Price impacts of avian influenza (bird flu)

Since the last time I posted on the issue, avian influenza has continued to spread, particularly in flocks of egg-laying hens, and the price impacts are becoming more apparent. 

Here's what I wrote back in April:

Demand for eggs is likely much more inelastic [than turkey] because of fewer substitutes. The elasticity of demand for eggs is probably somewhere around -0.15 to -0.20. The USDA-APHIS data indicates that about 4 million chickens (I believe these are egg-laying chickens) have been killed due to the flu. There are about 300 million laying hens in the U.S., implying this is a supply reduction of about 1.3%. Following the same logic as before, a 1.3% supply shock in the short run would cause a (0.013/0.15)*100=8.7% increase in egg prices in the immediate short run. Why so much higher than for turkey? Because demand for eggs is likely more inelastic than is demand for turkey. If the outbreak in egg laying hens doubles, reducing supply by 2.6%, that would imply a price increase of 17.3% in the short run.

Now, here's what Kelsey Gee wrote in the Wall Street Journal just yesterday:

Avian influenza has resulted in the deaths or extermination of at least 38.9 million birds, more than double the previous major U.S. outbreak in the 1980s. Of that total, more than 32 million are egg-laying hens, accounting for about 10% of the U.S. egg-laying flock.

The wholesale price of “breaker” eggs—the kind sold in liquid form to restaurants like McDonald’s Corp., food-service supplier Sysco Corp. and packaged-food producers—nearly tripled in the past month to a record $2.03 a dozen on Thursday, according to market-research firm Urner Barry. Meanwhile, U.S. prices for wholesale large shell eggs, those sold at the grocery store, have jumped about 85% to $2.20 a dozen in the Midwest.

The actual price impacts aren't that far off from what were predicted from my very simply supply/demand model.  In the very short run, supply is predetermined, so the price impacts of a reduction in supply are determined entirely by the shape of the demand curve.  A very simple demand curve is Q = e*P, where Q is the proportionate change in quantity, P is the proportionate change in price, and e is the own-price elasticity of demand.  Changes in price are thus given by: P=Q/e.  

Thus, if the change in quantity is about -10% as indicated in the WSJ article, and the elasticity of demand is about -0.15 as I previously suggested, the expected short-run price change is P = 0.1/0.15 = 0.667, or a 66.7% increase.  

The 85% price increase cited in the WSJ is larger than the projected 66.7% increase.  This could be because consumer demand for eggs has fallen among some consumers worried about bird flu (see my recent survey for evidence on that), so we may be witnessing not only movements along the demand curve but also a shift in the demand curve.  Or, it could simply be that demand for eggs was more inelastic that I previously assumed.  An own-price elasticity of egg demand of -0.117 rather than -0.15 would imply an 85% price increase in response to a 10% reduction in quantity supplied.  

But, no matter the cause of the price increases, it certainly isn't good for consumers who are harmed by having to pay higher prices for a smaller number of eggs. Producers who have lost flocks are certainly worse off.  The only beneficiaries are those egg producers who've (at least so far) avoided the outbreak.