Search Results For price gouging

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Ben Sperry, (Associate Director, Legal Research, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The visceral reaction to the New York Times’ recent story on Matt Colvin, the man who had 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer with nowhere to sell them, shows there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of prices and the informational function they serve in the economy. Calls to enforce laws against “price gouging” may actually prove more harmful to consumers and society than allowing prices to rise (or fall, of course) in response to market conditions. 

Nobel-prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek explained how price signals serve as information that allows for coordination in a market society:

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function… The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

Economic actors don’t need a PhD in economics or even to pay attention to the news about the coronavirus to change their behavior. Higher prices for goods or services alone give important information to individuals — whether consumers, producers, distributors, or entrepreneurs — to conserve scarce resources, produce more, and look for (or invest in creating!) alternatives.

Prices are fundamental to rationing scarce resources, especially during an emergency. Allowing prices to rapidly rise has three salutary effects (as explained by Professor Michael Munger in his terrific twitter thread):

  1. Consumers ration how much they really need;
  2. Producers respond to the rising prices by ramping up supply and distributors make more available; and
  3. Entrepreneurs find new substitutes in order to innovate around bottlenecks in the supply chain. 

Despite the distaste with which the public often treats “price gouging,” officials should take care to ensure that they don’t prevent these three necessary responses from occurring. 

Rationing by consumers

During a crisis, if prices for goods that are in high demand but short supply are forced to stay at pre-crisis levels, the informational signal of a shortage isn’t given — at least by the market directly. This encourages consumers to buy more than is rationally justified under the circumstances. This stockpiling leads to shortages. 

Companies respond by rationing in various ways, like instituting shorter hours or placing limits on how much of certain high-demand goods can be bought by any one consumer. Lines (and unavailability), instead of price, become the primary cost borne by consumers trying to obtain the scarce but underpriced goods. 

If, instead, prices rise in light of the short supply and high demand, price-elastic consumers will buy less, freeing up supply for others. And, critically, price-inelastic consumers (i.e. those who most need the good) will be provided a better shot at purchase.

According to the New York Times story on Mr. Colvin, he focused on buying out the hand sanitizer in rural areas of Tennessee and Kentucky, since the major metro areas were already cleaned out. His goal was to then sell these hand sanitizers (and other high-demand goods) online at market prices. He was essentially acting as a speculator and bringing information to the market (much like an insider trader). If successful, he would be coordinating supply and demand between geographical areas by successfully arbitraging. This often occurs when emergencies are localized, like post-Katrina New Orleans or post-Irma Florida. In those cases, higher prices induced suppliers to shift goods and services from around the country to the affected areas. Similarly, here Mr. Colvin was arguably providing a beneficial service, by shifting the supply of high-demand goods from low-demand rural areas to consumers facing localized shortages. 

For those who object to Mr. Colvin’s bulk purchasing-for-resale scheme, the answer is similar to those who object to ticket resellers: the retailer should raise the price. If the Walmarts, Targets, and Dollar Trees raised prices or rationed supply like the supermarket in Denmark, Mr. Colvin would not have been able to afford nearly as much hand sanitizer. (Of course, it’s also possible — had those outlets raised prices — that Mr. Colvin would not have been able to profitably re-route the excess local supply to those in other parts of the country most in need.)

The role of “price gouging” laws and social norms

A common retort, of course, is that Colvin was able to profit from the pandemic precisely because he was able to purchase a large amount of stock at normal retail prices, even after the pandemic began. Thus, he was not a producer who happened to have a restricted amount of supply in the face of new demand, but a mere reseller who exacerbated the supply shortage problems.

But such an observation truncates the analysis and misses the crucial role that social norms against “price gouging” and state “price gouging” laws play in facilitating shortages during a crisis.

Under these laws, typically retailers may raise prices by at most 10% during a declared state of emergency. But even without such laws, brick-and-mortar businesses are tied to a location in which they are repeat players, and they may not want to take a reputational hit by raising prices during an emergency and violating the “price gouging” norm. By contrast, individual sellers, especially pseudonymous third-party sellers using online platforms, do not rely on repeat interactions to the same degree, and may be harder to track down for prosecution. 

Thus, the social norms and laws exacerbate the conditions that create the need for emergency pricing, and lead to outsized arbitrage opportunities for those willing to violate norms and the law. But, critically, this violation is only a symptom of the larger problem that social norms and laws stand in the way, in the first instance, of retailers using emergency pricing to ration scarce supplies.

