Recently Tunku Varadarajan of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Edward Glaeser on whether the increases in working remotely due to the pandemic are likely to persist.
Glaeser notes that compared with the period before the pandemic, office attendance is still down 19% nationwide. In some large cities, it’s down considerably more, including being down more than 50% in San Francisco and 32% in New York and Boston.
Glaeser believes that a decline in working on site can be a particular problem for young workers:
“Cities—and face-to-face contact at work—have ‘this essential learning component that is valuable and crucial for workers who are young,’ [Glaeser] says. The acquisition of experience and improvement in productivity, ‘month by month, year by year,’ ensures that individual earnings are higher in cities than elsewhere.”
According to Glaeser, people who work remotely face a 50% reduction in the probably of being promoted.
Glaeser is not a fan of remote teaching:
“Delivering a lecture to 100 students on Zoom, he says, is ‘just a bad movie, a really bad movie. None of the magic that comes from live lecturing and live interaction with students is there when you’re doing it via Zoom.'”
There is much more in the article, which is well worth reading. It can be found here (a subscription may be required).
Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from the same month in the previous year was 7.9 percent in February 2022, the highest rate since January 1982—near the end of the Great Inflation that began in the late 1960s. The following figure shows inflation in the new motor vehicle component of the CPI. The 12.4 percent increase in new car prices was the largest since April 1975.
The increase in new car prices was being driven partly by increases in aggregate demand resulting from the highly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies enacted in response to the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and partly from shortages of semiconductors and some other car components, which reduced the supply of new cars.
As the following figure shows, inflation in used car prices was even greater. With the exception of June and July of 2021, the 41.2 percent increase in used car prices in February 2022 was the largest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing these data in 1954.
Because used cars are a substitute of new cars, rising prices of new cars caused an increase in demand for used cars. In addition, the supply of used cars was reduced because car rental firms, such as Enterprise and Hertz, had purchased fewer new cars during the worst of the pandemic and so had fewer used cars to sell to used car dealers. Increased demand and reduced supply resulted in the sharp increase in the price of used cars.
Another factor increasing the prices consumers were paying for cars was a reduction in bargaining—or haggling—over car prices. Traditionally, most goods and services are sold at a fixed price. For example, some buying a refrigerator usually pays the posted price charged by Best Buy, Lowes, or another retailer. But houses and cars have been an exception, with buyers often negotiating prices that are lower than the seller was asking.
In the case of automobiles, by federal law, the price of a new car has to be posted on the car’s window. The posted price is called the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), often referred to as the sticker price. Typically, the sticker price represents a ceiling on what a consumer is likely to pay, with many—but not all—buyers negotiating for a lower price. Some people dislike the idea of bargaining over the price of a car, particularly if they get drawn into long negotiations at a car dealership. These buyers are likely to pay the sticker price or something very close to it.
As a result, car dealers have an opportunity to practice price discrimination: They charge buyers whose demand for cars is more price elastic lower prices and buyers whose demand is less price elastic higher prices. The car dealers are able to separate the two groups on the basis of the buyers willingness to haggle over the price of a car. (We discuss price discrimination in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5.) Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability of car dealers to practice this form of price discrimination had been eroded by the availability of online car buying services, such as Consumer Reports’ “Build & Buy Service,” which allow buyers to compare competing price offers from local car dealers. There aren’t sufficient data to determine whether using an online buying service results in prices as low as those obtained by buyers willing to haggle over price face-to-face with salespeople in dealerships.
In any event, in 2022 most car buyers were faced with a different situation: Rather than serving as a ceiling on the price, the MSRP, had become a floor. That is, many buyers found that given the reduced supply of new cars, they had to pay more than the MSRP. As one buyer quoted in a Wall Street Journal article put it: “The rules have changed so dramatically…. [T]he dealer’s position is ‘This is kind of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.’” According to the website Edmunds.com, in January 2021, only about 3 percent of cars were sold in the United States for prices above MSRP, but in January 2022, 82 percent were.
Car manufacturers are opposed to dealers charging prices higher than the MSRP, fearing that doing so will damage the car’s brand. But car manufacturers don’t own the dealerships that sell their cars. The dealerships are independently owned businesses, a situation that dates back to the beginning of the car industry in the early 1900s. Early automobile manufacturers, such as Henry Ford, couldn’t raise sufficient funds to buy and operate a nationwide network of car dealerships. The manufacturers often even had trouble financing the working capital—or the funds used to finance the daily operations of the firm—to buy components from suppliers, pay workers, and cover the other costs of manufacturing automobiles.
The manufacturers solved both problems by relying on a network of independent dealerships that would be given franchises to be the exclusive sellers of a manufacturer’s brand of cars in a given area. The local businesspeople who owned the dealerships raised funds locally, often from commercial banks. Manufacturers generally paid their suppliers 30 to 90 days after receiving shipments of components, while requiring their dealers to pay a deposit on the cars they ordered and to pay the balance due at the time the cars were delivered to the dealers. One historian of the automobile industry described the process:
The great demand for automobiles and the large profits available for [dealers], in the early days of the industry … enabled the producers to exact substantial advance deposits of cash for all orders and to require cash payment upon delivery of the vehicles …. The suppliers of parts and materials, on the other hand, extended book-account credit of thirty to ninety days. Thus the automobile producer had a month or more in which to assemble and sell his vehicles before the bills from suppliers became due; and much of his labor costs could be paid from dealers’ deposits.
The franchise system had some drawbacks for car manufacturers, however. A car dealership benefits from the reputation of the manufacturer whose cars it sells, but it has an incentive to free ride on that reputation. That is, if a local dealer can take an action—such as selling cars above the MSRP—that raises its profit, it has an incentive to do so even if the action damages the reputation of Ford, General Motors, or whichever firm’s cars the dealer is selling. Car manufacturers have long been aware of the problem of car dealers free riding on the manufacturer’s reputation. For instance, in the 1920s, Ford sent so-called road men to inspect Ford dealers to check that they had clean, well-lighted showrooms and competent repair shops in order to make sure the dealerships weren’t damaging Ford’s brand.
As we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.3, consumers often believe it’s unfair of a firm to raise prices—such as a hardware store raising the prices of shovels after a snowstorm—when the increases aren’t the result of increases in the firm’s costs. Knowing that many consumers have this view, car manufacturers in 2022 wanted their dealers not to sell cars for prices above the MSRP. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it: “Historically, car companies have said they disapprove of their dealers charging above MSRP, saying it can reflect poorly on the brand and alienate customers.”
But the car manufacturers ran into another consequence of the franchise system. Using a franchise system rather than selling cars through manufacturer owned dealerships means that there are thousands of independent car dealers in the United States. The number of dealers makes them an effective lobbying force with state governments. As a result, most states have passed state franchise laws that limit the ability of car manufacturers to control the actions of their dealers and sometimes prohibit car manufacturers from selling cars directly to consumers. Although Tesla has attained the right in some states to sell directly to consumers without using franchised dealers, Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers still rely exclusively on dealers. The result is that car manufacturers can’t legally set the prices that their dealerships charge.
Will the situation of most people paying the sticker price—or more—for cars persist after the current supply chain problems are resolved? AutoNation is the largest chain of car dealerships in the United States. Recently, Mike Manley, the firm’s CEO, argued that the substantial discounts from the sticker price that were common before the pandemic are a thing of the past. He argued that car manufacturers were likely to keep production of new cars more closely in balance with consumer demand, reducing the number of cars dealers keep in inventory on their lots: “We will not return to excessively high inventory levels that depress new-vehicle margins.”
Only time will tell whether the situation facing car buyers in 2022 of having to pay prices above the MSRP will persist.
Sources: Mike Colias and Nora Eckert, “A New Brand of Sticker Shock Hits the Car Market,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2022; Nora Eckert and Mike Colias, “Ford and GM Warn Dealers to Stop Charging So Much for New Cars,” Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2022; Gabrielle Coppola, “Car Discounts Aren’t Coming Back After Pandemic, AutoNation Says,” bloomberg.com, February 9, 2022; cr.org/buildandbuy; Lawrence H. Seltzer, A Financial History of the American Automobile Industry, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1928; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they return for a new academic year! The issues have evolved but the importance of these issues has not waned. We discuss the impact of closures related to the delta variant has on the economy. The discussion extends to the active fiscal and monetary policy that has reintroduced inflation as a topic facing our economy. Many students have little or no experience with inflation so it is a learning opportunity. Check back regularly where Glenn & Tony will continue to wrestle with these important economic concepts and relate them to the classroom!
Supports: Econ Chapter 12, Section 12.4, “Deciding Whether to Produce or Shut Down in the Short Run,” and Section 12.5, “‘If Everyone Can Do It, You Can’t Make Money at It’: The Entry and Exit of Firms in the Long Run”; and Essentials: Chapter 9, Section 9.4 and Section 9.5.
Solved Problem: Why Is Starbucks Closing Stores in New York City?
In May 2021, many businesses in the United States began fully reopening as local governments eased restrictions on capacity imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19. An article on crainsnewyork.com discussed the decisions Starbucks was making with respect to its stores in New York City. Starbucks intended to keep some stores open, some stores would be permanently closed, and “about 20 others that are currently in business will shutter when their leases end in the next year.” Analyze the relationship between cost and revenue for each of these three categories of Starbucks stores: 1) the stores that will remain permanently open; 2) the stores that will not reopen; and 3) the stores that will remain open only until their leases expire. In particularly, be sure to explain why Starbucks didn’t close the stores in category 3) immediately rather than waiting until the their leases expire.
