It’s been brewing for several years, but finally the $66/barrel oil prices have induced Hawaii to impose a cap on the wholesale price of gasoline.
On Wednesday, the state’s Public Utilities Commission released its first weekly list of price caps for different parts of the state. Including taxes, the maximum wholesalers in Honolulu may charge is $2.74 per gallon.
Hawaii passed the law in 2004 and the first caps go into effect Sept. 1.
Now, we all know the economics of this, right? If the cap is binding (that is, if it is lower than the market-clearing price would be without the cap), then quantity demanded will exceed quantity supplied and Hawaiians will use another means of allocating scarce gasoline: queuing. If the price cap is not binding, then it’s irrelevant.
But this price cap has a twist:
On Wednesday, the average retail price of regular unleaded in Honolulu was at a record $2.761, some 15 cents above the nationwide average. Statewide, prices average $2.84, the highest in the nation, according to AAA’s Web site.
Prices on Maui have already topped $3 a gallon this week.
Frank Young, a member of Citizens Against Gasoline Price Gouging, said he was confident that over the long run, the caps will ensure Hawaii residents pay fair prices, because they link the state’s wholesale prices to spot prices elsewhere.
“The purpose of the cap is so that we move with the rest of the country,” said Young.
The caps are pegged to an index made up of average wholesale prices in California, the U.S. East Coast and the Gulf Coast, which are all at record highs. According to the commission, the five-day average of the three markets was $1.8728. This was used as a baseline price in calculating the caps for eight geographic zones across the state.
Other factors used in calculating the price caps were marketing costs and regional market conditions.
Gov. Linda Lingle, who unsuccessfully sought repeal of the 2004 law passed by the state Legislature, has said she feels the cap will actually increase prices and create fuel shortages.
I think she’s right. Populist politicians in Hawaii want to force the prices in Hawaii to mimic those in the rest of the country. But Hawaii is a world apart, in many ways (in addition to its natural beauty). It’s very far away, it’s an archipelago, and it’s sparsely populated. All of these factors contribute to a naturally high price of gasoline there — transportation costs (to Hawaii and within the archipelago), lack of space and political will, and relative lack of demand, to warrant building new refinery capacity there, etc.
They say they used “regional market conditions” to determine the cap. But if that’s the case, then won’t the cap reflect transportation cost differentials and relative lack of demand, thus rendering a price cap irrelevant?
Hawaii politicans are congratulating themselves for constructing a “market-based” price cap. I think those congratulations are hollow. Let’s see if they will be congratulating themselves when poor people in rural parts of Hawaii who rely on their trucks for jobs find no gas at the station.
Also draw this interesting connection: remember the gas lines in China we were talking about last week? The economic dynamics are the same. So is the queuing.
UPDATE: Mike put the link to today’s Wall Street Journal piece on the Hawaii cap in the comments, but I’m duplicating it here for the benefit of those who don’t click through to comments.