Natural monopoly of economics

The existence of an industry (gas, electricity, water, for example) in which the average costs of production per unit fall as output increases.

A single firm operating in the industry (a monopoly) can produce output more efficiently than several competing firms under these circumstances.

Also see: monopoly

Source:
W W Sharkey, The Theory of the Natural Monopoly (New York and Cambridge, 1982)

Definition

Two different types of cost are important in microeconomics: marginal cost, and fixed cost. The marginal cost is the cost to the company of serving one more customer. In an industry where a natural monopoly does not exist, the vast majority of industries, the marginal cost decreases with economies of scale, then increases as the company has growing pains (overworking its employees, bureaucracy, inefficiencies, etc.). Along with this, the average cost of its products decreases and increases. A natural monopoly has a very different cost structure. A natural monopoly has a high fixed cost for a product that does not depend on output, but its marginal cost of producing one more good is roughly constant, and small.

A graphical explanation of the inefficiencies of having several competitors in a naturally monopolistic market.

All industries have costs associated with entering them. Often, a large portion of these costs is required for investment. Larger industries, like utilities, require an enormous initial investment. This barrier to entry reduces the number of possible entrants into the industry regardless of the earning of the corporations within. Natural monopolies arise where the largest supplier in an industry, often the first supplier in a market, has an overwhelming cost advantage over other actual or potential competitors; this tends to be the case in industries where fixed costs predominate, creating economies of scale that are large in relation to the size of the market, as is the case in water and electricity services. The fixed cost of constructing a competing transmission network is so high, and the marginal cost of transmission for the incumbent so low, that it effectively bars potential competitors from the monopolist’s market, acting as a nearly insurmountable barrier to entry into the market place.

A firm with high fixed costs requires a large number of customers in order to have a meaningful return on investment. This is where economies of scale become important. Since each firm has large initial costs, as the firm gains market share and increases its output the fixed cost (what they initially invested) is divided among a larger number of customers. Therefore, in industries with large initial investment requirements, average total cost declines as output increases over a much larger range of output levels.

Companies that take advantage of economies of scale often run into problems of bureaucracy; these factors interact to produce an “ideal” size for a company, at which the company’s average cost of production is minimized. If that ideal size is large enough to supply the whole market, then that market is a natural monopoly.

Once a natural monopoly has been established because of the large initial cost and that, according to the rule of economies of scale, the larger corporation (to a point) has a lower average cost and therefore an advantage over its competitors. With this knowledge, no firms will attempt to enter the industry and an oligopoly or monopoly develops.

Formal definition

William Baumol (1977)[2] provides the current formal definition of a natural monopoly. He defines a natural monopoly as “[a]n industry in which multi-firm production is more costly than production by a monopoly” (p. 810). Baumol linked the definition to the mathematical concept of subadditivity; specifically, the cost function. Baumol also noted that for a firm producing a single product, scale economies were a sufficient condition but not a necessary condition to prove subadditivity.

Examples

Railways: The costs of laying tracks and building networks coupled with the costs of buying or leasing the trains prohibits or deters the entry of any competitor. It also fits in the properties of having the characteristics of a natural monopoly because the industry was assumed to be an industry with significant long run economies of scale.

Telecommunications & Utilities: The costs of building telecommunication poles and growing a cell network would just be too exhausting for other competitors to exist. Electricity requires grids and cables whilst water services and gas both require pipelines whose costs are just too high to be able to have existing competitors in the public market. However, natural monopolies are usually regulated and they face increasing competition from private networks and specialty carriers

3 thoughts on “Natural monopoly of economics

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