Posts tagged ‘gas prices’

Cognitive Dissonance

As a follow-up to this post on gas-price demagoguery, I would like to observe that the very same people who are most likely to demagogue about high gas prices in this country are the very same ones who advocate that the US adopt European-style taxation levels, regulatory policy, and CO2 targets, the results of which can be seen here:

Gas1

If you can't read the colors on the scale well, I think you can guess which is the US price line and which are the European gas prices.  Source here.  Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with wholesale gasoline prices, which are substantially similar between the US and Europe:

Gas2

Since the difference in price does not go to the producer, I will leave it as an exercise to guess where the extra $5 per gallon is going (hint:  Uncle Francois)  The cognitive dissonance required to call for 80% CO2 reductions while simultaneously decrying $3.50 gas prices is just stunning to me.

Update:  From the same source, here are the gas prices in dollars per US gallon EXCLUDING taxes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Date Belgium France Germany Italy Nthrlnds UK US
4/14/2008 3.32 3.28 3.18 3.61 3.85 3.09 3.21

Update #2:  More here on Hillary's sleight of hand.  And this from Robert Samuelson, at how this cognitive dissonance extends to exploration limits:

We could be producing more, but Congress has put large areas of
potential supply off-limits. These include the Atlantic and Pacific
coasts and parts of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.
By government estimates, these areas may contain 25 billion to 30
billion barrels of oil (against about 30 billion barrels of proven U.S.
reserves today) and 80 trillion cubic feet or more of natural gas
(compared with about 200 tcf of proven reserves).

What keeps these areas closed are exaggerated environmental fears,
strong prejudice against oil companies and sheer stupidity. Americans
favor both "energy independence" and cheap fuel. They deplore imports
-- who wants to pay foreigners? -- but oppose more production in the
United States. Got it? The result is a "no-pain energy agenda that
sounds appealing but has no basis in reality," writes Robert Bryce in
"Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of 'Energy Independence.' "

How I Stopped Demagoguing and Learned To Love The Oil Companies

I am on the road this week, and still do not have time to write the post I want to write about Obama demagoguing against oil companies.  Fortunately, I do not have to, because Q&O has this post.

Here is the short answer:  companies like ExxonMobil, even in the best of times (or most rapacious, as your perspective might be), makes 9-10% pre-tax profit on sales.  They make something like 5-6% when things are not so good.  This means that if gas prices are $3, when you take out the 45 cents or so of tax, Exxon is making between 13 and 25 cents a gallon profit.  Call it 20 cents on average.  So, wiping out profits completely with various ill-advised taxes or regulations would achieve the substantial goal of ... cutting about twenty cents off the price of gas, or about $2.50 off the price of a fill-up.  Of course, that is at the cost of eliminating all investment incentives in the world's most capital intensive resource extraction business.  Which in turn will mean that that price cut will last for about 2 years, and then be swamped by price increases from disappearing gas supplies  (exactly what happened in the late 1970s). 

Part of the problem is that most people do not understand the supply chain in crude oil.  It would seem logical that if the price of oil rises form $30 to $100, then all that $70 price increase is pure profit to Exxon.  That would have been true in 1905, but is not true today.  Exxon, even when it does the exploration and drilling, gets its oil via complicated agreements with state-owned corporations which in the main are structured so that the country in question, and not Exxon, gets windfall.  This means that if Obama wants to tax windfall profits, he needs to seek out Venezuela and China and Saudi Arabia.

The article covers all this and more.

Supply and Demand, But Not In Water

Thanks to a reader comes this article from the NY Times that yet again discusses a water shortage and possible government action without once mentioning the word "price."  If water prices floated like gas prices, we wouldn't have to discuss things like these:

Within two weeks, Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental
Protection Division, is expected to send Gov. Sonny Perdue
recommendations on tightening water restrictions, which may include
mandatory cutbacks on commercial and industrial users.

If that
happens, experts at the National Drought Mitigation Center said, it
would be the first time a major metropolitan area in the United States
had been forced to take such drastic action to save its water supply.

But of course politicians love being responsible for resource allocation through command-and-control government, because it creates winners and losers and both will then donate to the next election cycle.  Atlanta already has fairly expensive water, but a quick 50% rate hike about 3 months ago would have likely obviated this shortage while also providing the municipality with additional funds to develop new sources.

I wrote a lot more about water scarcity and the price mechanism, including the observation that Phoenix ridiculously has some of the lowest water prices in the country, here.

postscript: One of the media tricks to make things look worse and panicky is to present asymmetric charts.  For example, the NY Times presents this drought map:
2007droughtgraphic

All you see is what one presumes to be normal in white and then a lot of drought.  But in fact, this chart is truncated.  It omits all the data for areas that are wetter than usual.  Here is the chart for September form the NOAA with both over and under precipitation over the past 12 months:

Spi12_200709_pg

Whoa, that shows a different picture, huh?  Basically, about as much stuff is wetter than normal as drier than normal.  Which is exactly what one might expect in any period.  And by the way, if you look at the last five years, the US is pretty freaking wet:

Usnmx20070960monpctpcppg

No Delegates for Iowa

When the left lambasts a government intervention into the economy and energy policy, you know the program has to be bad.  From Kevin Drum:

Terrific. Let's see: (a) environmentally speaking, corn ethanol is a
pretty dodgy idea, (b) we're subsidizing it anyway to the tune of $3
billion per year, (c) farmers, as you'd expect, are responding to the
subsidies by reducing the amount of farmland used for food production,
(d) this is driving up the price of staple food worldwide, and (e)
we're going to toss another $10 billion in ag welfare to already-rich
corn farmers on top of all that. Jeebus. Can anyone think of any other
single policy that has as many simultaneous baneful effects? Are we
complete morons?

The only quibble I would have with this paragraph is to change environmentally "dodgy" to "provably disastrous in study after study."  Corn ethanol subsidies and regulations raise gas prices, raise food prices,raise taxes, actually increase total energy use (since it takes more energy to make than it provides) and increases CO2 production.  A lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.

Here is an interesting question:  How much of the current government corn ethanol support and regulation would exist if Iowa has the last presidential primary, rather than the first  (yeah, I know, its a caucus, whatever).

Market Manipulation...For Eight Minutes

A while back, I wrote of my conversation with a friend who was convinced that oil prices are set by a small cabal of traders, and that while they have been at $60-70 over the last several years, they would have been at $40 or less without the traders manipulating the price.  I won't go into my arguments again here, but I wrote that it would be virtually impossible to maintain a price artificially above the market clearing price for so long without 1) massive product gluts or 2) almost-impossible-to-hide widespread suppression of production involving thousands of parties.

Michael Giberson at the Knowledge Problem writes about a price-fixing case by natural gas traders.  Amaranth is accused of manipulating gas prices, and I won't judge their guilt or innocence.  But, apropos of my statement above, it is interesting to note that the key question is whether it was possible for the company to manipulate commodity prices for eight minutes.  It looks as if they tried it, but it also looks as if they were not successful (since the government is charging they attempted to manipulate the market, but is not trying to prove they succeeded in doing so).  Making it hugely absurd to think that anyone could do it for three or four years.

