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Demand Curves Perceived by a Perfectly Competitive Firm and by a Monopoly

Demand Curves Perceived by a Perfectly Competitive Firm and by a Monopoly

A perfectly competitive firm acts as a price taker, so its calculation of total revenue is made by taking the given market price and multiplying it by the quantity of output that the firm chooses. The demand curve as it is perceived by a perfectly competitive firm appears in figure (a). The flat perceived demand curve means that, from the viewpoint of the perfectly competitive firm, it could sell either a relatively low quantity like Ql or a relatively high quantity like Qh at the market price P.

The Perceived Demand Curve for a Perfect Competitor and a Monopolist

The left graph shows perceived demand for a perfect competitor as a straight, horizontal line. The right graph shows perceived demand for a monopolist as a downward-sloping curve.

(a) A perfectly competitive firm perceives the demand curve that it faces to be flat. The flat shape means that the firm can sell either a low quantity (Ql) or a high quantity (Qh) at exactly the same price (P). (b) A monopolist perceives the demand curve that it faces to be the same as the market demand curve, which for most goods is downward-sloping. Thus, if the monopolist chooses a high level of output (Qh), it can charge only a relatively low price (Pl); conversely, if the monopolist chooses a low level of output (Ql), it can then charge a higher price (Ph). The challenge for the monopolist is to choose the combination of price and quantity that maximizes profits.

What defines the market?

A monopoly is a firm that sells all or nearly all of the goods and services in a given market. But what defines the “market”?

In a famous 1947 case, the federal government accused the DuPont company of having a monopoly in the cellophane market, pointing out that DuPont produced 75% of the cellophane in the United States. DuPont countered that even though it had a 75% market share in cellophane, it had less than a 20% share of the “flexible packaging materials,” which includes all other moisture-proof papers, films, and foils. In 1956, after years of legal appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the broader market definition was more appropriate, and the case against DuPont was dismissed.

Questions over how to define the market continue today. True, Microsoft in the 1990s had a dominant share of the software for computer operating systems, but in the total market for all computer software and services, including everything from games to scientific programs, the Microsoft share was only about 14% in 2014. The Greyhound bus company may have a near-monopoly on the market for intercity bus transportation, but it is only a small share of the market for intercity transportation if that market includes private cars, airplanes, and railroad service. DeBeers has a monopoly in diamonds, but it is a much smaller share of the total market for precious gemstones and an even smaller share of the total market for jewelry. A small town in the country may have only one gas station: is this gas station a “monopoly,” or does it compete with gas stations that might be five, 10, or 50 miles away?

In general, if a firm produces a product without close substitutes, then the firm can be considered a monopoly producer in a single market. But if buyers have a range of similar—even if not identical—options available from other firms, then the firm is not a monopoly. Still, arguments over whether substitutes are close or not close can be controversial.

While a monopolist can charge any price for its product, that price is nonetheless constrained by demand for the firm’s product. No monopolist, even one that is thoroughly protected by high barriers to entry, can require consumers to purchase its product. Because the monopolist is the only firm in the market, its demand curve is the same as the market demand curve, which is, unlike that for a perfectly competitive firm, downward-sloping.

This figure illustrates this situation. The monopolist can either choose a point like R with a low price (Pl) and high quantity (Qh), or a point like S with a high price (Ph) and a low quantity (Ql), or some intermediate point. Setting the price too high will result in a low quantity sold, and will not bring in much revenue. Conversely, setting the price too low may result in a high quantity sold, but because of the low price, it will not bring in much revenue either. The challenge for the monopolist is to strike a profit-maximizing balance between the price it charges and the quantity that it sells. But why isn’t the perfectly competitive firm’s demand curve also the market demand curve? See the following Clear it Up feature for the answer to this question.

What is the difference between perceived demand and market demand?

The demand curve as perceived by a perfectly competitive firm is not the overall market demand curve for that product. However, the firm’s demand curve as perceived by a monopoly is the same as the market demand curve. The reason for the difference is that each perfectly competitive firm perceives the demand for its products in a market that includes many other firms; in effect, the demand curve perceived by a perfectly competitive firm is a tiny slice of the entire market demand curve. In contrast, a monopoly perceives demand for its product in a market where the monopoly is the only producer.

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