When is it fair to say a small business is not one?

A recent program review by the US government’s Office of Inspector General focused on loans by the Small Business Administration made to poultry farmers. The report concluded that poultry farmers do not meet the regularly requirements of a small business and therefore are no longer eligible for small business loans. A nice article in Modern Farmer entitled “Should a poultry farm be considered a small business?” discusses this report.

In the US, most poultry growers have contracts with chicken companies, like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, to raise chicks until they have grown large enough for slaughtering. These companies are known as “integrators” because so much of the poultry growing and processing operation is owned and controlled by the company (i.e., integrated into one business enterprise). The integrators own the chicks that poultry farmers raise; they determine the quality and quantity of chicks poultry farmers receive; they provide the chicken feed and dictate the operating procedures that poultry farmers must use in feeding and raising the chicks; they mandate the size and shape of the buildings poultry farmers grow the chicks in and can require growers to make changes in buildings at the grower’s expense; they can conduct surprise inspections of poultry farmer operations. Poultry farmers provide the labor in raising the chickens.

One reason why the Office of Inspector General concluded that poultry farmers were not small businesses is that they are “affiliated” with chicken companies and thus are not truly independent businesses. An entity is “affiliated” with a business operation when the business “controls or has the power to control the other” entity. According to the report, “integrators exercised comprehensive control over the growers through a series of contractual mandates and restrictions, management agreements, operating procedures, oversight, inspections, and market controls that overcame practically all of the grower’s ability to operate their businesses independent of integrator mandates.”

According to the report, 76 percent of all agricultural loans by the Small Business Administration in 2016 went to poultry farmers. The average size of loans in 2016 was $1.4 million.

If a poultry grower defaults on a small business loan, it is very difficult for the lender to recover losses through, for instance, the sale of business assets. The reason is that the value of grower facilities is strongly tied to the production contracts that growers make with integrators. If the integrator cancels a particular grower’s contract, the grower usually has no option but to exit the business. In most rural areas where poultry farming occurs, there is only one integrator with whom a grower can contract. The program review report notes “substantial loss in the value of a grower’s facility without the integrator contract.” Economists would say the salvage value of poultry barns is very low. I guess an interesting question to consider is why a lender would make a loan to a poultry grower if the risk of default is closely tied to integrator behavior and the salvage value of assets backing the loan is low. Loans guaranteed by the US government is a reasonable answer.

My colleague, Mary Hendrickson, and I have written about the unfairness of the poultry contracting and growing system. In a paper published in 2016 (here), we show how the relative dependency of poultry growers combined with a lack of contractual and other safeguards create an unfair system for them.

Is it fair to poultry growers that the Small Business Administration will not recognize them as small businesses? As stated in the Modern Farmer article, “There is an argument to be made that by not helping poultry farmers get loans, the SBA would be hurting poultry farmers.” Thus, I can see how poultry growers might assert that the change in designation–if upheld after further government review–is unfair to them. If growers can no longer expect to obtain small business loans, then a claim of unfairness might make sense. Dr. Hendrickson and I, along with two doctoral students, have a new paper, where we not only assess the validity of unfairness claims by poultry growers, but also provide a framework explaining why a violation of expectations is important when assessing claims of unfairness.

In the long-run, however, the change in designation of poultry growers might be a good thing. One could argue, as noted in Modern Farmer, that the ability of growers to obtain small business loans “is currently propping up a wildly damaging system.” If it becomes more difficult or even impossible for growers to obtain such loans, then maybe that will push the system to change more in favor of poultry growers.


When is an increase in price fair?

In my previous post I wrote about the fairness of drug companies that dramatically increase the price of their products. I suggested, and public reaction confirmed, that these price increases are considered unfair.

When is a price increase fair? When is it unfair?

The economic principle of profit maximization tells us that firms ought to increase prices when there is an increase in demand or a decrease in supply, regardless of whether the change is short-term or permanent. So if a hurricane is closing in on the East coast of the U.S., then suppliers of lumber, bottled water, gasoline and other supplies that people will need should and will increase the prices of these things … a lot. But is that fair?

Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch and Richard Thaler published a paper on this topic 30 years ago in the American Economic Review. They argued that people’s perceptions of fairness will (or ought to) constrain impulses to take advantage of short-run increases in demand or other reasons to increase prices, under certain conditions.

Their discussion entails two elements. One has to do with reference points and the other has to do with reasons for gaining at the expense of others.

First, a reference point is the basis upon which people create expectations about the fairness of a transaction or a change in prices. If transactions or price changes are consistent with the reference point, then people will judge the transactions or price changes as fair. In other words, reference transactions and reference profits are considered fair. If there is a deviation from the reference point, then assessments of fairness will be made based on whether good reasons exist for the deviations.

The authors define the reference points as follows:

Market prices, posted prices, and the history of previous transactions between a firm and a transactor can serve as reference transactions. When there is a history of similar transaction between firm and transactor, the most recent price, wage, or rent will be adopted for reference unless the terms of the previous transaction were explicitly temporary. For new transactions, prevailing competitive prices or wages provide the natural reference.

For example, if a gas station has been selling gas for $1.99 a gallon for several weeks, then the reference price is $1.99 a gallon, and people will expect that to be the price the next time they get gas. If the price of gasoline increases, say to $2.09 a gallon, then people will likely consider the price increase unfair unless they understand there to be a good reason for the change. Good reasons have reference points, too. For example, raising prices at the expected rate of inflation is not considered unfair, since inflation-based price increases can be a reference point. We have historical experience with that, so there is no basis for claiming unfairness. The same about price changes in gasoline. If the reference point for price changes is 5 cents a gallon, then people won’t be bothered by finding the price of gasoline is higher by 5 cents the next time they buy gas. But if prices increase by more than 5 cents, then they might believe or expect something unfair is happening at their expense.

