Reading: Price Ceilings

Demand and Supply Model

Controversy sometimes surrounds the prices and quantities established by demand and supply, especially for products that are considered necessities. In some cases, discontent over prices turns into public pressure on politicians, who may then pass legislation to prevent a certain price from climbing “too high” or falling “too low.”

The demand and supply model shows how people and firms will react to the incentives provided by these laws to control prices, in ways that will often lead to undesirable consequences. Alternative policy tools can often achieve the desired goals of price control laws, while avoiding at least some of their costs and tradeoffs.

Price Ceilings

Laws that government enacts to regulate prices are called Price Controls. Price controls come in two flavors. A price ceiling keeps a price from rising above a certain level (the “ceiling”), while a price floor keeps a price from falling below a certain level (the “floor”). This section uses the demand and supply framework to analyze price ceilings. The next section discusses price floors.

In many markets for goods and services, demanders outnumber suppliers. Consumers, who are also potential voters, sometimes unite behind a political proposal to hold down a certain price. In some cities, for example, renters have pressed political leaders to pass rent control laws, a price ceiling that usually works by stating that rents can be raised by only a certain maximum percentage each year.

Rent control becomes a politically hot topic when rents begin to rise rapidly. Everyone needs an affordable place to live. Perhaps a change in tastes makes a certain suburb or town a more popular place to live. Perhaps locally-based businesses expand, bringing higher incomes and more people into the area. Changes of this sort can cause a change in the demand for rental housing, as Figure 3.21 illustrates. The original equilibrium (E0) lies at the intersection of supply curve S0 and demand curve D0, corresponding to an equilibrium price of $500 and an equilibrium quantity of 15,000 units of rental housing. The effect of greater income or a change in tastes is to shift the demand curve for rental housing to the right, as shown by the data in Table 3.7 and the shift from D0 to D1 on the graph. In this market, at the new equilibrium E1, the price of a rental unit would rise to $600 and the equilibrium quantity would increase to 17,000 units.

The graph shows a shift in demand with a price ceiling. The demand curve shifts to the right, causing the equilibrium to shift, but the fixed price ceiling causes the excess demand, or a shortage.

Figure 3.21. A Price Ceiling Example—Rent Control The original intersection of demand and supply occurs at E0. If demand shifts from D0 to D1, the new equilibrium would be at E1—unless a price ceiling prevents the price from rising. If the price is not permitted to rise, the quantity supplied remains at 15,000. However, after the change in demand, the quantity demanded rises to 19,000, resulting in a shortage.

Table showing the changes in quantity supplied and quantity demanded at each price.

Table 3.7 Rent Control

Price Original Quantity Supplied Original Quantity Demanded New Quantity Demanded
$400 12,000 18,000 23,000
$500 15,000 15,000 19,000
$600 17,000 13,000 17,000
$700 19,000 11,000 15,000
$800 20,000 10,000 14,000

Suppose that a rent control law is passed to keep the price at the original equilibrium of $500 for a typical apartment. In Figure 3.21, the horizontal line at the price of $500 shows the legally fixed maximum price set by the rent control law. However, the underlying forces that shifted the demand curve to the right are still there. At that price ($500), the quantity supplied remains at the same 15,000 rental units, but the quantity demanded is 19,000 rental units. In other words, the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied, so there is a shortage of rental housing. One of the ironies of price ceilings is that while the price ceiling was intended to help renters, there are actually fewer apartments rented out under the price ceiling (15,000 rental units) than would be the case at the market rent of $600 (17,000 rental units).

Price ceilings do not simply benefit renters at the expense of landlords. Rather, some renters (or potential renters) lose their housing as landlords convert apartments to co-ops and condos. Even when the housing remains in the rental market, landlords tend to spend less on maintenance and on essentials like heating, cooling, hot water, and lighting. The first rule of economics is you do not get something for nothing—everything has an opportunity cost. So if renters get “cheaper” housing than the market requires, they tend to also end up with lower quality housing.

Price ceilings have been proposed for other products. For example, price ceilings to limit what producers can charge have been proposed in recent years for prescription drugs, doctor and hospital fees, the charges made by some automatic teller bank machines, and auto insurance rates. Price ceilings are enacted in an attempt to keep prices low for those who demand the product. But when the market price is not allowed to rise to the equilibrium level, quantity demanded exceeds quantity supplied, and thus a shortage occurs. Those who manage to purchase the product at the lower price given by the price ceiling will benefit, but sellers of the product will suffer, along with those who are not able to purchase the product at all. Quality is also likely to deteriorate.

Self Check: Price Ceilings

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.

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