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Chapter: Civil : Engineering Economics and Cost analysis : Basic Economics

Profit Maximization And The Firm

Under the simplest version of the theory of the firm it is assumed that profit maximization is its primary goal.



Under the simplest version of the theory of the firm it is assumed that profit maximization is its primary goal. In this version of the theory, the firm's owner is the manager of the firm, and thus, the firm's owner-manager is assumed to maximize the firm's short-term profits (current profits and profits in the near future). Today, even when the profit maximizing assumption is maintained, the notion of profits has been broadened to take into account uncertainty faced by the firm (in realizing profits) and the time value of money (where the value of a dollar further and further in the future is increasingly smaller than a dollar today). It should be noted that expected profit in any one period can itself be considered as the difference between the total revenue and the total cost in that period. Thus, one can, alternatively, find the present value of expected future profits by subtracting the present value of expected future costs from the present value of expected future revenues. THE CONSTRAINED PROFIT MAXIMIZATION. Profit maximization is subject to various constraints faced by the firm. These constraints relate to resource scarcity, technology, contractual obligations, and laws and government regulations. In their attempt to maximize the present value of profits, business managers must consider not only the short-term and long-term implications of decisions made within the firm, but also various external constraints that may limit the firm's ability to achieve its organizational goals. The first external constraint of resource scarcity refers to the limited availability of essential inputs (including skilled labor), key raw materials, energy, specialized machinery and equipment, warehouse space, and other resources. Moreover, managers often face constraints on plant capacity that are exacerbated by limited investment funds available for expansion or modernization. Contractual obligations also constrain managerial decisions. Labor contracts, for example, may constrain managers' flexibility in worker scheduling and work assignment. Labor contracts may also determine the number of workers employed at any time, thereby establishing a floor for minimum labor costs. Finally, laws and regulations have to be observed. The legal restrictions can constrain decisions regarding both production and marketing activities. Examples of laws and regulations that limit managerial flexibility are: the minimum wage, health and safety standards, fuel efficiency requirements, antipollution regulations, and fair pricing and marketing practices. PROFIT MAXIMIZATION VERSUS OTHER MOTIVATIONS BEHIND MANAGERIAL DECISIONS. The present value maximization criterion as a basis for the study of the firm's behavior has come under severe criticism from some economists. The critics argue that business managers are interested, at least partly, in factors other than the firm's profits. In particular, they may be interested in power, prestige, leisure, employee welfare, community well-being, and the welfare of the larger society. The act of maximization itself has been criticized; there is a feeling that managers often aim merely to "satisfice" (seek solutions that are considered satisfactory), rather than really try to optimize or maximize (seek to find the best possible solution, given the constraints). Under the structure of a modern firm, it is hard to determine the true motives of managers. A modem firm is frequently organized as a corporation in which shareholders are the legal owners of the firm, and the manager acts on their behalf. Under such a structure, it is difficult to determine whether a manager merely tries to satisfy the stockholders of the firm while pursuing other goals, rather than truly attempting to maximize the value (the discounted present value) of the firm. BUSINESS VERSUS ECONOMIC PROFITS. As discussed above, profits are central to the goals of a firm and managerial decision making. Thus, to understand the theory of firm behavior properly, one must have a clear understanding of profits. While the term profit is very widely used, an economist's definition of profit differs from the one used by accountants (which is also usually used by the general public and the business community). Profit in accounting is defined as the excess of sales revenue over the explicit accounting costs of doing business. This surplus is available to the firm for various purposes. An economist also defines profit as the difference between sales revenue and costs of doing business, but includes more items in figuring costs, rather than considering only explicit accounting costs. For example, inputs supplied by owners (including labor, capital, and space) are accounted for in determining costs in the definition used by an economist. These costs are sometimes referred to as implicit cost their value is imputed based on a notion of opportunity costs widely used by economists. In other words, costs of inputs supplied by an owner are based on the values these inputs would have received in the next best alternative activity. For illustration, assume that the owner of the firm works for ten hours a day at his business. If the owner does not receive any salary, an accountant would not consider the owner's effort as a cost item. An economist would, however, value the owner's service to his firm at what his labor would have earned had he worked elsewhere. Thus, to compute the true profit, an economist will subtract the implicit costs from business profit; the resulting profit is often referred to as economic profit. It is this concept of profit that is used by economists to explain the behavior of a firm. The concept of economic profit essentially recognizes that owner-supplied inputs must also be paid for. Thus, the owner of a firm will not be in business in the long run until he recovers the implicit costs (also known as normal profit), in addition to recovering the explicit costs, of doing business. As pointed out earlier, a given firm attempts to maximize profits. Other firms do the same. Ultimately, profits decline for all firms. If all firms are operating under a competitive market structure, in equilibrium, economic profits (the excess of accounting profits over implicit costs) would be equal to zero; accounting profits (equal to explicit costs), however would be positive. When a firm makes profits above the normal profits level, it is said to be reaping above-normal profits.

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