Understanding reference points for transactions, pricing and profits can help us understand why unfairness might be claimed when businesses increase prices. For example, if employees had previous experiences of getting pay increases when competitors raised their employees’ wages, then a reference point is created for employees. But if the employer has not historically increased wages when their competitors have, then the reference point for the employer will differ from that of the employees, resulting in disagreements about fairness.

Second, an important principle of fairness is that one should not gain by imposing a cost or harm on others.

Raising the price of lumber, bottled water, gasoline and other supplies that people will need when a hurricane is imminent can be considered imposing a harm on others to acquire a short-term gain. It doesn’t matter that economics dictates that price increases are needed to resolve shortages that will arise when there is a sudden increase in demand. There is usually no viable reference point for such behavior.

Raising prices because a business experiences an increase in costs is different. Such behavior is not considered as imposing a harm on others merely to benefit at their expense. Businesses are not gaining substantially, if at all, when they increase prices to cover their rising costs.

The implication is that people are willing to accept as fair an increase in price to cover rising costs. They also consider it fair for businesses to maintain prices when costs decline. But people consider raising prices when demand increases or without explanation or justification to be unfair.

Most people have no reference point for drug prices rising 5000 percent or even 500 percent. Such behavior is very unfair.

Because they can, but should they?

Mylan is the company that produces the EpiPen, a device that injects a measured dose of epinephrine when someone has a severe allergic reaction. Mylan didn’t invent the drug or device. The company acquired it in 2007 from Merck, which bought the rights for the drug years earlier from another company. By some estimates, Mylan’s EpiPen controls roughly 90 percent of the market for epinephrine injection devices. When Mylan purchased the rights to the EpiPen in 2007, the drug cost about $100 for a two-pen set. It currently retails for more than $600.

Mylan isn’t the only company to buy a drug and then dramatically increase its price. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal (as well as other news outlets) reported on pharmaceutical companies that buy rival’s drugs and then jack up the prices. A noteworthy example is Martin Shkreli, a hedge fund manager and CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who bought the drug Daraprim and raised its price from about $13 a dose to $750. The drug is used to treat a variety of infections and other diseases. Turing bought the rights to the drug from a company, which bought the rights to the drug from another company, which bought the rights to the drug from another company, …

Why did Mylan increase the price of the EpiPen? Why did Turing increase the price of the drug Daraprin? Because they can. The companies control exclusive rights to the drug and the demand for the drugs are highly inelastic. First, by having exclusive rights over the drugs and with little if any competition, they possess monopoly power. This means they can act as price makers rather than price takers. Second, as I explained to my microeconomics students today, demand for the drugs is inelastic because there are few substitutes to them and they are necessary. This means that consumers will not (or cannot) be very responsive to large changes in prices. If you are subject to severe allergic reactions, you probably will not forgo the drug if its price increases. You will grumble and complain but buy it anyway. Thus, the combination of monopoly power and inelastic demand makes raising prices economically rational.

The drug companies and other commentator point to other reasons for high drug prices. Some argue that the patent system and long and costly regulatory approval processes are to blame. While these affect the initial costs for many drugs, they don’t explain why the price rose so quickly years after the drug has been on the market. If Daraprim was profitable at $13.50 a dose, then patenting and regulatory costs won’t explain the 5,000 percent increase in its price after Turing bought it.

According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, drugmakers are pointing a finger at middlemen for rising drug prices. Drug company executives say that the system is to blame. Everyone has to take a cut, such as pharmacy-benefits managers. Drug companies say that they have to offer increasingly larger rebates to pharmacy-benefits managers to induce them to accept their drugs as part of their company’s health plans. These benefits managers, in turn, are blaming drug prescription services and health insurers. While there might be some merit here, it’s hard to believe that middlemen and insurance companies are largely responsible for the dramatic increases in drug prices. I can’t imagine that a benefits manager will say “no” to the only drug that is available to treat severe allergic reactions or some infections. Drug companies won’t have to offer large rebate inducements if their drug prices were not already very high.

To be sure, the problem is complicated. Should we force drug companies to price their products “reasonably”? What is a reasonable price for a life-saving drug? Who’s to say that $20 or $30 or even $50 is unreasonable for Daraprim? These companies also employ thousands of workers and their stocks are part of savings, retirement and other investment portfolios for many people. If we mandate lower prices for drugs, then what happens to drug company employees and investors?

If drug companies can raise prices, and justify the price increases on economic grounds, then should they? Economic considerations are important, but they are not the only values that matter. Fairness matters too. Is it fair to ask patients to pay 5000 percent more for a lifesaving drug?

Fairness can be more difficult to justify than economic rationale. But we can simplify things. While there are many bases for arguing “fairness,” all of them are grounded in expectations. When our expectations are met, then we have little grounds for arguing unfairness. However, when expectations are not met, people typically feel justified in claiming unfairness. Consumers with a history and experience in paying $13.50 for a drug to treat infections will continue to expect that prices will be about the same the next time they buy the drug. While most people can expect gradual increases in prices, for instance due to inflation, there is no reasonable argument anyone can make that would convince me that consumers would expect a 5000 percent increase for Daraprim or a 500 percent increase for the EpiPen in a relatively short period of time. If drug companies want to increase prices more than what consumers expect, then the companies need to speak directly to consumers and change their expectations. That is fair. But I expect that will be quite a challenge for drug companies.