Laissez Faire

The belief that uniform benefit could be had by pure unregulated capitalistic economies died more than a century ago when people realized that pure market economies failed to produce a benefit to society as a whole. This wasn't a change in thinking from capitalism to socialism as it is often debated now days, but rather a realization that unbridled capitalism exacerbated the conditions that brought about Communism. The great majority of the nation, liberal and conservative, businessman and laborer, came to the same conclusion, that to be in a truly fully capitalist society government played an important role. That role was and is primarily to keep the playing field fair and even so that basic economic principles that benefit mankind can take hold. What had occurred during this time period was that forces gaming the system, chiefly monopolists, took over the open capitalist markets and closed them to the detriment of a great majority of the citizenry.
It was a popular cry for businesses after the American Civil War to ask to be left alone to make their way in a free and unregulated business environment in order to provide goods and services and meet the needs and wants of the society at large. In the burgeoning economy of the period prior to the Civil War this model served a large portion of the nation well, with only pockets of severe economic depression occurring in industrialized places such as those found in central London and New York. The widely held belief that the extreme capitalist model of laissez faire was infinitely beneficial to society reached its apex around 1870. After 1870 the all too real economic folly from a completely unregulated capitalist society began to be clearly visible in the ever increasing poverty concentrated in the cities.

One of the counter beneficial forces that began to occur was that businesses began to merge for the purpose of monopolizing markets and thereby lowering the positive effect of competition. In laissez faire capitalism large corporations quickly establish monopolies and forced pricing upon the citizenry to their extreme gain, rather than allowing competition to flourish. The next 30 years were marked by poor labor conditions, labor strife, polluted cities, Communism establishing itself in Europe, high prices and increased poverty. Unlike today where nearly universally businesses constantly rail against regulation of any kind, that time period brought home the horrors of unregulated business, to the point where small, medium and some large businesses turned against the idea of laissez faire. They pleaded for the government to get involved in helping to fight the ever growing threat of monopolies.

Standard Oil Octopus
By 1911 the first of many anti-trust (anti-monopoly) laws were put in place. One of the biggest monopolies that the Federal Government broke up was Standard Oil. Before 1911 if you filled up your car with gasoline, you would be hard pressed to find gasoline that came form anybody other than Standard Oil. Standard Oil was so big that when broken up it formed the following list of major companies.
  • Exxon originally named Esso.
  • Mobil, now part of ExxonMobil.
  • Chevron originally Standard Oil of California, became ChevronTexaco.
  • Amoco originally American Oil Co., now part of BP.
  • Atlantic Oil Co.
  • Richfield Oil Co. Atlantic and Richfield merged to form ARCO, now part of BP.
  • Kyso, later acquired by Standard Oil of California /Chevron.
  • Conoco, now part of ConocoPhillips.
  • Sohio, now part of BP.
  • Marathon Oil Company, which was based in Ohio and competed with Sohio.
  • Standard Oil of Indiana.
  • Standard Oil of Kansas - refining only, eventually bought by Indiana Standard.
  • Anglo-American Oil Co. - acquired by Jersey Standard in 1930, now Esso UK.
  • Buckeye Pipeline Co.
  • Borne-Scrymser Co. (chemicals)
  • Chesebrough Manufacturing (Vaseline)
  • Colonial Oil.
  • Crescent Pipeline Co.
  • Cumberland Pipe Line Co.
  • Eureka Pipe Line Co.
  • Galena-Signal Oil Co.
  • Indiana Pipe Line Co.
  • National Transit Co.
  • New York Transit Co.
  • Northern Pipe Line Co.
  • Prairie Oil & Gas.
  • Solar Refining.
  • Southern Pipe Line Co.
  • South Penn Oil Co. - eventually became Pennzoil, now part of Shell.
  • Southwest Pennsylvania Pipe Line Co.
  • Swan and Finch.
  • Union Tank Lines.
  • Washington Oil Co.
  • Waters-Pierce.
Once Standard Oil was broken up, oil and gasoline prices dropped.

In a competitive capitalist environment multiple suppliers provide like products or alternatives, (typically called "substitutes" in economic terms). This allows for customers to choose from a variety of products. When suppliers compete by differentiating their products consumers have choices that more closely match their needs, likes or tastes. In the vehicle market we see this at work. People are given a choice between small, medium and large vehicles, vehicles that can go off road, vehicles that can carry sheets of plywood and drywall, vehicles that can double as homes and even vehicles that can take advantage of regenerative braking for greater fuel efficiency using an electric motor in combination with gasoline.

