Gas price gouging on rise*

Michael Giberson

Gasoline stations are violating price regulations at a higher rate than any other industry under government price guidelines, an Internal Revenue Service survey shows.

About 20% of service stations checked were selling gasoline above the legal ceiling price, the agency said.

Federal energy chief William Simon told The Milwaukee Journal’s Washington Bureau Thursday that the Internal Revenue Service was intensifying its crackdown on price gouging. He said the IRS was training an additional 1,000 investigators – bringing the total number available to the Federal Energy Office (FEO) to about 2,500.

In addition, he urged consumers to complain to their local IRS office whenever they believed they were being overcharged. He said consumers should get receipts from service stations whenever possible so they could receive any refunds that were ordered.

Acting Atty. Gen. Robert Bork sent telegrams to 94 US attorneys last week advising them to seek restraining orders against gasoline price gouging, Simon said.

Most of the violation probably do not involve flagrant price gouging, in which motorists are charged $1 or more for a gallon of gas, an IRS spokesman said. But the number of such serious violations is increasing.

The spokesman said it appeared that an increasing number of gasoline stations were using various gimmicks to get around the government’s price regulations.

*Excerpt from “Gas Price Gouging on Rise,” The Milwaukee Journal, January 2, 1974.

You probably believe that consumers had to wait in long lines to buy gas in the early 1970s because of the OPEC oil embargo. Annual data on imports available from the Energy Information Administration indicate that oil imports from OPEC nations increased each year from 1968 through 1977. (I don’t find monthly data on a cursory search, though it would be more revealing of conditions during the months of the embargo.)

The newspaper clip above reminds us that U.S. government price controls were hampering oil industry adjustments to higher world oil prices and changing supply conditions. A little common sense is all that is needed to realize that consumers don’t stand in line to pay too-high prices, but will stand in line for underpriced goods (whether due to sales promotions or government price controls).

A related story, “Gas stations worst violators” (The Miami News, January 3, 1974), elaborated on gasoline retailers’ adaptations to price controls: “According to the [Federal Energy Office] spokesman, the gimmicks used include service charges for each gallon of gas, requiring consumers to get a car wash along with a full tank of gas, or making them buy other products at inflated prices.”

The rest of The Milwaukee Journal story is included in the continuation below.

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Monday morning debt recommendations

Lynne Kiesling

Too many people are writing and saying too many interesting things to digest on the debt actions in the eurozong and the debt downgrade in the US … and some people are saying some extremely misinformed and silly things too. But I’d like to highlight a few comments I’ve read today and over the weekend that I think make sense.

In Sunday’s Daily Telegraph (UK), Janet Daley provided a good discussion of how the US history and culture of individual liberty relates to the current debt/spending fiscal crisis facing us; particularly for a non-US audience, I thought her analysis was really useful:

The truly fundamental question that is at the heart of the disaster toward which we are racing is being debated only in America: is it possible for a free market economy to support a democratic socialist society? …

But the US has a very different historical experience from European countries, with their accretions of national remorse and class guilt: it has a far stronger and more resilient belief in the moral value of liberty and the dangers of state power. This is a political as much as an economic crisis, but not for the reasons that Mr Obama believes. The ruckus that nearly paralysed the US economy last week, and led to the loss of its AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s, arose from a confrontation over the most basic principles of American life.

Contrary to what the Obama Democrats claimed, the face-off in Congress did not mean that the nation’s politics were “dysfunctional”. The politics of the US were functioning precisely as the Founding Fathers intended: the legislature was acting as a check on the power of the executive.

After discussing possible policy alternatives in Europe and the US, she makes the Einsteinian conclusion that insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome:

A general correction of the imbalance between wealth production and wealth redistribution is now a matter of basic necessity, not ideological preference.

The hardest obstacle to overcome will be the idea that anyone who challenges the prevailing consensus of the past 50 years is irrational and irresponsible. That is what is being said about the Tea Partiers. In fact, what is irrational and irresponsible is the assumption that we can go on as we are.

Sounding a similar note is Pete Boettke, with whom I agree that we’re gonna have to face it, we’re addicted to debt:

The global economy doesn’t need an international plan of supervision and stabilization, instead what is required is bold action by policy makers to slash spending and let society reclaim responsibility from the state.

