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Cost Minimization

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Cost Minimization

Have you ever wondered how successful businesses get the right ratio of workers and machines? These businesses must be very precise when calculating how many people to hire and how many machines to rent so that their resources produce optimal outputs. This concept is called cost minimization. Let's keep reading to learn more about it and find out what it means to be cost-effective.

The Cost Minimization Problem

Firms perform cost minimization in order to determine the most efficient way of producing goods and services from at least two inputs. For example, if a firm invests too much on its workers and not enough on its capital, or vice versa, the cost for both will not be efficient.

Cost minimization is the rule in which producers seek to calculate the right balance between two inputs in order to have the most cost-effective productivity.

Before we discuss cost minimization in depth, it is important to go over the concepts of substitutes and complements in a factor market. These are types of factors of production whose price affects the demand of similar or related factors of production, which will in turn, affect how to calculate cost minimization.

In general, substitutes are goods that can be replaced with similar goods. For example, a consumer might prefer buying e-books to physical books. However, if the price of a desired e-book rises, or is more expensive than the hard copy, then that consumer may buy the physical book instead. The same applies to the factors of production.

Substitutes in a factor market are factors of production that can be replaced with similar factors of production.

Two goods are complements if consumers tend to buy those two goods together. Think of the relationship between video games and a game console, such as a Playstation or Xbox. If there is an increase in the price of a game console, then the demand to buy video games will decrease. The same applies to the factors of production.

Complements in a factor market are factors of production that are jointly utilized with other factors of production.

To learn more check our article on - Factor Markets!

Cost Minimization and Profit Maximization

Reflecting on substitute and complementary factors of production can help the way we think about cost minimization and profit maximization. As you can imagine, there are different combinations of inputs a firm can calculate to minimize the cost of its capital and labor, in turn maximizing the firm's profits. Let's look at a specific example and see how it might be solved in the real world.

Think of a modern office warehouse with machine operators and automated forklifts that pick up products and move them from one place to another without a driver. In order to run most efficiently, the business needs to figure out how many machine operators (labor) and forklifts (capital) they require. If there are more forklifts than operators, there might be unused machines in the warehouse, not maximizing the total productivity. On the other hand, if there are more operators than forklifts, there may be slower movement of products across the warehouse floor. In both situations, the cost is not minimized.

Cost Minimization Examples

Figuring out the best cost-effective approach for a firm can be challenging. However, when a firm needs to decide which combination of labor and capital inputs to use, calculating cost minimization may be relatively straightforward.

Let's refer to the example of a modern office warehouse with machine operators and automated forklifts.

Assume the following: if the firm with the office warehouse rents 40 forklifts, they will need to hire 1 machine operator to oversee 5 forklifts, requiring a total of 8 operators. In another scenario, more experienced operators may be more efficient by using other tools to help them move large quantities of product across the warehouse floor. The warehouse can move around the same amount of products with 20 automated forklifts and 20 machine operators.

Let's suppose the cost to rent a forklift is $2,000 per month and hiring a machine operator costs $1,500 per month. The cost of these inputs would look like the following:

Scenario 1

Scenario 2

Cost of capital: 40 x $2,000 = $80,000

Cost of capital: 20 x $2,000 = $40,000

Cost of labor: 8 x $1,500 = $12,000

Cost of labor: 20 x $1,500 = $30,000

Total cost: $92,000

Total cost: $70,000

Table 1. Scenarios of cost minimization - StudySmarter

We see that the second scenario, where the warehouse hires 20 machine operators and rents 20 automated forklifts, is the more cost-effective combination. But these are only two scenarios. How do we know there isn't another better scenario that finds the most cost-effective combination of capital and labor? We use the cost minimization formula to check for the most cost-effective combination in such cases.

Cost Minimization Formula

It can be difficult for firms with thousands of employees and even more units of capital to use the cost minimization approach among seemingly infinite scenarios. That is why there is a formula to find the optimal inputs of labor and capital. This formula illustrates the marginal product of labor over the wage rate to equal the marginal product of capital over the rental price of capital.

or

The marginal product of an input refers to the additional output that results from additional input.

Let's apply this formula to an example. Similar to the relationship between machine operators and automated forklifts, the relationship between bank tellers and ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) may be observed to find the most cost-effective combination between the two.

