Thursday, July 31, 2008

Powerful Externalities of a Giant Natural Monopoly in a Free Market

Today on the abc World News Tonight with Charles Gibson announced that Exxon Oil has announced the largest quarterly profits of any corporation ever - 11.7 billion dollars. Shell Oil followed with 11.5 billion for the quarter. Hearing that news none of us would wonder where that profit came from - we paid for every penny at the pumps. However, as the commentator explained, Exxon made its profit long before the oil was even refined into gasoline. They made it by raising the cost of the crude oil.

Exxon and other oil drilling companies are part of a small competitive monopoly that sets the prices and to a large degree controls the markets of many other goods and manufacturing. The commentary explained that oil production in the Middle East had slowed after the US invasion of Iraq (It is just getting back and increasing now.) The decrease in production by one supplier began the manipulation of the market by the other monopoly participants. By slowing oil production or as the commentary described by conducting repairs on oil drilling or broadcasting concerns that oil production may be curtailed because of the continued aftermath of major storms in the Gulf of Mexico, the consuming countries were willing to pay a premium price on oil to assure their supply.

The oil drilling market is not easily entered. Many oil rich lands are off limits to new and old companies because of governmental and political restrictions (e.g., in Russia and Venezuela), because of conservation concerns (in the coastal waters and in Alaska) and because of natural barriers (e.g., drilling by the North Pole although there is already interest by oil companies in the sea beneath the melting northern icecap). Therefore the monopolist oil companies have been able to set the price and get what they ask.

But there is another side to the story. The news commentary described what happened during the oil crisis in the 1970's when President Carter urged all Americans to conserve energy. For a while Americans bought smaller cars and turned down the heat. But the oil crisis did not last long and soon we all went back to consuming the cheap supply of energy. This time is different. There is no expectation that the oil crisis will end soon. The longer the prices stay high the more lasting the effects. Americans are already driving less, taking more public transportation, working at home for some days per week, buying “green” and seeking products and designs that conserve energy. These changes are not temporary because they are effecting a shift in production and industry. One example is the Toyota factory that had opened in Louisiana and was prepared to make trucks has now retooled to make hybrids. American auto manufacturers have done the same. So that were the energy crisis to end in the next few months, the shift that has taken place would not simply return to the old ways. Economists call this demand destruction, in which changes in the economy creates a shift in consumer behavior that destroys interest in old products. The process is a natural phenomenon in the technology industry in which new devices quickly make old ideas obsolete. With the oil crisis, the destruction of demand has made “going green” the new chic.

No comments: