Economic Rent and Transfer Earnings To most of us “rent” is defined as a periodical payment made for the use of a particular asset – usually a residential or commercial property. However, the concept is not limited to land or buildings because it can also be applied to the other factors of production. When a factor is earning more than its supply price, it is receiving a part of its income in the form of economic rent. This situation arises when demand increases and supply cannot fully respond to the increases in demand. For example, labour already employed will experience an increase in income so that they must be earning more than their supply prices.
Present Wages – Wages when initially employed = Economic Rent
The minimum payment required to prevent a person transferring to another employer or another occupation is know as transfer earnings. It is determined by what the factor could earn in its next best paid employment. Transfer earnings may be regarded as the opportunity cost of keeping an employee in their present job or it may be regarded as the employee’s supply price in their present occupation. For example, if the minimum weekly wage that would persuade someone to work as a shop attendant is $200 but he or she actually receives a wage of $250, then the transfer earnings amount is $200 and he or she is receiving $50 in the form of economic rent. Therefore, economic rent can be defined as any payment to a factor of production that is in excess of transfer earnings.
The graph below shows the demand and supply for labour. The equilibrium wage is $120 with a quantity of 50 units. Total earnings is equal to $120 x 50 units of labour = $6,000 and employees receive the same wage of $120. However, all workers except the last one taken into employment were prepared to offer their services at wages less than $120. Therefore, provided the supply of labour slopes upwards (i.e. it is less than perfectly inelastic) an increase in demand will give rise to rent payments to those factors that were already employed at the original wage of $120. The area of economic rent and transfer earnings is shown in the graph below. Only the last labour unit employed earns no economic rent because the wage of $120 is the supply price to that particular labour unit.
Inelastic and Elastic labour supply
The amount of economic rent and transfer earnings in the return to labour depends upon the elasticity of supply and the level of demand. The greater the occupational mobility of labour, the smaller the element of economic rent. If labour can do a variety of occupations then quite small changes in the wage rate will cause large movements of labour into an industry when wages rise, and out of that industry when wages fall.
Very specialised labour has an inelastic supply curve. This includes surgeons, top CEOs, scientists and jobs that require high skill levels or involve significant danger and skill, eg, deep sea divers. The relatively high rewards to this labour are due to the fact that they are in very scarce supply relative to the demands for their services. Their transfer earnings will be much less than their salary because the market values outside their own specialised professions are probably very low. A frequently quoted example of earnings that contain a large amount of economic rent are those of top sports people. Today these people can earn significant amounts of money in a short period of time. A footballer such as Christiano Ronaldo earns €326 923 per week because of his ability to attract big crowds, merchandise sales and sponsorship deals when he was at Real Madrid Football Club. His skill levels are unique and in very limited supply when considering other players. This reflects a very high marginal productivity leading to a higher wage.
Some other occupations that are held in high regard by society do not command such high salaries because of their low marginal productivity. This includes nurses, firefighters, teachers, etc. Furthermore, the supply of labour for these jobs tends to be elastic because there are many people to choose from, unlike their footballing counterparts who have unique skills.
Where the supply of labour is less than perfectly elastic an increase in demand will lead to some workers receiving economic rent. This rent may be of a temporary nature, however, because the higher wage may lead to an increase in supply, which in turn, lowers the wage. Increased wages might entice other workers to undertake the necessary training. The economic rent that is earned during the period before supply can be increased is referred to as quasi rent. True economic rent refers to the remuneration of factors that are fixed in supply.
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