Measuring the Unemployment Rate

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The U.S. Department of Labor tracks unemployment and reports the unemployment rate: the percentage of the labor force that’s unemployed and actively seeking work. The unemployment rate is an important measure of economic health. It goes up during recessionary periods because companies are reluctant to hire workers when demand for goods and services is low. Conversely, it goes down when the economy is expanding and there is high demand for products and workers to supply them.

(Written by Karen Collins)

Measuring the Health of the Economy

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Every day, we are bombarded with economic news. We’re told that the economy is in a recession and unemployment is on the rise, industrial production has gone down, inflation is going up, housing starts have plummeted, jobless claims have increased, and consumer confidence has sunk to an all-time low. As a student learning about business, and later as a business manager, you need to understand the nature of the U.S. economy and the terminology that we use to describe it. You need to have some idea of where the economy is heading, and you need to know something about the government’s role in influencing its direction.

Economic Goals

All the world’s economies share three main goals:

  1. Growth
  2. High employment
  3. Price stability

Let’s take a closer look at each of these goals, both to find out what they mean and to show how we determine whether they’re being met.

Economic Growth

One purpose of an economy is to provide people with goods and services—cars, computers, video games, houses, rock concerts, fast food, amusement parks. One way in which economists measure the performance of an economy is by looking at a widely used measure of total output called gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is defined as the market value of all goods and services produced by the economy in a given year. In the United States, it’s calculated by the Department of Commerce. GDP includes only those goods and services produced domestically; goods produced outside the country are excluded. GDP also includes only those goods and services that are produced for the final user; intermediate products are excluded. For example, the silicon chip that goes into a computer (an intermediate product) would not count, even though the finished computer would.

By itself, GDP doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the state of the economy. But change in GDP does. If GDP (after adjusting for inflation) goes up, the economy is growing. If it goes down, the economy is contracting.

The Business Cycle

The economic ups and downs resulting from expansion and contraction constitute the business cycle. A typical cycle runs from three to five years but could last much longer. Though typically irregular, a cycle can be divided into four general phases of prosperity, recession, depression (which the cycle generally skips), and recovery:

  • During prosperity, the economy expands, unemployment is low, incomes rise, and consumers buy more products. Businesses respond by increasing production and offering new and better products.
  • Eventually, however, things slow down. GDP decreases, unemployment rises, and because people have less money to spend, business revenues decline. This slowdown in economic activity is called a recession. Economists often say that we’re entering a recession when GDP goes down for two consecutive quarters.
  • Generally, a recession is followed by a recovery in which the economy starts growing again.
  • If, however, a recession lasts a long time (perhaps a decade or so), while unemployment remains very high and production is severely curtailed, the economy could sink into a depression. Though not impossible, it’s unlikely that the United States will experience another severe depression like that of the 1930s. The federal government has a number of economic tools (some of which we’ll discuss shortly) with which to fight any threat of a depression.

(Written by Karen Collins)

Monopolistic Competition, Oligopoly, and Monopoly

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Monopolistic Competition

In monopolistic competition, we still have many sellers (as we had under perfect competition). Now, however, they don’t sell identical products. Instead, they sell differentiated products – products that differ somewhat, or are perceived to differ, even though they serve a similar purpose. Products can be differentiated in a number of ways, including quality, style, convenience, location, and brand name. Some people prefer Coke over Pepsi, even though the two products are quite similar. But what if there was a substantial price difference between the two? In that case, buyers could be persuaded to switch from one to the other. Thus, if Coke has a big promotional sale at a supermarket chain, some Pepsi drinkers might switch (at least temporarily).

How is product differentiation accomplished? Sometimes, it’s simply geographical; you probably buy gasoline at the station closest to your home regardless of the brand. At other times, perceived differences between products are promoted by advertising designed to convince consumers that one product is different from another—and better than it. Regardless of customer loyalty to a product, however, if its price goes too high, the seller will lose business to a competitor. Under monopolistic competition, therefore, companies have only limited control over price.

