affects the outcome, a player must worry about what everyone else does and knows that everyone else is worrying about him or her.

What is a game? From Game Theory and Strategy:

Game theory is the logical analysis of situations of conflict and cooperation. More specifically, a game is defined to be any situation in which:

  1. There are at least two players. A player may be an individual, but it may also be a more general entity like a company, a nation, or even a biological species.
  2. Each player has a number of possible strategies, courses of action which he or she may choose to follow.
  3. The strategies chosen by each player determine the outcome of the game.
  4. Associated to each possible outcome of the game is a collection of numerical payoffs, one to each player. These payoffs represent the value of the outcome to the different players.

…Game theory is the study of how players should rationally play games. Each player would like the game to end in an outcome which gives him as large a payoff as possible.

From Greg Mankiw's Economics textbook:

Game theory is the study of how people behave in strategic situations. By ‘strategic' we mane a situation in which each person, when deciding what actions to take, must consider how others might respond to that action. Because the number of firms in an oligopolistic market is small, each firm must act strategically. Each firm knows that its profit depends not only on how much it produces but also on how much the other firms produce. In making its production decision, each firm in an oligopoly should consider how its decision might affect the production decisions of all other firms.

Game theory is not necessary for understanding competitive or monopoly markets. In a competitive market, each firm is so small compared to the market that strategic interactions with other firms are not important. In a monopolized market, strategic interactions are absent because the market has only one firm. But, as we will see, game theory is quite useful for understanding the behavior of oligopolies.

A particularly important ‘game' is called the prisoners' dilemma.

Markets with only a few sellers

Because an oligopolistic market has only a small group of sellers, a key feature of oligopoly is the tension between cooperation and self-interest. The oligopolists are best off when they cooperate and act like a monopolist – producing a small quantity of output and charging a price above marginal cost. Yet because each oligopolist cares only about its own profit, there are powerful incentives at work that hinder a group of firms from maintaining the cooperative outcome.

Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff, in their book “Thinking Strategically” offer:

Everyone's best choice depends on what others are going to do, whether it's going to war or maneuvering in a traffic jam.

These situations, in which people's choices depend on the behavior or the choices of other people, are the ones that usually don't permit any simple summation. Rather we have to look at the system of interaction.

Michael J. Mauboussin relates game theory to firm interaction

How a firm interacts with other firms plays an important role in shaping sustainable value creation. Here we not only consider how many companies interact with their competitors, but how companies can co-evolve.

Game Theory is one of the best tools to understand interaction. Game Theory forces managers to put themselves in the shoes of other players rather than viewing games solely from their own perspective.

The classic two-player example of game theory is the prisoners' dilemma.

Game Theory is part of the Farnam Street latticework of Mental Models. See all posts on game theory.

Mental Model: Prisoners’ Dilemma

The prisoners' dilemma is the best known strategy game in social science. The game shows why two entities might not cooperate even when it appears in their best (rational) interest to do so. What is rational for the individual in certain circumstances is not rational for the group — that is, pursuing a strategy that is rational for you leads to a worse outcome.

With applications to economics, politics, and business the game illustrates the conflict, which can sometimes arise, between individual and group rationality.

From Greg Mankiw's Economics textbook:

The prisoners' dilemma is a story about two criminals who have been captured by the police. Let's call them Mr Black and Mr Pink. The police have enough evidence to convict Mr Black and Mr Pink of a relatively minor crime, illegal possession of a handgun, so that each would spend a year in jail. The police also suspect that the two criminals have committed a jewelery robbery together, but they lack hard evidence to convict them of this major crime. The police question Mr Black and Mr Pink in separate rooms, and they offer each of them the following deal:

Right now we can lock you up for 1 year. If you confess to the jewelery robbery and implicate your partner, however, we'll give you immunity and you can go free. Your partner will get 20 years in jail. But if you both confess to the crime, we won't need your testimony and we can avoid the cost of a trial, so you will each get an intermediate sentence of 8 years.