Normally, third-party sales sites have much more dynamic pricing than brick and mortar outlets, which just tend to run out of underpriced goods for a period of time rather than raise prices. This explains why Mr. Colvin was able to sell hand sanitizer for prices much higher than retail on Amazon before the site suspended his ability to do so. On the other hand, in response to public criticism, Amazon, Walmart, eBay, and other platforms continue to crack down on third party “price-gouging” on their sites

But even PR-centric anti-gouging campaigns are not ultimately immune to the laws of supply and demand. Even Amazon.com, as a first party seller, ends up needing to raise prices, ostensibly as the pricing feedback mechanisms respond to cost increases up and down the supply chain. 

But without a willingness to allow retailers and producers to use the informational signal of higher prices, there will continue to be more extreme shortages as consumers rush to stockpile underpriced resources.

The desire to help the poor who cannot afford higher priced essentials is what drives the policy responses, but in reality no one benefits from shortages. Those who stockpile the in-demand goods are unlikely to be poor because doing so entails a significant upfront cost. And if they are poor, then the potential for resale at a higher price would be a benefit.

Increased production and distribution

During a crisis, it is imperative that spiking demand is met by increased production. Prices are feedback mechanisms that provide realistic estimates of demand to producers. Even if good-hearted producers forswearing the profit motive want to increase production as an act of charity, they still need to understand consumer demand in order to produce the correct amount. 

Of course, prices are not the only source of information. Producers reading the news that there is a shortage undoubtedly can ramp up their production. But even still, in order to optimize production (i.e., not just blindly increase output and hope they get it right), they need a feedback mechanism. Prices are the most efficient mechanism available for quickly translating the amount of social need (demand) for a given product to guarantee that producers do not undersupply the product  (leaving more people without than need the good), or oversupply the product (consuming more resources than necessary in a time of crisis). Prices, when allowed to adjust to actual demand, thus allow society to avoid exacerbating shortages and misallocating resources.

The opportunity to earn more profit incentivizes distributors all along the supply chain. Amazon is hiring 100,000 workers to help ship all the products which are being ordered right now. Grocers and retailers are doing their best to line the shelves with more in-demand food and supplies

Distributors rely on more than just price signals alone, obviously, such as information about how quickly goods are selling out. But even as retail prices stay low for consumers for many goods, distributors often are paying more to producers in order to keep the shelves full, as in the case of eggs. These are the relevant price signals for producers to increase production to meet demand.

For instance, hand sanitizer companies like GOJO and EO Products are ramping up production in response to known demand (so much that the price of isopropyl alcohol is jumping sharply). Farmers are trying to produce as much as is necessary to meet the increased orders (and prices) they are receiving. Even previously low-demand goods like beans are facing a boom time. These instances are likely caused by a mix of anticipatory response based on general news, as well as the slightly laggier price signals flowing through the supply chain. But, even with an “early warning” from the media, the manufacturers still need to ultimately shape their behavior with more precise information. This comes in the form of orders from retailers at increased frequencies and prices, which are both rising because of insufficient supply. In search of the most important price signal, profits, manufacturers and farmers are increasing production.

These responses to higher prices have the salutary effect of making available more of the products consumers need the most during a crisis. 

Entrepreneurs innovate around bottlenecks 

But the most interesting thing that occurs when prices rise is that entrepreneurs create new substitutes for in-demand products. For instance, distillers have started creating their own hand sanitizers

Unfortunately, however, government regulations on sales of distilled products and concerns about licensing have led distillers to give away those products rather than charge for them. Thus, beneficial as this may be, without the ability to efficiently price such products, not nearly as much will be produced as would otherwise be. The non-emergency price of zero effectively guarantees continued shortages because the demand for these free alternatives will far outstrip supply.

Another example is car companies in the US are now producing ventilators. The FDA waived regulations on the production of new ventilators after General Motors, Ford, and Tesla announced they would be willing to use idle production capacity for the production of ventilators.

As consumers demand more toilet paper, bottled water, and staple foods than can be produced quickly, entrepreneurs respond by refocusing current capabilities on these goods. Examples abound:

Without price signals, entrepreneurs would have far less incentive to shift production and distribution to the highest valued use. 

Conclusion

While stories like that of Mr. Colvin buying all of the hand sanitizer in Tennessee understandably bother people, government efforts to prevent prices from adjusting only impede the information sharing processes inherent in markets. 

If the concern is to help the poor, it would be better to pursue less distortionary public policy than arbitrarily capping prices. The US government, for instance, is currently considering a progressively tiered one-time payment to lower income individuals. 

Moves to create new and enforce existing “price-gouging” laws are likely to become more prevalent the longer shortages persist. Platforms will likely continue to receive pressure to remove “price-gougers,” as well. These policies should be resisted. Not only will these moves not prevent shortages, they will exacerbate them and push the sale of high-demand goods into grey markets where prices will likely be even higher. 

