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Short-Run Outcomes For Perfectly Competitive Firms

Short-Run Outcomes for Perfectly Competitive Firms

The average cost and average variable cost curves divide the marginal cost curve into three segments, as shown in this figure. At the market price, which the perfectly competitive firm accepts as given, the profit-maximizing firm chooses the output level where price or marginal revenue, which are the same thing for a perfectly competitive firm, is equal to marginal cost: P = MR = MC.

Profit, Loss, Shutdown

The graph shows how the marginal cost curve reveals three different zones: above the zero-profit point, between the zero profit point and the shutdown point, and below the shutdown point.

The marginal cost curve can be divided into three zones, based on where it is crossed by the average cost and average variable cost curves. The point where MC crosses AC is called the zero-profit point. If the firm is operating at a level of output where the market price is at a level higher than the zero-profit point, then price will be greater than average cost and the firm is earning profits. If the price is exactly at the zero-profit point, then the firm is making zero profits. If price falls in the zone between the shutdown point and the zero-profit point, then the firm is making losses but will continue to operate in the short run, since it is covering its variable costs. However, if price falls below the price at the shutdown point, then the firm will shut down immediately, since it is not even covering its variable costs.

First consider the upper zone, where prices are above the level where marginal cost (MC) crosses average cost (AC) at the zero profit point. At any price above that level, the firm will earn profits in the short run. If the price falls exactly on the zero profit point where the MC and AC curves cross, then the firm earns zero profits. If a price falls into the zone between the zero profit point, where MC crosses AC, and the shutdown point, where MC crosses AVC, the firm will be making losses in the short run—but since the firm is more than covering its variable costs, the losses are smaller than if the firm shut down immediately. Finally, consider a price at or below the shutdown point where MC crosses AVC. At any price like this one, the firm will shut down immediately, because it cannot even cover its variable costs.

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