cdixon blog

What’s the relationship between cost and price?

What’s the relationship between price – the ability to charge for your product – and cost – how much it costs you to produce it?

Price is a function of supply and demand.  Notice the word “cost” doesn’t occur there.  It is true that cost is, over the long term, a lower bound for price – otherwise you’d go out of business.  It is also true that high upfront fixed costs can create barriers to entry and therefore lower supply.

The only case in which price is determined by (variable) costs is in a commoditized market.  A market is commoditized when competing products are effectively interchangeable and therefore customers make decisions based solely on price.  In commoditized markets, price tends to converge toward cost.

In non-commoditized markets, variable costs have no effect on price.  Most information technology companies are not commoditized, therefore variable cost and price are unrelated.  That is why there can exist companies like Google and Microsoft that are so insanely profitable.  If the cost of producing and distributing a copy of Microsoft Office dropped tomorrow, there is no reason to think that would affect their pricing.  The most profitable industry historically has been pharmaceuticals, because they are effectively granted monopolies, via patents, reducing the supply of a given drug to one.

There are two ways people get confused about cost and price – a rudimentary way and a more advanced way.  The rudimentary way is confusing fixed and variable costs.  People who gripe about the price/cost gap of SMS messages seem to not realize the telecom industry is like the movie industry in that they make huge upfront investments but have relatively low marginal costs.   I, for one, have always thought movies are a great deal – they spend $100M making a movie, I pay $12 to see it.  It would be silly to compare how much you pay to see a movie to the variable cost of projecting the movie.

The more advanced way people get confused about cost and price is to think that because costs are dropping, prices will necessarily follow. For example, the cost of distributing newspapers has dropped almost to zero.  This is not the primary cause of the downfall of the newspaper industry.  The downfall of newspapers has been caused by a number of things – losing the classifieds business was huge – but mainly because when newspapers went online and were no longer able to partition the market geographically, supply in each region went up by orders of magnitudes.  Once the majority of newspapers go out of business causing supply to go way down, pricing power should return to the survivors.