Oligopoly

Oligopoly means few sellers. In an oligopolistic market, each seller supplies a large portion of all the products sold in the marketplace. In addition, because the cost of starting a business in an oligopolistic industry is usually high, the number of firms entering it is low.

Companies in oligopolistic industries include such large-scale enterprises as automobile companies and airlines. As large firms supplying a sizable portion of a market, these companies have some control over the prices they charge. But there’s a catch: because products are fairly similar, when one company lowers prices, others are often forced to follow suit to remain competitive. You see this practice all the time in the airline industry: When American Airlines announces a fare decrease, Continental, United Airlines, and others do likewise. When one automaker offers a special deal, its competitors usually come up with similar promotions.

Monopoly

In terms of the number of sellers and degree of competition, monopolies lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from perfect competition. In perfect competition, there are many small companies, none of which can control prices; they simply accept the market price determined by supply and demand. In a monopoly, however, there’s only one seller in the market. The market could be a geographical area, such as a city or a regional area, and doesn’t necessarily have to be an entire country.

There are few monopolies in the United States because the government limits them. Most fall into one of two categories: natural and legal. Natural monopolies include public utilities, such as electricity and gas suppliers. Such enterprises require huge investments, and it would be inefficient to duplicate the products that they provide. They inhibit competition, but they’re legal because they’re important to society. In exchange for the right to conduct business without competition, they’re regulated. For instance, they can’t charge whatever prices they want, but they must adhere to government-controlled prices. As a rule, they’re required to serve all customers, even if doing so isn’t cost efficient.

(Written by Karen Collins)

Perfect Competition and Supply and Demand

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Under a mixed economy, such as we have in the United States, businesses make decisions about which goods to produce or services to offer and how they are priced. Because there are many businesses making goods or providing services, customers can choose among a wide array of products. The competition for sales among businesses is a vital part of our economic system. Economists have identified four types of competition – perfect competition, monopolistic competition, oligopoly, and monopoly. We’ll introduce the first of these perfect competition in this section and cover the remaining three in the following section.

Perfect Competition

Perfect competition exists when there are many consumers buying a standardized product from numerous small businesses. Because no seller is big enough or influential enough to affect price, sellers and buyers accept the going price. For example, when a commercial fisher brings his fish to the local market, he has little control over the price he gets and must accept the going rate.

The Basics of Supply and Demand

To appreciate how perfect competition works, we need to understand how buyers and sellers interact in a market to set prices. In a market characterized by perfect competition, price is determined through the mechanisms of supply and demand. Prices are influenced both by the supply of products from sellers and by the demand for products by buyers.

Demand

Demand is the quantity of a product that buyers are willing to purchase at various prices. The quantity of a product that people are willing to buy depends on its price. You’re typically willing to buy less of a product when prices rise and more of a product when prices fall. Generally speaking, we find products more attractive at lower prices, and we buy more at lower prices because our income goes further.

Supply

Supply is the quantity of a product that sellers are willing to sell at various prices. The quantity of a product that a business is willing to sell depends on its price. Businesses are more willing to sell a product when the price rises and less willing to sell it when prices fall. Again, this fact makes sense: businesses are set up to make profits, and there are larger profits to be made when prices are high.

(Written by Karen Collins)

The U.S. Economic System

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Like most countries, the United States features a mixed market system: though the U.S. economic system is primarily a free market system, the federal government controls some basic services, such as the postal service and air traffic control. The U.S. economy also has some characteristics of a socialist system, such as providing social security retirement benefits to retired workers.

The free market system was espoused by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. According to many scholars, The Wealth of Nations not only is the most influential book on free-market capitalism but remains relevant today. According to Smith, competition alone would ensure that consumers received the best products at the best prices. In the kind of competition he assumed, a seller who tries to charge more for his product than other sellers won’t be able to find any buyers. A job-seeker who asks more than the going wage won’t be hired. Because the “invisible hand” of competition will make the market work effectively, there won’t be a need to regulate prices or wages.