Source: Cara Eisenpress, “Starbucks Closing Some City Locations as It Moves to a Smaller, Pickup Model,” crainsnewyork.com, May 19, 2021.
Solving the Problem
Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about the break-even price for a firm in the short run and in the long run, so you may want to review Chapter 12, Section 12.4, “Deciding Whether to Produce or to Shut Down in the Short Run,” and Section 12.5, “‘If Everyone Can Do It, You Can’t Make Money at It’: The Entry and Exit of Firms in the Long Run.”
Step 2: Explain why stores in category 1) will remain permanently open. We know that firms will continue to operate a store if the revenue from the store is greater than or equal to all of the store’s costs—both its fixed costs and its variable costs. So, Starbucks must expect this relationship between revenue and cost to hold for the stores that it will keep permanently open.
Step 3: Explain why Starbucks will not reopen stores in category 2). Firms will close a store in the short run if the loss from operating the store is greater than the store’s fixed costs. Put another way, the firm won’t be willing to lose more than the store’s fixed costs. We can conclude that Starbucks believes that if it reopens stores in category 2) its loss from operating those stores will be greater than the stores’ fixed costs.
Step 4: Explain why Starbucks will operate some stores only until their leases expire and then will shut them down. If a firm’s revenue from operating a store is greater than the store’s variable costs, the firm will operate the store even though it is incurring an economic loss. If it closed the store, it would still have to pay the fixed costs of the store, the most important of which in this case is the rent it has to pay the owner of the building the store is in. By operating the store, Starbucks will incur a smaller loss than by immediately closing the store. But recall that there are no fixed costs in the long run. The stores’ leases will eventually expire, eliminating that fixed cost. So, in the long run, a firm will close a store that is incurring a loss. Because Starbucks doesn’t believe that in the long run it can cover all the costs of operating stores in category 3, it intends to operate them until their leases expire and then shut them down.
In March 2020, as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the U.S. economy became clear, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act, which authorized more than $2 trillion in new spending. This fiscal policy action helped to cushion the effects on businesses and households of the job losses and reduced spending resulting directly from the pandemic and from the actions state and local governments took to contain the spread of the coronavirus, including restrictions on the operations of many businesses.
After a long debate over whether additional government aid would be required, in December 21, 2020, as hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 hit new highs in the United States, Congress agreed to a second fiscal policy action, totaling about $900 billion. On December 27, President Donald Trump signed the legislation. The components of the new spending are shown in the following pie chart, which is adapted from an article in the Wall Street Journal that can be found HERE. Note that the dollar values in the pie chart are in billions.
The largest component of the package is aid to small businesses, most of which takes the form of providing additional funds for the Paycheck Protection Plan. (We discuss the Paycheck Protection Plan in an earlier blog post that you can read HERE. An analysis by economists at the U.S. Department of the Treasury of the effectiveness of the original round of spending under the Paycheck Protection Plan can be found HERE.) The second largest component of the program involves direct payments of $600 per adult and $600 per child. The payments phase out for individuals with incomes over $75,000 and for couples with incomes over $150,000. The next largest component of the package is expanded unemployment benefits, followed by aid to schools, and increased spending on vaccines, testing, and contact tracing.
An article from the Associated Press describing the plan can be found HERE.
The Economic Strategy Group (ESG) is a program for discussing economic policy issues. On November 19, 2020, the ESG released a statement urging Congress to provide additional funding to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Glenn Hubbard joined economists from both political parties in signing the statement. You can read the statement HERE.
In an opinion column on bloomberg.com, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute argues that Congress should pass another stimulus package to supplement the $1.8 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed and President Trump signed into law in March. His proposal would involve an additional $1 trillion in spending.
You can read the column HERE. Note that most bloomberg.com articles require a paid subscription, but you can read several articles per month for free.
Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien look at the economic outlook given the current status of the presidential election. Will a divided government lead to economic prosperity or result in more gridlock? They discuss how much the President actually controls economic policy by setting the tone but that other instruments of our government likely have more effect in creating long-term growth in the Economy.
Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes or any other Podcast provider and subscribe!
Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impacts of what was discussed in the final Presidental debate on 10/22/20. They discuss wide-ranging topics that were raised in the debate from reopening the economy & schools, decreasing participation of women in the workforce due to COVID, healthcare, environment, and general tax policy. Listen to gain economic context on these important items. Click HERE for the New York Times article discussed during the Podcast:
Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes and subscribe!
Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien talk with Kim Holder of the University of West Georgia. Kim discusses many best practices in preparing for her fall courses that are so flexible they can easily adapt to in-person, hybrid, or online. Listen to her observations about the delicate nature of discussing COVID-19 in classes this fall as well as her passion for personal financial literacy in the wake of the traumatic event. Both instructors and students will learn from what Kim has to say!
Links for podcast of June 12th, 2020 with Kim Holder of the University of West Georgia:
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