Wither Supply and Demand, In Favor of the Oil Trading Cabal?

I had an odd and slightly depressing conversation with a friend the other night.  He is quite intelligent and well-educated, and in business is probably substantially more successful, at least financially, than I.

Somehow we got in a discussion of oil markets, and he seemed to find my position suggesting that oil prices are generally set by supply and demand laughable, so much so he eventually gave up with me as one might give up and change the subject on someone who insists the Apollo moon landings were faked. I found the conversation odd, like having a discussion with a fellow
chemistry PHD and suddenly having them start defending the phlogiston
theory of combustion. His core position, as best I could follow, was this:

  1. Limitations on supply in the US, specifically limitations on new oil field development and refinery construction, are engineered by oil companies attempting to keep prices high.
  2. Oil prices are set at the whim of oil traders in London and New York, who are controlled by US oil companies.  The natural price of oil today should be $30 or $40, but oil traders keep it up at $60.  While players upstream and downstream may have limited market shares, these traders act as a choke point that controls the whole market.  All commodity markets are manipulated, or at least manipulatable, in this manner
  3. Oil supply and demand is nearly perfectly inelastic. 
  4. If there really was a supply and demand reason for oil prices to shoot up to $60, then why aren't we seeing any shortages?
  5. Oil prices only rise when Texas Republicans are in office.  They will fall back to $30 as soon as there is a Democratic president.  On the day oil executives were called to testify in front of the Democratic Congress recently, oil prices fell from $60 to $45 on that day, and then went right back up.

Ignoring the Laws of Economics (Price caps and floors)

While everyone (mostly) knows that we are suspending disbelief when the James Bond villain seems to be violating the laws of physics, there is a large cadre of folks that do believe that our economic overlords can suspend the laws of supply and demand.   As it turns out, these laws cannot be suspended, but they can certainly be ignored.  Individuals who ignore supply and demand in their investment and economic decision making are generally called "bankrupt," at least eventually, so we don't always hear their stories (the Hunt brothers attempt to corner the silver market is probably the best example I can think of).  However, the US government has provided us with countless examples of actions that ignore economic reality.

The most typical example is in placing price caps.  The most visible example was probably the 1970's era caps on oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices and later "windfall profit" taxes.  The result was gasoline lines and outright shortages.  With prices suppressed below the market clearing price, demand was higher and supply was lower than they would be in balance. 

The my friend raised is different, one where price floors are imposed by industry participants or the government or more likely both working in concert.   The crux of my argument was not that government would shy away from protecting an industry by limiting supply, because they do this all the time. The real problem with the example at hand is that, by the laws of supply and demand, a price floor above the market clearing price should yield a supply glut.  As it turns out, supply guts associated with cartel actions to keep prices high tend to require significant, very visible, and often expensive actions to mitigate.  Consider two examples:

Realtors and their trade group have worked for years to maintain a tight cartel, demanding a 6% or higher agency fee that appears to be increasingly above the market clearing price.  The result of maintaining this price floor has been a huge glut of real estate agents.  The US is swimming in agents.  In an attempt to manage this supply down, realtors have convinced most state governments to institute onerous licensing requirements, with arcane tests written and administered by... the realtor's trade group.  The tests are hard not because realtors really need to know this stuff, but because they are trying to keep the supply down.   And still the supply is in glut.  Outsiders who try to discount or sell their own home without a realtor (ie, bring even more cheap capacity into the system) are punished ruthlessly with blackballs.  I have moved many times and have had realtors show me over 300 houses -- and you know how many For Sale By Owner homes I have been shown?  Zero.  A HUGE amount of effort is expended by the real estate industry to try to keep supply in check, a supply glut caused by holding rates artificially high. 

A second example of price floors is in agriculture.  The US Government, for whatever political reasons, maintains price floors in a number of crops.  The result, of course, has been a supply glut in these commodities.  Sopping up this supply glut costs the US taxpayer billions.  In some cases the government pays to keep fields fallow, in others the government buys up extra commodities and either stores them (cheese) or gives them away overseas.  In cases like sugar, the government puts up huge tarriff barriers to imports, otherwise the market would be glutted with overseas suppliers attracted by the artificially high prices.  In fact, most of the current subsidy programs for ethanol, which makes almost zero environmental or energy policy sense, can be thought of as another government program to sop up excess farm commodity supply so the price floor can be maintained.

I guess my point from these examples is not that producers haven't tried to impose price floors above the market clearing price, because they have.  And it is not even that these floors are not sustainable, because they can be if the government steps in to help with their coercive power and our tax money to back them.  My point is, though, that the laws of supply and demand are not suspended in these cases.  Price floors above the market clearing price lead to supply gluts, which require very extensive, highly visible, and often expensive efforts to manage.  As we turn now to oil markets, we'll try to see if there is evidence of such actions taking place.

The reasons behind US oil production and refining capacity constraints

As to his first point, that oil companies are conspiring with the government to artificially limit oil production and refining capacity, this certainly would not be unprecedented in industry, as discussed above.  However, any historical study of these issues in the oil industry would make it really hard to reach this conclusion here.  There is a pretty clear documented record of oil companies pushing to explore more areas (ANWR, offshore) that are kept off-limits due to environmental pressures.  While we have trouble imagining the last 30 years without Alaskan oil, the US oil companies had to beg Congress to let them build the pipeline, and the issue was touch and go for a number of years.  The same story holds in refining, where environmental pressure and NIMBY concerns have prevented any new refinery construction since the 1970's (though after years and years, we may be close in Arizona).  I know people are willing to credit oil companies with just about unlimited levels of Machiavellianism, but it would truly be a PR coup of unprecedented proportions to have maintained such a strong public stance to allow more capacity in the US while at the same time working in the back room for just the opposite.

The real reason this assertion is not credible is that capacity limitations in the US have very clearly worked against the interests of US oil companies.  In production, US companies produce on much better terms from domestic fields than they do when negotiating with totalitarian regimes overseas, and they don't have to deal with instability issues (e.g. kidnapping in Nigeria) and expropriation concerns.  In refining, US companies have seen their market shares in refined products fall since the 1970s.  This is because when we stopped allowing refinery construction in this country, producing countries like Saudi Arabia went on a building boom.  Today, instead of importing our gasoline as crude to be refined in US refineries, we import gas directly from foreign refineries.  If the government is secretly helping oil companies maintain a refining capacity shortage in this country, someone forgot to tell them they need to raise import duties to keep foreign suppliers from taking their place. 

What Oil Traders can and cannot do

As to the power of traders, I certainly believe that if the traders could move oil prices for sustained periods as much as 50% above or below the market clearing price, they would do so if it profited them.  I also think that speculative actions, and even speculative bubbles, can push commodity prices to short-term extremes that are difficult to explain by market fundamentals.  Futures contracts and options, with their built in leverage, allow even smaller players to take market-moving positions.  The question on the table, though, is whether oil traders can maintain oil prices 50% over the market clearing prices for years at a time.  I think not.

