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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.

Suggested Citation

  • Russell Pittman, 2009. "Who Are You Calling Irrational? Marginal Costs, Variable Costs, and the Pricing Practices of Firms," EAG Discussions Papers 200903, Department of Justice, Antitrust Division.
  • Handle: RePEc:doj:eagpap:200903

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Philippe Aghion & Nick Bloom & Richard Blundell & Rachel Griffith & Peter Howitt, 2005. "Competition and Innovation: an Inverted-U Relationship," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 120(2), pages 701-728.
    2. Miles Parker, 2017. "Price-setting behaviour in New Zealand," New Zealand Economic Papers, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 51(3), pages 217-236, September.
    3. 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.
    4. Nickell, Stephen J, 1996. "Competition and Corporate Performance," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 104(4), pages 724-746, August.
    5. 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.
    6. 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, June.
    7. 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).
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    Cited by:

    1. Pittman, Russell, 2017. "Three Economist’s Tools for Antitrust Analysis: A Non-Technical Introduction," MPRA Paper 76201, University Library of Munich, Germany.

    More about this item


    market power; price; mark-up; marginal cost; variable cost;

    JEL classification:

    • B21 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925 - - - Microeconomics
    • D24 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Production; Cost; Capital; Capital, Total Factor, and Multifactor Productivity; Capacity
    • D43 - Microeconomics - - Market Structure, Pricing, and Design - - - Oligopoly and Other Forms of Market Imperfection
    • K21 - Law and Economics - - Regulation and Business Law - - - Antitrust Law
    • L11 - Industrial Organization - - Market Structure, Firm Strategy, and Market Performance - - - Production, Pricing, and Market Structure; Size Distribution of Firms
    • L40 - Industrial Organization - - Antitrust Issues and Policies - - - General

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