Reading: Monopsony

Start Up: Hockey Players Frozen Out

On October 30, 2004, Columbus Blue Jackets’ center Todd Marchant would ordinarily have been getting ready to open the 2004–2005 National Hockey League (NHL) season before a packed house in a game against the Dallas Stars in Dallas. Instead, he was home and devoting his season to coaching his six-year-old daughter’s hockey team.

Mr. Marchant was home because the Commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman, had ordered players locked out on September 15, when training camp was scheduled to begin and when the contract between the NHL and the Players Association expired. Mr. Bettman had warned for five years that he would take the drastic action of shutting down the hockey season unless owners and players could agree on a system to limit player salaries. In the NHL, player salaries amounted to 75% of team revenues. By contrast, player salaries represented 64% of team revenues in the National Football League and 59% of revenues in the American Basketball Association. Mr. Bettman contended that the league’s 30 franchises had lost a combined $500 million in the previous two years.

Players and owners alike had a great deal of money at stake. The NHL was selling 90% of its seats available during the regular season and generating $2.1 billion per year in revenues. “No one likes losing money, but this year everyone involved in hockey may be losing something,” Mr. Marchant told Business Week. Mr. Marchant lost $2.9 million as a result of the lockout.

Mr. Bettman and the owners were holding out for a “salary cap” that would limit player salaries to 53% of team revenues. According to Mark Hyman of Business Week, that would reduce average salaries in hockey from $1.8 million to $1.3 million. “We’re not going to play under a salary cap; we’re dead set against it,” Brad Lucovich, defenseman for Dallas, told Business Week. But the owners were similarly adamant. They were perfectly willing to forego revenues from the season—and to avoid paying player salaries—to establish a salary cap.

Were the owners being greedy? Or were the players at fault? For economists, the notions of “greed” or “blame” were not the issue. Economists assume that all individuals act in their own self-interest. In the case of the hockey lockout, which eliminated the 2004–05 season, players and owners were in a face-off in which a great deal of money was at stake. Owners had tried to establish a cap in 1994; the resulting labor dispute shut down half the season. Ultimately, the players prevailed and no caps were imposed. The 2005 lockout ended in nearly the opposite way. In the new contract, player salaries are capped and may not exceed 54% of league revenues. To most observers, it seemed that the team owners had won this battle.

Revolutionary changes in the rules that govern relations between the owners of sports teams and the players they hire have produced textbook examples of the economic forces at work in the determination of wages in imperfectly competitive markets. Markets for labor and other factors of production can diverge from the conditions of perfect competition in several ways, all of which involve price-setting behavior. Firms that purchase inputs may be price setters. Suppliers of inputs may have market power as well: a firm may have monopoly control over some key input or input suppliers may band together to achieve market power. Workers may organize unions. Suppliers of services, such as physicians and hairdressers, have formed associations that exert power in the marketplace.

This section applies the marginal decision rule to the analysis of imperfectly competitive markets for labor and other factors of production. Imperfect competition in these markets generally results in a reduction in the quantity of an input used, relative to the competitive equilibrium. The price of the input, however, could be higher or lower than in perfect competition, depending on the nature of the market structure involved.

Price-Setting Buyers: The Case of Monopsony

We have seen that market power in product markets exists when firms have the ability to set the prices they charge, within the limits of the demand curve for their products. Depending on the factor supply curve, firms may also have some power to set prices they pay in factor markets.

A firm can set price in a factor market if, instead of a market-determined price, it faces an upward-sloping supply curve for the factor. This creates a fundamental difference between price-taking and price-setting firms in factor markets. A price-taking firm can hire any amount of the factor at the market price; it faces a horizontal supply curve for the factor at the market-determined price, as shown in Panel (a) of Figure 14.1. A price-setting firm faces an upward-sloping supply curve such as S in Panel (b). It obtains Q1 units of the factor when it sets the price P1. To obtain a larger quantity, such as Q2, it must offer a higher price, P2.

