Saturday, October 15, 2011

The costly consequences of misunderstanding cost

Apparently there's growing scarcity of some important medicines. And why wouldn't there be?

Some of these medicines are off-patent, some are price-controlled (at least in most of the world), some are bought at "negotiated" prices where one of the parties negotiating (the government) has the power to expropriate the patent from the producer. In other words, their prices are usually set at variable cost plus a small markup.

Hey, says Reggie the regulator, they're making a profit on each pill, so they should produce it anyway.

(Did you spot the error?)

(Wait for it...)

(Got it yet?)

Dear Reggie: pills are made in these things called "laboratories," that are really factories. Factories, you may be interested to know, have something called "capacity constraints," which means that using a production line for making one type of pill precludes that production line from making a different kind of pill. Manufacturers are in luck, though, because most production lines can be repurposed from one medication to another with relatively small configuration cost.

Companies make their decisions based on opportunity costs, not just variable costs. If they have a margin of say 90 cents/pill for growing longer eyelashes (I'm not kidding, there's a "medication" for that) and say 5 cents/pill to cure TB, they are going to dedicate as much of their production capacity to the eyelash-elongating "medication" as they can.* (They won't stop making the TB medication altogether because that would be bad for public relations.)

Funny how these things work, huh?

* Unless they can make more than eighteen times more TB pills than eyelash "medicine" pills with the same production facilities, of course.