Suppose the marginal product of labor from bank tellers is 100 units, and the marginal product of capital from ATMs is 200 units. What happens when the wage is $10, and the rental rate of capital is $5?

We use the formula:

The output per dollar of labor would be 100/$10 = 10 units, while the output per dollar of capital would be 200/$5 = 40 units. In other words, the business receives 10 units of output that is spent on labor, and 40 units of output spent on capital.

According to these inputs, the bank should invest more in ATMs than in bank tellers. However, the law of diminishing returns reminds us that as the bank rents more ATMs, the marginal product of capital declines. Additionally, as the bank hires less tellers, the marginal product of labor rises.

The bank therefore will change the amount of labor and capital until the marginal product per dollar spent on each input is the same.

Cost Minimization Approach: The Two Conditions

When representing the cost-minimizing value on a graph, the value must uphold two conditions:

  1. The value is on the y-isoquant
  2. No other value on the y-isoquant is on a lower isocost line

These two conditions are essential in illustrating a value whose cost is minimized. This puts into perspective what it means to have the most advantageous combination of labor and capital.

Let's take what we learned above and put it into a graph to see how it translates.

In Figure 1, we see the graph drawn with respect to labor (L) and capital (K). The two dark blue lines are isocost lines, which represent all combinations of labor and capital that cost the same total amount. The curved line, labeled as the y-isoquant shows the optimal combination of labor and capital that produces the maximum output at minimum cost.

cost minimization analysis problem studysmarterFig 1. - The cost minimization problem

Now focus on point A, which touches the y-isoquant and the first isocost line. This point shows the value of cost minimization. If you were to go to point B, there would be a higher input of capital than labor. Point C similarly illustrates a scenario where there is too much of one input. In this case, there is a higher input of labor and not enough capital for it to be considered a cost-effective alternative.

Cost Minimization Analysis - Key takeaways

  • Cost minimization is the rule in which producers seek to calculate the right balance between two inputs in order to have the most cost-effective productivity.
  • Substitutes in a factor market are factors of production that can be replaced with similar factors of production. Complements in a factor market are factors of production that are jointly utilized with other factors of production.
  • In the cost minimization formula, the marginal product of labor divided by the wage rate equals the marginal product of capital divided by the rental price of capital.
  • Depending on the output per dollar of the marginal product of capital or labor, a firm would need to increase capital and decrease labor, or vice versa, until the marginal product per dollar on each input is equal.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cost Minimization

Cost minimization is the rule in which producers seek to calculate the right balance between two inputs in order to have the most cost-effective productivity.

A supermarket wants to implement the right balance of self-checkout machines and cashiers. Using the cost minimization formula, one can find the optimal level of the marginal product of labor with respect to wage until it equals the marginal product of capital with respect to rental rate.


To determine cost minimization between two scenarios, add the products of the cost of capital and the cost of labor. For most cases, use the cost minimization formula to calculate the most cost-effective productivity.

(1) The value is on the y-isoquant, and (2) no other value on the y-isoquant is on a lower isocost line.

Final Cost Minimization Quiz

Question

What is the definition of cost minimization?

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Answer

The rule in which producers seek the most cost-effective balance between inputs of capital and labor.

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Question

What is the law of diminishing returns?

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Answer

It is an economic law stating that if one input increases, then at a certain point, the resulting output will start to increase at a lesser rate.

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Question

What are the two conditions for cost minimization?

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Answer

(1) The value is on the y-isoquant, and (2) no other value on the y-isoquant is on a lower isocost line.

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Question

What does the term "returns to scale" mean?

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Answer

It is the rate at which output changes if all inputs are changed by a proportionate factor.

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Question

Is there only one approach to calculate cost minimization?

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Answer

The cost minimization formula may be used to find the most cost-effective combination of inputs. However, if there are given scenarios, one also can find the cost-minimized scenario by comparing total cost of capital and labor.

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Question

What is an isocost line?

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Answer

It represents all combinations of labor and capital that cost the same total amount.

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Question

What is the y-isoquant?

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Answer

It shows the optimal combination of labor and capital that produces the maximum output at minimum cost.

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Question

If output per dollar of capital is greater than output per dollar of labor, what would a firm have to do in order to reach cost minimization?

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Answer

The firm would need to rent more capital and hire less labor until the decreasing marginal product of capital per dollar reaches the increasing marginal product of labor per dollar.

