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This reading assumes that the objective of the firm is to maximize profit over the period ahead. Such analysis provides both tools (e.g., optimization) and concepts (e.g., productivity) that can be adapted to more-complex cases and also provides a set of results that may offer useful approximations in practice. The price at which a given quantity of a good can be bought or sold is assumed to be known with certainty (i.e., the theory of the firm under conditions of certainty). The main contrast of this type of analysis is to the theory of the firm under conditions of uncertainty, where prices, and therefore profit, are uncertain. Under market uncertainty, a range of possible profit outcomes is associated with the firm’s decision to produce a given quantity of goods or services over a specific time period. Such complex theory typically makes simplifying assumptions. When managers of for-profit companies have been surveyed about the objectives of the companies they direct, researchers have often concluded that a) companies frequently have multiple objectives; b) objectives can often be classified as focused on profitability (e.g., maximizing profits, increasing market share) or on controlling risk (e.g., survival, stable earnings growth); and c) managers in different countries may have different emphases.

Finance experts frequently reconcile profitability and risk objectives by stating that the objective of the firm is, or should be, shareholder wealth maximization (i.e., to maximize the market value of shareholders’ equity). This theory states that firms try, or should try, to increase the wealth of their owners (shareholders) and that market prices balance returns against risk. However, complex corporate objectives may exist in practice. Many analysts view profitability as the single most important measure of business performance. Without profit, the business eventually fails; with profit, the business can survive, compete, and prosper. The question is: What is profit? Economists, accountants, investors, financial analysts, and regulators view profit from different perspectives. The starting point for anyone who is doing profit analysis is to have a solid grasp of how various forms of profit are defined and how to interpret the profit based on these different definitions.

By defining profit in general terms as the difference between total revenue and total costs, profit maximization involves the following expression:

Equation (1) 


where Π is profit, TR is total revenue, and TC is total costs. TC can be defined as accounting costs or economic costs, depending on the objectives and requirements of the analyst for evaluating profit. The characteristics of the product market, where the firm sells its output or services, and of the resource market, where the firm purchases resources, play an important role in the determination of profit. Key variables that determine TC are the level of output, the firm’s efficiency in producing that level of output when utilizing inputs, and resource prices as established by resource markets. TR is a function of output and product price as determined by the firm’s product market.

2.1. Types of Profit Measures

The economics discipline has its own concept of profit, which differs substantially from what accountants consider profit. There are thus two basic types of profit—accounting and economic—and analysts need to be able to interpret each correctly and to understand how they are related to each other. In the theory of the firm, however, profit without further qualification refers to economic profit.

2.1.1. Accounting Profit

Accounting profit is generally defined as net income reported on the income statement according to standards established by private and public financial oversight bodies that determine the rules for financial reporting. One widely accepted definition of accounting profit—also known as net profit, net income, or net earnings—states that it equals revenue less all accounting (or explicit) costs. Accounting or explicit costs are payments to non-owner parties for services or resources that they supply to the firm. Often referred to as the “bottom line” (the last income figure in the income statement), accounting profit is what is left after paying all accounting costs—whether the expense is a cash outlay or not. When accounting profit is negative, it is called an accounting loss. Equation 2 summarizes the concept of accounting profit:

Equation (2) 

Accounting profit = Total revenue – Total accounting costs

When defining profit as accounting profit, the TC term in Equation 1 becomes total accounting costs, which include only the explicit costs of doing business. Let us consider two businesses: a start-up company and a publicly traded corporation. Suppose that for the start-up, total revenue in the business’s first year is €3,500,000 and total accounting costs are €3,200,000. Accounting profit is €3,500,000 – €3,200,000 = €300,000. The corresponding calculation for the publicly traded corporation, let us suppose, is $50,000,000 – $48,000,000 = $2,000,000. Note that total accounting costs in either case include interest expense—which represents the return required by suppliers of debt capital—because interest expense is an explicit cost.

2.1.2. Economic Profit and Normal Profit

Economic profit (also known as abnormal profit or supernormal profit) may be defined broadly as accounting profit less the implicit opportunity costs not included in total accounting costs.

