The Hidden Shortages of the Market Economy

Ramsi A. Woodcock–

If you think shortages—in goods like toilet paper, meat, and masks—came in with the pandemic, think again.

Shortages are periods during which demand exceeds supply, and they’re an inescapable feature of all markets, all the time.

When an investor bids up the price of Apple stock because none is available at current prices, that’s a shortage. When a homeowner receives multiple bids for her home, that’s a shortage. When there are “only three left in stock” on Amazon and four users click “buy,” that, too, is a shortage.

We don’t notice these quotidian shortages because sellers usually respond to them by raising prices. The price of Apple stock jumps, the home sells for more than it listed, and Amazon’s dynamic pricing algorithms regret to inform you that “the prices of some items in your cart have changed.”

But price increases don’t make shortages go away. They just ration access to the shortage good to those who have the greatest willingness—which often means the greatest ability—to pay.

That’s a problem, because ration pricing concentrates wealth in the hands of sellers. We know that because the prices sellers charge before a shortage manifests itself must be calculated to cover costs, otherwise sellers wouldn’t quote those prices. When sellers go on to jack up prices in response to a shortage, they must therefore enjoy a windfall: profits in excess of what they need to be induced to bring their goods to market.

The pervasiveness of shortages, and the ration pricing that comes with them, makes markets fundamentally exploitative. But the only way to induce firms to engage in queue pricing may well be to embrace that ultimate progressive villain: God.

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The Economics of Shortages

Ramsi A. Woodcock–

The price of food increased 2.6% in April, the largest single-month increase since 1974, but food industry executives are insisting that the country has enough food. So why are prices going up?

The explanation provided by the industry is that consumers are buying more than they need, creating shortages.

But a shortage is not a good excuse for increasing prices. Contrary to what you might have learned in Econ 101, there’s only one reason for which a shortage should give rise to higher prices: profiteering, as I explain in a forthcoming law review article.

If shortage were the only explanation for these price increases, then the increases would need to be condemned.

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A Single Federal Usury Cap is Too Blunt an Instrument

NB: This post is part of a debate on the Loan Shark Prevention Act, a bill that would introduce a federal usury cap. Emma Caterine’s response is here.

Anne Fleming–

In May 2019, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the Loan Shark Prevention Act, a bill that would cap the cost of consumer credit nationwide. Under the bill, the total cost of a loan, calculated as an annualized percentage rate (APR), could not exceed 15%.

Although high credit card charges are the bill’s main target, payday loans rank among the most expensive forms of consumer credit in the United States. A typical payday loan from a storefront lender costs $15 per $100 borrowed. For a $350 loan that must be repaid in one lump sum in two weeks, the borrower would pay $52.50 in fees. This equates to a 391% APR.

Payday lenders argue that it is misleading to calculate the cost of their products in terms of an APR because payday loans are not marketed for long-term use. But most borrowers cannot repay their loans in full in two weeks. Instead, they pay only the fee and rollover the balance into a new two-week loan. In this way, consumers can end up in a months-long cycle of borrowing, paying hundreds of dollars in fees. This vicious cycle is especially concerning because most borrowers are low-income, just making ends meet. Furthermore, Hispanic and African-American households account for a disproportionate share of payday loan users.

In other words, high-cost credit is a real concern that policymakers must address. But a one-size-fits-all 15% APR cap is a blunt instrument for tackling this problem.

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