A price floor is the lowest legal price that can be paid in markets for goods and services, labor, or financial capital. Perhaps the best-known example of a price floor is the minimum wage, which is based on the normative view that someone working full-time ought to be able to afford a basic standard of living. The federal minimum wage at the end of 2015 was $7.25 per hour, which yields an income for a single person slightly higher than the poverty line. As the cost of living rises over time, the Congress periodically raises the federal minimum wage.
Price floors are sometimes called “price supports,” because they support a price by preventing it from falling below a certain level. Around the world, many countries have passed laws to create agricultural price supports. Farm prices and thus farm incomes fluctuate, sometimes widely. So even if, on average, farm incomes are adequate, some years they can be quite low. The purpose of price supports is to prevent these swings.
The most common way price supports work is that the government enters the market and buys up the product, adding to demand to keep prices higher than they otherwise would be. According to Reuters News, the European Union (EU) will spend about $60 billion per year, or roughly 38% of the EU budget, on price supports for Europe’s farmers from 2014 to 2020.
Figure 3.22 illustrates the effects of a government program that assures a price above the equilibrium by focusing on the market for wheat in Europe. In the absence of government intervention, the price would adjust so that the quantity supplied would equal the quantity demanded at the equilibrium point E0, with price P0 and quantity Q0. However, policies to keep prices high for farmers keeps the price above what would have been the market equilibrium level—the price Pf shown by the dashed horizontal line in the diagram. The result is a quantity supplied in excess of the quantity demanded (Qd). When quantity supplied exceeds quantity demanded, a surplus exists.
The high-income areas of the world, including the United States, Europe, and Japan, are estimated to spend roughly $1 billion per day in supporting their farmers. If the government is willing to purchase the excess supply (or to provide payments for others to purchase it), then farmers will benefit from the price floor, but taxpayers and consumers of food will pay the costs. Numerous proposals have been offered for reducing farm subsidies. In many countries, however, political support for subsidies for farmers remains strong. Either because this is viewed by the population as supporting the traditional rural way of life or because of the lobbying power of the agro-business industry.
For more detail on the effects price ceilings and floors have on demand and supply, see the following Application feature.
DEMAND AND SUPPLY AS A SOCIAL ADJUSTMENT MECHANISM
The demand and supply model emphasizes that prices are not set only by demand or only by supply, but by the interaction between the two. In 1890, the famous economist Alfred Marshall wrote that asking whether supply or demand determined a price was like arguing “whether it is the upper or the under blade of a pair of scissors that cuts a piece of paper.” The answer is that both blades of the demand and supply scissors are always involved.
The adjustments of equilibrium price and quantity in a market-oriented economy often occur without much government direction or oversight. If the coffee crop in Brazil suffers a terrible frost, then the supply curve of coffee shifts to the left and the price of coffee rises. Some people—call them the coffee addicts—continue to drink coffee and pay the higher price. Others switch to tea or soft drinks. No government commission is needed to figure out how to adjust coffee prices, which companies will be allowed to process the remaining supply, which supermarkets in which cities will get how much coffee to sell, or which consumers will ultimately be allowed to drink the brew. Such adjustments in response to price changes happen all the time in a market economy, often so smoothly and rapidly that we barely notice them.
Think for a moment of all the seasonal foods that are available and inexpensive at certain times of the year, like fresh corn in midsummer, but more expensive at other times of the year. People alter their diets and restaurants alter their menus in response to these fluctuations in prices without fuss or fanfare. For both the U.S. economy and the world economy as a whole, markets—that is, demand and supply—are the primary social mechanism for answering the basic questions about what is produced, how it is produced, and for whom it is produced.
Self Check: Price Floors
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 two Readings 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.