Prices are an important source of information not only for consumers, but for producers, distributors, and entrepreneurs. Short circuiting this signal will only be to the detriment of society.  

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Robert Litan, (Non-resident Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, The Brookings Institution; former Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget).]

We have moved well beyond testing as the highest priority for responding to the COVID disaster – although it remains important – to meeting the immediate peak demand for hospital equipment and ICU beds outside hospitals in most urban areas. President Trump recognized this being the case when he declared on March 18 that was acting as a “wartime President.”

While the President invoked the Defense Production Act to have the private sector produce more ventilators and other necessary medical equipment, such as respirators and hospital gowns, that Act principally provides for government purchases and the authority to allocate scarce supplies. 

As part of this effort, if it is not already in the works, the President should require manufacturers of such equipment – especially ventilators – to license at low or no royalties any and all intellectual property rights required for such production to as many other manufacturers that are willing and capable of making this equipment as rapidly as possible, 24/7. The President should further direct FDA to surge its inspector force to ensure that the processes and output of these other manufacturers are in compliance with applicable FDA requirements. The same IP licensing requirement should extend to manufacturers of any other medical supplies expected to be in short supply. 

To avoid price gouging – yes, this is one instance where market principles should be suspended – the declaration should cap the prices of future ventilators, including those manufactured by current suppliers, to the price pre-crisis. 

Second, to solve the bed shortage problem, some states (such New York) are already investigating the use of existing facilities – schools, university dorms, hotel rooms, and the like. This idea should be mandated immediately, as part of the emergency declaration, nationwide. The President has ordered a Navy hospital ship to help out with extra beds in New York, which is a good idea that should be extended to other coastal cities where this is possible. But he should also order the military, as needed, to assist with the conversion efforts of land-based facilities – which require infection-free environments, special filtration systems and the like – where private contractors are not available. 

The costs for all this should be borne by the federal government, using the Disaster Relief Fund, authorized by the Stafford Act. As of year-end FY 2019, the balance in this fund was approximately $30 billion. It is not clear what the balance is expected to be after the outlays that have recently been ordered by the President, as relief for states and localities. If the DRF needs topping up, this should be urgently provided by the Congress, ideally as part of the third round of fiscal stimulus being considered this week. 

The Times seems to specialize in stories that use lots of economics but still miss the important points. Two examples from today: Stories about Uber, and about the dispute between Amazon and Hachette.

UBER:  The article describes Uber’s using price changes to measure elasticity of demand, and more or less gets it right.  But it goes on to discuss the competition between Uber and Lyft with taxi companies.  However, what is not mentioned is that taxis are greatly handicapped in this fight because of their own sins.  They have lobbied for price fixing and supply limitation, thus creating the very market that Uber is entering.  It is quite plausible that if the taxi market were a free entry free price market there would be no demand for firms such as Uber.  Interesting to see how Uber does in cities such as Washington D.C. with relatively free entry into the taxi market, compared with New York city with highly restrictive rules.

The article also misses another point.  It discusses an agreement recently signed by Uber that limits “surge” pricing in times of disasters.  But what is not mentioned is the effect of this restriction in reducing supply and increasing demand during the very times when transportation services are most needed.  While we economists have won some public relations battles, we have not weaned the public away from its hatred of “price gouging.”

 

AMAZON: The story about the Amazon-Hachette dispute is interesting.  But again, some of the key economics is missing. 

Traditional publishers serve two purposes: They organize the physical publishing of books, and they certify quality.  Neither of these functions is needed any more an a world of ebooks.  For ebooks, there is no need of physical publishing, and reader comments are a good substitute for quality certification, at least for fiction.  Amazon provides other services to help inform consumers about books that might be of interest.

Moreover, authors should have a natural affinity with ebook publishers.  For physical books, there is a conflict between authors and publishers.  Authors are paid a royalty based on dollar volume, so they want a price that maximizes revenue.  All of the author’s costs are fixed costs.  Publishers have the marginal cost of actually printing and distributing the book, so their goal is to maximize profit, revenue minus cost.  When costs are positive, the profit maximizing price (MR=MC) is greater than the revenue maximizing price (MR=0), so authors traditionally think that publishers have overpriced their books.  This conflict does not exist for ebooks (marginal cost is zero) so Amazon and authors both want the revenue maximizing price.  As a result, I predict that in the long term Amazon will win because it will have a comparative advantage in dealing with authors. 

