Rolls Royce, Cadillac, Moving Assembly Line, Economies of Scale, VCR, Cell Phones and HD Plasma Television

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 1st, 2013

History 101

The Moving Assembly Line allows GM to Divide their Costs over more Units than Rolls Royce

Rolls Royce automobiles are very expensive luxury cars.  Of impeccable quality.  It may be the finest automobile ever built.  And I say built not manufactured.  For they build a Rolls Royce by hand to ensure that high quality.  By some of the most experienced and skilled artisans to ever hone metal, wood and leather into an automobile.  Because of this they can’t make a lot of them a year.  They set a record sales total in 2011.  By selling 3,538 hand-crafted automobiles.  The entry price for a Rolls Royce?  Around $250,000.

By contrast GM sold 152,389 Cadillac luxury automobiles in 2011 in North America.  These are not hand-crafted.  The Americans build them on moving assembly lines.  Which is why they can build 43 times as many Cadillacs than they can hand-build Rolls Royces.  The entry price for a Cadillac?  About $33,100.  While a top of the line may cost you around $63,200.  Now Cadillacs are nice.  The name has become synonymous with high quality.  The best quality is the ‘Cadillac’ of something.  The quality may not be Rolls Royce quality but few will complain about that quality when sitting behind the wheel of a Cadillac.  They are glad to settle for a Cadillac over a Rolls Royce.  Especially when it costs 7.5 times as much to get into a Rolls Royce than into a Cadillac.

Why are hand-crafted Rolls Royce automobiles so much more costly than Cadillacs manufactured on a moving assembly line?  Economies of scale.  The higher production levels of the mass-produced cars allows GM to divide all of their costs over many more units.  Bringing the unit cost down.  And the selling price.  With fewer sales the unit cost for Rolls Royce is much higher.  As is the selling price.

As Demand grew Manufacturers were able to Bring Prices Down thanks to Economies of Scale

Rolls Royce pays a price for their commitment to quality.  They can’t sell cars as inexpensively as some of their luxury rivals.  But that’s okay for them.  As the market for hand-crafted luxury cars is large enough to keep them in business doing what they love.  Building the finest quality automobile in the world.  And those who want the best can afford to pay a quarter of a million dollars for an entry-level Rolls Royce.  So they do.  Which is why Rolls Royce doesn’t have to worry about economies of scales to compete against their competition.

Before Henry Ford built the moving assembly line cars were too expensive for the working man.  Henry Ford changed that.  Once they started manufacturing the new driving machine on the moving assembly line Ford was able to reach an economy of scale that greatly increased production rates.  Bringing down the unit cost.  And the selling price.  As new products entered the market place they were typically unaffordable to all but the rich.  But then as demand grew manufacturers were able to bring prices down thanks to economies of scale.  Like Henry Ford did with the automobile.

The first commercially viable video tape recorder was the Ampex model VR-1000 in 1956.  It cost $50,000 (about $421,000 today).  It was the size of a kitchen stove.  And about the only place you found them were in television broadcast studios.  From this early beginning came the technology for the video cassette recorder (VCR).  By the mid to late Seventies schools had one they rolled from room to room.  It cost approximately $5,000 (about $19,400 today).  About a decade later you could buy a smaller unit that could do more for around $2,000 (about $4,000 today).  Just before the DVD player and the digital video recorder made them obsolete you could get a nice one for about $100.  They were so small and so inexpensive that you bought one for every television in the house.

Bringing these Prices Down are State-of-the-Art High-Tech Manufacturers throughout Asia

When the first cell phones came out we called them car phones.  Because they were so big and had no real battery life that they were permanently installed in a car.  Connected to the electrical system of the car.  The first real portable cell phone was something that looked like a brick and weighed in around 2 pounds.  The battery gave you maybe an hour of talk time.  And it cost $3,995 in 1982 (about $9,600 today).  By 1993 the price was down to $900 ($1,400 today) but still weighed in at 2 pounds.  By 1996 the weight dropped to about 3 ounces.  It cost about $1,000 ($1,400 today).  By 2002 you could buy a flip-phone with a built-in high resolution camera for $400 (about $510 today).  And so on until they got smaller and more powerful with longer battery lives.  Today you can often get a pretty nice phone free when you sign a contract for service.

Things people like and demand can accelerate this process of quality improvement and lower prices.  For half a century the television has been a fixture in most American homes.  So technology buffs with money were always ready to spend a lot of money on the next best thing.  And when high-definition plasma televisions hit the market it didn’t take long for economies of scale to bring prices down as demand exploded for these beautiful things.  A Panasonic 42″ high-definition plasma television cost around $2,500 in 2004 (about $3,000 today).  About 4 years later you could get a slightly better set for about $700 (about $750 today).  Today you can buy an even better 42 inch plasma set from Panasonic for as little as $400.