Almost immediately, however, a tension developed among free market theorists between the principle of laissez-faire – leaving things alone and government intervention. Today, it’s common for the U.S. government to intervene in the operation of the economic system. For example, government exerts influence on the food and pharmaceutical industries through the Food and Drug Administration, which protects consumers by preventing unsafe or mislabeled products from reaching the market.

To appreciate how businesses operate, we must first get an idea of how prices are set in competitive markets. Thus, the next section begins by describing how markets establish prices in an environment of perfect competition.

(Written by Karen Collins)

Mixed Market Economy

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Though it’s possible to have a pure communist system, or a pure capitalist (free market) system, in reality many economic systems are mixed. A mixed market economy relies on both markets and the government to allocate resources. We’ve already seen that this is what happens in socialist economies in which the government controls selected major industries, such as transportation and health care, while allowing individual ownership of other industries. Even previously communist economies, such as those of Eastern Europe and China, are becoming more mixed as they adopt capitalistic characteristics and convert businesses previously owned by the government to private ownership through a process called privatization.

(Written by Karen Collins)

Economic Systems

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The answers to these questions depend on a country’s economic system – the means by which a society (households, businesses, and government) makes decisions about allocating resources to produce products and about distributing those products. The degree to which individuals and business owners, as opposed to the government, enjoy freedom in making these decisions varies according to the type of economic system. Generally speaking, economic systems can be divided into two systems: planned systems and free market systems.

Planned Systems

In a planned system, the government exerts control over the allocation and distribution of all or some goods and services. The system with the highest level of government control is communism13. In theory, a communist economy is one in which the government owns all or most enterprises. Central planning by the government dictates which goods or services are produced, how they are produced, and who will receive them. In practice, pure communism is practically nonexistent today, and only a few countries (notably North Korea and Cuba) operate under rigid, centrally planned economic systems.

Under socialism, industries that provide essential services, such as utilities, banking, and health care, may be government owned. Other businesses are owned privately. Central planning allocates the goods and services produced by government-run industries and tries to ensure that the resulting wealth is distributed equally. In contrast, privately owned companies are operated for the purpose of making a profit for their owners. In general, workers in socialist economies work fewer hours, have longer vacations, and receive more health, education, and child-care benefits than do workers in capitalist economies. To offset the high cost of public services, taxes are generally steep. Examples of socialist countries include Sweden and France.

Free Market System

The economic system in which most businesses are owned and operated by individuals is the free market system, also known as capitalism. As we will see next, in a free market, competition dictates how goods and services will be allocated. Business is conducted with only limited government involvement. The economies of the United States and other countries, such as Japan, are based on capitalism.

(Written by Karen Collins)

What Is Economics?

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To appreciate how a business functions, we need to know something about the economic environment in which it operates. We begin with a definition of economics and a discussion of the resources used to produce goods and services.

Resources: Inputs and Outputs

Economics is the study of how scarce resources are used to produce outputs goods and services to be distributed among people. Resources are the inputs used to produce outputs. Resources may include any or all of the following:

  • Land and other natural resources
  • Labor (physical and mental)
  • Capital, including buildings, equipment, and money
  • Entrepreneurship

Resources are combined to produce goods and services. Land and natural resources provide the needed raw materials. Labor transforms raw materials into goods and services. Capital (equipment, buildings, vehicles, cash, and so forth) are needed for the production process. Entrepreneurship provides the skill and creativity needed to bring the other resources together to capitalize on an idea.