In a base commodity market, such as the market for gravel, typically you will find multiple suppliers providing an undifferentiated product with minimal profit. Simply put, if you need gravel your not going to pay more for different gravel since good enough gravel from any source will suffice, just as you wouldn't pay less for gravel if it wasn't good enough since good enough gravel wouldn't be that much more expensive. Oddly enough, gasoline and oil are commodity products. When observed at the distributor level they act very much like a commodity product. For example, if there were two gasoline stations across the street from each other, chances are that if one where selling gasoline at a price that was even just a few cents more expensive you would purchase your gasoline from the other one. If the gasoline in one of the stations was substantially of poorer quality to the point of affecting the way your vehicle operated, chances are you wouldn't hesitate to use the slightly more expensive gasoline at the other stations since it is not that much more expensive. To survive in a commodity product marketplace suppliers typically end up producing good enough product at a price that is typically very similar to its competitors.

At the macro level commodity suppliers face similar market forces. Gravel producers can't get away from the purchasing affect of the consumer on the market. Retailers will only purchase good enough gravel not poor quality, lower priced gravel, nor will they purchase higher priced gravel no matter how good the quality is since the function of gravel is that good enough will suffice. Broad market forces may change the price of the gravel however, such as a sudden building boom may increase the demand for gravel and scarcity of the gravel resource allows suppliers to sell their gravel at a higher price. The prospect of being able to sell gravel at a higher price typically means that suppliers will produce more gravel to meet the new demand and return the price and profit margin back to what they were before the building boom. This is called equilibrium.

If oil is truly a commodity market product the upswing in demand is normally met with an upswing in supply and prices again return to equilibrium. At the retail level this works out quite well, however, oil at the international market level doesn't seem to act as the commodity product it is. One explanation for this is that we have reached a level of demand that is completely beyond the ability for the market of suppliers to increase their production and bring prices back to equilibrium. Demand simply outpaces the ability for the current group of suppliers to meet the demand. Typically, in such scenarios new suppliers enter the marketplace increasing supply and bringing the price back to equilibrium. From what I have observed there hasn't been a dramatic increase in oil suppliers in the last several years of relatively high gasoline prices. The barriers to entering into the marketplace for new oil suppliers are very high, but the prospect for profitability is very high as well, oil companies today being among the most profitable businesses in the overall market. Risk for entry should be very low no matter how much it costs since the chances for profitability are very high and existing oil companies are highly profitable.

Instead of seeing new suppliers in the marketplace for oil we have seen the exact opposite occur. In the last 7 years or so we have seen a great consolidation of very large oil companies into much larger oil companies. Mergers such as ConocoPhilips, ExxonMobil and ChevronTexico are exactly the opposite market reaction to high oil prices that should have occurred. What I fear I am seeing is the beginnings of the monopolization of the markets similar to the monopolizing forces that occurred during the late 1800s. The top of the market, instead of operating properly based on market forces, begins to work counter to market forces governed by supply and demand. Oil companies of enormous size begin to dictate prices to the market rather than competing on price for consumers and market share.

Peak oil has been described by many as the point where new supplies of oil discovered are systemically less then the rate at which oil is consumed. I believe that there will be a time when the world will have to face the specter of peak oil, however, at this juncture in history it is difficult to tell whether what we are experiencing is peak oil or whether what we are experiencing is the affects of a monopolizing of the oil industry. If pressure on oil prices is that production has outstripped demand then we would likely see oil prices moving steadily higher. Instead what we are seeing is that prices have acted erratically, dramatically increasing due to some weather or news event, only to return to some price similar to what it was before yet typically higher than before.

We could conclude that the price of oil is traveling upward over time and the tightness in demand and supply are what is causing these wild swings in pricing. Price volatility is a factor of tight supplies, but they should only occur where those supplies have been affected and only to those markets for which it serves. The global affect of hurricane Katrina should not have occurred since distribution channels for Katrina-affected-oil did not stretch into the northern states and other countries where oil supplies come from different sources. For example the oil used in Midwestern states comes mainly from Canada and is refined in the Midwestern states. The price of that oil, if a large portion were diverted to those states where supply were affected by hurricane Katrina, could have gone up, however, prices went up across the globe affecting oil prices in Europe and Latin America as well, areas where supplies were not interrupted and where oil produced and distributed never reaches the US markets. In fact the idea of a single price for oil for the entire planet seems counter intuitive given that there are independent refining and distribution networks that should be shielded from global price increases and price drops since these supplies are dedicated for their particular markets.

Upon studying the markets in the Midwestern states for gasoline I discovered that oil prices had not gone up to the refineries and that the refineries did not change the prices of gasoline they sent to the retail outlets after hurricane Katrina. What actually happened was that the retail outlets had increased the price of gasoline independently of their particular cost and supply factors. It seems that information on Katrina on the Gulf Coast created the opportunity to raise prices at the retail level in the Midwest. What had occurred in the Midwest wasn't what I would call typical market forces, but actually a new type of market force that had more to do with the psychological affects of information in formulating a reason for increased prices. The station owners took it upon themselves to increase prices using hurricane Katrina as the excuse. The other side of this economic psychology was that the consumers accepted the reason for the price increase being Katrina and continued to pay the price. This market affect seems to have taken hold on the spot market for oil as well. The oil that they are selling may have nothing to do with or any connection to an incident that occurred on the other side of the planet, however, it provides the cover to increase prices.

