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Who Are You Calling Irrational? Marginal Costs, Variable Costs, and the Pricing Practices of Firms

  • Russell Pittman

    (Director of Economic Research, Economic Analysis Group, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, and visiting professor, New Economic School, Moscow)

Economists sometimes decry the persistence with which firms set prices above marginal cost and thus, according to the economists, fail to maximize profits. But it is the economists who have it wrong – first, because variable accounting costs are not always a good proxy for marginal economic costs, but more importantly because in an industry with U-shaped cost curves, a firm at a long-run sustainable equilibrium faces increasing marginal costs – i.e., a rising shadow price on some constrained input – i.e., in general, acost of capital. A corollary is that in such an industry the equilibrium mark-up over variable cost varies directly with capital intensity.

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Paper provided by Department of Justice, Antitrust Division in its series EAG Discussions Papers with number 200903.

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Length: 11 pages
Date of creation: Jul 2009
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:doj:eagpap:200903
Contact details of provider: Postal: Department of Justice Antitrust Division 450 Fifth Street NW Washington, DC 20530
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  1. Nickell, Stephen J, 1996. "Competition and Corporate Performance," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 104(4), pages 724-46, August.
  2. Howitt, Peter & Griffith, Rachel & Aghion, Philippe & Blundell, Richard & Bloom, Nick, 2005. "Competition and Innovation: An Inverted-U Relationship," Scholarly Articles 4481507, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  3. Madhav V. Rajan & Stefan Reichelstein, 2009. "Depreciation Rules and the Relation between Marginal and Historical Cost," Journal of Accounting Research, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 47(3), pages 823-865, 06.
  4. Nabil Al-Najjar & Sandeep Baliga & David Besanko, 2008. "Market forces meet behavioral biases: cost misallocation and irrational pricing," RAND Journal of Economics, RAND Corporation, vol. 39(1), pages 214-237.
  5. Boone, J. & van Ours, J.C. & van der Wiel, H.P., 2007. "How (Not) to Measure Competition," Discussion Paper 2007-32, Tilburg University, Center for Economic Research.
  6. Patrick McCloughan & Seán Lyons & William Batt, 2007. "The Effectiveness of Competition Policy and the Price-Cost Margin: Evidence from Panel Data," Papers WP209, Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
  7. Miles Parker, 2014. "Price-setting behaviour in New Zealand," Reserve Bank of New Zealand Discussion Paper Series DP2014/04, Reserve Bank of New Zealand.
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