When the press reports a microchip shortage, as it has done regularly since the beginning of the year, the economist does not believe it on faith. How can there be a shortage if market prices can freely adjust? A shortage is not simply a high price, for how useful would be a special word meaning exactly the same as “high price”? For the economist, a shortage is a situation where it is impossible to get something at any price, that is, by bidding up the current price. To cite just one textbook, see Arman A. Alchian and William R. Allen, Universal Economics, edited by Jerry L. Jordan (Liberty Fund, 2018), chapter 10. Since microchip prices are not, for all we know, capped by some domestic government under penalty of fine or jail, we need to find out what is happening.

At least, we need to ask the right questions. Let me suggest a few and propose some answers.

Of course, a temporary shortage in a segment of the market is not impossible, although it stretches and fuddles the meaning of “shortage” a bit. Perhaps I can say that there is a shortage of croissants at my preferred bakery every day at a certain time. But if I offered one million dollars (with a $100,000 deposit) for a croissant, the bakery would rapidly turn around or, if necessary, somebody would jump in a plane and bring me a croissant within at most 12 hours. Similarly, if your local grocery store is out of baguettes, you are facing a localized and temporary shortage of sorts—but only until the grocery supply truck returns.

In the same way, the so-called chip shortage is not across the whole market. Computer manufacturers, smartphone makers, and others apparently have no problem getting them, although they may have to pay more as they renew their supply contracts. And, of course, it takes more time to manufacture a microchip (typically a few weeks or months after an order) than to cook a croissant or deliver a baguette—the time dimension of shortages.

Another factor to consider is that up to 50% of the chips that car manufacturers need are non-generic, that is, they are not standardized commodities. The spot market for chips is limited but that does not prevent prices from rationing demand, if only in indirect ways through special fees for quicker delivery, for example.

What happened recently in the chip market appears to be that the car manufacturers’ demand suddenly increased last Fall as the economy recovered. This pushed up the price of chips and their components, including the ubiquitous wafers. Just over the past three months, chip prices have increased by an estimated 20%.

For one million dollars per chip instead of a few cents or a few dollars, a car manufacturer or a car part supplier could certainly find a chip maker who would be willing to pause its new contracts (usually signed months before delivery) and start producing for the new buyer as soon as it could. At such a high price some car companies would presumably be willing to sell part of whatever stock they have or to sell their own chip supply contracts with close delivery dates.

Car manufacturers aren’t willing to bid up chip prices to $1 million. They obviously calculate that, at current prices, another batch of chips would increase their marginal cost of car production by more than their marginal revenues from car sales. This is why many car manufacturers in the world have announced production cuts and are waiting for lower prices or later deliveries. Some car manufacturers reallocate chips from their less profitable cars to their more profitable ones. For a student of economics, this is a reminder that possibilities of substitution in production exist—in this case, of an input between two products.

Why didn’t car manufacturers order their chips or chip-containing parts several months before the recovery and stock them? Because they did not need them during the slump in car demand caused by the pandemic. Stocks are expensive—they use space, cost interest, and require management—especially in uncertain conditions when they might not be needed. When the demand for cars picked up last Fall, manufacturers all started placing new orders. In the meantime, manufacturers of computers and other consumer electronics had increased their own demand for chips as consumer demand for their products had grown due to lockdowns and remote work and education. The variety of the chip supply had changed (with some retooling) to meet the changed demand. (Car manufacturing typically uses about 10% of chip production.)

Car manufacturers probably realize now that it was an error not to stock chips or chip-containing parts while waiting for the recovery of car demand. Risto Puhakka, president of VLSIresearch, an industry analysis firm in Silicon Valley, says that it was a big “car industry failure.” On a free market, of course, localized errors happen—all the time. But profit-seeking firms have an incentive to correct them for the future. Automobile manufacturers will no doubt bring more attention to their chip procurement.

To summarize how this reported shortage looks from an economic perspective: If we say that there is a current shortage in the microchip market, we must immediately add that it is a localized and temporary “shortage.” It is localized in that it is limited to certain products—for which users do not want to pay higher prices, which does not make it a shortage at all. It is temporary because the production cycle takes some time during which supply is fixed.