Another aspect of this situation that has been interesting has been how various parties are trying to spin the Friday S&P “$2 trillion math mistake” in the run-up to the downgrade announcement. I took those spin attempts with a grain of salt, as I suspect did anyone who has ever done a forward-looking scenario analysis and sensitivity analysis of financial data. Is one person’s “mistake” another person’s different assumption, or different choice of scenario?

John Taylor, who has much more experience than I do in this type of work, suggests precisely that:

But if you examine the details of the S&P–Treasury–White House dispute, rather than a “math error” you will find what is better described as a “difference of opinion” about a forecast for future government spending.  In other words, the issue is about the appropriate “baseline” for government spending in the absence of more actions. Since when did different views or assumptions about the future become a math error?
In their original draft report, S&P evidently assumed that discretionary government spending would grow by about 5 percent per year over the next 10 years if no further action were taken (beyond the Budget Control Act of 2011). In the final draft, at the urging of the Treasury, they assumed that discretionary spending would grow at about 2.5 percent per year if no further actions were taken.  The first assumption leads to a higher level of debt than the second.  Over 10 years the difference is about $2 trillion.

So this is a matter of different assumptions rather than a math mistake.  In fact, the alternative assumption of faster spending growth is not so unreasonable, and whether or not S&P put it in their final report it is something they or anyone else should worry about.

I recommend reading Taylor’s post carefully as you formulate your own interpretation of the debt downgrade and the policy alternatives available to us.

Worried about too much demand elasticity in electric power markets

Michael Giberson

Will electric power consumers facing smart-grid enabled real time prices have the potential to accidentally destabilize the power grid and cause a blackout?  A paper presented at a recent IEEE conference says it is a possibility. The surprising culprit? Too much price elasticity in the market demand function.

It is a surprising culprit because consumer demand for electricity is currently notoriously inelastic (that is to say, not responsive to changing prices) in the short run, in part due to the way standard regulatory rate structures end up with consumers being presented with relatively unchanging prices reflecting a longer-term average cost of production. Prices don’t change much, so consumers don’t watch prices much. But this price inelasticity of demand doesn’t mean the quantity of electricity consumers want to consume is unchanging – consumers want more or less electricity throughout the day in response to ordinary household schedules and in response to outside temperatures and building heating and cooling demands. Consumer demand for power responds to a lot of things, but rarely to changes in the price of power itself.

Because of the way the current grid is designed, the quantity of energy supplied and demanded must be balanced continuously. Therefore, the grid is typically operated to take the quantity of power demanded as a given and make whatever adjustments in the quantity supplied to maintain system balance. (In brief, because prices can’t do much work coordinating supply and demand in the short-run, all of the coordination must be done by adjusting quantities. Grid operators can typically control suppliers but not consumers, so quantity-based supply side adjustment does most of the work of keeping the market balanced.)

The authors, three engineers at MIT, worry that if too many consumers facing real time prices pick similar high price points at which to cycle off appliances (or low prices as which to charge electric vehicles), that the market demand function will acquire highly price elastic segments in which quantity demanded will suddenly drop off (or spike up) at rates faster than the supply side can safely accommodate. Therefore, a blackout risk. To counter this possible risk, the authors suggest diversifying price signals sent to consumers, or employing hourly instead of 5-minute price signals, or using rolling-average prices to consumers rather than location-specific current marginal price. They admit their safeguards would hamper the efficiency of market results, the efficiency loss essentially the price paid to mitigate the possibility of a price-responsive demand shock to the system.

In my view, the idea of having so many real-time price-aware consumers responding in the market remains so far-fetched that I’m not willing to worry about that so many of them will coordinate their home energy management systems on the same price points and unwittingly bring down the system.

And well before this possibility of too-much consumer responsiveness comes about, I suspect most RTOs will be paying suppliers for ramping capability and charging consumers for using it in ways that will enable sufficient short-run system responsiveness. So I’m not ready to worry now about this problem, and don’t think that I’ll need to worry about it later, either.

(See MIT media relations summary here, HT to Scientific American via Economist’s View.)