Friday 6 July 2012

Markets hate profits

Unless there's some barrier in the system preventing it, no firm can sit on excess profits forever. Competition erodes away the excess profit until everybody's again earning a normal rate of return. Today's case in point: alcohol minimum pricing. I've made the point before, but it's worth walking through again as the logic isn't immediately obvious to non-economists.

Neil Miller argues:
Because most craft beers are currently priced over the $2 a drink threshold, it could be argued that they will become closer in price to mainstream beers which might encourage drinkers to “trade up”.  However, the costs to the big breweries will not have increased and they will basically be making more money for the same beers.  This means they will be able to increase marketing and distribution efforts.  Mr Albertson’s point about minimum pricing putting pressure all the way up the chain is critical.  
He's right that the big brewers will have more money for marketing and distribution. But they're pretty unlikely to be making more money for the same beers. Let's walk through the logic.

Suppose I'm one of the big brewers and Labour takes power. Lianne Dalziel announces a $2 per standard drink minimum price. Doug Sellman shouts about how it should be $10. My product previously retailed at $1 and cost me $0.25 to produce. I got $0.05 in profit and the rest was distribution / retailing costs. Can I suddenly start pocketing $1.05 in profits for that drink?

Minimum pricing hasn't made my competitors go away. I expect that they'll be trying to increase market share. What should I do? The first thing I'd try is a new promotion: Every 4th case (24 pack) of beer has $20 inside. My production cost goes up by a bit over $0.20 per bottle, so I'm only pocketing $0.85 in profit per bottle. But if my market share goes up by enough, it's totally worth it.

My competitors try it too. They promise $20 in every 3rd case. Then somebody in Parliament figures out that the real cost of alcohol to consumers is nowhere near $2 per standard drink as we're effectively rebating a big pile of the minimum price to consumers as a cash lottery. So that gets banned.

What next? Free t-shirt! Free shot glasses! Free beer mugs (collect all 8!). Then Parliament bans bundling any kind of good with the beer.

What next? It depends a lot on how different cohorts of drinkers respond to increased product quality versus increased related amenities. Maybe I can turn my bottles into something that's beautiful, with a stopper cap on a wire that makes it useful for re-use as a water bottle. Maybe I can make my labelling nicer. Maybe I can open up my own bottle shops where I sell only my own product but there's just an awesome environment for my customers: free massage from a Tui Girl with every purchase.

Think I'm kidding? Look at what happened in the US when airline prices were regulated. The airlines were banned from competing on prices. So what did they compete on instead? Better meals, better drinks, and more attractive stewardesses.

Unless there's some barrier to competition somewhere in the system, nobody gets to sit on free profits. These kinds of rents get eroded pretty quickly. Customers either wind up buying alcohol that actually costs $2 per standard drink (less normal profit) to produce, or that's bundled with amenities they find more valuable than improvements in the quality of the drink but that still cost $2 per standard drink (less normal profit) to provide.

Who might get to enjoy excess profits - rents - out of minimum pricing? My first pick are those who have bottle shop licences in poor neighbourhoods. They'll have local monopoly rents, especially when their customers have a harder time going across town for bargains. That will be capitalised into the price of the firm, and the next guy who buys the bottle shop will only then be earning normal profits, but there's likely a windfall gain to some small bottle shops.

Markets hate free profits: somebody's always rushing in to try to grab them. That competitive process runs until everybody's just earning a normal rate of return. I'd expect that the only conditions under which the big breweries get to keep selling current product at a $2 per standard drink minimum profit and just bank the profits are the conditions under which they could do it without a minimum price. Basically they need a strong cartel that prevents entry. Fortunately, we're nowhere near that kind of a world, at least in New Zealand.


  1. listen up Eric, I can buy whatever I like in Thailand at well below your prices , When Doug Sellman influences alcohol we rub him out. this is the market price of reality, print this Eric be real .

  2. the rubber we say is reality, why do we need idiot doug sellman whose home life is worae than any alcoholic

  3. Peter, there's a mad poetry to your comments. I love them. But I had to drop the one about Sellman's home life; I'm not a fan of the guy either, but that wasn't on.

  4. If there really are temporary "free profits", then arguably the way they would be eroded is for other producers entering the market offering a demonstrably higher quality product. If the minimum price for cars was NZ$ 50,000, then BMWs and Lexuses would dominate the market over cheaper brands.

  5. Yes. Costs push up, either with increased product quality or increased bundled goods.

    Note that all of this relies on competition though. If you've got a very strict licensing regime granting local monopolies, that's something else.