A Dime a Dozen
When you were younger did you babysit, deliver papers, or mow lawn(s) for money? If so, you faced stiff competition from other competitors who offered identical services. There was nothing to stop others from offering their services too. All of you charged the “going rate.” If you tried to charge more, your customers would simply buy from someone else. These conditions are very similar to the conditions agricultural growers face.
Growing a crop may be more difficult to start than a babysitting or lawn mowing service, but growers face the same fierce competition. In the grand scale of world agriculture, farmers face competition from thousands of others because they sell an identical product. After all, winter wheat is winter wheat. But it is relatively easy for farmers to leave the marketplace for another crop. In this case, they do not sell the family farm, they switch crops.
Take the case of the upper Midwest region of the United States—for many generations the area was called “King Wheat.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, statistics by state, in 1997, 11.6 million acres of wheat and 780,000 acres of corn were planted in North Dakota. In the intervening 15 or so years has the mix of crops changed? Since it is relatively easy to switch crops, did farmers change what was planted as the relative crop prices changed? We will find out at module’s end.
In the meantime, let’s consider the topic of this module—the perfectly competitive market. This is a market in which entry and exit are relatively easy and competitors are “a dime a dozen.”
Introduction to Perfect Competition
All businesses face two realities: no one is required to buy their products, and even customers who might want those products may buy from other businesses instead. Firms that operate in perfectly competitive markets face this reality. In this module you will learn how such firms make decisions about how much to produce, how much profit they make, whether to stay in business or not, and many others. Industries differ from one another in terms of how many sellers there are in a specific market, how easy or difficult it is for a new firm to enter, and the type of products that are sold. This is referred to as the market structure of the industry. In this module we focus on perfect competition. However, in other modules we will examine other industry types: Monopoly and Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly.
Perfect Competition and Why It Matters
Firms are said to be in perfect competition when the following conditions occur: (1) many firms produce identical products; (2) many buyers are available to buy the product, and many sellers are available to sell the product; (3) sellers and buyers have all relevant information to make rational decisions about the product being bought and sold; and (4) firms can enter and leave the market without any restrictions—in other words, there is free entry and exit into and out of the market.
A perfectly competitive firm is known as a price taker, because the pressure of competing firms forces them to accept the prevailing equilibrium price in the market. If a firm in a perfectly competitive market raises the price of its product by so much as a penny, it will lose all of its sales to competitors. When a wheat grower wants to know what the going price of wheat is, he or she has to go to the computer or listen to the radio to check. The market price is determined solely by supply and demand in the entire market and not the individual farmer. Also, a perfectly competitive firm must be a very small player in the overall market, so that it can increase or decrease output without noticeably affecting the overall quantity supplied and price in the market.
A perfectly competitive market is a hypothetical extreme; however, producers in a number of industries do face many competitor firms selling highly similar goods, in which case they must often act as price takers. Agricultural markets are often used as an example. The same crops grown by different farmers are largely interchangeable. According to the United States Department of Agriculture monthly reports, in 2012, U.S. corn farmers received an average price of $6.07 per bushel and wheat farmers received an average price of $7.60 per bushel. A corn farmer who attempted to sell at $7.00 per bushel, or a wheat grower who attempted to sell for $8.00 per bushel, would not have found any buyers. A perfectly competitive firm will not sell below the equilibrium price either. Why should they when they can sell all they want at the higher price? Other examples of agricultural markets that operate in close to perfectly competitive markets are small roadside produce markets and small organic farmers.
This module examines how profit-seeking firms decide how much to produce in perfectly competitive markets. Such firms will analyze their costs as discussed in the module on Cost and Industry Structure. In the short run, the perfectly competitive firm will seek the quantity of output where profits are highest or, if profits are not possible, where losses are lowest. In this example, the “short run” refers to a situation in which firms are producing with one fixed input and incur fixed costs of production. (In the real world, firms can have many fixed inputs.)
In the long run, perfectly competitive firms will react to profits by increasing production. They will respond to losses by reducing production or exiting the market. Ultimately, a long-run equilibrium will be attained when no new firms want to enter the market and existing firms do not want to leave the market, as economic profits have been driven down to zero.
Key Concepts and Summary
A perfectly competitive firm is a price taker, which means that it must accept the equilibrium price at which it sells goods. If a perfectly competitive firm attempts to charge even a tiny amount more than the market price, it will be unable to make any sales. In a perfectly competitive market there are thousands of sellers, easy entry, and identical products. A short-run production period is when firms are producing with some fixed inputs. Long-run equilibrium in a perfectly competitive industry occurs after all firms have entered and exited the industry and seller profits are driven to zero.
Perfect competition means that there are many sellers, there is easy entry and exiting of firms, products are identical from one seller to another, and sellers are price takers.
Self Check: Defining Perfect Competition
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
You’ll have more success on the Self Check if you’ve completed the Reading in this section.
Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.