In Continental T.V. v. GTE Sylvania (1977), Justice Powell observed that antitrust law should go easy on manufacturer restraints on dealer resale because manufacturers could always decide to integrate forward into distribution and bypass dealers altogether.  As anyone who has followed electric car manufacturer Tesla’s recent travails will know, Justice Powell’s observation is not true of the auto industry.  Dealer franchise laws in most states require car manufacturers to sell through independent dealers.  Tesla apparently would like to bypass the traditional dealership model and sell directly to customers, which is landing the company in legal hot waters in many states, including traditionally “free market” states like Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Tesla is the offspring of the South African-American entrepreneur Elon Musk, who also brought us Pay-Pal and SpaceX.  The company’s luxury electric cars have caused a sensation in the auto industry, including a review by Consumer Reports calling Tesla’s Model S the best car it ever tested.  Extraordinarily for a startup, in the first quarter of 2013, Tesla Model S sales exceeded the top line offerings of the established German luxury brands, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.  Indeed, more Teslas were sold than BMW 7 series and Audi A8s combined.

One would imagine that Tesla’s biggest problem would be economic and technological—creating the infrastructure for battery-pack swap and charging facilities necessary to persuade customers that powering their Teslas will be as seamless as pumping gas at a filling station.  (Telsa’s recently announced 90-second battery pack swap will go a long way in that direction).  Alas, Tesla’s major stumbling block seems to be more legal than technological.  Tesla wants to open its own showrooms and sell directly to customers.  The powerful car dealers’ lobby has been invoking decades-old dealer franchising laws to block Tesla’s progress, insisting that Tesla must sell through independent, franchised dealers like other car companies do.  Tesla has been lobbying for legislative reforms at the state level, thus far with mixed success.

The basic economics of the problem are straightforward.  As Ronald Coase taught us, whether a car manufacturer keeps the distribution function in house or buys distribution services on the market is a question of the agency and transactions costs of those respective forms of distribution.  There are many reasons why manufacturers might prefer to distribute through independent dealers.  This shifts the investment in distribution to someone other than the manufacturer, allowing the manufacturer to focus on its core competence in research and development and manufacturing.  It shifts managerial decisions to managers with local market knowledge.  It may create economies of scale or scope as dealers sell several different brands under a single roof.

But there are also good reasons why a manufacturer might prefer to sell directly to consumers.  The manufacturer may be concerned that the dealers will focus more on short-term sales maximization rather than long-term investment in building the brand.  (This could be particularly concerning to a company like Tesla that is introducing a disruptive new technology that still needs to be proven in the market).  The manufacturer may worry that independent dealers will be insufficiently loyal and push other brands.  It may fret that local dealers will be unsophisticated about new technologies and that training and monitoring will be easier if retail distribution stays in house.

There is no a priori reason to favor one model or the other, and I have no idea whether Tesla is better off distributing through traditional dealer networks.  But I find it hard to fathom any good reason why the law should prohibit a car manufacturer from picking whatever distribution model it thinks best.  As a newcomer to these state dealer laws, I’ve been trying to keep an open mind that they might be supported by some legitimate policy concern and not pure protectionism.  Unfortunately, whenever a dealer-aligned speaker opens his mouth to defend these laws, the case that it’s just protectionism gets stronger.

One argument I’ve seen attributed to the auto dealers—and I sincerely hope that there’s some mistake and this is not actually an argument they’re making—is that creating “competition” in retail distribution of Tesla cars is necessary to prevent Tesla from price gouging customers. The idea that a vertically integrated manufacturer has a “monopoly” over the brand’s retail distribution that needs to be broken up by outsourcing the retail function to independent dealers is farcical.  If Tesla has market power, it will extract the full monopoly profit regardless of whether it sells to dealers or end users.  (It will be fully embedded in either the wholesale or resale price).  Since retail distribution is just a cost of doing business, Tesla will increase its monopoly profits by minimizing the cost of retail distribution since then it will sell more cars.  If anything, as economists have long recognized, outsourcing the retail distribution function to locally dominant automobile dealers could lead to double marginalization and increased prices.

A second argument is that having local dealers is necessary to ensure that customers are adequately served.  For example, Bob Glaser of the North Carolina Automobile Dealer’s Association has asserted that the restrictions are a form of “consumer protection,” since “a dealer who has invested a significant amount of capital in a community is more committed to taking care of that area’s customers.”  The obvious rejoinder is that Tesla has as much or more of an interest as the dealers in seeing that customers get the level of service they’re willing to pay for.   If Tesla gets a bad reputation for quality, it will fail.  I suppose that one might worry if  Tesla were a fly-by-night operation selling customers an expensive durable good at a high price and then fleeing with its profits and leaving customers without support.  But that’s obviously unlikely of a company that’s pouring billions of dollars into the creation of a new product and a recharging and battery swapping infrastructure.  Car manufacturers make considerably larger fixed capital investments than do dealers and I’m sure that the dealer failure and exit rate is considerably higher than that of manufacturers.

