Solved Problem: High Prices and High Revenue in the U.S. Car Industry

Production line for Ford F-series trucks. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

Supports: Microeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.3 and Chapter 15, Section 15.6, Economics Chapter 6, Section 6.3 Chapter 15, Section 15, and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 7, Section 7.7 and Chapter 10, Section 10.5.

In July 2022, an article in the Wall Street Journal noted that “The chip shortage and broader supply constraints have hampered vehicle production … Many major car companies on Friday reported U.S. sales declines of 15% or more for the first half of the year.” But the Wall Street Journal also reported that car makers were experiencing increases in revenues. For example, Ford Motor Company reported an increase in revenue even though it had sold fewer cars than during the same period in 2021.

  1. Briefly explain what must be true of the demand for new cars if car makers can sell 15 percent fewer cars while increasing their revenue.
  2. Eventually, the chip shortage and other supply problems facing car makers will end. At that point, would we expect that car makers will expand production to prepandemic levels or will they continue to produce fewer cars in order to maintain higher levels of profits? Briefly explain. 

Solving the Problem

Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about the effects of price increases on firms’ revenues and on the ability of firms to restrict output in order increase profits, so you may want to review Chapter 6, Section 6.3, “The Relationship between Price Elasticity of Demand and Total Revenue” and Chapter 15, Section 15.6, “Government Policy toward Monopoly.” 

Step 2: Answer part a. by explaining what must be true of the demand for new cars if car makers are increasing their profits while selling fewer cars. Assuming that the demand curve for cars is unchanged, a decline in the quantity of cars sold will result in a move up along the demand curve for cars, raising the price of cars.  Only if the demand curve for new cars is price inelastic will the revenue car markers receive increase when the price increases. Revenue increases in this situation because with an inelastic demand curve, the percentage increase in price is greater than the percentage decrease in quantity demanded. 

Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining whether we should expect that once the car industry’s supply problems are resolved, car makers will continue to produce fewer cars.  Although as a group car makers would be better off if they could continue to reduce the supply of cars, they are unlikely to be able to do so. Any one car maker that decided to keep producing fewer cars would lose sales to other car makers who increased their production to prepandemic levels. Because this increased production would result in a movement down along the demand curve for new cars, the price would fall. So a car maker that reduced output would receive a lower price on its reduced output, causing its profit to decline. (Note that this situation is effectively a prisoner’s dilemma as discussed in Chapter 14, Section 14.2.)

The firms could attempt to keep output of new cars at a low level by explicitly agreeing to do so.  But colluding in this way would violate the antitrust laws, and executives at the firms would risk being fined or even imprisoned. The firms could attempt to implicitly collude by producing lower levels of output without explicitly agreeing to do so. (We discus implicit collusion in Chapter 14, Section 14.2.) But implicit collusion is unlikely to succeed because firms have an incentive to break an implicit agreement by increasing output. 

We can conclude that once the chip and other supply problems facing car makers are resolved, production of cars is likely to increase.

Sources: Mike Colias and Nora Eckert, “GM Says Unfinished Cars to Hurt Quarterly Results,” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2022; and Nora Eckert, “Ford’s U.S. Sales Increase 32% in June, Outpacing Broader Industry,” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2022.

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