What is often forgotten is that companies like Exxon and Shell control something like 4-5% each of world production (and that number is over-stated, since much of their production is as operator for state-owned oil companies who have the real control over production rates).  As a point of comparison, this is roughly the same market Toshiba has in the US computer market and well below Acer's.  As a result, there is not one player, or even several working in tandem, who hold any real power in crude markets.  Unless one posits, as my friend does, that NY and London traders somehow sit astride a choke point in the world markets.

But here is the real problem with saying that these traders have kept oil prices 50% above the market clearing price for the last 2-3 years:  What do they do with the supply glut?  We know from economics, as well as the historic examples reviewed above, that price floors above the clearing price should result in a supply glut.  Where is all the oil?

Return to the example of when the Hunt's tried to corner the silver market.  Over six months, they managed to drive the price from the single digits to almost $50 an ounce.  Leverage in futures markets allowed them to control a huge chunk of the available world supply.  But to profit from it (beyond a paper profit) the Hunts either had to take delivery (which they were financially unable to do, as they were already operating form leveraged positions) or find a buyer who accepted $50 as the new "right" price for silver, which they could not.  No one wanted to buy at $50, particularly from the Hunts, since they knew the moment the Hunt's started selling, the price would crash.  As new supplies poured onto the market at the higher prices, the only way the Hunt's could keep the price up was to pour hundreds of millions of dollars in to buy up this excess supply.  Eventually, of course, they went bankrupt.  But remember the takeaway:  They only could maintain the artificially higher commodity price as long as they kept buying excess capacity, a leveraged Ponzi game that eventually collapsed.

So how do oil traders' supposedly pull off this feat of keeping oil prices elevated about the market clearing price?  Well, there is only one way:  It has to be stored, either in tanks or in the ground.  The option of storing the extra supplies in tanks is absurd, especially over a period of years - after all, at its peak, $60 of silver would sit on the tip of my finger, but $60 of oil won't fit in the trunk of my car.  The world oil storage capacity is orders of magnitude too low.  So the only real option is to store it in the ground, ie don't allow it to get produced. 

How do traders pull this off?  I have no idea.  Despite people's image, the oil producer's market is incredibly fragmented.  The biggest companies in the world have less than 5%, and it rapidly steps down from there. It is actually even more fragmented than that, because most oil production is co-owned by royalty holders who get a percentage of the production.  These royalty holders are a very fragmented and independent group, and will complain at the first sign of their operator not producing fast and hard enough when prices are high.  To keep the extra oil off the market, you would have to send signals to a LOT of people.  And it has to be a strong and clear signal, because price is already sending the opposite signal.  The main purpose of price is in its communication value -- a $60 price tells producers a lot about what and how much oil should be produced (and by the way tells consumers how careful to be with its use).  To override this signal, with thousands of producers, to achieve exactly the opposite effect being signaled with price, without a single person breaking the pack, is impossible.  Remember our examples and the economics - a sustained effort to keep prices substantially above market clearing prices has to result in visible and extensive efforts to manage excess supply.

Also, the other point that is often forgotten is that private exchanges can only survive when both Sellers AND buyers perceive them to be fair.  Buyers are quickly going to find alternatives to exchanges that are perceived to allow sellers to manipulate oil prices 50% above the market price for years at a time.  Remember, we think of oil sellers as Machiavellian, but oil buyers are big boys too, and are not unsophisticated dupes.  In fact, it was the private silver exchanges, in response to just such pressure, that changed their exchange rules to stop the Hunt family from continuing to try to corner the market.  They knew they needed to maintain the perception of fairness for both sellers and buyers.

Supply and Demand Elasticity

From here, the discussion started becoming, if possible, less grounded in economic reality.  In response to the supply/demand matching issues I raised, he asserted that oil demand and supply are nearly perfectly inelastic.  Well, if both supply and demand are unaffected by price, then I would certainly accept that oil is a very, very different kind of commodity.  But in fact, neither assertion is true, as shown by example here and here.  In particular, supply is quite elastic.  As I have written before, there is a very wide range of investments one can make even in an old existing field to stimulate production as prices rise.  And many, many operators are doing so, as evidenced by rig counts, sales at oil field services companies, and even by spam investment pitches arriving in my in box.

I found the statement "if oil prices really belong this high, why have we not seen any shortages" to be particularly depressing.  Can anyone who sat in at least one lecture in economics 101 answer this query?  Of course, the answer is, that we have not seen shortages precisely because prices have risen, fulfilling their supply-demand matching utility, and in the process demonstrating that both supply and demand curves for oil do indeed have a slope.  In fact, shortages (e.g. gas lines or gas stations without gas at all) are typically a result of government-induced breakdowns of the pricing mechanism.  In the 1970's, oil price controls combined with silly government interventions (such as gas distribution rules**) resulted in awful shortages and long gas lines.  More recently, fear of "price-gouging" legislation in the Katrina aftermath prevented prices from rising as much as they needed to, leading to shortages and inefficient distribution.

Manipulating Oil Prices for Political Benefit

As to manipulating oil or gas prices timed with political events (say an election or Congressional hearings), well, that is a challenge that comes up all the time.  It is possible nearly always to make this claim because there is nearly always a political event going on, so natural volatility in oil markets can always be tied to some concurrent "event."  In this specific case, the drop from $60 to $35 just for a Congressional hearing is not even coincidence, it is urban legend.  No such drop has occurred since prices hit 60, though prices did drop briefly to 50.  (I am no expert, but in this case the pricing pattern seen is fairly common for a commodity that has seen a runup, and then experiences some see-sawing as prices find their level.)

This does not mean that Congressional hearings did not have a hand in helping to drive oil price futures.  Futures traders are constantly checking a variety of tarot cards, and indications of government regulatory activity or legislation is certainly part of it.  While I guess traders purposely driving down oil prices ahead of the hearing to make oil companies look better is one possible explanation;  a more plausible one (short of coincidence, since Congress has hearings on oil and energy about every other month) is that traders might have been anticipating some regulatory outcome in advance of the hearing, that became more less likely once the hearings actually occurred.  *Shrug*  Readers are welcome to make large short bets in advance of future Congressional energy hearings if they really think the former is what is occurring. 

As to a relationship between oil prices and the occupant of the White House, that is just political hubris.  As we can see, real oil prices rose during Nixon, fell during Ford, rose during Carter, fell precipitously during Reagan, were flat end to end for Bush 1 (though with a rise in the middle) and flat end to end for Clinton.  I can't see a pattern.

If Oil Companies Arbitrarily Set Prices, Why Aren't They Making More Money?

