Price discrimination: the bane of consumers everywhere

Photo by James Petts. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

If you’ve been to two different branches of the same retailer, one in the heart of London and one in a less central area, chances are you’ve been a victim of price discrimination. The “discrimination” part of this phrase is probably ringing a few alarm bells with you already, but in the end, price discrimination is just another (relatively harmless) way of firms’ seeking to maximise profits, as basic economic theory states that they do. But what is price discrimination? Essentially, what this is is when firms charge different prices to different buyers for the same good or service. This manifests itself in many forms in our daily lives, from our taking advantage of age discounts to the annoyance we feel when paying large amounts for coffee in Leicester Square. Whilst often denounced by many as simply a discrete form of consumer exploitation, I see it as an ingenious tactic employed by firms to yet again slip under the watchful eye of the average buyer; however, the reason you don’t see price discrimination employed in the real world as often as you thought it might have been is because there are a certain set of criteria that need to be fulfilled in order for price discrimination to take place, the first of which relates to price elasticity of demand.

Intuitively, one of the only reasons that price discrimination works in the first place is because different groups of people will think differently about changing their quantity demanded in response to the change in price of a good or service. Hence, a prerequisite for price discrimination to be viable is that the price elasticity of demand (the responsiveness of demand after a change in a product’s own price) by different consumer groups is different. If the price elasticity of demand for a product were to be similar for two different consumer groups, they would both, ceteris paribus, reduce their quantity demanded by around the same amount for an equivalent increase in price, therefore rendering this pricing strategy ineffective. The firm will also need substantial information about consumer preferences to be able to confidently change the prices for the same good for different consumers, which may prove difficult for a number of firms that are strapped for cash and cannot easily carry out the essential market research. The firm must also not be operating within a perfectly competitive market (otherwise any attempt at price discrimination would simply result in the firm’s getting priced out of the market), and with this, there cannot be a great deal of market seepage (whereby consumers buy the good/service where there is a high price elasticity of demand and sell where demand is comparatively inelastic).

As with many business strategies, price discrimination can take many different forms, with their severity denoted by the “degree” suffix, with first being most severe, and third being the least severe. First degree discrimination is when a particular firm produces products for the same marginal cost, but then sells each product at a different price, depending on the consumer. For example, if I were to want to buy a packet of crisps at a Tesco in Harrow, I’d find that the price of a packet would be quite comparatively cheap. Why? Because I’m surrounded by other retailers that could potentially take my money as opposed to Tesco, and more importantly, I, like many others buying a packet of crisps in Harrow, am likely not in any sort of hurry to buy one. If I’m in bustling central London, however, and am running late to meet my friends, then I’d want to buy a packet of crisps as quickly as I possibly can. Here’s where firms can exploit you. Because you’re less willing to look for alternatives in central London than Harrow, firms can charge you a higher price here, due to the price elasticity of demand for this consumer group being lower than it would be in Harrow. This reduces consumer surplus for the consumers in central London, while giving firms higher revenues. Clever, isn’t it?

Let’s now move on to second-degree price discrimination. Basically, this is when the average cost per item decreases when you buy the items in bulk. This can be used by companies who are not able to pick apart consumer groups as well as the ones carrying out first-degree price discrimination, for example. When companies want to shift excess supply due to changing consumer preferences, for example, they could potentially use this form of price discrimination as although profit margins will be hit, they get the double benefit of at least making some profit on the items and also shifting the excess stock that they needed to shift. This is quite frequently also employed in major retailers such as Tesco and Asda and also at restaurants such as McDonalds and Burger King in order to shift stock of items that just aren’t selling very well any more. Second-degree price discrimination is not exclusively limited to these scenarios, however, and could be used in a wide variety of other contexts, although it has to be said that this form of discrimination is probably quite ineffective in general when compared with the former.

Finally, we move on to third degree price discrimination, which is perhaps the most widely employed in everyday life. Unlike the previous version of price discrimination, this relies heavily on differentiation between different consumer groups. Normally, what happens is that a firm (for example a company offering trips to the cinema) splits ticket prices (broadly) into adults, seniors and children, due to the latter two having a higher price elasticity of demand than adults, for whom the cost of a cinema fare is a comparatively small proportion of their income. The firm attempt this only if if they feel that P1Q1 + P2Q2 + P3Q3 > P0Q0, where P1 and Q1 are the price and quantity demanded for adult tickets respectively, P2 and Q2 are the price and quantity demanded for senior tickets respectively, P3 and Q3 are the price and quantity demanded for child tickets respectively, and P0 and Q0 are the price and quantity demanded had there been a uniform ticket price for all ages of people. Given that first-degree price discrimination occurs quite rarely, and second degree price discrimination is comparatively ineffective, this form of price discrimination is the most lucrative for a potential firm to engage in.

