Tax Incidence

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Elasticity of Demand and Taxation

Many products are subject to indirect taxation imposed by the government. Good examples include the excise duty on cigarettes (cigarette taxes in the UK are among the highest in Europe) alcohol and fuels. Here we consider the effects of indirect taxes on a producers costs and the importance of price elasticity of demand in determining the effects of a tax on market price and quantity.


A tax increases the costs of a business causing an inward shift in the supply curve. The vertical distance between the pre-tax and the post-tax supply curve shows the tax per unit. With an indirect tax, the supplier may be able to pass on some or all of this tax onto the consumer through a higher price. This is known as shifting the burden of the tax and the ability of businesses to do this depends on the price elasticity of demand and supply.

Consider the two charts above. In the left hand diagram, the demand curve is drawn as price elastic. The producer must absorb the majority of the tax itself (i.e. accept a lower profit margin on each unit sold). When demand is elastic, the effect of a tax is still to raise the price – but we see a bigger fall in equilibrium quantity. Output has fallen from Q to Q1 due to a contraction in demand. In the right hand diagram, demand is drawn as price inelastic (i.e. Ped <1 over most of the range of this demand curve) and therefore the producer is able to pass on most of the tax to the consumer through a higher price without losing too much in the way of sales. The price rises from P1 to P2 – but a large rise in price leads only to a small contraction in demand from Q1 to Q2.

 

Graphical Analysis of Tax Incidence:

 

Inelastic Supply, Elastic Demand

 

 

 

Inelastic Supply, Elastic Demand: The burden is on the producers

Because the producer is inelastic, he will produce the same quantity no matter what the price. Because the consumer is elastic, the consumer is very sensitive to price. A small increase in price leads to a large drop in the quantity demanded. The imposition of the tax causes the market price to increase from P without tax to P with tax and the quantity demanded to fall from Q without tax to Q with tax. Because the consumer is elastic, the quantity change is significant. Because the producer is inelastic, the price doesn’t change much. The producer is unable to pass the tax onto the consumer and the tax incidence falls on the producer. In this example, the tax is collected from the producer and the producer bears the tax burden. This is known as back shifting.

 

Inelastic Demand, Elastic Supply

 

 

 

 

 

Inelastic Demand, Elastic Supply: The burden is on the consumer

Because the consumer is inelastic, he will demand the same quantity no matter what the price. Because the producer is elastic, the producer is very sensitive to price. A small drop in price leads to a large drop in the quantity produced. The imposition of the tax causes the market price to increase from P without tax to P with tax and the quantity demanded to fall from Q without tax to Q with tax. Because the consumer is inelastic, the quantity doesn’t change much. Because the consumer is inelastic and the producer is elastic, the price changes dramatically. The change in price is very large. The producer is able to pass (in the short run) almost the entire value of the tax onto the consumer. Even though the tax is being collected from the producer the consumer is bearing the tax burden. The tax incidence is falling on the consumer, known as forward shifting.

 

Similarly-Elastic Supply and Demand

Similarly-Elastic: Burden Shared

Most markets fall between these two extremes, and ultimately the incidence of tax is shared between producers and consumers in varying proportions. In this example, the consumers pay more than the producers, but not all of the tax. The area paid by consumers is obvious as the change in equilibrium price (between P without tax toP with tax); the remainder, being the difference between the new price and the cost of production at that quantity, is paid by the producers.

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