A Primer On Price Gouging

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Posted: Mar 18, 2020 12:00 PM
A Primer On Price Gouging

Source: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

After Hitler’s National Socialists were defeated in World War II, the allies imposed price controls on the German economy for the ostensible purposes of fighting inflation and preventing “price gouging.”

That policy led to massive shortages, black markets, and hoarding. Fortunately, as described in this video, a very clever economist abolished those controls, thus setting the stage for Germany’s post-war economic miracle.

The lesson to be learned is that politicians should let markets determine prices. Price controls of any kind, as indicated by the cartoon, will cause people to withhold goods, services, and/or labor from the marketplace.

Unfortunately, many people overlook that lesson when there’s some sort of disaster.

In a column for Bloomberg, Scott Duke Kominers asserts that sellers should not be allowed to increase prices when there’s a sudden increase in demand.

One might think that steep prices for disinfectant in the middle of an epidemic are just markets at work — a way of getting scarce goods to the people who value them the most. I’m sure that’s what price gougers tell themselves. …But that’s not the right way to think about disinfectant at this particular moment. …if you can pay $87 for a bottle of Purell instead of the usual $2 that probably doesn’t mean you’re more concerned about the risk of infection than your neighbor; it just means that you have more disposable income. Thus buying low-priced disinfectant and selling it at steep markups effectively transfers disinfectant supplies from lower-income people to wealthier ones. …in situations such as this it may be best for society to force prices below market-clearing levels in order to make sure everyone has access; that’s exactly what laws prohibiting price gouging attempt to do. …There’s a serious consequence to keeping the price low, of course: we end up with rationing, since there’s not enough to go around. But that hits everyone — rich or poor — more or less equally.

Politicians obviously like this argument. Most states have laws against “price gouging.”

That may be smart politics, but it’s bad economics.

J.D. Tuccille of Reason explains why such laws are misguided.

…as common as accusations of “price gouging” are, the term has no fixed meaning. Asked when rising prices cross the line to become criminal, New York Attorney General Letitia James told NPR, “there’s no definitive answer to that question, but you know it when you see it.” …Some—including Alabama, Florida, and Maine—forbid selling at an “unconscionable” price. Idaho and Texas ban sales at an “exorbitant or excessive price.” And New York splits the difference with restrictions on “unconscionably excessive price” increases during an emergency… Laws can’t change the market conditions that drive prices up. Prices for hand sanitizer, face masks, and easily stored food are rising right now not because sellers are mean, but because demand is rising relative to the immediately available supply. Those rising prices tell…manufacturers and distributors that they should increase production, and where they should send the goods—if they’re allowed to. …Sure enough, GOJO industries is “operating around the clock” to produce hand sanitizer, 3M has “ramped up production” of respirators, and many other companies are responding to the messages they’re getting from the market. Allowed time, goods will get to where they’re needed, and prices will drop as supply meets demand. …Price-gouging laws, by contrast, falsely tell the public that politicians are watching out for them even as they extend shortages and the resulting pain. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic come and go, but “price-gouging” laws demonstrate that intrusive politicians are a recurring plague.

Art Carden, an economics professor at Samford University, shows why anti-gouging laws backfire on consumers.

You’ve seen the pictures on your social media feeds: Empty shelves across America. Panic-buying. Hoarding. …this is exactly what the supply-and-demand model we teach in introductory economics courses predicts when we actively prevent the free market from functioningThe shelves are…empty because…governments aren’t letting prices change to reflect new market conditions. …“price gougers”…get tarred as villains while it’s actually the politicians who are making the problem worse by interfering with prices. …the fact remains that we get a lot more hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other supplies when we make room for people who are just in it for the money. You may not like their motivations, but they’re doing something your state’s governor and attorney general aren’t doing. Namely, they’re getting valuable emergency supplies into your hands.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns about adverse consequences in her syndicated column.

It’s normal for people to stock up on supplies during crises. The immediate results are empty store shelves, soon followed by higher prices. When this happens, politicians around the globe demand an end to the price hikes. …such heavy-handed intervention is a mistake… If prices are kept artificially low, there’s little incentive for shoppers not to buy as much as they can. …The fact is there’s no better means of slowing the rising demand — and, especially, reducing excessive hoarding — than allowing the very price hikes that governments are trying to prevent. But price hikes have another important advantage: They create the necessary incentives for entrepreneurs to shift resources toward activities that increase the supply of these goods. The higher prices encourage higher levels of production for goods like masks and hand sanitizers, which then increases supply. …When governments prevent price hikes, they unwittingly create shortages of vital supplies. …Aren’t we better off when products are actually on the shelves and available for purchase, even if only at higher prices? When no such products are to be found, except by the politically and socially connected, ordinary citizens lose out.

John Hirschauer’s piece in National Review cites some academic research on this topic.

The unintended consequences of price controls have been confirmed…in empirical literature. Take, for instance, the study published by three scholars in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics who examined the merits of proposed price-control laws in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. …The researchers reviewed the historical data on gasoline price hikes and found that “price increases were due to the normal operation of supply and demand and not price manipulation.” Upon reviewing the body of gasoline price-control studies, the group found that “neither consumers nor the economy benefit [from price controls], because the apparent monetary savings to consumers are transformed into costs of waiting or other forms of nonmarket rationing that exceed the monetary savings.” Through econometric analysis, they estimated that the “economic damages would have been increased by $1.5–2.9 billion during the two-month period of price increases” if the federal government had instituted price controls.

The only thing I’ll add to this discussion is that people are sympathetic to anti-gouging laws because of a belief in social equality. We think that everyone – rich and poor – should be treated equally during a disaster.

And in some cases, such as a group of people stranded on a lifeboat, that’s the right approach. Nobody would argue that scarce supplies (limited emergency provisions of freshwater and food) belong to the person with the biggest bank account.

But the economy isn’t a lifeboat. As explained in the above excerpts, it’s possible to get more provisions with the right incentives. Higher prices will encourage entrepreneurs to produce more scarce supplies (in this case, everything from toilet paper and hand sanitizer to respirators and ventilators).

So what’s the bottom line? Price gouging is no fun if you need to buy supplies in an emergency. But a free market is better than the alternative of government controls that lead to shortages, black markets, and hoarding.

I’ll close with this cartoon, which Art Carden included at the end of his AIER column.

And I’ll also add this joke that Mark Perry shared on twitter.

P.S. This video explains why the price system is so important and these three videos explain why anti-gouging laws backfire because they hinder the price system.