A related argument is that dealers play an important role in complying with local laws regarding titling and safety inspection.  But this argument doesn’t work either.  First, observe that at present most states only prohibit manufacturers from opening their own dealerships—they don’t prohibit online sales from outside the state.  (North Carolina recently passed a statute banning online sales as well).  There’s no reason why a manufacturer-owned dealership should be less capable of complying with local laws than an independent dealer.  Second, why should Internet sales involve evasion of state titling and safety inspection laws?  Internet sales can just as easily be subject to the same titling and inspection requirements as dealer-initiated sales.

Another argument I’ve heard is that prohibiting manufacturers from integrating forward into distribution is necessary to prevent them from competing unfairly with their own franchised dealers by undercutting them on price.  The logic of this argument is a little fuzzy. What would a manufacturer set up franchised dealers only to undercut them ruinously?  I suppose it might be some variant of the usual free-rider arguments—the manufacturer would set up independent dealers, free-ride on their local brand promotion, and then cut them out once the brand was established.  (Why the dealers can’t contractually bargain for protections from this isn’t clear).  But all of this is a lark for present purposes.  It clearly doesn’t apply to Tesla, which wants to avoid franchising altogether.  At most, if one were worried about “undercutting,” the rule should be a prohibition on manufacturer retail operations for manufacturers that also franchise, not for those that bypass franchising altogether.

Some people have quite fairly complained that Tesla shouldn’t be given special exemptions when other car companies are bound by the dealer restrictions.  For sure, but that cuts in favor of amending or repealing these laws altogether, not enforcing them against Tesla.  If anything, if it’s true that Tesla would obtain a competitive advantage by bypassing traditional dealer networks, consumers should want this advantage available to all car companies.  To put it other way, this argument is basically an admission that the dealer laws are raising car prices.

The last argument I’ve heard—and it’s a real doozy—is that independent dealers are civic bastions of local communities and therefore deserve to be specially protected.  Never mind the fact that many auto dealerships are owned and operated by large regional chains rather than local Boy Scouts troopmasters.  Why on God’s green earth should we single out automobiles for economic protectionism in order to subsidize local civic participation?  Why stop with automobiles?  Why not household appliances, twinkies, and lingerie?   And who is to say that Tesla will be any less civic minded than franchised auto dealers?  Further, if the model of direct distribution is so superior to franchised distribution that eliminating legal restrictions would put the dealers out of business, there must be something systematically inefficient about franchised distribution.  In that case, both consumers and local communities would be better served if state legislatures just levied a tax on auto sales and distributed them pro rata to local civic organizations.

Since the arguments for dealer laws are so weak, I’m left with the firm impression that this is just special interest rent-seeking of the worst kind.  It’s a real shame that Tesla—seemingly one of the most innovative, successful, and environmentally correct American industrial firms of the last decade—is going to have to spend tens of millions of dollars and may eventually have to cut shady political deals for the right to sell its own products.  I’m ordinarily a fan of federalism and states’ rights, but if the current debacle continues, it may be necessary for Congress to step in with preemptive federal legislation.

A Congressional Bill proposing a “Reasonable Profits Board” so that profits on the sale of oil and gas in excess of what is “reasonable” can be subjected to a windfall tax.  A brief description:

According to the bill, a windfall tax of 50 percent would be applied when the sale of oil or gas leads to a profit of between 100 percent and 102 percent of a reasonable profit. The windfall tax would jump to 75 percent when the profit is between 102 and 105 percent of a reasonable profit, and above that, the windfall tax would be 100 percent. The bill also specifies that the oil-and-gas companies, as the seller, would have to pay this tax.

We have a long archives of posts here at TOTM on a variety of forms of price gouging legislation in oil and gas.   Most recently, in discussing a White House Task Force aimed to detect price gouging and usurping jurisdiction from the Federal Trade Commission, I wrote:

One need only read the FTC’s 222 page report on gasoline prices post-Katrina and Rita to appreciate the Commission’s expertise in this area.  But perhaps most importantly, and undoubtedly related to the appointment of a working group outside the Commission, is that the Commission understands the relevant economics.  Indeed, as I noted just recently, then Bureau of Economics Director Michael Salinger gets it right when he observed  “as unpleasant as high-priced gasoline is, running out will be even worse.”  Further, it was the Commission Report that found not only scant evidence of what might be described as “gouging” — but did find examples of gas stations that shut down rather than risk a suit under a state price gouging law.  “Price Gouging Helps Consumers” doesn’t make for much of an election slogan, so perhaps this is all to be expected.  But nobody should be fooled into believing that enforcement of existing state price gouging laws, or a new federal task force devoted investigate “price gouging,” are going to make consumers better off.