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in these heady days of "windfall" profits, Exxon-Mobil is making a profit margin of about 9% - 10% of sales, which is a pretty average to low industrial profit margin.  So if they really have the power to manipulate oil prices at whim, why aren't they making more money?  In fact, for the two decades from 1983 to 2002, real oil prices languished at levels that put many smaller oil operators out of business and led to years of layoffs and down sizings at oil companies.  Profit margins even for the larges players was 6-8% of sales, below the average for industrial companies.  In fact, here is the profitability, as a percent of sales, for Exxon-Mobil over the last 5 years:

2006:  10.5%

2005:  9.7%

2004:  8.5%

2003:  8.5%

2002:  5.4%

2001:  7.1%

Before 2001, going back to the early 80's, Exxon's profits were a dog.  Over the last five years, the best five years they have had in decades, their return on average assets has been 14.58%, which is probably less than most public utility commissions allow their regulated utilities.  So who had their hand on the pricing throttle through those years, because they sure weren't doing a very good job!  But if you really want to take these profits away (and in the process nuke all the investment incentives in the industry) you could get yourself a 15 to 20 cent decrease in gas prices.  Don't spend it all in one place.

** One of the odder and forgotten pieces of legislation during and after the 1972 oil embargo was the law that divided the country into zones (I don't remember how, by counties perhaps).  It then said that an oil company had to deliver the same proportion of gas to each zone as it did in the prior year  (yes, someone clearly took this right out of directive 10-289).  It seemed that every Representative somehow suspected that oil companies in some other district would mysteriously be hoarding gas to their district's detriment.  Whatever the reason, the law ignored the fact that use patterns were always changing, but were particularly different during this shortage.  Everyone canceled plans for that long-distance drive to Yellowstone.  The rural interstate gas stations saw demand fall way off.  However, the law forced oil companies to send just as much gas to these stations (proportionally) as they had the prior year.  The result was that rural interstates were awash in gas, while cities had run dry.  Thanks again Congress.

Whoa, I am Part of "Big Recreation"

All these years of writing about climate change, and I always have claimed that I was not in the pay of any interested industry groups.  Well, I guess I lied.  It appears "Big Recreation" is lobbying against greenhouse gas controls.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said: 

"The
recreation industry's true threats come not from climate change --
which has always changed and will always change -- but from the
so-called global warming "˜solutions' being proposed by government
policymakers. Misguided efforts to "˜solve' global warming threaten to
damage the travel and recreation industry and consequently threaten the
American dream."

This is probably true, though the ski resort guys don't agree.

For those who don't know, several years ago I quit both boneheaded Fortune 50 life and boneheaded startup life to run my own recreation business, where I am trying to push a vision of, and make a little money from, privatization of public recreation.  I am actually fairly well insulated from gas price shocks, though by accident rather than thought-out-in-advance strategy.  We have mainly taken over government recreation facilities where the customer base is local weekend traffic (rather than say cross-the-country-to-see-old-faithful travelers).   This is really by accident, because these facilities took less investment than the big national attractions.  As it turns out, when gas prices go up, we actually do a bit better, because people still want to camp and use their RV, but they do it 100 miles from home rather than 1000.

By the way, I am working on a skeptics primer to anthropogenic global warming, which is why blogging has been light.  If you'd be willing to read and comment on a pre-release version, email me and I will put you on the list for a pdf which will be coming in a week or so.  In the mean time, some of my previous work is here

Someone Should Study this Phenomenon

Of late, Democratic lawmakers have argued that gasoline prices are set at the caprice of oil companies, and mainly serve to provide them with undeserved profits.  However, we here at Coyote Blog try to bring you breaking news at the frontiers of scientific inquiry, and, via the USA Today, we get this fascinating revelation:

The average American motorist is driving
substantially fewer miles for the first time in 26 years because of
high gas prices and demographic shifts, according to a USA TODAY
analysis of federal highway data.

The growth in miles driven has leveled off
dramatically in the past 18 months after 25 years of steady climbs
despite the addition of more than 1 million drivers to the nation's
streets and highways since 2005. Miles driven in February declined 1.9%
from February 2006 before rebounding slightly for a 0.3% year-over-year
gain in March, data from the Federal Highway Administration show.
That's in sharp contrast to the average annual growth rate of 2.7%
recorded from 1980 through 2005....

The nation has not seen such stagnant growth in
driving since 1981, when the USA staggered through an oil shortage and
a recession. Gas prices reached an all-time high of $3.223 in March
1981 when adjusted for inflation in today's dollars.

Wow!  This seems to imply that prices have a here-to-for unsuspected utility.  They might actually be useful for matching supply and demand of scarce resources.  Fascinating.  Maybe Congress can commission a study of this phenomenon.

Postscript: Leaving the snark aside, it is hilarious in this article to see an urban planning group trying to bend over backwards to say that really, price was only a minor factor -- this really had to do with demographics and the success of our urban planning and public transportation.  Of course, it's just a coincidence that this step change occurred at the same time as a gas price spike, and that the last time it happened was the last time that gas price spiked.  Note that none of the data in the article actually supports the point of view that this was anything but a direct response to price signals.

That 70's Show

Straight from the 1970's, the US's golden era of bumbling government intervention in the economy, come the same proposals that worked oh-so-well the first time around.  Democracts blame big oil for gas prices, and propose channeling solutions from Hugo Chavez:   (via Q&O)

Congressional Democrats are taking aim at big oil companies as U.S. gasoline prices near a record average $3.05 a gallon.

Although
industry experts doubt it will have any effect, half a dozen senators
gathered in front of a Washington service station to push their own
remedies to the situation, the Washington Post said.

The latest average price for a gallon of unleaded regular gas was $3.042, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge report.

Sen.
Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Congress to consider breaking up the
giant companies. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., pushed for a windfall
profits bill.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., promoted her
anti-price-gouging bill, which the Senate Commerce Committee adopted
earlier this week.

Gee, since every transaction in a free market requires a willing buyer and a willing seller, wouldn't it be just as correct to blame profligate consumers for the increase?  And why is it I don't remember any of these actors in Congress rushing to clamp down on greedy sellers when home resale prices skyrocketed far more than gas prices have?  Does anyone remember Maria Cantwell imposing windfall profits taxes on home-sellers?  Or, for that matter, on sellers of Internet stocks who financed their campaigns selling stock above $80 that would soon trade only in the single digits?  And by the way, how can any party who elected Maria Cantwell to the Senate seriously call members of the other party "stupid."

Let's do a thought experiment.  Let's assume that through a series of government actions, Congress is able to return oil profits "to the people."  Oil company profits are now reduced to zero.  That should make a huge difference in gas prices, right?  Well, out of a $3.00 gas price, taxes and the retailers margin are probably 75 cents or so (46 cents tax, 10% or 30 cent retail margin).  This leaves $2.25 for the greedy oil companies.  It turns out large oil companies like Exxon make about 6% of revenues in the bad times, and 10% in the good times, like now.  So, this leaves a profit of  14-22 cents per gallon.  The "people" are saved!  Gas prices can come down by a whole 15-20 cents.  Of course, in return for saving a buck or two on fill-ups, we've nuked the whole incentive system for investment and finding new oil and improving efficiency.  Gas prices over time will rise much higher than they are now, and lines will start reappearing at gas stations, but that probably won't show up until after the next election, so why should anyone in Congress care?

