New York Attorney General proposes to prohibit use of business-related reasoning in gasoline wholesaling

Michael Giberson

It sounds kind of funny to say the New York Attorney General wants to prohibit business-related reasoning in gasoline wholesaling. After all, gasoline wholesaling is a business activity and generally business-related reasoning would be entirely appropriate. It sounds like asking a court not to act on law-related reasoning or asking a politician not to think politically. But read the report put out by the AG’s office, “Report on New York Gasoline Prices,” and see what it says on pages 37-39.

At issue is “zone pricing,” a practice by which wholesalers charge differing prices to retailers in different locations, usually based on an estimate of what the market will bear. A New York state law passed in 2008 tried to ban zone pricing for gasoline, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. The report noted, “Certain areas of the state that had relatively high retail prices before the law took effect in 2008, such as the South Fork of Long Island and northern Westchester, still tend to have relatively high prices.”

The problem, according to the AG’s report, is that the anti-zone pricing law prohibits only arbitrary price differences between different locations. (See New York’s General Business Law § 399-ee at 1 (m): “Zone pricing means the arbitrary price differences within the relevant geographic market.”) The report notes that wholesalers admit charging different prices to retailers in different locations, but say the price differences are not arbitrary because they are “based on business-related market and economic conditions such as operating costs, degree of competition, the specific location of a station, and other factors.”

The report says “the inclusion of the word ‘arbitrary’ in the definition of zone pricing renders the prohibition toothless.” The AG’s solution is to propose deletion of the word from the definition. Where the law now merely prohibits certain arbitrary price differences, the AG wishes to prohibit price differences. If the state legislature agrees, the law would then prohibit the use of all kinds of normal business-related reasoning in New York’s wholesale gasoline business.

The state legislature ought not to accept the AG’s recommendation, but rather ought to toss out the zone pricing ban.

As the AG’s report itself indicates, there is no evidence of any consumer harm from zone pricing. With zone pricing affluent consumers may pay a little higher price for gasoline than lower- and middle-class consumers, but there is no reason to expect consumer prices are higher on average due to zone pricing.  (As I put it back in November 2008, “anti-zone pricing legislation is essentially consumer protection for affluent customers unwilling to spend their time shopping around for lower prices”). The toothless zone pricing ban is apparently causing no harm either, so doing nothing would simply leave an empty law on the books.

On the other hand, prohibiting the charging of reasonable price differences by gasoline wholesalers in New York would serve to screw up the whole state’s wholesale gasoline market in an effort to keep customers in affluent areas from paying a few more pennies per gallon of gasoline. Seems like a too high price to pay.

 

[NOTE: The report also includes the AG’s report on gasoline price movements in the state during 2011 and a discussion of price gouging. These other issues may be discussed here later this week.]

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