The criticisms against price gouging laws become even stronger against a “Reasonable Profits Board,” which is even more blatantly political, even more likely to harm consumers, and even more likely to waste social resources than enforcement of state price gouging laws.

 

Commissioner Rosch gets off his second shot in against the Department of Justice in just a few weeks in the pages of the Wall Street Journal — this time in a letter to the editor:

Obama’s Political ‘Price-Gouging’

If any doubts existed about whether the Justice Department is just “an arm of the administration,” they were dispelled by the attorney general’s announcement that he is forming, at the president’s request, a new “working group” to investigate “price gouging” at the gas pump (“White House’s Task Force to Probe Oil, Gas Markets,” U.S. News, April 22).  Oddly enough, this “working group” will come under the auspices of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, which was constituted to prevent fraud in the financial and lending markets. Not only would the group duplicate the functions of existing agencies—namely, the Federal Trade Commission, which through Congress-enacted legislation and its own market manipulationrule, is already empowered to investigate and prevent “price gouging,” and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, with which the FTC has a memorandum of understanding to implement the rule—but it is blatantly political. It comes on the heels ofthe president’s April 4 announcement that he is running for re-election. By contrast, members of Congress in March sent a bipartisan letter to the FTC asking for a report on its efforts, under its Congress-mandated authority, to investigate “price-gouging” associated with the recent run-up in gas prices. When the FTC issued its “price-gouging” rule in August 2009, Commissioner William Kovacic warned that the rule could andwould be perverted to serve political ends. Lamentably, those of us who voted for it did not heed his warning.

J. Thomas Rosch

Commissioner

Federal Trade Commission

Washington

It was just a few weeks ago when Commissioner Rosch went on the offensive against the DOJ Antitrust Division, describing them as “an arm of the administration” which “can and will enforce the antitrust laws only insofar as that is consistent with administration policy.”  Rosch also took a shot at Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney.  The WSJ reports that Rosch described Varney as  “inclined to take a lenient view because of her prior job as a lawyer representing the American Hospital Association.”

While the shot against Varney’s “apparent conflicts” seems a bit out of line by my lights, Commissioner Rosch is right on point with respect to the politicization of oil prices and price gouging investigations.  One need only read the FTC’s 222 page report on gasoline prices post-Katrina and Rita to appreciate the Commission’s expertise in this area.  But perhaps most importantly, and undoubtedly related to the appointment of a working group outside the Commission, is that the Commission understands the relevant economics.  Indeed, as I noted just recently, then Bureau of Economics Director Michael Salinger gets it right when he observed  “as unpleasant as high-priced gasoline is, running out will be even worse.”  Further, it was the Commission Report that found not only scant evidence of what might be described as “gouging” — but did find examples of gas stations that shut down rather than risk a suit under a state price gouging law.  “Price Gouging Helps Consumers” doesn’t make for much of an election slogan, so perhaps this is all to be expected.  But nobody should be fooled into believing that enforcement of existing state price gouging laws, or a new federal task force devoted investigate “price gouging,” are going to make consumers better off.

From the Attorney General’s Memorandum to the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (HT: Michael Giberson, who is a must read on all issues oil and energy related:

Based upon our work and research to date, it is evident that there are regional differences in gasoline prices, as well as differences in the statutory and other legal tools at the government’s disposal. It is also clear that there are lawful reasons for increases in gas prices, given supply and demand.

See Giberson’s analysis of price gouging laws here.  Michael Salinger, former colleague at the Federal Trade Commission where he was Director of the Bureau of Economics, has one of my favorite lines on the relevant economics.  In writing about the FTC Report on price gouging after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Salinger wrote, “as unpleasant as high-priced gasoline is, running out will be even worse.”  Actually, the whole context is worth a read:

If the public were to ask my advice on the wisdom of price gouging legislation, however, I would counsel against it. When disasters like Katrina and Rita occur, prices must go up.

The difficulty is that without knowing the details of a disaster, it is impossible to specify in advance how much prices need to rise. As result, price-gouging legislation — particularly if penalties are severe and enforcement is aggressive — will pose two distinct risks. One is that prices will not rise to market-clearing levels and gas stations will run out of gasoline. As unpleasant as high-priced gasoline is, running out will be even worse.

