Applications of Demand and Supply

4.2 Government Intervention in Market Prices: Price Floors and Price Ceilings

Agricultural Price Floors

Governments often seek to assist farmers by setting price floors in agricultural markets. A minimum allowable price set above the equilibrium price is a price floor. With a price floor, the government forbids a price below the minimum. (Notice that, if the price floor were for whatever reason set below the equilibrium price, it would be irrelevant to the determination of the price in the market since nothing would prohibit the price from rising to equilibrium). A price floor that is set above the equilibrium price creates a surplus.

Figure 4.6 "Price Floors in Wheat Markets" shows the market for wheat. Suppose the government sets the price of wheat at PF. Notice that PF is above the equilibrium price of PE. At PF, we read over to the demand curve to find that the quantity of wheat that buyers will be willing and able to purchase is W1 bushels. Reading over to the supply curve, we find that sellers will offer W2 bushels of wheat at the price floor of PF. Because PF is above the equilibrium price, there is a surplus of wheat equal to (W2 − W1) bushels. The surplus persists because the government does not allow the price to fall.

Figure 4.6 Price Floors in Wheat Markets

A price floor for wheat creates a surplus of wheat equal to (W2 - W1) bushels.

Why have many governments around the world set price floors in agricultural markets? Farming has changed dramatically over the past two centuries. Technological improvements in the form of new equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, and new varieties of crops have led to dramatic increases in crop output per acre. Worldwide production capacity has expanded markedly. As we have learned, technological improvements cause the supply curve to shift to the right, reducing the price of food. While such price reductions have been celebrated in computer markets, farmers have successfully lobbied for government programs aimed at keeping their prices from falling.

While the supply curve for agricultural goods has shifted to the right, the demand has increased with rising population and with rising income. But as incomes rise, people spend a smaller and smaller fraction of their incomes on food. While the demand for food has increased, that increase has not been nearly as great as the increase in supply. Figure 4.7 "Supply and Demand Shifts for Agricultural Products" shows that the supply curve has shifted much farther to the right, from S1 to S2, than the demand curve has, from D1 to D2. As a result, equilibrium quantity has risen dramatically, from Q1 to Q2, and equilibrium price has fallen, from P1 to P2.

On top of this long-term historical trend in agriculture, agricultural prices are subject to wide swings over shorter periods. Droughts or freezes can sharply reduce supplies of particular crops, causing sudden increases in prices. Demand for agricultural goods of one country can suddenly dry up if the government of another country imposes trade restrictions against its products, and prices can fall. Such dramatic shifts in prices and quantities make incomes of farmers unstable.

Figure 4.7 Supply and Demand Shifts for Agricultural Products

A relatively large increase in the supply of agricultural products, accompanied by a relatively small increase in demand, has reduced the price received by farmers and increased the quantity of agricultural goods.

The Great Depression of the 1930s led to a major federal role in agriculture. The Depression affected the entire economy, but it hit farmers particularly hard. Prices received by farmers plunged nearly two-thirds from 1930 to 1933. Many farmers had a tough time keeping up mortgage payments. By 1932, more than half of all farm loans were in default.

Farm legislation passed during the Great Depression has been modified many times, but the federal government has continued its direct involvement in agricultural markets. This has meant a variety of government programs that guarantee a minimum price for some types of agricultural products. These programs have been accompanied by government purchases of any surplus, by requirements to restrict acreage in order to limit those surpluses, by crop or production restrictions, and the like.

To see how such policies work, look back at Figure 4.6 "Price Floors in Wheat Markets". At PFW2 bushels of wheat will be supplied. With that much wheat on the market, there is market pressure on the price of wheat to fall. To prevent price from falling, the government buys the surplus of (W2 - W1) bushels of wheat, so that only W1 bushels are actually available to private consumers for purchase on the market. The government can store the surpluses or find special uses for them. For example, surpluses generated in the United States have been shipped to developing countries as grants-in-aid or distributed to local school lunch programs. As a variation on this program, the government can require farmers who want to participate in the price support program to reduce acreage in order to limit the size of the surpluses.

After 1973, the government stopped buying the surpluses (with some exceptions) and simply guaranteed farmers a "target price". If the average market price for a crop fell below the crop's target price, the government paid the difference. If, for example, a crop had a market price of $3 per unit and a target price of $4 per unit, the government would give farmers a payment of $1 for each unit sold. Farmers would thus receive the market price of $3 plus a government payment of $1 per unit. For farmers to receive these payments, they had to agree to remove acres from production and to comply with certain conservation provisions. These restrictions sought to reduce the size of the surplus generated by the target price, which acted as a kind of price floor.

What are the effects of such farm support programs? The intention is to boost and stabilize farm incomes. But, with price floors, consumers pay more for food than they would otherwise, and governments spend heavily to finance the programs. With the target price approach, consumers pay less, but government financing of the program continues. U.S. federal spending for agriculture averaged well over $22 billion per year between 2003 and 2007, roughly $70 per person.

Help to farmers has sometimes been justified on the grounds that it boosts incomes of "small" farmers. However, since farm aid has generally been allotted on the basis of how much farms produce rather than on a per-farm basis, most federal farm support has gone to the largest farms. If the goal is to eliminate poverty among farmers, farm aid could be redesigned to supplement the incomes of small or poor farmers rather than to undermine the functioning of agricultural markets.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, or FAIR. The thrust of the new legislation was to do away with the various programs of price support for most crops and hence provide incentives for farmers to respond to market price signals. To protect farmers through a transition period, the act provided for continued payments that were scheduled to decline over a seven-year period. However, with prices for many crops falling in 1998, the U.S. Congress passed an emergency aid package that increased payments to farmers. In 2008, as farm prices reached record highs, Congress passed a farm bill that increased subsidy payments to $40 billion. It did, however, for the first time limit payments to the wealthiest farmers. Individual farmers whose farm incomes exceed $750,000 (or $1.5 million for couples) would be ineligible for some subsidy programs.