So Much For Another Conspiracy Theory

Remember all those media reports about the possible "political motivation" behind falling gas prices ahead of the election?  Supposedly oil companies were somehow manipulating gas prices ahead of the election to help Republicans win the election.  This was not a wacky Internet fringe thing -- network news anchors and newspapers like the WaPo and the NYT speculated about it, and not just on their editorial pages.

Well, you and I may remember, but apparently no major media outlet who ran this story remembers what they said.  Because I have not seen a single follow-up story after the election.  Surely, if gas and oil prices were being manipulated down before the election, they would quickly spike back up to their "natural" levels after the election.  But of course, the whole theory was insane to begin with.  To suppose that a few US oil companies, who for all their size are still small players in the world oil markets, could manipulate US commodity prices for any sustained period of time is absurd.  And even if they were successful, the cost would be astronomical (just ask the Hunt family who bankrupted themselves trying to manipulate the silver market).

So I will do the follow-up story.  It turns out that oil and gas prices were falling before the election because ... oil and gas prices are falling.  From the WSJ on Jan 9:

Oil prices dropped $1.69 to $54.40 a barrel early Tuesday as warm
weather in the Northeast continued to hurt demand for heating fuel. The
slide comes on top of last week's 7.8% pullback in crude, which briefly
took prices below $55 a barrel, their lowest level since June 2005.

From Business Week on Jan 8:

Wholesale gasoline prices have been falling for the past few weeks,
noted Jason Schenker, an economist with Wachovia Corp. He expects
retail gasoline prices to fall further; he forecasts a dime-sized
decline this week compared to last, with the per-gallon price dipping
to $2.25 from $2.35.

People often wonder why so many wild and weird conspiracy theories seem to thrive nowadays.  I am sure there are many social and psychological reasons.  But surely one reason is that the media seems incredibly willing to go front page with credulous stories of the most ridiculous conspiracy theories, and then never revisit them when they are proved absurd.  Its telling to me that it was left to Popular Mechanics, rather than the WaPo or the NYTimes, to publish to one authoritative debunking of 9/11 conspiracy silliness.

You Can't Win

I have been off in the back country of Wyoming, but happened to see this headline from the Casper, Wyoming paper the other day when I was passing through civilization:

Gas price drop raises concern

Why am I thinking that when gas prices rose sharply last year, they didn't run a front page headline that said "Gas price rise a huge boon."

Vote Buying?

This reminded me a bit of the Michael Keaton Batman movie, where the Joker was handing out money to voters in a bid for popular support:

The Capitol Hill newspaper writes that Democratic
House challengers "think they have found a clever way to harness voter
anger over high gasoline prices" by selling it for less, a move that
Republicans defending their seats say is "tantamount to vote buying."

Rep. Ron Lewis (R-KY) has asked the U.S. attorney in
Louisville to investigate whether his opponent, Democrat Mike Weaver,
violated criminal code with his recent "cheap gas event
at an Elizabethtown station, where motorists filled up for $1.22 a
gallon "“ the price of gasoline when Rep. Lewis took office in 1994.

Beyond the obvious question of just what the hell Ron Lewis had to do with or could have done to stop the run-up of gas prices from $1.22 to their current levels, it would be interesting if this turns out to be legal at the same time that actual political speech is illegal.

I don't know election law very well.  Clearly handing out subsidized gas below cost as part of a political rally is roughly equivalent to handing out $20 bills to anyone who attends said rally.  The party officials involved argue that this activity is legal as long as there is no way to track who got the largess or to tie the money handouts to actual voting decisions:

"The gas is available to whomever wishes to purchase it
at the subsidized sale price for a short time ... there's no condition
attached," Bauer told the newspaper, adding that there is no way to
track whether motorists purchasing the lower-priced fuel are registered
to vote in the district the candidate is running for, or whether they
will vote at all.

I don't know election law very well, so I will ask the readers.  If I was running for office, and holding a publicity event at which I handed out $20 bills to attendees, would that be a legal election practice if, as with the party's logic above, I hand them out to all comers regardless of their voter registration status or party affiliation and I don't do anything to track who they are?

Are People Rational About Gas Prices?

As a preface, I am not a socialist planner, so I do not presume to make other people's economic trade-offs for them.  If someone out there chooses to collect Pinto station wagons or pay $10 million to go on a Russian space launch, power to them.

That being said, I will observe that gas price concerns seem to drive people to do things that they would not normally do in other contexts.  Market Power quoted this statement from the Washington Post:

"When prices go up, you're going to see some interesting things," said Tom
Kloza, chief analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey.
"Saving money on gas is something that's just magical in this country. Rational
thought just doesn't apply to gas."

Market Power was skeptical that such irrationality exists, but I think it may be correct.  Here are a few examples:

1.  Waiting for hours:  A couple of years ago when I lived in Seattle, a local Costco put in a gas station and sold gas for 10-15 cents or so below most of the other local stations.  Every time I went there, there was a huge line -- perhaps half an hour long -- to get gas.  For a fifteen gallon fill-up saving 15 cents and waiting 30 minutes, that equates to $4.50 an hour savings for their efforts, not to mention the extra driving time (and gas!) spent getting to this one spot rather than their local station.  How many people in the line would have driven an extra 10 miles to take a job at $4.50 an hour? 

Lately, I witnessed a free gas promotion where people lined up and waited at least 3 hours for 10 gallons for free gas (people apparently had lined up starting at 4AM for the promotion that began at 8AM.  This is a bit better deal at $10 per hour, but I wonder how many people in the line would have participated in any other endeavor for $10 an hour?  Market Power points to a similar promotion in Sioux Falls, where the value of police time providing security was probably higher than the value of the gas given away.

2.  Save a dollar, pay three extra.  One of the reasons I am unconcerned with gas price gouging is that many gas stations today use gas as a loss leader, hoping to pull motorists into their store or restaurant.  In the language of gouging, what this means is that typically you are getting a great price on gas (given what the dealer's costs are) and are getting gouged on coffee and Twinkies.  Its amazing to me that people who check the Internet to find the place with 5 cents a gallon cheaper gas will then walk into the convenience store and pay whatever for Cokes and water and cigarettes and beer and coffee.  It seems crazy, but the best way to explain it is that for a number of people, a dollar saved on gas gives them far more satisfaction than say a dollar save on soft drinks.

3.  Wagering with the rental car company.  Every rental car company offers you a wager nowadays.  They give you the chance to buy the whole tank of gas in advance for something like 20 cents less than the local market rate.  Assume the local market rate is $3.20, the rental car advance rate is $3.00, and the tank is 15 gallons.  All you have to do to win this bet as the renter is to return the car with less than 1 gallon left.  If you do, you win, otherwise you lose.  Is this a bet you want to take?