If Mr Black and Mr Pink, heartless criminals that they are, care only about their own sentences, what would you expect them to do? Would they confess or remain silent? Each prisoner has two strategies: confess or remain silent. The sentence each prisoner gets depends on the strategy chosen by his or her partner in crime.

Consider first Mr Black's decision. He reasons as follows:

I don't know what Mr Pink is going to do. If he remains silent, my best strategy is to confess, since then I'll go free rather than spending a year in jail. If he confesses, my best strategy is still to confess, since then I'll spend 8 years in jail rather than 20. So, regardless of what Mr Pink does, I am better off confessing.

In the language of game theory, a strategy is called a dominant strategy if it is the best strategy for a player to follow regardless of the strategies pursued by other players. In this case, confessing is a dominant strategy for Mr Black. He spends less time in jail if he confesses, regardless of whether Mr Pink confesses or remains silent.

Now consider Mr Pink's decision. He faces exactly the same choices as Mr Black, and he reasons in much the same way. Regardless of what Mr Black does, Mr Pink can reduce his time in jail by confessing. In other words, confessing is a dominant strategy for Mr Pink.

In the end, both Mr Black and Mr Pink confess, and both spend 8 years in jail. Yet, from their standpoint, this is a terrible outcome. If they had both remained silent, both of them would have been better off, spending only 1 year in jail on the gun charge. By each pursuing his own interests, the two prisoners together reach an outcome that is worse for each of them.

To see how difficult it is to maintain cooperation, imagine that, before the police captured Mr Black and Mr Pink, the two criminals had made a pack not to confess. Clearly, this agreement would make them both better off if they both live up to it, because they would each spend only 1 year in jail. But would the two criminals in fact remain silent, simply because they had agreed to? Once they are being questioned separately, the logic of self-interest takes over and leads them to confess. Cooperation between the two prisoners is difficult to maintain because cooperation is individually irrational.

* * *

Michael J. Mauboussin writes:

The classic two-player example of game theory is the prisoners' dilemma. We can recast the prisoners' dilemma in a business context by considering a simple case of capacity addition. Say two competitors, A and B, are considering adding capacity. If competitor A adds capacity and B doesn't, A gets an outsized payoff. Likewise, if B adds capacity and A doesn't than B gets the large payoff. If neither expands, A and B aren't as well-off as if one alone had added capacity. But if both add capacity, they're worse off of than if they had done nothing.

* * *

Avinash Dixit offers:

Consider two firms, say Coca-Cola and Pepsi, selling similar products. Each must decide on a pricing strategy. They best exploit their joint market power when both charge a high price; each makes a profit of ten million dollars per month. If one sets a competitive low price, it wins a lot of customers away from the rival. Suppose its profit rises to twelve million dollars, and that of the rival falls to seven million. If both set low prices, the profit of each is nine million dollars. Here, the low-price strategy is akin to the prisoner’s confession, and the high-price akin to keeping silent. Call the former cheating, and the latter cooperation. Then cheating is each firm’s dominant strategy, but the result when both “cheat” is worse for each than that of both cooperating.

* * *

Warren Buffett provides some illumination as to how the Prisoners' Dilemma plays out in business in the 1985 Berkshire Hathaway Annual report.

The domestic textile industry operates in a commodity business, competing in a world market in which substantial excess capacity exists. Much of the trouble we experienced was attributable, both directly and indirectly, to competition from foreign countries whose workers are paid a small fraction of the U.S. minimum wage. But that in no way means that our labor force deserves any blame for our closing. In fact, in comparison with employees of American industry generally, our workers were poorly paid, as has been the case throughout the textile business. In contract negotiations, union leaders and members were sensitive to our disadvantageous cost position and did not push for unrealistic wage increases or unproductive work practices. To the contrary, they tried just as hard as we did to keep us competitive. Even during our liquidation period they performed superbly. (Ironically, we would have been better off financially if our union had behaved unreasonably some years ago; we then would have recognized the impossible future that we faced, promptly closed down, and avoided significant future losses.)

