New Yorkers didn’t ‘share the pain’ of higher gasoline prices during emergency

Michael Giberson

One idea advanced by proponents of anti-price gouging laws is that after disaster strikes people should put aside their usual self-interests, join in with the community, and share in the burden of recovery. What these proponents often miss is that normal market adjustments will support a sharing in the burden of recovery, even among those lacking much in the way of charitable impulses, when prices are relatively free to adjust.

Prices go up in the disaster zone, supplies are diverted from elsewhere, prices go up elsewhere, people elsewhere cut back a little in response to higher prices, and there we have it: sharing the pain. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is a helping hand to those in need.

But the actions of the “invisible hand” were constrained by the very visible hand of the state. In both New York and New Jersey state officials were prominently threatening to slap businesses with thousands of dollars in fines if prices went up too much. Prices did go up a bit in the disaster struck area, but not enough to prompt extraordinary efforts from elsewhere. New York saw none of that normal, voluntary response to changing supply and demand conditions elsewhere, and post-disaster sacrifices remained concentrated mostly in the hardest hit areas.

Consider the price chart below, which shows regular gasoline prices in Albany, Buffalo, and New York City, all in New York State, from June of 2011 through the end of November 2012. Typically these prices move up and down together with just a little localized variation. Beginning at the end of October 2012, during Sandy and its aftermath, prices in the New York City moved sharply higher for nearly two weeks. In New York state outside the disaster-struck area, however, gasoline prices barely slowed their descent from late summer highs.

18_months_of_NY_pricesGasoline lines? Odd-even rationing? Gasoline stations pumped dry? Yes, but only around the power-out, flooded-out, storm-struck area.

Elsewhere in the state: business as usual but for the occasional invitation to chip in $10 to the Red Cross.

ROCKETS AND FEATHERS NOTE: Interestingly, Buffalo prices pretty consistently show a slower price descent when prices are falling than either New York City or Albany. I recall that at the end of 2008 a Buffalo-area Congressman was complaining about the same thing. See here and here. The second half of 2008 was a time of fairly consistently falling gasoline prices throughout the U.S., interrupted only by a short lived mid-September price spike due to Hurricane Ike. Gasoline price researchers, start your engines.

Another round of price gouging charges in New York

Michael Giberson

The New York Attorney General’s office continues its aggressive pursuit of price gouging violations, announcing another 12 cases last week. From the press release:

“Our office will continue to take enforcement actions against price gougers because ripping off New Yorkers is against the law,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “We are actively investigating the hundreds of complaints we’ve received from consumers of businesses preying on victims of Hurricane Sandy. There must be no tolerance for unscrupulous individuals who take advantage of New Yorkers trying to rebuild their lives.”

… Among the current batch of 12 enforcement targets is a Mobil station at 3424 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx where a consumer waiting in line for over an hour was just three cars from the pump when she was told that she would be charged $50 for five gallons of gasoline – $10 per gallon. In contrast, stations nearby were charging $3.95 a gallon.

At a second station, the Coastal station at 1575 Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station, a consumer reported being charged $4.69 per gallon of gasoline while neighboring stations were charging between $3.69 and $4.05. One consumer waited in line for over an hour and did not see a sign detailing prices until after the attendant began pumping gas for the customer.

The 12 stations charged with price gouging are branded: Coastal, BP, Liberty, Ultra, Rio, Getty, Gulf, Shell, Sunoco, Mobil (3). Charged in the earlier 13 price gouging cases were: The 13 gasoline stations are branded: Shell (3), Mobile (4), USA Petroleum (2), Babylon Gas/Express Market, Sonomax, Delta, and Getty.

In New Jersey seven gas stations have been charged with price gouging, with the following brand names: Lukoil (2), Gulf, Delta, Exxon, BP, and Sunoco.