Cornering the Market… for He-Man?

One of the fundamental principles of economics is that scarcity creates value. The rarer something is, the more valuable it becomes. History is loaded with examples of investors (speculators?) cornering the market in all kinds of things in order to set the price and make a killing. From Cornelius Vanderbilt buying up shares of the Harlem railroad in the 1860s, to the Hunt brothers acquiring roughly half the world’s silver in 1979, to the Sumitomo copper affair of the mid-1990s, to Porsche’s 2008 attempt to corner the market in Volkswagen shares.

Now, from the UK comes a strange and highly obscure attempt to corner the market for a good whose value is much less obvious. A performance artist named Jamie Moakes has decided to see if the principle of scarcity applies to 1980s action figures; specifically, a character from the old He-Man cartoon, Ram Man. Moakes has now collected 136 Ram Man figures, an exercise he’s dubbed “You Will be Rare” and is documenting on Youtube.

Moakes has been at it for well over a year. Judging by the prices he’s paid, which appear to be fairly inconsistent, it’s unclear whether his plan to raise the value is working. Last summer he posted a video documenting his 80th Ram-Man, for which he paid £2.66, though he mentions that he’d recently paid up to £11 for a non-mint Ram Man. A quick scan of the prices Moakes has posted on his videos shows no real discernible pattern. Ten months ago he paid £6.99 for his 83rd figure, but only £2.00 for his 88th. For his latest purchase last week, Moakes bought in bulk, paying £21.97 for six Ram Man figures, or £3.66 per figure.

A lot of market-cornering schemes end in disaster, when the buyer begins to sell in hopes of cashing in. The price invariably falls, often steeply, and the original investor usually ends up broke, or worse, in jail. Doubtful that the price of a Ram Man figure will have any global consequences. But it will be interesting to see how this little economic experiment ends.

 


Eric M. Jones

"One of the fundamental principles of economics is that scarcity creates value. The more rare something is, the more valuable it becomes."

Not actually true, of course. Every grain of sand on the beach is unique, and every single person has one leg shorter than the other. But in the sense of a market, usually yes.

Things have value if there are still enough of them in circulation to keep the market moving. If none are for sale, then the price is zero. This is true even of the Hope diamond.

It's the common Barbie dolls that make the rare ones, rare. But when Beanie Babies hyped their artificially "factory-made" rarities, the scam eventually imploded. Every day, I thank my lucky stars I never collected Beanie Babies.

Ryan

A much better case study for this kind of thing would be Magic: The Gathering collectible game cards. Since their initial printing in 1993, the value of cards have risen at a rate many dozens of times the rate of inflation. Out of print cards rise due to scarcity, others rise more due to desirability, and the ones that rise in value the most are both desirable and increasingly scarce.

For instance, a card such as Wasteland, which was printed with an 'Uncommon' commonality, being approximately 5x more common than cards marked with the 'Rare' commonality, is now, approximately 10 years after it's printing, many times more valuable than many desirable 'Rare' cards from approximately the same time period, due to it's near universal representation among tournament decks in competitive formats that allow out of print cards.

Further, cards that are deemed 'fun cards' (ie: desirable for play in casual, non-competitive games) are often less valuable than equally scarce cards used in competitive play, despite non-competitive play being a larger segment of the overall market for the game.

Magic: The Gathering's secondary market would be an excellent place for Economists to perform case studies and other analysis. For instance, there are upwards of a dozen major online companies that buy and sell these cards, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of dedicated hobby stores across the US and the rest of the world with or without an online presence. These online stores are in nearly perfect competition with each other with similar access to buy and sell cards to and from customers, yet some struggle to pay the rent on their warehouses while others post profits in the 10s of millions of dollars per year and afford to send their card brokers to directly buy and sell their wares at major tournament locations in all corners of the world.

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Marcus Kalka

Interesting concept. It sounds like a futile exercise though. Nevertheless, the idea could very well pay off for Moakes if there are wealthy collectors who want to own the entire collection of "Masters of the Universe" action figures and lack Ram-Man [of course, that is assuming Moakes is able to obtain a critical amount of Ram-Man action figures]. If Moakes succeeds, I say more power to him. Unless they decide to make a new He-Man movie or a new He-Man animated series, I do not see much growing demand for Masters of the Universe style products. If there is no Masters of the Universe movie or animated series to come, it is hard to imagine that anyone in the near future would even be able to recall characters from Masters of the Universe such as He-Man or Skeletor [let alone Ram-Man] save for those of us who fondly remember cartoons from the 80's. As the culture changes, so too the market changes. I've heard a few friends say that the same sort of phenomenon may occur with the "Star Trek" franchise in the not-so-distant future as the decades go by...but there will always be those devout fans, and some of them will be collectors. When all is said and done, there is a market...there's always a market.

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Notkevinnealon

Every day?

Ujjwal Trivedi

Interesting. I'm afraid however that if the Chinese find that there is an upcoming demand for Ram-Man they'd produce it in bulk, or may be ab order is already under process. And so much that every other shop would have a better collection than our hero Jamie's.

On another note, it may happen that Ram-man becomes so popular (seen everywhere on shops) that every child starts demanding for it and suddenly there are new movies made on Ram-man with He-man in guest appearance. That has happened with so many products. What is seen more is sold more. :-)

Chris M

Reminds me of the Shaq Fu Liberation Front, an organization dedicated to buying up/destroying all copies of the terrible Shaquille O'Neal fighting video game from 1994. The premise is that we can leave a brighter world for future generations by removing from the history books this low point in humanity.

http://www.shaqfu.com/main.php

James

But of course scarcity isn't the only factor, there's also utility/desireability. I mean my toenail clippings are pretty rare, but still don't command much of a price.

Now the question becomes: are Ram Man figurines desireable enough to support any demand other than from this one individual? And if so, why? To which I can only offer a Puckish "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Dinosaur

It is not scarcity (i.e., supply) alone that makes for value. There must be DEMAND. For instance, I have the world's ONLY collection of MY UNDERWEAR. But there is no demand (or at least I hope not--egads!), so the scarcity doesn't matter. If I had twelve pairs of underwear or only one, no one cares.

Now, if Jennifer Aniston's frilly underwear were on the market...but I digress.

The point is that scarcity cannot carry the load alone. It only matter in terms of demand. And demand only matters in terms of supply.

Hannah Morrison

The project is on Twitter: @youwillberare, Facebook: You Will Be Rare, and going to Edinburgh Fringe this August http://www.edfringe.com/whats-on/theatre/you-will-be-rare

Horatio

Watching the video all I could think of was 'separated by a common language'. I couldn't understand half of what he said. :)

Gus

If nothing else, at least he'll have a pretty cool Ram MAn collection.

J

I think it looks pretty cool have a look http://www.flickr.com/photos/59365542@N06/5817374633/

Brenton

Skeletor will be pissed when he finds out about this....

Kathryn Morrison

The genius lies in the Heart of the project as well as the economic principles. Having seen the show accompanying the idea it is difficult to not get swept away with the ideology and enthusiam Jamie Moakes injects into essentially an age old concept of supply vs demand.