Because a business uses resources to produce things, we also call these resources factors of production. The factors of production used to produce a shirt would include the following:

  • The land that the shirt factory sits on, the electricity used to run the plant, and the raw cotton from which the shirts are made
  • The laborers who make the shirts
  • The factory and equipment used in the manufacturing process, as well as the money needed to operate the factory
  • The entrepreneurship skill used to coordinate the other resources to initiate the production process

Input and Output Markets

Many of the factors of production (or resources) are provided to businesses by households. For example, households provide businesses with labor (as workers), land and buildings (as landlords), and capital (as investors). In turn, businesses pay households for these resources by providing them with income, such as wages, rent, and interest. The resources obtained from households are then used by businesses to produce goods and services, which are sold to the same households that provide businesses with revenue. The revenue obtained by businesses is then used to buy additional resources, and the cycle continues.

  • Households not only provide factors of production (or resources) but also consume goods and services.
  • Businesses not only buy resources but also produce and sell both goods and services.

(Written by Karen Collins)

Getting Down to Business

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A business is any activity that provides goods or services to consumers for the purpose of making a profit. When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created Apple Computer in Jobs’s family garage, they started a business. The product was the Apple I, and the company’s founders hoped to sell their computers to customers for more than it cost to make and market them. If they were successful (which they were), they’d make a profit.

Before we go on, let’s make a couple of important distinctions concerning the terms in our definitions. First, whereas Apple produces and sells goods (iPhone, iPod, Mac), many businesses provide services. Your bank is a service company, as is your Internet provider. Airlines, law firms, movie theaters, and hospitals are also service companies. Many companies provide both goods and services. For example, your local car dealership sells goods (cars) and also provides services (automobile repairs).

Second, some organizations are not set up to make profits. Many are established to provide social or educational services. Such not-for-profit (or nonprofit) organizations include the United Way of America, Habitat for Humanity, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Sierra Club, the American Red Cross, and many colleges and universities. Most of these organizations, however, function in much the same way as a business. They establish goals and work to meet them in an effective, efficient manner. Thus, most of the business principles introduced in this text also apply to nonprofits.

Business Participants and Activities

Let’s begin our discussion of business by identifying the main participants of business and the functions that most businesses perform. Then we’ll finish this section by discussing the external factors that influence a business’s activities.

Participants

Every business must have one or more owners whose primary role is to invest money in the business. When a business is being started, it’s generally the owners who polish the business idea and bring together the resources (money and people) needed to turn the idea into a business. The owners also hire employees to work for the company and help it reach its goals. Owners and employees depend on a third group of participants-customers. Ultimately, the goal of any business is to satisfy the needs of its customers.

Functional Areas of Business

The activities needed to operate a business can be divided into a number of functional areas: management, operations, marketing, accounting, and finance. Let’s briefly explore each of these areas.

Management

Managers are responsible for the work performance of other people. Management involves planning for, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling a company’s resources so that it can achieve its goals. Managers plan by setting goals and developing strategies for achieving them. They organize activities and resources to ensure that company goals are met. They staff the organization with qualified employees and direct them to accomplish organizational goals. Finally, managers design controls for assessing the success of plans and decisions and take corrective action when needed.

Operations

All companies must convert resources (labor, materials, money, information, and so forth) into goods or services. Some companies, such as Apple, convert resources into tangible products – iPhones, iPods, Macs. Others, such as hospitals, convert resources into intangible products—health care. The person who designs and oversees the transformation of resources into goods or services is called an operations manager. This individual is also responsible for ensuring that products are of high quality.

Marketing

Marketing consists of everything that a company does to identify customers’ needs and design products to meet those needs. Marketers develop the benefits and features of products, including price and quality. They also decide on the best method of delivering products and the best means of promoting them to attract and keep customers. They manage relationships with customers and make them aware of the organization’s desire and ability to satisfy their needs.

Accounting

Managers need accurate, relevant, timely financial information, and accountants provide it. Accountants measure, summarize, and communicate financial and managerial information and advise other managers on financial matters. There are two fields of accounting. Financial accountants prepare financial statements to help users, both inside and outside the organization, assess the financial strength of the company. Managerial accountants prepare information, such as reports on the cost of materials used in the production process, for internal use only.

