June 16, 2006

The Economics of Prices

Walter Williams writes about Economics of prices:

Here's what one reader wrote: "Williams, I can understand how the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and Middle East political uncertainty can jack up gasoline prices. But it's price-gouging for the oil companies to raise the price of all the gasoline already bought and stored before the crisis."...Such allegations reflect a misunderstanding of how prices are determined.

Let's start off with an example. Say you owned a small 10-pound inventory of coffee that you purchased for $3 a pound. Each week you'd sell me a pound for $3.25. Suppose a freeze in Brazil destroyed half of its coffee crop, causing the world price of coffee to immediately rise to $5 a pound. You still have coffee that you purchased before the jump in prices. When I stop by to buy another pound of coffee from you, how much will you charge me? I'm betting that you're going to charge me at least $5 a pound. Why? Because that's today's cost to replace your inventory.

Historical costs do not determine prices; what economists call opportunity costs do. Of course, you'd have every right not to be a "price-gouger" and continue to charge me $3.25 a pound. I'd buy your entire inventory and sell it at today's price of $5 a pound and make a killing.

If you were really enthusiastic about not being a "price-gouger," I'd have another proposition. You might own a house that you purchased for $55,000 in 1960 that you put on the market for a half-million dollars. I'd simply accuse you of price-gouging and demand that you sell me the house for what you paid for it, maybe adding on a bit for inflation since 1960. I'm betting you'd say, "Williams, if I sold you my house for what I paid for it in 1960, how will I be able to pay today's prices for a house to live in?"

If there's any conspiracy involved in today's high gasoline prices, it's a conspiracy of cowardice and stupidity by the U.S. Congress...

Because of costly regulations and political restrictions, U.S. nuclear energy production is a fraction of what it might be...

...If Congress mandated that CEOs work for zero pay, gasoline prices would fall by less than a penny. If Congress mandated that oil companies earn zero profit, gasoline prices might fall by 10 cents; of course, we'd have to worry about gasoline availability next year.

CEOs tend to be cowards when dealing with politicians and environmental extremists...