Equation (3a) 

Economic profit = Accounting profit – Total implicit opportunity costs

We can define a term, economic cost, equal to the sum of total accounting costs and implicit opportunity costs. Economic profit is therefore equivalently defined as:

Equation (3b) 

Economic profit = Total revenue – Total economic costs

For publicly traded corporations, the focus of investment analysts’ work, the cost of equity capital is the largest and most readily identified implicit opportunity cost omitted in calculating total accounting cost. Consequently, economic profit can be defined for publicly traded corporations as accounting profit less the required return on equity capital.

Examples will make these concepts clearer. Consider the start-up company for which we calculated an accounting profit of €300,000 and suppose that the entrepreneurial executive who launched the start-up took a salary reduction of €100,000 per year relative to the job he left. That €100,000 is an opportunity cost of involving him in running the start-up. Besides labor, financial capital is a resource. Suppose that the executive, as sole owner, makes an investment of €1,500,000 to launch the enterprise and that he might otherwise expect to earn €200,000 per year on that amount in a similar risk investment. Total implicit opportunity costs are €100,000 + €200,000 = €300,000 per year and economic profit is zero: €300,000 – €300,000 = €0. For the publicly traded corporation, we consider the cost of equity capital as the only implicit opportunity cost identifiable. Suppose that equity investment is $18,750,000 and shareholders’ required rate of return is 8 percent so that the dollar cost of equity capital is $1,500,000. Economic profit for the publicly traded corporation is therefore $2,000,000 (accounting profit) less $1,500,000 (cost of equity capital) or $500,000.

For the start-up company, economic profit was zero. Total economic costs were just covered by revenues and the company was not earning a euro more nor less than the amount that meets the opportunity costs of the resources used in the business. Economists would say the company was earning a normal profit (economic profit of zero). In simple terms, normal profit is the level of accounting profit needed to just cover the implicit opportunity costs ignored in accounting costs. For the publicly traded corporation, normal profit was $1,500,000: normal profit can be taken to be the cost of equity capital (in money terms) for such a company or the dollar return required on an equal investment by equity holders in an equivalently risky alternative investment opportunity. The publicly traded corporation actually earned $500,000 in excess of normal profit, which should be reflected in the common shares’ market price.

Thus, the following expression links accounting profit to economic profit and normal profit:

Equation (4) 

Accounting profit = Economic profit + Normal profit

When accounting profit equals normal profit, economic profit is zero. Further, when accounting profit is greater than normal profit, economic profit is positive; and when accounting profit is less than normal profit, economic profit is negative (the firm has an economic loss).

Economic profit for a firm can originate from sources such as:

  • competitive advantage;

  • exceptional managerial efficiency or skill;

  • difficult to copy technology or innovation (e.g., patents, trademarks, and copyrights);

  • exclusive access to less-expensive inputs;

  • fixed supply of an output, commodity, or resource;

  • preferential treatment under governmental policy;

  • large increases in demand where supply is unable to respond fully over time;

  • exertion of monopoly power (price control) in the market; and

  • market barriers to entry that limit competition.

Any of the above factors may lead the firm to have positive net present value investment (NPV) opportunities. Access to positive NPV opportunities and therefore profit in excess of normal profits in the short run may or may not exist in the long run, depending on the potential strength of competition. In highly competitive market situations, firms tend to earn the normal profit level over time because ease of market entry allows for other competing firms to compete away any economic profit over the long run. Economic profit that exists over the long run is usually found where competitive conditions persistently are less than perfect in the market.

2.1.3. Economic Rent

The surplus value known as economic rent results when a particular resource or good is fixed in supply (with a vertical supply curve) and market price is higher than what is required to bring the resource or good onto the market and sustain its use. Essentially, demand determines the price level and the magnitude of economic rent that is forthcoming from the market. Exhibit 1 illustrates this concept, where P1 is the price level that yields a normal profit return to the business that supplies the item. When demand increases from Demand1 to Demand2, price rises to P2, where at this higher price level economic rent is created. The amount of this economic rent is calculated as (P2P1) × Q1. The firm has not done anything internally to merit this special reward: It benefits from an increase in demand in conjunction with a supply curve that does not fully adjust with an increase in quantity when price rises.