Finance

Finance involves planning for, obtaining, and managing a company’s funds. Finance managers address such questions as the following: How much money does the company need? How and where will it get the necessary money? How and when will it pay the money back? What should it do with its funds? What investments should be made in plant and equipment? How much should be spent on research and development? How should excess funds be invested? Good financial management is particularly important when a company is first formed, because new business owners usually need to borrow money to get started.

(Written by Karen Collins)

The Foundations of Business & Why Is Apple Successful?

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In 1976 Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created their first computer, the Apple I. This vignette is based on an honors thesis written by Danielle M. Testa, “Apple, Inc.: An Analysis of the Firm’s Tumultuous History, in Conjunction with the Abounding Future” (Lehigh University), November 18, 2007. They invested a mere $1,300 and set up  business in Jobs’s garage. Three decades later, their business—Apple Inc.—has become one of the world’s most influential and successful companies. Did you ever wonder why Apple flourished while so many other young companies failed? How did it grow from a garage start-up to a company generating $24 billion in sales? How was it able to transform itself from a nearly bankrupt firm to a multinational corporation with locations all around the world? You might conclude that it was the company’s products, such as the Apple I and II, the Macintosh, or more recently its wildly popular iPod and iPhone. Or you might decide that it was its people: its dedicated employees and loyal customers. Perhaps you will decide it was luck—Apple simply was in the right place at the right time. Or maybe you will attribute the company’s success to management’s willingness to take calculated risks. Perhaps you will attribute Apple’s initial accomplishments and reemergence to its cofounder, Steve Jobs. After all, Jobs was instrumental in the original design of the Apple I and, after being ousted from his position with the company, returned to save the firm from destruction and lead it onto its current path.

Before we decide what made Apple what it is today and what will propel it into a successful future, let’s see if you have all the facts about the possible choices: its products, its customers, luck, willingness to take risks, or Steve Jobs. We’re confident that you’re aware of Apple’s products and understand that “Apple customers are a loyal bunch. Though they’re only a small percentage of all computer users, they make up for it with their passion and outspokenness. ”Ellen Lee, “Faithful, sometimes fanatical Apple customers continue to push the boundaries of loyalty,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 2006. We believe you can understand the role that luck or risk taking could play in Apple’s success. But you might like to learn more about Steve Jobs, the company’s cofounder and CEO, before arriving at your final decision.

Growing up, Jobs had an interest in computers. He attended lectures at HewlettPackard after school and worked for the company during the summer months. He took a job at Atari after graduating from high school and saved his money to make a pilgrimage to India to search for spiritual enlightenment. Following his India trip, he attended Steve Wozniak’s “Homebrew Computer Club” meetings, where the idea for building a personal computer surfaced. Lee Angelelli, “Steve Paul Jobs,” http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/Jobs.html (accessed November 2, 2008). “Many colleagues describe Jobs as a brilliant man who can be a great motivator and positively charming. At the same time his drive for perfection is so strong that employees who do not meet his demands are faced with blistering verbal attacks.”Lee Angelelli, “Steve Paul Jobs,” http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/Jobs.html (accessed November 2, 2008). Not everyone at Apple appreciated Jobs’s brilliance and ability to motivate. Nor did they all go along with his willingness to spend whatever it took to produce an innovative, attractive, high-quality product. So at age thirty, Jobs found himself ousted from Apple by John Sculley, whom Jobs himself had hired as president of the company several years earlier. It seems that Sculley wanted to cut costs and thought it would be easier to do so without Jobs around. Jobs sold $20 million of his stock and went on a two-month vacation to figure out what he would do for the rest of his life. His solution: start a new personal computer company called NextStep. In 1993, he was invited back to Apple (a good thing, because neither his new company nor Apple was doing well).

(Written by Karen Collins)

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