An underlying factor maybe at present here and that is that consumers have no real choice whether to or not to pay for gasoline. Gasoline has become a necessity of their life-style. Formulating an excuse to raise prices at the gasoline pump is really not necessary in such a supply-and-demand scenario. So why did the gasoline station owners and operators choose to increase prices in the Midwest at that time? So why does the spot market for oil gyrate so based on crises that is not connected to that particular barrel of oil? This is a subject worth exploring.

The only way that small interruptions of supply could have global implications is that the demand is substantially ahead of the supply curve. In this case there would be no room for sharp downward fluctuation in the price of oil, sharp upward spikes yes, sharp downward spikes no, and yet there is, leading me to believe that there must be other forces at work here. We don't have a steady ever increasing price of oil. What we do have is wild gyrations of prices that slowly have lead to increases in the over all price of oil. If we are truly seeing a compound affect of demand ahead of the supply curve and wild fluctuations in prices due to small interruptions in the supply we would be able to trace the gradual increase of prices through the spikes. Looking back at the data we can see that this seems to be true. Prices may be going up and down dramatically but the overall trend is for ever increasing prices. A sure sign that demand is outstripping supply on a consistent basis.

Lately the retail price of gasoline has hit a long plateau from the summer prices percentage wise. What is happening here? Could we be seeing the gradual decline in oil and gasoline prices brought on by over supply created by the normal market forces associated with higher prices for a commodity product? Could we be seeing the diminishing return finally kicking in on high oil and gasoline prices? Maybe? However, unless prices return to some modicum of commodity pricing like we would typically see of other commodity products, it will still be hard to distinguish whether what we are seeing is normal economic factors, the monopolization of the market, gaming or the affects of peak oil.

We have discovered two very important factors in our study of oil and gasoline prices in the last few years. One is the fact that independent forces such as gasoline retailers and spot market sellers can arbitrarily increase prices under the guise of crisis without actually experiencing the actual affects of a shortage of supply or being the victims of some natural disaster. We learned of this from the Midwestern gasoline dealers taking it upon themselves to raise gasoline prices even though their supply costs and quantity had not changed. The second is that because of psychological factors in the commodity market for oil it is difficult to tell whether the overall price of oil is actually going up due to demand being ahead of the supply curve or that it is more of a factor of the seller using the psychology of crisis in order to increase prices through an average of upward and downward spikes that are unrelated to actual market forces. Since we know that there are shielded supply chains that are not affected by particular crises directly, we know that a single global price for oil is not a product of standard economic forces but rather a construct. Whether this construct has any true meaning was unexplored, however, because of this construct we were able to deduce that it could be used to mask a general unwarranted price increase by creating the illusion of volatility in all oil markets when in actuality their may only be a crisis affecting only one limited supply chain.

In conclusion current prices in the oil market may not be subject to traditional market forces based on generally accepted economic principles. These principles may be being compromised by an artificial consolidation of the oil suppliers at a time when normal market conditions would dictate that there would be an increasing in suppliers. Market forces may be being compromised in the oil markets by gamesmanship. The standard price for gasoline and oil may be rising not because of demand outstripping supply, but rather through the belief that there is a single price for oil for the entire globe, devoid of supply chain factors, and that that oil is affected by a crisis anywhere affecting any supply chain. The series of crises that the oil industry seems to have experienced over the last 7 years or so has lead to an annual climbing average oil price for all markets even though logic would dictate that shielded markets and supply chains should remain unaffected.

After examining these factors it is in my opinion that stronger controls and regulations are needed in the oil industry to maintain oil as a commodity product through a process of deconsolidation of major oil companies. We should also subsidize the entry of new suppliers into the oil markets as well as heavily subsidize substitute fuels, further more rules on retail pricing should be put in place limiting the price increase of gasoline only to stations that have been directly affected by wholesale price increases or shortages. We should disallow a single global oil price to be reported but rather only allow for market and crisis conditions to be reported about particular supply chains. The idea here is to reduce the affects of gamesmanship being practiced on the market without true market forces having taking affect on the particular barrel of oil for sale. In other words the government once again must make its presence felt in the marketplace to maintain free and fair markets and keep them from being gamed or degenerating into the horrible monopolistic societies of the unregulated period at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Tags: alternatives, Business, economics, Economy, Energy, faire, Free, fuel, jobs, Labour, laissez, markets, monopolies, Oil, regulation, substitutes, trusts (all tags)


1 Comment


The refinery market is a tightly controlled oligopoly. No new capacity has been added for decades.   This keeps supplies tight enough for periodic "shortages" that generate price spikes.

by msobel 2008-01-02 09:45AM | 0 recs


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