Bringing these prices down are state-of-the-art high-tech manufacturers throughout Asia (Japan, South Korea, etc.).  They can mass produce cell phones and televisions and other high-tech goods at remarkable production rates.  Filling ships with their goods to export around the world.  They bring together high-skilled labor and the best in automated production equipment.  They can retool and begin new production so fast that they can fill the demand for the next big thing without missing a step.  And quickly ramp up to an economy of scale wherever they see growing consumer demand.  Bringing down unit costs.  And prices.  Making a lot of happy consumers around the world.

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Product Pricing

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 10th, 2012

Economics 101

The First Thing a Business has to do to Determine their Selling Price is Determining their Costs

Did you ever think about how businesses price their products?  Do they just pull numbers out of the air?  Do they just charge as much as they want?  No, they don’t.  Because they can’t.  For if one gas station charges $12 for a gallon of gasoline while the station across the street is only charging $3.50 guess where people are going to buy their gas from.  So free market competition prevents businesses from charging whatever they want.  So how do they determine what to charge?

Well, some look at what their competitors are charging and match it.  Or charge a little less.  To steal customers away from the competition.  Which can work.  But it can also bankrupt a business.  For if a business owner doesn’t know his or her costs selling at the market price could fail to recover all of their costs.  The market price limits what they can charge.  But if their costs are too great to stay in business selling at the prevailing market price they have to do something about reducing their costs.  Which they can’t do if they don’t know their costs.  So the first thing a business has to do to determine their selling price is determining their costs.  Like this.

This is an abbreviated fictional income statement showing last year’s results.  And forecasting next year’s results.  EBT stands for earnings before taxes.  Income taxes for this year are based on the 2011 federal tax tables.  Income taxes for next year are based on the proposed Obama tax rates (increasing the top marginal rate from 33% to 39.6%).  The business is a subchapter-S where the business earnings pass through to the owners’ personal income tax returns.  The owner does not draw a salary but draws $125,000 from retained earnings to support him or herself, his or her stay-at-home spouse and their 3 children. The percentages show each number as a percentage of revenue.

You need to Sell at the Right Price and at the Right Volume to Pay all of the Bills

The difference between this year and next year is the rise in costs.  Obamacare and other business regulations increase the cost of sales (direct labor, benefits, direct supplies, etc.) by 2%.  And they increase fixed overhead (rent, utilities, administrative labor, benefits, etc.) by 2%.  They will have to recover these higher costs in higher prices.  Which will likely reduce unit sales.  But because each unit will sell for more we assume sales revenue remains the same.

The higher costs cause EBT to fall.  A lower EBT means lower federal income taxes.  But it also means less retained earnings to invest back into the business.  The reduction in retained earnings is $36,604.28.  Which limits investments to grow the business.  And leaves a much smaller cash cushion after some of those retained earnings are reinvested into the business.  To pay for the unexpected.  Like a new piece of equipment that fails and halts production.  Things worked well in the current year.  The business owner would like to have things work as well in the following year.  Which means not exposing themselves to such a dangerous cash position.  And how do they do that?  By raising their prices to make next year’s retained earnings as large as this year’s.  By recovering those retained earnings in higher prices.  Like this.

Let’s assume these numbers are for a coffee shop that sells only one type and size of drink (say a large espresso-based drink) to simplify this discussion.  If we subtract this year’s cost of sales from revenue we arrive with the markup on our direct costs.  Dividing this number into cost of sales we get a markup percentage.  For this year it was 72%.  In the current year let’s assume they sold 302,406 cups of coffee.  Which comes to about one cup a minute.  Dividing the costs of sales by the number of cups of coffee sold gives a unit cost of $2.58 for a cup of coffee.  Adding the 72% markup to this cost brings the selling price to $4.45.  Coffee sold at this price and at this volume produced enough revenue to pay all the bills, provided an income for the owner and his or her family while leaving enough left over to invest back into the business.  And provide a cash cushion for the unexpected.  As well as paying state income taxes, city income taxes, etc.

A Business must bring their Cost Structure in Line to be able to Sell at the Prevailing Market Price

To arrive at the new selling price we added the loss of retained earnings to next year’s revenue.  And re-crunched all of these numbers.  Because we are raising the price we can expect a small fall in revenue as customers buy less.  The higher costs and lower unit sales volume raised the unit cost.  The markup percentage is 1 percentage point lower but because the unit cost is higher so is the markup amount in dollars.  Which raises the selling price by $0.32.  Increasing the price of a cup of coffee to $4.77.  But is it enough?  As it turns out, no.  Because the new price raises revenue enough to push the business into a higher tax bracket.  Taking the business owner back to the numbers.

