Economics » Positive Externalities and Public Goods » Why the Private Sector Under Invests in Innovation

The Positive Externalities of New Technology

The Positive Externalities of New Technology

Will private firms in a market economy under invest in research and technology? If a firm builds a factory or buys a piece of equipment, the firm receives all the economic benefits that result from the investments. However, when a firm invests in new technology, the private benefits, or profits, that the firm receives are only a portion of the overall social benefits. The social benefits of an innovation take into account the value of all the positive externalities of the new idea or product, whether enjoyed by other companies or society as a whole, as well as the private benefits received by the firm that developed the new technology. As you learned in Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities, positive externalities are beneficial spillovers to a third party, or parties.

Consider the example of the Big Drug Company, which is planning its R&D budget for the next year. Economists and scientists working for Big Drug have compiled a list of potential research and development projects and estimated rates of return. (The rate of return is the estimated payoff from the project.) This figure shows how the calculations work. The downward-sloping DPrivate curve represents the firm’s demand for financial capital and reflects the company’s willingness to borrow to finance research and development projects at various interest rates. Suppose that this firm’s investment in research and development creates a spillover benefit to other firms and households. After all, new innovations often spark other creative endeavors that society also values. If we add the spillover benefits society enjoys to the firm’s private demand for financial capital, we can draw DSocial that lies above DPrivate.

If there was a way for the firm to fully monopolize those social benefits by somehow making them unavailable to the rest of us, the firm’s private demand curve would be the same as society’s demand curve. According to this figure and this table, if the going rate of interest on borrowing is 8%, and the company can receive the private benefits of innovation only, then the company would finance $30 million. Society, at the same rate of 8%, would find it optimal to have $52 million of borrowing. Unless there is a way for the company to fully enjoy the total benefits, then it will borrow less than the socially optimal level of $52 million.

Positive Externalities and Technology

The graph shows the different demand curves based on whether or not a firm receives social benefits in addition to private benefits.

Big Drug faces a cost of borrowing of 8%. If the firm receives only the private benefits of investing in R&D, then its demand curve for financial capital is shown by DPrivate, and the equilibrium will occur at $30 million. Because there are spillover benefits, society would find it optimal to have $52 million of investment. If the firm could keep the social benefits of its investment for itself, its demand curve for financial capital would be DSocial and it would be willing to borrow $52 million.

Return and Demand for Capital

Rate of ReturnDPrivate (in millions)DSocial (in millions)

Big Drug’s original demand for financial capital (DPrivate) is based on the profits received by the firm. However, other pharmaceutical firms and health care companies may learn new lessons about how to treat certain medical conditions and are then able to create their own competing products. The social benefit of the drug takes into account the value of all the positive externalities of the drug. If Big Drug were able to gain this social return instead of other companies, its demand for financial capital would shift to the demand curve DSocial, and it would be willing to borrow and invest $52 million. However, if Big Drug is receiving only 50 cents of each dollar of social benefits, the firm will not spend as much on creating new products. The amount it would be willing to spend would fall somewhere in between DPrivate and DSocial.

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