The other is that gas stations will shut down rather than risk an allegation of price gouging. In the wake of major market disruptions, it is always going to be possible in hindsight to identify companies that raised the price the most and to label them as “gougers.” But gasoline stations do not set prices in hindsight. A vague definition of price gouging will make it difficult for gas station owners to know what price they can charge and stay within the law. Indeed, the FTC investigation uncovered examples of gas stations that shut down rather than risk a suit under a state price-gouging statute.

See also here.

There has been plenty of Hurricane Irene blogging, and some posts linking natural disasters to various aspects of law and policy (see, e.g. my colleague Ilya Somin discussing property rights and falling trees).   Often, post-natural disaster economic discussion at TOTM turns to the perverse consequences of price gouging laws.  This time around, the damage from the hurricane got me thinking about the issue of availability of credit.  In policy debates in and around the new CFPB and its likely agenda — which is often reported to include restrictions on payday lending — I often take up the unpopular (at least in the rooms in which these debates often occur) position that while payday lenders can abuse consumers, one should think very carefully about incentives before going about restricting access to any form of consumer credit.  In the case of payday lending, for example, proponents of restrictions or outright bans generally have in mind a counterfactual world in which consumers who are choosing payday loans are simply “missing out” on other forms of credit with superior terms.  Often, proponents of this position rely upon a theory involving particular behavioral biases of at least some substantial fraction of borrowers who, for example, over estimate their future ability to pay off the loan.  Skeptics of government-imposed restrictions on access to consumer credit (whether it be credit cards or payday lending) often argue that such restrictions do not change the underlying demand for consumer credit.  Consumer demand for credit — whether for consumption smoothing purposes or in response to a natural disaster or personal income “shock” or another reason — is an important lubricant for economic growth.  Restrictions do not reduce this demand at all — in fact, critics of these restrictions point out, consumers are likely to switch to the closest substitute forms of credit available to them if access to one source is foreclosed.  Of course, these stories are not necessarily mutually exclusive: that is, some payday loan customers might irrationally use payday lending while better options are available while at the same time, it is the best source of credit available to other customers.

In any event, one important testable implication for the economic theories of payday lending relied upon by critics of such restrictions (including myself) is that restrictions on their use will have a negative impact on access to credit for payday lending customers (i.e. they will not be able to simply turn to better sources of credit).  While most critics of government restrictions on access to consumer credit appear to recognize the potential for abuse and favor disclosure regimes and significant efforts to police and punish fraud, the idea that payday loans might generate serious economic benefits for society often appears repugnant to supporters.  All of this takes me to an excellent paper that lies at the intersection of these two issues: natural disasters and the economic effects of restrictions on payday lending.  The paper is Adair Morse’s Payday Lenders: Heroes or Villians.    From the abstract:

I ask whether access to high-interest credit (payday loans) exacerbates or mitigates individual financial distress. Using natural disasters as an exogenous shock, I apply a propensity score matched, triple difference specification to identify a causal relationship between access-to-credit and welfare. I find that California foreclosures increase by 4.5 units per 1,000 homes in the year after a natural disaster, but the existence of payday lenders mitigates 1.0-1.3 of these foreclosures. In a placebo test for natural disasters covered by homeowner insurance, I find no payday lending mitigation effect. Lenders also mitigate larcenies, but have no effect on burglaries or vehicle thefts. My methodology demonstrates that my results apply to ordinary personal emergencies, with the caveat that not all payday loan customers borrow for emergencies.

To be sure, there are other papers with different designs that identify economic benefits from payday lending and other otherwise “disfavored” credit products.  Similarly, there papers out there that use different data and a variety of research designs and identify social harms from payday lending (see here for links to a handful, and here for a recent attempt).  A literature survey is available here.  Nonetheless, Morse’s results remind me that consumer credit institutions — even non-traditional ones — can generate serious economic benefits in times of need and policy analysts must be careful in evaluating and weighing those benefits against potential costs when thinking about and designing restrictions that will change incentives in consumer credit markets.

Over at Organization and Markets, Peter Klein notes that consumers have been exploiting producers by taking advantage of market conditions, reducing their demand for gasoline, and earning windfall profits.

Hotel owner to face $1000 fine and up to six months in jail after after enforcement of state price-gouging law (HT: Knowledge Problem).  Oh, and the AG would also like the power to declare a state of emergency for the sole purpose of enforcing the price-gouging law in response to some crafty business owners who weren’t waiting for the Governor to declare a state of emergency before responding to supply shocks.