Over the years, we had the option of making large capital expenditures in the textile operation that would have allowed us to somewhat reduce variable costs. Each proposal to do so looked like an immediate winner. Measured by standard return-on-investment tests, in fact, these proposals usually promised greater economic benefits than would have resulted from comparable expenditures in our highly-profitable candy and newspaper businesses.

But the promised benefits from these textile investments were illusory. Many of our competitors, both domestic and foreign, were stepping up to the same kind of expenditures and, once enough companies did so, their reduced costs became the baseline for reduced prices industry-wide. Viewed individually, each company's capital investment decision appeared cost-effective and rational; viewed collectively, the decisions neutralized each other and were irrational (just as happens when each person watching a parade decides he can see a little better if he stands on tiptoes). After each round of investment, all the players had more money in the game and returns remained anemic.

Thus, we faced a miserable choice: huge capital investment would have helped to keep our textile business alive, but would have left us with terrible returns on ever-growing amounts of capital. After the investment, moreover, the foreign competition would still have retained a major, continuing advantage in labor costs. A refusal to invest, however, would make us increasingly non-competitive, even measured against domestic textile manufacturers. I always thought myself in the position described by Woody Allen in one of his movies: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

For an understanding of how the to-invest-or-not-to-invest dilemma plays out in a commodity business, it is instructive to look at Burlington Industries, by far the largest U.S. textile company both 21 years ago and now. In 1964 Burlington had sales of $1.2 billion against our $50 million. It had strengths in both distribution and production that we could never hope to match and also, of course, had an earnings record far superior to ours. Its stock sold at 60 at the end of 1964; ours was 13.

Burlington made a decision to stick to the textile business, and in 1985 had sales of about $2.8 billion. During the 1964-85 period, the company made capital expenditures of about $3 billion, far more than any other U.S. textile company and more than $200-per-share on that $60 stock. A very large part of the expenditures, I am sure, was devoted to cost improvement and expansion. Given Burlington's basic commitment to stay in textiles, I would also surmise that the company's capital decisions were quite rational.

Nevertheless, Burlington has lost sales volume in real dollars and has far lower returns on sales and equity now than 20 years ago. Split 2-for-1 in 1965, the stock now sells at 34 — on an adjusted basis, just a little over its $60 price in 1964. Meanwhile, the CPI has more than tripled. Therefore, each share commands about one-third the purchasing power it did at the end of 1964. Regular dividends have been paid but they, too, have shrunk significantly in purchasing power.

This devastating outcome for the shareholders indicates what can happen when much brain power and energy are applied to a faulty premise. The situation is suggestive of Samuel Johnson's horse: “A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse – not a remarkable mathematician.” Likewise, a textile company that allocates capital brilliantly within its industry is a remarkable textile company – but not a remarkable business.

My conclusion from my own experiences and from much observation of other businesses is that a good managerial record (measured by economic returns) is far more a function of what business boat you get into than it is of how effectively you row (though intelligence and effort help considerably, of course, in any business, good or bad). Some years ago I wrote: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.” Nothing has since changed my point of view on that matter. Should you find yourself in a chronically-leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.

* * *

Mauboussin adds:

Our discussion so far has focused on competition. But thoughtful strategic analysis also recognizes the role of co-evolution, or cooperation, in business. Not all business relationships are conflictual. Sometimes companies outside the purview of a firm's competitive set can heavily influence its value creation prospects.

Consider the example of DVD makers (software) and DVD player makers (hardware). These companies do not compete with one another. But the more DVD titles that are available, the more attractive it will be for a consumer to buy a DVD player and vice versa. Another example is the Wintel standard—added features on Microsoft's operating system required more powerful Intel microprocessors, and more powerful microprocessors could support updated operating systems. Complementors make the added value pie bigger. Competitors fight over a fixed pie.