But I left something out - the value of your time.  Let's say you value your marginal time at $30, and it take 15 minutes to fill up the rent car yourself.  By taking the fuel option, you save $7.50 of time.  This means to win the bet, including the value of your time, you have to turn it in with less than 3.5 gallons left, or less than 1/4 full.  The other alternative is to not stop and turn it in at the rent car place and let them fill it up at their $6.00 rate.  But even this ridiculously inflated rate for turning the car in part-full is still a better option than the pre-paid fuel as long as you don't use more than half a tank.   And I bet that the vast, vast majority of people who rent cars, particularly on business trips, don't use a half tank (a half tank at 20mpg is about 150 miles).

One of the best tests of my proposition is to see how many businesses
today act as if this gas-price-overfocus is a real phenomenon:  Car
dealerships give away free gas rather than rebates;  many many
companies are having free gas promotions;  gas stations continue to
sell gas at cost to get you in their store.  Basically, businesses
everywhere are betting that their customers will find $30 of gas more
appealing than any other $30 giveaway. 

None of the above bothers me particularly -- people are different and interesting in how they act.  That's why government planning tends to chafe everyone.  In fact, the only part of this supposed irrationality about gas prices that does bother me is the fact that so many people run to the government for price controls and gouging investigations whenever gas prices go up, and so many Congressmen of both parties see value to pandering to these instincts.  This despite the fact that gas prices are still effectively far lower as a percentage of income than they were 25 years ago.  I wish they would all go back to sipping their $8 Starbucks coffees and just deal with it.

Update:  Was on Snopes.com checking out an email that seemed like an urban legend (it was) and saw a sidebar listing gas wars as the #1 urban legend email of the moment.  ExxonMobil seems to be the bad-guy target-of-choice, I guess just because they are the largest.  The "idea" in the email is that if everyone would boycott ExxonMobil and shop at other gas stations, the price of gas would fall.  LOL.  As Snopes points out:


A boycott of a couple of brands of gasoline won't result in lower
overall prices. Prices at all the non-boycotted outlets would rise due
to the temporarily limited supply and increased demand, making the
original prices look cheap by comparison. The shunned outlets could
then make a killing by offering gasoline at its "normal" (i.e.,
pre-boycott) price or by selling off their output to the non-boycotted
companies, who will need the extra supply to meet demand. The only
person who really gets hurt in this proposed scheme is the service
station operator, who has almost no control over the price of gasoline.

If it Passes, I'm Turning Off the Pumps

Per the WSJ($):

Last week the House of Representatives expressed its
collective outrage over high gas prices by voting as a herd, 389-34, to
make gasoline "price gouging" a federal felony.

Really. This command and control legislation reads
like the kind of law passed by the old Soviet Politburo. If an oil
company is found guilty of charging a "grossly excessive" price for
gasoline, it could face a $250 million fine and its executives face
imprisonment. Even neighborhood service station owners could be
sentenced to two years in jail and a $2 million fine for the high crime
of charging too much at the pump.

So what is price gouging?  What is the objective standard that we can all apply to our behavior to know clearly, before the fact, if our actions are legal or illegal?

One small problem is that no one in Washington can seem to define what
constitutes price gouging. Under the House legislation, the bureaucrats
at the Federal Trade Commission would define a "grossly excessive"
price and then, once prosecutors charge some politically vulnerable
target, juries across the country would decide who's guilty and who's
not. A Senate version, sponsored by Maria Cantwell of Washington,
contains terms like "excessively unconscionable price increases" and "a
gross disparity" between the normal price and the price during a
shortage or an emergency.

If this passes, there are two, and only two, ways this can be enforced:

  1. The standards remain incredibly vague, such that there is no objective way to know if you are guilty of a felony until you are in front of a jury listening to the verdict.  Some juries will may decide 6 cents over cost is gouging, others may decide its 50 cents.  But you won't know until you hear the jury's verdict.
  2. In an effort to deal with the problem of having no objective standard in advance, a federal bureaucracy is created to set detailed lists of allowable prices, essentially subjecting retail gasoline sales to price controls.  The prices set by regulators will either be above the price the market would have set, meaning that the price-setting is a meaningless waste of money, or it will be less than that set by the market, such that gas shortages and lines will ensue. 

These are the only two choices.  You only have to look at past history with oil price controls, airline regulation, railroad regulation, wage and price controls, etc. to know just how bad this will end.

As Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of the brave 33 no votes, tells us: "None
of my colleagues actually believes this will reduce prices, and many
realize it will ultimately make shortages worse." Yet this is what
happens when petrified politicians allow mob rule to trump economic
common sense.

My company operates several retail gasoline outlets.  We at best break even and probably lose money on the gas, but we continue to sell it to bring people into our stores and because there are so few other local retailers (we are in very rural areas).  If this law passes, I am just not going to risk going to jail because some economically ignorant jury in the future can't figure out that gas is more expensive in rural areas or because some tragic and sympathetic figure decides to sue me.  I'm out.  And if someone observes that in the rural areas in which we operate, consumers will probably be worse off if we exit, then Congress should have thought of that before they passed this Marxist-populist legislation.

Up to now, it was for this and only this reason that I tended to vote Republican more than Democrat.  I held my nose and looked past family-values-based censorship and stupid drug law enforcement and regulation of sexual choices and xenophobic immigration policies and all the rest of the conservative baggage solely because Republicans tended to pass less stupid dumbshit socialist destructive economic regulation than the Democrats. 

I've always told people that as a libertarian for whom neither party is internally consistent, you just have to pick the issues you vote on.  If I was gay or needed frequent abortions or was Howard Stern, I would vote Democrat.  Trying to run a small business against a growing tidal wave of government taxes and regulations, I often vote Republican.   If every Republican was (were?  I always get that subjunctive thing mixed up) like Jeff Flake, I would continue to vote for them.  Right now, though, I may go back to sitting on my hands or vote for whatever goofy person the Libertarian Party has put forward.

I just can't figure out who is making all these imagined profits.  I don't know any retailers of gasoline who make any real money on gasoline sales.   For god sakes, typical gasoline margins are 5-12 cents a gallon, and the credit card processing fee alone at $3 a gallon uses up 9 cents of that!  And even the great Satan ExxonMobil, in their greatest most profitable quarter ever, made a profit of 9.7% of sales, barely above the US industrial average and well below that of most well-known consumer products companies.  If anyone is making profits they don't deserve, it is Hugo Chavez and the Saudi princes, but I don't think there is much we are going to do about that.  And, if one is concerned with pricing in emergencies, I have actually pleaded for gouging when the alternative was not being able to find gas at all.