Recently, Frank Pasquale at Concurring Opinions wrote a blog post did a drive-by hit on FTC Chairman Majoras supporting her recusal from considering the Google/DoubleClick merger now pending before the FTC.  You really have to read the post to get the full effect of the innuendo and intimation–it’s masterfully subtle.  At the time I commented on his blog:

Ah, muckraking. A time-worn tradition. So, let me see if I get this straight. Majoras is incapable of acting scrupulously in assessing gouging claims because she has, in the past, advised oil companies (among hundreds of other companies). Nevermind the airtight arguments against price gouging by oil companies and the broad and vast company saying the same things as Majoras. And this tenuous, utterly-unsupported (and oh-so-carefully implicit) claim of bias thus supports calls for Majoras to recuse herself from involvement in a wholly-unrelated case, in a different industry entirely, because, something like, “she’s done it before; she’ll do it again!” I see. Yes, very compelling.

Now comes news, not reported by Frank, that the claims in the recusal motion are pretty far from the mark.  Majoras’ statement (and Kovacic’s statement in response to a similar motion) and the statement of the remaining members of the FTC supporting her are here.  The salient parts:

To fully explain why recusal is not required here, I first must correct some key factual errors contained in the Petition. The Petition states that “Petitioners learned on Monday, December 10, 2007 that Doubleclick, has retained the Washington law firm of Jones Day to represent the company before the Federal Trade Commission in the pending merger review.” (Petition, page 1 ¶ 3). . . . Jones Day does not represent DoubleClick before the FTC and, indeed, in dozens of meetings and submissions, has never appeared or even been mentioned.

More importantly, the Petition also incorrectly states that “The Spouse of the FTC Chairman, John M. Majoras, is currently an equity partner with the law firm Jones Day.” (Petition, page 2 ¶ 5). As of January 1, 2006, John Majoras converted from an equity to a non-equity status and became a fixed participation partner in Jones Day. I understand that as a fixed participation partner, his compensation will not be increased or affected by changes in the firm’s income. Further, all benefits my husband receives from Jones Day are the same as those earned by other similarly situated non-equity partners in the firm. Therefore, my husband does not have a financial interest in the firm’s income, and thus I do not have an imputed financial interest.

In 2004 and 2005, when my husband was still an equity partner, I assumed that I would have a financial interest in FTC matters in which Jones Day represented a party and recused myself in such matters, as petitioners note. (Petition, page 3 ¶ 8-12). After my husband relinquished his equity interest in the firm’s income, I began to consider participating in FTC matters in which Jones Day represented a party, in consultation with the FTC’s Ethics Official. FTC staff and I continue to actively monitor FTC filings and public appearances, as well as any public statements that we may see, to determine whether Jones Day is involved in FTC matters.

The final point helps to explain the petitioner’s oh-so-sinister assertion, duly quoted by Frank, that Majoras had recused herself from cases involving Jones Day before, but not this time . . . .

At any rate, I just thought I might keep the record straight for the blawgosphere.

My GMU colleague Todd Zywicki and Gail Heriot (USD) have an op-ed in the Washington Times exposing Harvard Professors David Himmelstein and Elizabeth Warren’s study on medical debt and bankruptcy, presented to Congress earlier this week, as “one of the most misleading pieces of research ever placed before Congress — no small dishonor.” 

The punchline of the study is that over 50% of bankruptcies have a medical cause, a conclusion that Zywicki and Heriot say is reached only because the researchers have a fairly odd definition of “medical cause” which includes uncontrolled gambling, drug or alcohol addiction, the birth or adoption of a child, or $1,000 or more in out-of-pocket medical expenses over the two years prior to bankruptcy.  The study has been criticized extensively elsewhere (see, e.g. here). 

Maybe Congress isn’t interested in discovering the “true” causal relationship between medical debt and bankruptcy and is simply looking for a study that is consistent with its priors.  I don’t know.  But I don’t expect much more from a Congress that is apparently willing to pass price gouging legislation in the face of all theory and empirical evidence suggesting that this is a horrible idea.  One potential solution to preventing junk social science from influencing policy decisions is to allow for an adversial process in presenting the data so that spurious correlations can be brought to the surface.  Apparently, this solution was undone by some political manuevering.  From Gail Heriot’s post at the Right Coast:

The agenda as originally prepared called for Donna Smith, who was featured in Michael Moore’s Sicko, to testify first, followed by the experts witnesses on both sides, so that the witnesses invited by the minority would have a chance to respond to the study co-authors.  Minutes before the hearing began, the order of witnesses was re-arranged, so that Zywicki & and Clifford J. White III, Director of the Executive Office of United States Trustees, the other witness invited by the minority, would directly follow Ms. Smith’s emotional testimony.  The co-authors of the study, who were invited by the majority would both go later and thus be unrebutted. 

For TOTM readers interesting in seeing the primary sources themselves: Professor Warren’s testimony is available here, the study is available here, and Professor Zywicki’s testimony is available here.