So now we come to the question: is price discrimination ethical? Well, it depends. The profit motive is always going to encourage firms to try to maximise their revenues while minimising their potential costs, and this obviously means that some consumers will lose out; however, the fact remains that price discrimination strategies are employed by firms only because they work, plain and simple; they generate more profit than they would have done without these price discrimination strategies, meaning that the targeted consumers are, by and large, still willing to buy goods for which the strategies are employed, even if they don’t know exactly what firms are doing behind the scenes. Simply, this is just another development in the cat-and-mouse game that is firms’ trying to maximise profits and consumers trying to maximise potential utility, and the fact that firms are finding this worthwhile to do shows that we as a society don’t really have an objection to this happening, even when it’s happening right in front of our eyes (as shown in the third degree price discrimination example above). As firms continue to become more and more savvy to make profits, it’s down to consumers to ensure they’re not being continually one-upped by price discrimination.

So consumers, the ball is in your court.

The EU needs to change. Here’s how

It’s the 1st of January, 2002. 12 European countries have officially began to use Euro notes and coins as legal tender. It was seen by some then as a sign, a sign of the peace and togetherness which being a member of the European Union engendered, and a sign of the success which the European Union was enjoying.

Oh, how wrong those people were.

Since the beginning of 2002, 7 more countries have joined the eurozone, Greece has gone back and forth from the depths of economic hell, and a refugee crisis has threatened the very fabric of what the EU stands for.

Oh, and there was that whole Brexit thing.

It’s not an exaggeration in any sense of the word to state that the past few years have been eventful for the EU. However, in truth, much of the blame for the EU’s tumultuous past lies squarely on the shoulders of the EU itself. From the sheer stupidity of the idea of uniform monetary policy for almost 20 countries to the EU’s resistance to compromise with member states on almost anything, it’s fair to say that the organisation has not done itself any favours recently. However, the Union’s death-knell has not come yet. It is possible that if the EU introduces key reforms in significant areas, they could snatch stability from the jaws of disintegration. However, these reforms need to be sweeping, and come sooner rather than later, starting with the abolishment of the eurozone entirely.

Essentially, what the eurozone is is a monetary union which currently comprises 19 of the 28 EU member states; intuitively, all of these countries therefore use the euro as their currency. The monetary policy of the eurozone countries is decided by a large organisation known as the European Central Bank (or ECB). You might already see what the problem with this is, which is that a one size fits all policy cannot possibly work with 19 different countries with completely different economic and financial circumstances to each other. Whilst globalisation has made these countries more interconnected than ever before, there still remain considerable differences; one wouldn’t liken the financial situation of Greece to that of Germany, for example. If one country’s central bank heads wanted to raise interest rates, they likely couldn’t get the ECB to; it has the interests of 18 other countries to think about as well. The result of this is lacklustre growth, accompanied by growing discontent within the eurozone directed towards the ECB, and each other for acting as barricades to collective success. Therefore, the EU is left with two possible choices: ditch the euro, and let each country’s central bank dictate monetary policy, or take control of the fiscal policy of each eurozone country themselves. Given the large political and diplomatic consequences which the latter would have, it would be wise, nay, essential for the euro to go, leaving each country to synergise their own fiscal and monetary policies, facilitating the increased growth and prosperity of these countries and therefore the EU as a whole.

Moreover, the arrogance of the EU in forcing austerity upon countries such as Greece to meet their budget deficit targets, when these countries are already in recession, is confusing at best and asinine at worst. Austerity during a period of recession simply dampens consumer confidence and spending even further, creating a negative cycle of economic contraction and reduced prosperity. Proponents of Keynesian thought here would say that what Greece and countries like it require would be large fiscal stimulus packages to help trigger a positive multiplier effect and bolster the economy through long run economic growth. Having not followed this route, Greek annual economic growth rates are still firmly negative, and showing no signs of changing anytime soon. Had Greece not gone down the road of austerity, it could have potentially trimmed its budget deficits during a period of growth, rather than shatter consumer confidence and therefore any prospect of economic growth in its short-term horizons. For the EU to not see this, even now, is hinging on delusional and suggests that they see their ideas as worth more than recent evidence; the last thing you want from a respectable political institution. This arrogance and blind faith in the powers of austerity needs to go, and soon.