Exhibit 1. Economic Rent

Because of their limited availability in nature, certain resources—such as land and specialty commodities—possess highly inelastic supply curves in both the short run and long run (shown in Exhibit 1 as a vertical supply curve). When supply is relatively inelastic, a high degree of market demand can result in pricing that creates economic rent. This economic rent results from the fact that when price increases, the quantity supplied does not change or, at the most, increases only slightly. This is because of the fixation of supply by nature or by such artificial constraints as government policy.

How is the concept of economic rent useful in financial analysis? Commodities or resources that command economic rent have the potential to reward equity investors more than what is required to attract their capital to that activity, resulting in greater shareholders’ wealth. Evidence of economic rent attracts additional capital funds to the economic endeavor. This new investment capital increases shareholders’ value as investors bid up share prices of existing firms. Any commodity, resource, or good that is fixed or nearly fixed in supply has the potential to yield economic rent. From an analytical perspective, one can obtain industry supply data to calculate the elasticity of supply, which measures the sensitivity of quantity supplied to a change in price. If quantity supplied is relatively unresponsive (inelastic) to price changes, then a potential condition exists in the market for economic rent. A reliable forecast of changes in demand can indicate the degree of any economic rent that is forthcoming from the market in the future. When one is analyzing fixed or nearly fixed supply markets (e.g., gold), a fundamental comprehension of demand determinants is necessary to make rational financial decisions based on potential economic rent.


Economic Rent and Investment Decision Making

The following market data show the global demand, global supply, and price on an annual basis for gold over the period 2006–2008. Based on the data, what observation can be made about market demand, supply, and economic rent?

Year200620072008Percent Change 2006–2008
Supply (in metric tons)3,5693,4753,508–1.7
Demand (in metric tons)3,4233,5523,805+11.2
Average spot price (in US$)603.92695.39871.65+44.3

Source: GFMS and World Gold Council.


The amount of total gold supplied to the world market over this period has actually declined slightly by 1.7 percent during a period when there was a double-digit increase of 11.2 percent in demand. As a consequence, the spot price has dramatically increased by 44.3 percent. Economic rent has resulted from this market relationship of a relatively fixed supply of gold and a rising demand for it.

2.2. Comparison of Profit Measures

All three types of profit are interconnected because, according to Equation 4, accounting profit is the summation of normal and economic profit. In the short run, the normal profit rate is relatively stable, which makes accounting and economic profit the two variable terms in the profit equation. Over the longer term, all three types of profit are variable, where the normal profit rate can change according to investment returns across firms in the industry.

Normal profit is necessary to stay in business in the long run; positive economic profit is not. A business can survive indefinitely by just making the normal profit return for investors. Failing to earn normal profits over the long run has a debilitating impact on the firm’s ability to access capital and to function properly as a business enterprise. Consequentially, the market value of equity and shareholders’ wealth deteriorates whenever risk to achieving normal profit materializes and the firm fails to reward investors for their risk exposure and for the opportunity cost of their equity capital.

To summarize, the ultimate goal of analyzing the different types of profit is to determine how their relationships to one another influence the firm’s market value of equity. Exhibit 2 compares accounting, normal, and economic profits in terms of how a firm’s market value of equity is impacted by the relationships among the three types of profit.

Exhibit 2. Relationship of Accounting, Normal, and Economic Profit to Equity Value
Relationship between Accounting Profit and Normal ProfitEconomic ProfitFirm’s Market Value of Equity
Accounting profit > Normal profitEconomic profit > 0 and firm is able to protect economic profit over the long runPositive effect
Accounting profit = Normal profitEconomic profit = 0No effect
Accounting profit < Normal profitEconomic profit < 0
implies economic loss
Negative effect


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