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The Facts about Gas Prices and Oil Profits

by Kevin D. Williamson

Please spare a moment for this hilariously illiterate piece of “analysis” from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which apparently gets its best material from the Union of Half-Educated Sophomores.

The subject is gasoline retailing and the villain is Big Oil. And the shocking headline repeated by Doug Newcomb of Wired (whose editors really should know better) is this: Two-thirds of the cost of a gallon of gas is . . . oil. Gasp, shock, awe, etc. Newcomb quotes Joshua Goldman, the author of the UCS study: “I was actually surprised to learn how little gas stations make from selling gas.” You know who is not surprised to learn that gas stations earn only a few pennies on the gallon? People who work at gas stations. I myself uncovered that particular nugget way back in the summer of 1991, when I was enrolled in a fascinating econ seminar called “Working at 7-Eleven.” Goldman may not have my special academic insights as a former member of the smock-wearing elite — he probably doesn’t even know how to clean a Slurpee machine — but the fact that gas stations make very little money from selling gas is common knowledge. (How common? Even Matt Yglesias knows!)

UCS writes:

Your gas money doesn’t support your local gas station, nor does it benefit you financially, even if you own oil company stock. Most of the money you spend at the pump goes directly to one place: oil companies.

You have a choice when it comes to your oil use: Continue pumping your money into oil company profits or invest in fuel efficiency and keep the profits in your pocket instead.

This will take some unpacking. It is true that about 68 cents on the dollar of gas sales goes toward oil costs, but that is not the same thing as “pumping your money into oil company profits.” That 68 cents on the dollar is revenue, not profit. Oil companies could be posting profits of $0.00 and the cost of oil would still account for the majority of the cost of a gallon of gas. As it turns out, gasoline is made out of oil. Oil and gasoline are pretty much the definition of undifferentiated commodities, so it is no surprise that in a very competitive market the profit margin for selling them is low. If you do not know the difference between revenue and profit, you should not be writing in public.

The question of how much profit an Exxon or a Chevron actually makes off a gallon of gas is a complicated one; the short answer is: nobody knows. Exxon’s “downstream” earnings — the money it makes selling gasoline and other refined petroleum products — run about 7 or 8 cents a gallon. Critics point out that this figure does not include the money that Exxon makes from crude-production operations, and that is fair enough. In total, Exxon makes about 8 cents on the dollar for everything it does, soup to nuts: Its profit margin for the past 20 quarters averages 8.26 percent. That is, it is worth noting, a good deal lower profit margin than Wired parent company Conde Nast generally achieves, according to the company’s CEO, Charles Townsend. Apple’s profit margin runs about three times Exxon’s. Chip-maker Linear Technology’s profit margins routinely run four times those of Exxon. Energy is a high-volume business, not a high-profit-margin business. But regardless of the size of the margin, how much revenue goes where tells you nothing about profit.

The UCS argument that the structure of the gasoline industry ensures that fuel purchases do not “benefit you financially, even if you own oil company stock,” is also ground-poundingly absurd. UCS elaborates: “Say you have $20,000 invested in ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded oil company in the world. If you spent $1,700 on gas from ExxonMobil over the course of a year, your fuel purchase would yield far less than a penny in stock earnings. Even if you had $1 million invested, you would still get less than one cent in return after spending almost $2,000 on gasoline.” Or, as Newcomb puts it: “The UCS says that even drivers who own shares in an oil company and buy that brand of gas won’t see a bump in their stock portfolio because of their loyalty.”

I myself do not own a car and rarely buy a tank of gas, but I do invest in oil companies on the theory that — pay attention, here, Goldman and Newcomb — lots of other people buy gasoline, billions of them, in fact. That my gasoline-buying habits have a very small impact on the performance of my oil stocks is the very definition of the fact that is trivially true. As for brand loyalty, somebody ought to let Newcomb in on the fact that Exxon-branded gas stations do not really have anything to do with ExxonMobil, which began selling off its U.S. gas stations back in 2008 and at the moment does not own a single gas station in the United States. They kept the Exxon name, but Exxon sold them to distributors and local oil companies, and is doing so in Europe as well. Why? Because — this is news to the people at UCS and Wired — it’s hard to make much money retailing gas. “[The] fuels marketing sector continues to be challenging, with reduced margins and significant competitive growth,” Exxon’s Premlata Nair told the Washington Post, five years ago. Five years is like 60 in Wired years, right?

