Many of the increasingly clamorous inflation hawks are convinced that the main culprits behind the recent rise in prices are Congressional Democrats and the Biden Administration. Other observers point to supply chain problems or escalating wage demands. Yet there has been surprisingly little focus on the parties responsible for actually setting most of the prices: large corporations.
That’s why it was refreshing to see a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal the other day that provided a more honest account of what is happening. Its headline was: “Inflation Helps Boost Profit Margins: Companies Seize Rare Opportunity to Increase Prices and Outrun their Own Rising Costs.”
The second part of that is the most significant: corporations are raising prices not only to cover their rising costs but well beyond. In other words, they are exploiting a crisis situation to fatten their bottom lines. There is a term for this: price gouging.
Companies such as high-end mattress producer Sleep Number and heating/cooling equipment manufacturer Carrier Corp., the Journal noted, have each pushed through three major price increases this year. As a result, corporate profits are booming. The Journal article cited figures showing that many large companies are reporting margins at least 50 percent above 2019 levels.
It was appropriate for the Biden Administration to call on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether illegal conduct by petroleum companies is responsible for the spike in gasoline prices. Other sectors should also be scrutinized.
Given the high level of concentration in many industries, it is likely that anti-competitive practices may be at play. Sometimes this can verge into explicitly criminal behavior. Earlier this year, for example, poultry processor Pilgrim’s Pride pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay $107 million in criminal fines for its participation in a conspiracy to fix prices and rig bids for broiler chicken products.
Around the same time, Argos USA had to pay $20 million to resolve criminal allegations that it participated in a conspiracy to fix prices, rig bids, and allocate markets for sales of ready-mix concrete in the Southern District of Georgia and elsewhere.
Those who have studied economics will probably recall this comment by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” These days, the contrivance probably occurs in emails or Zoom calls, but the result is the same.
A key component of the effort to bring inflation under control is to prevent corporations from exploiting the country’s transition from the pandemic in a way that harms the rest of us.