Discrete Prices and the Incidence and Efficiency of Excise Taxes

Nirupama S. Rao (with Chris Conlon)
- Revise and Resubmit, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy

This paper uses detailed UPC-level data from Nielsen to examine the relationship between excise taxes, retail prices, and consumer welfare in the market for distilled spirits. Empirically, we document the presence of a nominal rigidity in retail prices that arises because firms largely choose prices that end in ninety-nine cents and change prices in whole-dollar increments. Theoretically, we show that this rigidity can rationalize both highly incomplete and excessive pass-through estimates without restrictions on the underlying demand curve. A correctly specified model, such as an (ordered) logit, takes this discreteness into account when predicting the effects of alternative tax changes. We show that explicitly accounting for discrete pricing has a substantial impact both on estimates of tax incidence and the excess burden cost of tax revenue. Quantitatively, we document substantial non-monotonicities in both of these quantities, expanding the potential scope of what policymakers should consider when raising excise taxes.

Wagner Faculty