Because of the higher tax bracket, and the higher top marginal tax rate, this higher price still results in a loss of retained earnings.  About another $30,000.  So going through the whole process again brings the selling price up to $4.87.  Adding a total of $0.43 to this year’s price.  As long as the prevailing market price is around $4.87 for a large espresso-based drink this business owner should be able to keep his or her cost structure in place and stay in business.  However, if this exceeds the prevailing market price the business owner will have to make some spending cuts to bring his or her cost structure in line to sell coffee at the prevailing market price.  Make some assumptions.  And some adjustments.  Then crunch these numbers again.  And again.  For getting this price right is very important.  Too high and people will go elsewhere to buy their coffee.  To low and they won’t be able to pay all of their bills.

This may not be how all businesses determine their selling price.  But however they do it they have to bring their cost structure in line to be able to sell at the prevailing market price.   Because if their price is too high no one will buy from them.  If it’s too low everyone will buy from them.  Making them happy.  Until they realize they can’t pay all of their bills because their prices are too low.  The above example was complicated.  And that was with only one product.  Imagine a store full of products to sell.  And trying to calculate new prices on numerous products to cover the costs of new taxes and new regulations.  It’s not easy.  Which is why business owners don’t like big change coming from Washington.  For this change requires important decisions to make.  And if they get these decisions wrong and don’t find out until 6 months or so later they may dig themselves into a hole they won’t be able to get out of.  Putting them out of business.

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LESSONS LEARNED #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 1st, 2010

ECONOMIES OF SCALE and vertical integration can do two things very well.  Make industrialists rich.  And make the things they sell cheap. 

The more you make, the less each thing you make costs.  Businesses have fixed costs.  Big one time investments in plant and equipment.  Businesses have to recover these costs.  Each thing they sell has a portion of these fixed costs added to its price.  The more they sell, the less they need to add to each unit sold.  This is economies of scale.  Think of bulk goods.  Warehouse clubs.  Places where you can buy large quantities of things at lower unit prices.  You may buy an ‘economy pack’ of 3 bottles of shampoo shrink-wrapped together.  The purchase price of a 3-pack will be greater than the price of a single bottle of shampoo at your convenient corner drug store.  But the unit cost of each of the bottles in the 3-pack will be less.  You save more over time by buying 3 bottles at a time.  Spending more, then, means spending less.  In time.

Few of us buy raw materials.  Few have a need for crude oil.  Iron ore.  Coal.  Limestone.  Manganese.  But they make the stuff we buy.  A lot of things have to happen before those raw materials make it to us in those things we buy.  It has to be mined or drilled/pumped.  Transported.  Processed.  Stored.  Transported again.  Processed again.  Stored again.  Transported again.  There are many different stages between extracting raw materials from the earth and incorporating them into a final product we consumers buy.  At every stage there are costs.  And inefficiencies.  Which add to costs.  By reducing these costs along the way, the component materials used at the final manufacturing stage cost less.  This reduces the selling price of the final product.  This is what vertical integration does.  It puts everything from the extraction of raw materials to the incorporation of those processed materials into the final product for sale under control of the final user.  It brings in a high level of quality, cost containment and reduction of inefficiencies into the entire process resulting in a high quality, mass produced, inexpensive product.

Not everyone can do these things.  You have to live and breathe the industry you’re in.  You have to understand it intimately.  An industrialist at the top of his game can do this.  A politician can’t.  States trying to take control of their economy have failed.  Every time they’ve tried.  Why?  Politicians are ‘intellectuals’.  They’ve never run a business.  They only thought about it.  And, somehow, that gives them the moral authority to tamper in something they are simply unqualified to do.  And when they meddle, they destroy.  Purposely.  Or through unintended consequences.  In the process, though, they enrich themselves.  And their cronies.

ANDREW CARNEGIE WAS a brilliant entrepreneur.  After working for a railroad, he saw the future.  Railroads.  And he would build its rails.  And its bridges.  With his Keystone Bridge Company.  Which used steel and iron.  So he built his Union Mills.  Which needed pig iron.  So he built his Lucy blast furnace.  Which consumed raw material (iron, coke, limestone).  So he secured his own sources of raw materials. 

His Lucy blast furnace set world records, nearly doubling the weekly output of his steel competitors.  No one made more steel than Carnegie.  For less.  In about 20 years, he brought the price down for steel rails from $160/ton to $17/ton.  And got rich in the process.

Economies of scale.  Vertical integration.  And innovation.  Carnegie hired the best people he could find and used the latest technology.  Always improving.  Always cutting costs.  Always making steel more plentiful.  And cheaper.  His steel built a nation.  Dominated the industry.  And destroyed the competition.  Of course, that drew the attention of the government.  And they tried to break up the steel giant because it was unfair to the competition.  Who couldn’t sell steel as cheap as he could.

JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER was a brilliant entrepreneur.  After trying the oil drilling business, he saw the future.  The refining business.  For America lit the night with kerosene.  And he would provide that kerosene.  At prices that a poor man could afford.  And he did.  And he saved the whales in the process (his cheap kerosene put the whale oil business out of business).

Like Carnegie, cutting costs and production efficiencies consumed him.  He built his own kilns and used his own timber for fuel.  He made his own barrels from his own timber.  He used his own horse-drawn carts, boats, rail cars and pipelines.  He bought up competitors.  He grew to dominate the industry.  By far the biggest shipper, he got better shipping rates than his competitors.  And he constantly innovated.  When others were dumping the gasoline byproduct from refining kerosene into the river (no internal combustion engine yet), he was using it for fuel.  He hired the best talent available to find a use for every byproduct from the refining process, giving us everything from industrial lubricants to petroleum jelly (i.e., Vaseline).

His company, Standard Oil, was close to being a monopoly.  When they controlled 90% of the market kerosene was never cheaper.  He brought the price down from $0.26/gallon to $0.08/gallon.  And that was an outrage.  We can’t allow any one company to control 90% of the market.  Sure, consumers were doing well, but the higher-cost competitors could not stay in business selling at those low prices.  So the government broke up Standard Oil via antitrust legislation (the Sherman Act).  To protect the country from monopolistic practices.  And cheap kerosene, apparently.

BILL GATES WAS a brilliant entrepreneur in building Microsoft.  The personal computer (PC) was new.  You couldn’t do much with it in the early days unless you were pretty computer savvy.  But programs were available that made them great business tools (word processing and spreadsheet programs). 

IBM created the PC.  And they licensed it so others could make IBM-like machines.  IBM clones.  The PC industry chewed each other up.  But Gates did well.  Because all of these machines used his operating system (Microsoft’s Disk Operating System – DOS).  Apple developed the Macintosh (with a mouse and Graphical User Interface – GUI) but it was expensive.  Anyone who used one in college wanted to buy one.  Until they saw the price.  So they bought an IBM clone instead.  And when Gates came out with Windows, they were just as easy to use as the Macs.

Because of the higher volume of the IBM platform sold, Microsoft flourished.  Software was bundled.  New machines came preloaded with Windows.  And Internet Explorer.  And Windows Media Player.  You got a lot of bang for the buck going with a Windows-based PC.  And Windows dominated the market.  Consumers weren’t complaining.  Much.  Sure, there were things they did bitch about (glitches, drivers, viruses, etc.), but it sure wasn’t price.

Of course, Microsoft’s competitors were hurting.  They couldn’t sell their products if Microsoft was giving away a similar product free.  Because they were hurting their competitors, the government tried to break up the company with the Sherman Act. 

THE NORTHERN SECURITIES SUIT of 1902 found a holding company guilty of not yet committing a crime.  Teddy Roosevelt’s administration filed a Sherman antitrust suit against Northern Securities.  This was a holding company for Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroads.  What’s a holding company?  It replaced a trust.   Which large corporations created in response to government’s attacks on large corporations.

Small competitors feared large corporations.  They could not compete against their economies of scale and vertical integration.  The little guys couldn’t sell things as cheap as the big corporations could.  So the government intervened to protect the little guy.  So they could sell at higher prices.

But businesses grow.  All big corporations started out as little guys.  And the growing process doesn’t stop.  So the big corporations had to find other ways to grow.  They formed trusts.  Then the trust-busters busted up the trusts.  The next form was the holding company. 

The trust-busters said that the big corporations, trusts and holding companies were all trying to become monopolies.  And once they eliminated all competitors, they would raise their prices and gouge the consumers.  Northern Securities never did.  But they could.  So they were guilty.  Because they might commit a crime.  One day.

ALL BUSINESS OWNERS aren’t morally ethical and honest.  But the market is, albeit cruel.  Economies of scales will always put the little guy out of business.  Sad, yes, for the little guy.  But for every little guy put out of business, millions of consumers save money.  They can buy things for less.  Which means they have more money to buy more things.  New things.  Different things.  From new little guys who now have a chance with this new surplus of purchasing power.

But when politicians get involved, consumers lose.  When they help a competitor, they help them by keeping prices high.  To keep competition ‘fair’.  For the politically connected.

Consumers never complain about low prices.  Only competitors do.  Or their employees.  Those working on whaling ships didn’t like to see the low price of Rockefeller’s kerosene.  But the new refining industry (and its auxiliaries) created far more jobs than were lost on the whaling ships.  We call it progress.  And with it comes a better life for the many.  Even if it is at the expense of the few.

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