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Question

If output per dollar of labor is greater than output per dollar of capital, what would a firm have to do in order to reach cost minimization?

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Answer

The firm would need to hire more workers and rent less capital until the decreasing marginal product of labor per dollar reaches the increasing marginal product of capital per dollar.

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Question

Which comparison of labor and capital might use the cost minimization approach?

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Answer

All of these comparisons would use the cost minimization approach.

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Question

What is a substitute?

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Answer

It is a good that can be replaced with similar goods. For example, if someone doesn't have access to a car, then that person may use a bus or a bicycle instead.

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What is a complement?

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Answer

It is a good that is typically bought with another good. For instance, hot dogs and hot dog buns are considered complements.

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Question

What is an example of substitute goods?

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Answer

tea and coffee

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Question

What is an example of complementary goods?

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Answer

a suit and a tie

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Question

Which economic term is used to describe

the rule in which producers seek to calculate the right balance between two inputs in order to have the most cost-effective productivity.

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Answer

cost minimization

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Question

Highlight the incorrect portion of the text:


Complements in a factor market are factors of production that can be replaced with similar factors of production.


Show answer

Answer

Complements

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Question

Fill the blanks in the following statement


... are goods that can be replaced with similar goods. For example, a consumer might prefer buying e-books to physical books. However, if the price of the desired e-book ..., then that consumer may buy the physical book instead.

Show answer

Answer

substitutes/rises

Show question

Question

Highlight the incorrect portion of the text:


Highlight the incorrect portion of the text:


Substitutes in a factor market are factors of production that are jointly utilized with other factors of production.



Show answer

Answer

Substitutes

Show question

Question

Suppose the marginal product of labor from bank tellers is 100 units, and the marginal product of capital from ATMs is 200 units. Which of the following is not true if the wage is $10, and the rental rate of capital is $5?


Show answer

Answer

The output per dollar of labor would be 100/$10 = 10 units

Show question

Question

Think of the relationship between video games and a game console, such as a Playstation or Xbox. If there is an increase in the price of a game console, then the demand to buy video games will decrease.


This is an example of ...

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Answer

complements

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Question

Explain the cost minimization formula.

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Answer

In the cost minimization formula, the marginal product of labor divided by the wage rate equals the marginal product of capital divided by the rental price of capital.


Show question

Question

Depending on the output per dollar of the marginal product of capital or labor, a firm would need to increase capital and decrease labor, or vice versa, until ...

Show answer

Answer

... the marginal product per dollar on each input is equal.

Show question

Question

... in a factor market are factors of production that can be replaced with similar factors of production. ... in a factor market are factors of production that are jointly utilized with other factors of production.


Show answer

Answer

Substitutes/Complements

Show question

Question

When representing the cost-minimizing value on a graph, the value must uphold two conditions. What are they?

Show answer

Answer

The value is on the y-isoquant

  1. No other value on the y-isoquant is on a lower isocost line

Show question

Question

Suppose the marginal product of labor from bank tellers is 100 units, and the marginal product of capital from ATMs is 200 units. What happens when the wage is $10, and the rental rate of capital is $5?


Show answer

Answer

The output per dollar of labor would be 100/$10 = 10 units, while the output per dollar of capital would be 200/$5 = 40 units. In other words, the business receives 10 units of output that is spent on labor, and 40 units of output spent on capital.


According to these inputs, the bank should invest more in ATMs than in bank tellers. However, the law of diminishing returns reminds us that as the bank rents more ATMs, the marginal product of capital declines. Additionally, as the bank hires less tellers, the marginal product of labor rises. 


The bank therefore will change the amount of labor and capital until the marginal product per dollar spent on each input is the same.

Show question

Question

Give an example for substitute goods.

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Answer

For example, a consumer might prefer buying e-books to physical books. However, if the price of the desired e-book rises, or is more expensive than the hard copy, then that consumer may buy the physical book instead.

Show question

Question

Give an example of complements.

Show answer

Answer

Think of the relationship between video games and a game console, such as a Playstation or Xbox. If there is an increase in the price of a game console, then the demand to buy video games will decrease. The same applies to the factors of production. 


Show question

Question

Firms perform ... in order to determine the most efficient way of producing goods and services from at least two inputs. 


Show answer

Answer

cost minimization

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