* * *

Mankiw offers another real world example:

Consider an oligopoly with two members, called Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both countries sell crude oil. After prolonged negotiation, the countries agree to keep oil production low in order to keep the world price of oil high. After they agree on production levels, each country must decide whether to cooperate and live up to this agreement or to ignore it and produce at a higher level. The following image shows how the profits of the two countries depend on the strategies they choose.

Suppose you are the leader of Saudi Arabia. You might reason as follows:
I could keep production low as we agreed, or I could raise my production and sell more oil on world markets. If Iran lives up to the agreement and keeps its production low, then my country ears profit of $60 billion with high production and $50 billion with low production. In this case, Saudi Arabia is better off with high production. If Iran fails to live up to the agreement and produces at a high level, then my country earns $40 billion with high production and $30 billion with low production. Once again, Saudia Arabia is better off with high production. So, regardless of what Iran chooses to do, my country is better off reneging on our agreement and producing at a high level.

Producing at a high level is a dominant strategy for Saudi Arabia. Of course, Iran reasons in exactly the same way, and so both countries produce at a high level. The result is the inferior outcome (from both Iran and Saudi Arabia's standpoint) with low profits in each country.

This example illustrates why oligopolies have trouble maintaining monopoly profits. The monopoly outcome is jointly rational for the oligopoly, but each oligopolist has an incentive to cheat. Just as self-interest drives the prisoners in the prisoners' dilemma to confess, self-interest makes it difficult for the oligopoly to maintain the cooperative outcome with low production, high prices and monopoly prices.

Other examples of prisoners' dilemma's include: arms races, advertising, and common resources (see the Tradegy of the Commons)

The Prisoners' Dilemma is part of the Farnam Street latticework of Mental Models.

Greg Mankiw Recommends Reading These 18 Economics Books

If you'd like to read more about economics issues try these 18 books recommended by Greg Mankiw, author of Principles of Economics.

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics

Basic economic principles, with humor.

Spin-Free Economics

A straightforward guide to major economic policy debates.

Lives of the Laureates

Twenty-three winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics offer autobiographical essays about their life and work.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics

An economist asks why elected leaders often fail to follow the policies that economists recommend.

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It

A former research director at the World Bank offers his insights into how to help the world's poor.

Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life

This introduction to game theory discusses how all people—from corporate executives to criminals under arrest—should and do make strategic decisions.

The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics

A former World Bank economist examines that many attempts to help the world's poorest nations and why these attempts have so often failed.

Capitalism and Freedom

In this classic book, one of the most important economists of the 20th century argues that society should rely less on the government and more on the free market.

The Worldly Philosophers

A classic introduction to the lives, times, and ideas of the great economic thinkers, including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Maynard Keynes.

Peddling Prosperity

A survey of the evolution of economic ideas and policy, with an emphasis on macroeconomics and international trade.

The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life

Why does popcorn cost so much at the movie theaters? Steven Landsburg discusses this and other puzzles of economic life.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economics Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Economic principles and clever data analysis applied to a wide range of offbeat topics, including drug dealing, online dating, and sumo wrestling.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

How a few savvy investors managed to make money during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street

This introduction to stocks, bonds, and financial economics is not a “get rich quick” book, but it might help you get rich slowly.

Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural History of Markets

A deep and nuanced, yet still very readable, analysis of how society can make the best use of market mechanisms.

Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics

A humorist asks why some nations prosper while others don't. He answers with a world tour that takes the reader from Albania to the New York Stock Exchange.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Behavioral economics can help people, as well as companies and governments, make better decisions.

In Fed We Trust

A journalist recounts how the Federal Reserve dealt with the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

If you're a total neophyte, like me, the best place to start is actually Greg's textbook. That is where this list came from.

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.