If Congress really wants to do something about gas prices, it could consider:

  • Reducing gas taxes, which take more our of a gallon of gas than any private entity makes in profit
  • Opening up exploration in the ANWR and on the US east coast
  • Making it easier to build new refining capacity in the US
  • Restructuring rules to reduce the number of EPA-mandated unique local gasoline blends are required
  • Remove the 40+ cent tariff on important ethanol, which federal rules effectively require in gasoline and which is in short supply domestically

By the way, in the past several weeks, Congress has rejected legislation on every one of these items in favor of this silly gouging legislation.  The WSJ offers this final thought:

If service stations are guilty of extortion because their prices are
rising more than their costs, then are we to have pricing police
preventing homeowners from selling their houses for two or three times
what they bought them for, or movie theaters from charging $6 for
popcorn that costs 25 cents to produce, or Barbra Streisand from
commanding a $1 million fee for a single performance? Now that
Republicans have surrendered to the political expediency of price
controls on big oil, they won't have much standing to stop Democrats
from imposing price ceilings on pharmaceutical drugs, school supplies,
medical equipment, and the like.

The Feeding Frenzy Can Begin

The feeding frenzy that the media has been salivating over for days can begin, now that Exxon-Mobil (XOM) as announced quarterly profits.  They reported net income of $8.4 billion on $88.98 billion in sales, for a net income margin of 9.4%.  Previously I observed that 9.4% for a peak profit in a cyclical industry is pretty average, and that over the last decade oil company profits have been below average for the whole of US industry.

In fact, most investors found these profits to be disappointing.  You know you have a fun CEO job when half the country is pounding on you for profits being too high and the other half are pounding on you for profits being too low.  The fact is that XOM and other large US oil companies don't get the benefit of rising oil prices that they did, say, 40 years ago.  US oil companies no longer own most of their overseas reserves since many of their foreign operations were nationalized by countries in the 1960s  (with the US government refusing to lift a finger to protect these US assets, one of the early instances of the no-blood-for-Exxon argument).  Today, XOM must pay near market rate for much of this crude, either in arms-length purchases or through royalty agreements stacked in the favor of local governments.

So what can you folks who are screaming about high gas prices and obscene oil company profits do?  Well, you could tax all these "windfall" profits away, like Ford and Carter did in the late 1970s.  Of course, you would still be paying $3 for gas, but the profits would go to the US Congress to spend, who I am sure will do an excellent job.  Probably could pay for another bridge in Alaska.  Or, you could somehow ban oil companies from making a profit, and drop gas prices by that 9.4%, or about 28 cents.  This would get you $2.72 gas instead of $3.00 gas.  Feel better?  Of course, in either scenario, oil companies would stop making any investments in refining or oil exploration.  Supplies would quickly begin to fall (I won't go into it now, but take my word for it that refineries and oil wells require constant reinvestment just to keep running at current capacity) and I would bet it would take less than a year for that 28 cents to be right back in gas prices due to shrinking supply.

OK, what else could we do?  Well, we could cap gas prices.  Which is a fabulous idea, as long as no one who drives a car has anything better to do than sit in lines all day.  Or, we could regulate oil like we do telephones and electric utilities.  Highly regulated electric utilities make a net income margin of 7.1%.  If we regulated oil companies down to 7.1%, then this would reduce gas prices from $3.00 to $2.93.  So a huge and inflexible and costly national regulatory structure would save about 7 cents a gallon.  Oh, and since for most of 10 years oil company profits have been less than 7.1%, then, a utility type regulatory environment would likely raise gas prices and profits in most years. And of course you would get all the business flexibility, creativity, and customer service currently demonstrated by your local electric and phone company.

So what government action should a irate gasoline customer demand?  Well, I know this answer goes against years of education that the role of government is to step in and take over when any little aspect of life is not quite what citizens want it to be, but the correct answer is "none".  Its like the line from Wargames:  "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

More on why gas prices are still well below their historic peaks here.

Gas Prices a Crisis??

The media is just longing to make current gas prices into a crisis.  And you can already see them gearing up to bash oil companies for "record" profits (by the way, when reading the profit announcements, pay attention not to just total dollars but to profit margins, then read this).

Glenn Reynolds links this gas price chart this morning at Random Useless Data, showing that in real terms, gas prices are still below their peaks, and not at "all-time highs."

Gasprice_1

I took this one step further, based on the assumption that it isn't the price per gallon that matters for gas, but the price to drive a fixed mileage, say 100 miles.  Since average automobile fuel economy has continued to improve, in real terms we are far below the peak cost of gasoline.  Using this and this MPG data (for passenger cars) and the inflation adjusted gas prices here, I got this chart (1979 dollars)

Gas_price_100_1

By the way, just so you know my personal incentives, there are very few people out there who run a business whose fortunes are more sensitive to gas prices than my recreation business.  This will not be a very good summer for me, but if we leave the market alone to do its work, things will likely be better in 2007.  Intervention by Congress will pretty much assure that things will get worse.

Rates are Too High -- So Lets Limit Competition

Apparently, some of our local politicians in the Phoenix area are upset about payday loan companies.  According the an AP report in the AZ Republic:

The stores cater to customers who live paycheck to paycheck who need
quick access to a few hundred dollars for rent, car repairs or just to
make ends meet. Banks traditionally don't make those type of small,
short-term loans.

So these stores provide loans to people no one else will touch.  And customers use their services of their own free will.  So what is the problem?  Well, not surprisingly, the rates on these loans are high, and the default terms tend to be drastic.  "Activists" think that people are making the wrong decision using these services, and, to be fair, I would certainly advise anyone who asked to try to find another alternative.  But what do my preferences matter?  Its easy for me to say in my middle-upper class hubris that such services don't make sense, but I have a steady job and ready access to bank loans.  In a free society, both I and those activists are free to convince people to not use these services, but its wrong to artificially limit people's choices out of some elitist sense that we can make decisions for other people better than they can for themselves.

Besides, lets think about the alternative.  These folks are not going to get bank loans -- in fact many customers may be illegal aliens who are, post 9/11, effectively barred from the banking system.  The only other alternative before these payday loan companies were loan sharks, whose interest is even higher and whose penalty for non-payment even more dire. This reminds me of the people who decry Nike "sweatshop" jobs in poor countries.  "Activists" similarly decry these jobs as if the alternative is $25 an hour office work, when in fact the alternative is actually grinding subsistence agricultural work for half the pay.  You may not like the payday loan companies, but they are replacing a much worse system.

But the really funny thing about this article is their proposed solution to the problem of rates for these payday loan services being too high.  Their solution?  Limit competition!  (emphasis added)

Arizona now has more than 600 payday loan stores - with 165 in the [Phoenix suburb] Mesa area alone - and some residents are upset about it.

"People are sick of it in west Mesa," said Dave Richins, a neighborhood
activist and executive director of the West Mesa Community Development
Corporation.

Richins and other critics claim the stores exploit customers with high interest rates.

[Phoenix suburb] Peoria blocks the shops from opening within 1,000 feet of a competing
store. Phoenix and Tucson are looking to that city's restrictions as a
model for new rules in their communities, with action possible by early
next year.