Complementing this arrogance is a string of inefficient directives and rules that have misallocated funds and endangered key sectors of European economies. For example, the famous CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) regulates price levels of food, artificially inflating them and therefore resulting in an oversupply and wastage of food. Arguably, some EU legislation introduced such as this is counterproductive rather than constructive, and the EU member states would do better without it. Granted, almost all countries have that element of bureaucracy within themselves, but if the EU wants to go back to competing with the likes of America, China and India on the global stage, it needs to cut down on these regulations to ensure the most efficient allocation of resources possible within its borders. Compared to its euro and austerity problem, however, this is relatively minor, and should the EU change its policy stance drastically in the way outlined here, it could potentially live to see another day. If not? Well, let’s just say that the dream of EU economic prosperity could be just that, a dream, shunned from the gates of reality by its own stupidity and stubbornness.

The choice is theirs.

Could globalisation bring developing countries and their financial systems to their knees?

PHOTO CREDITS: Dieu-Donné GameliPhoto licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

If one was to rank recent economic issues by the division and depth of debate they cause, globalisation would surely be up there at the top. Whilst the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, amongst others, has spearheaded efforts to thwart the rise of globalisation, liberals around the world argue that the increasing interconnectedness and interdependence of our world today can only be a good thing. However, the actual answer to the question of the impacts of globalisation is not so clear-cut; if any answer exists at all, it would lie firmly in the grey area. But what is globalisation? In essence, globalisation is the process by which economies around the world become more closely and deeply integrated with one another. In a way, it can be thought of as a border-killer, bringing countries that are physically thousands of miles apart firmly together,. Is this desirable, though? A point frequently made is that the effects of the 2008 financial crisis in developing markets were magnified to a great degree by the increased integration between the financial systems of different countries, and without this, the effects would have been far more localised to developed markets. Is this true? Perhaps, although it has to be said that those who use this point as a catch-all of sorts are perhaps not thinking broadly enough. In this article, we can begin by analysing the effect globalisation has on the financial system of developing economies in the context of regulation.

One way in which globalisation has impacted the global economy is an increase in the velocity of international capital flows. While this can entail an increase in money put in to financial markets in developing countries, what it can also do is facilitate an increase in capital flows out of these developing markets, resulting in an increase in uncertainty and volatility in their financial markets. A direct impact of this is that a shock in one country that, at first glance, wouldn’t affect the developing market too much, could result in irrational behaviour and herd mentality driving money out of developing capital markets in bucketloads. The control that these countries so desperately need over their own destiny, is as a result forfeited to a degree due to globalised economic activity; a small shock in the United States could result in large percentage swings in some African markets, for example. This drives away the certainty needed for a long-term sustainable financial system to develop; in this way, it could be argued that the increase in the velocity of cross-country cash flows could actually serve to the detriment of developing economies.

However, a positive impact of the aforementioned variability in foreign direct investment (FDI) is also that the pressure of foreign buyers acts as an economic incentive for the governments of developing countries to solidify their financial system in order to attract and keep foreign capital. The threat of financial contagion should a global shock take place would, in theory, incentivise key individuals within developing countries to make sure that their underlying fundamentals are solid enough to withstand a global depression without too much long-term damage. If key markets are solidified soon enough, a virtuous cycle of investment and further growth could potentially be triggered, blurring the lines between these developing countries and their developed counterparts. Whilst the element of uncertainty and doubt will still be present, if the country is foresighted enough to secure their future prospects, the risk from this should be offset by the potential influx of foreign direct investment that could occur. Even if it does not work out, the meritocratic aspect of this scenario is still something to be commended and looked upon as a positive; countries will gain foreign direct investment if they see it as a rational economic decision to strengthen their financial system.

With the increase in available capital for corporations operating within developing countries to use, it is also important for regulation to be put in place such that the prevalence of moral hazard with regards to the risk/reward ratios of banks reduces. In a developing country, with arguably less financial infrastructure present than a developed one, it is somewhat easier to sign legislation that ensures that banks cannot operate in an unreasonably risky manner. As shown by the political lobbying of banks in the UK, USA and elsewhere, once a massive financial system has been built up, it is extremely hard to get major financial institutions to change their ways. Hence, if government puts its foot down quickly enough, it is possible that the developing countries of today could potentially have less of a glasshouse of a financial system than even the developed countries of today possess. The question of this article initially was “Could globalisation bring developing countries to their knees?”, and the answer to that is a resounding yes. Replace the “could” with a “will”, and you have an answer which depends on a multitude of factors, including primarily the quality of the country’s governance. If government manages itself correctly, globalisation could bring about rapid economic development and the bolstering of financial systems across the developing world. If not? Well then, we’ve all got ample reason to worry.