Graphs showing the differences between a price-taking firm and a price-setting firm.

Figure 14.1. Factor Market Price Takers and Price Setters. A price-taking firm faces the market-determined price P for the factor in Panel (a) and can purchase any quantity it wants at that price. A price-setting firm faces an upward-sloping supply curve S in Panel (b). The price-setting firm sets the price consistent with the quantity of the factor it wants to obtain. Here, the firm can obtain Q1 units at a price P1, but it must pay a higher price per unit, P2, to obtain Q2 units.


Consider a situation in which one firm is the only buyer of a particular factor. An example might be an isolated mining town where the mine is the single employer. A market in which there is only one buyer of a good, service, or factor of production is called a monopsony. Monopsony is the buyer’s counterpart of monopoly. Monopoly means a single seller; monopsony means a single buyer.

Assume that the suppliers of a factor in a monopsony market are price takers; there is perfect competition in factor supply. But a single firm constitutes the entire market for the factor. That means that the monopsony firm faces the upward-sloping market supply curve for the factor. Such a case is illustrated in Figure 14.2, where the price and quantity combinations on the supply curve for the factor are given in the table.

A table showing the prices, quantity supplied, and the marginal factor costs for a firm, which are then plotted on a graph.

Figure 14.2. Supply and Marginal Factor Cost. The table gives prices and quantities for the factor supply curve plotted in the graph. Notice that the marginal factor cost curve lies above the supply curve.


Suppose the monopsony firm is now using three units of the factor at a price of $6 per unit. Its total factor cost is $18. Suppose the firm is considering adding one more unit of the factor. Given the supply curve, the only way the firm can obtain four units of the factor rather than three is to offer a higher price of $8 for all four units of the factor. That would increase the firm’s total factor cost from $18 to $32. The marginal factor cost of the fourth unit of the factor is thus $14. It includes the $8 the firm pays for the fourth unit plus an additional $2 for each of the three units the firm was already using, since it has increased the prices for the factor to $8 from $6. The marginal factor cost (MFC) exceeds the price of the factor. We can plot the MFC for each increase in the quantity of the factor the firm uses; notice in Figure 14.2 that the MFC curve lies above the supply curve. As always in plotting in marginal values, we plot the $14 midway between units three and four because it is the increase in factor cost as the firm goes from three to four units.

Monopsony Equilibrium and the Marginal Decision Rule

The marginal decision rule, as it applies to a firm’s use of factors, calls for the firm to add more units of a factor up to the point that the factor’s MRP is equal to its MFC. Figure 14.3 illustrates this solution for a firm that is the only buyer of labor in a particular market.

Graph showing the upward sloping MFC and supply curves and how they intersect with the downward-sloping MRP.

Figure 14.3. Monopsony Equilibrium. Given the supply curve for labor, S, and the marginal factor cost curve, MFC, the monopsony firm will select the quantity of labor at which the MRP of labor equals its MFC. It thus uses Lm units of labor (determined by at the intersection of MRP and MFC) and pays a wage of Wm per unit (the wage is taken from the supply curve at which Lm units of labor are available). The quantity of labor used by the monopsony firm is less than would be used in a competitive market (Lc); the wage paid, Wm, is lower than would be paid in a competitive labor market.


The firm faces the supply curve for labor, S, and the marginal factor cost curve for labor, MFC. The profit-maximizing quantity is determined by the intersection of the MRP and MFC curves—the firm will hire Lunits of labor. The wage at which the firm can obtain Lunits of labor is given by the supply curve for labor; it is Wm. Labor receives a wage that is less than its MRP.

If the monopsony firm was broken up into a large number of small firms and all other conditions in the market remained unchanged, then the sum of the MRP curves for individual firms would be the market demand for labor. The equilibrium wage would be Wc, and the quantity of labor demanded would be Lc. Thus, compared to a competitive market, a monopsony solution generates a lower factor price and a smaller quantity of the factor demanded.