Gee, I bet that will help keep rates down -- make sure there are no competitors nearby!  Lets make sure it is as hard as possible to compare rates, particularly since the customer base is one that can't afford the gas, or doesn't even have a car, to drive all over town shopping.  I wonder why no one is suggesting the same thing for gas stations to keep gas prices down, lol.

Maybe He Should Have Worn a Cardigan

Truck and Barter is not very impressed with Bush's call for us all to drive less. 

I'd like to know just why I should conserve. We supposedly live in a
capitalist society based on property-rights and free-trade; why, all of a
sudden, do you ask that I not trust that the price of fuel incorporates all the
scarcities at every level of production? What economic lever broke in the past
month? Why do you think the price system is failing so bad that we need to
"conserve" more than the price signal warrants?

I won't pretend that market prices don't exist, or that markets have suddenly
stopped working; I won't pretend that prices are inefficient allocators of
resources; I won't pretend that I cannot buy as much gasoline as I can afford at
current prices.

Furthermore, Mr. President, I will not pretend that you have legal or moral
authority to tell me how much gasoline I may purchase. I will not pretend that
your feeble call to use less has any impact whatsoever on my psyche. I will not
pretend that the Federal Government knows better than me how much gasoline I
should purchase.

Awesome, well said.  Maybe if Bush had worn a cardigan, like Jimmy Carter did when he asked the same thing, he might have been more successful.  Or then again, maybe Bush should have thought twice about channeling Jimmy Carter on any energy or economics related issue.

By the way, there is much more to the post - make sure to read it all.

Update: This one attracted a number of comments fast.  Here are some additional thoughts

Doesn't it make sense to conserve gas?  Isn't what Bush said correct?

Sure it makes sense, but I didn't need Bush to tell me.  Seeing my average 15 gallon fillup go from $30 to $45 nearly overnight told me everything I needed to know.   I adjusted my driving behavior based on how I value various types of trips.  And so, apparently, did everyone else, as gas consumption in this country dropped almost 10%.  Bush doesn't have to tell you to refinance your home when mortgage rates drop, or to buy less OJ when the orange crop failed -- prices signal these things quite nicely.

By the way, I limited my driving years ago (e.g. I live 1 mile from my office) but not because of gas prices.  Lets say 1 hour of driving gets me 30 miles in the city, and requires 1.5 gallons of gas.  The recent increase in gas prices has increased the cost of that 1 hour of driving by about $1.50.  That is NOTHING compared to how I have increased how I value my free time as I have grown older.  That hour may use up five bucks of gas but hundreds of dollars of my leisure time.  I have often told people that the biggest change you go through getting older is how much your internal valuation of your own free time goes up.  In college, I would wait for 8 hours in a line to get concert tickets at face value.  Today, I buy them market up at eBay, because that 8 hours is now worth far, far more to me than the markup.

Wouldn't voluntary conservation beyond what you have already cut back help reduce gas prices in the US?

Sure, if everyone cut back some percentage more than what they would have already done due to the price increase, then yes that might help push prices down.  Of course every person who did this would lose from doing so.  When the price increases, everyone eliminates their marginal use of gasoline, ie every use or trip that is worth less to them than the cost in fuel.  That means that the trips that remain are worth more to them than the gas (and other)  costs.  Therefore, remaining trips are a net increase to their well-being.  If a remaining trip is then eliminated voluntarily, or the cost of that trip is increased due to the increased hassle of carpooling or using public transit, then their well-being is reduced. 

However, this is the great thing about America:  If you personally value voluntarily reducing your gas consumption to help reduce prices for others, in a free society, no one is going to stop you.

By the way, here is the reason I don't worry about it:  I am old enough to have been driving in the late 1970's.  And I know from experience that allowing prices to shoot up for a period of time, without government price caps or windfall profit confiscation silliness, is going to lead to more supply and lower prices in the future.

Don't you think its unethical not to conserve in times like this?

No.  I don't associate consumption and ethics.  If it is sold legally at a certain price, and I can afford and wish to pay that price, then I don't see that morality or ethics come into play.  While there certainly can be ethical problems spending money unwisely (e.g. blowing money on coke or gambling that was needed to feed your kids), that is a different situation.  I don't feel guilty about consuming gas.

Isn't it a security issue?  Shouldn't we be asked or forced to conserve more to make the US independent of foreign oil?

There is only one time this argument makes any sense - if the world is in a full scale shooting war and all foreign trade and international markets are halted, and then we would have much bigger problems.

Short of the breakdown of world trade and markets, being "independent of foreign oil" is a mirage, an impossible non-goal.  Lets say that the world energy supply and demand was exactly the same as it was today, except that the US produced domestically exactly enough oil to satisfy domestic demand.  But in this case there is still a world market for oil.  The price of oil and gas in this country would not be more or less than it is today, except maybe for a few cents of transportation cost differences.  And if there is an oil supply shock, the pricing in the US will be virtually the same in this hypothetical situation as it would be in today's structure.

Shouldn't the President be doing something?

Sure.  Get the hell out of the way of the people who can fix the problem.  Rethink the regulatory regime that is preventing refinery construction.  Revamp the licensing approach for nuclear power.  Open up oil drilling in proscribed areas.  And find his lost veto pen and ax any dumbshit regulation out of Congress managing energy prices, taxing windfall profits, or attempting to pick winners via subsidies.

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GM Employee Pricing

When I first heard the GM ad campaign to give consumers access to the same discounts their employees get, I had two reactions:

  • I sure hope that they have some alternative employee incentive lined up.  I remember when I applied to GM as an engineer, this car discount was high on the list of how they sold the job.  Now what are employees thinking, since their employment buys them nothing on this dimension?  They are probably thinking they weren't getting much of a discount if GM can offer that discount to everyone
  • If I were a stockholder, I would be selling, because it sure smacks as desperation.  If you think of all the incentives GM has offered over the years, if they are offering an incentive that is unprecedented in their 80+ year history, then you know there must be some panic in the boardroom

Only GM could come up with a program that makes both employees and shareholders upset.  George's Emploment Blawg has more thoughts along these lines.  This all assumes that "same pricing as employees"  means just that -- remember that this is the industry where "invoice pricing" means nothing of the sort.

Many people have analyzed GM's problems.  It is tempting to say that their main problem is that they have not good cars, but I want to be careful not to substitute my preferences for market research.  So, instead, I will point out a couple of facts:

  • GM makes most of its profit from SUV's
  • All the profit in a car line, given high fixed costs, come from the last 10-15% of the cars produced.

So, as gas prices rise and silly tax loopholes are closed [thanks Mark], SUV sales only need to fall 10-15% to wipe out most of GM's profitability.

RV Sales Surge

Good news for our business (I run a campground management company), the AP reports via our Arizona Republic that RV sales continue to surge, despite high gas prices.

RV sales are definitely riding the front end of the demographic wave, as new retirees look for more flexibility and mobility in their retirement years.   RV businesses are also benefiting from a post 9/11 reluctance to travel overseas or vacation at high-profile resorts or cities that might be targets.  I wrote on some of these trends in my post "the New American Nomads".