Did UCS even consider the math behind its own argument? Did Wired? If $1,700 in gasoline purchases generates $1,156 in revenue for an oil company but far less than a penny in revenue for somebody who owns $20,000 worth of stock (or 225 shares in Exxon), what could that possibly mean? That revenue elves are running off with the money? That Exxon shareholders are suckers? What it mainly means, of course, is that there are lots of shares of Exxon stock on the market: 4.5 billion shares outstanding and a market capitalization of nearly $400 billion. So, yeah, your piece of the action on $1,700 worth of sales when you own 0.000005 percent (five millionths of 1 percent) of the company is apt to be quite small. Ingenious observation, guys! It also means that (cf. those profit margins cited above) getting oil out of the ground and into the high-test pump is not cheap. Your conclusion might be that you should buy less gasoline. Or your conclusion might be that you should buy more Exxon shares. It depends on what your goals are.

Also: If you ordered a hamburger and learned that 68 percent of the revenue went to a beef rancher, would that make you feel better or worse about your hamburger? Isn’t the point of things like local farm coops to send more revenue to the producers?

The economic illiteracy continues, both at UCS and at Wired. “Fuel efficiency is really what’s going to put more money back in your pocket and put more money back in our communities,” Goldman tells Wired, and Newcomb worries that “very little of the remaining cash goes into the local economy.” Can we please lay aside the primitive superstition that in the developed world in the 21st century there is such a thing as the “local economy”? Let’s say we took the Brooklyn farm coop approach to gas, and a quaint little store on my corner had a oil well in the back, a DIY-refinery in the garage, and a hand-lettered chalkboard outside advertising its artisanal gas. The bearded hipster inside runs the whole thing. Local economy, right? But I assume he lives in a house or an apartment, which is bound to be made of concrete and steel not locally sourced. He probably has a cell phone and a computer and may even shop at Trader Joe’s or Whole Food or — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — Walmart, thus sending the money I spend at his shop far and wide. You know who has a “local economy”? North Koreans and hunter-gatherers. Autarky is no way to live. Somebody should explain comparative advantage and gains from trade to these gentlemen.

And how exactly is fuel efficiency going to “put more money back into our communities”? I took a little walk around my neighborhood this morning, and I did not see a single Prius factory.

Finally, neither party seems to appreciate the importance of UCS’s “finding” that, after oil, the No. 2 contributor to the cost of a gallon of gasoline is taxes. UCS writes: “Of the remainder, 14 percent of the money spent on gasoline goes to taxes that help pay for roads and transportation services, 10 percent to refining costs, and 8 percent to distribution and marketing.” Think on that: For refined petroleum products, taxes cost more than refining, but less than petroleum. Which one of those seems out of whack?

This UCS “study” is almost entirely empty of intellectual content, reducible to: If you spend less money on gas, you spend less money on gas. It is a juvenile example of dressing up baseless preferences as empirical observation. UCS describes itself thus: “The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet’s most pressing problems.” Wired describes itself as a literate magazine. Neither organization’s reputation should escape this kind of sophomoric intellectual fraud undamaged. Both of them have made the world a little dumber today.

You Cannot Raise Taxes on the Rich

by Kevin D. Williamson

Thanks to the fiscal-cliff deal and the Obamacare tax, we now have a tax code that is more “progressive” than at any time since Jimmy Carter was president. It will be interesting to see what long-term effect that has on household-income trends. The results may prove counterintuitive.

Tax increases on high-income people may be redistributive, but not always in the way intended. That is because we pay taxes individually in the short term, but in the long term we pay taxes collectively: Individuals and firms pass on tax costs to employers and consumers to whatever extent they can, just like any other cost. But the same factors that make any given worker a high-income wage-earner in the first place are likely to make that worker one who can most effectively pass on tax expenses. Likewise, the most profitable firms in many cases will be the ones that have the most power to pass on tax expenses to consumers or suppliers.

A high-income worker is one who by definition is in high demand. The same factors that make him a high-income worker also enable him to demand higher wages in response to tax increases or other factors that diminish his real income. You see this all the time with financial and tech specialists who are recruited to positions in high-tax areas such as New York or California: Workers in that position, or headhunters recruiting them, simply add taxes and other cost-of-living factors into the starting point of income negotiations. A $100,000-a-year job in Manhattan is not the same as a $100,000-a-year job in Muleshoe.

Likewise, companies with very in-demand products (Apple, Mercedes-Benz) have the most ability to pass costs along to consumers, while equally powerful but price-constricted firms (Walmart) have the most power to pass expenses on to suppliers and other business partners. A tax hike on Walmart is not necessarily a tax hike on Walmart — it’s likely to be a tax hike on, for example, Cal Maine Foods, which relies on Walmart for a third of its business. In business as in love, the power in a relationship is always in the hands of the party with the least to lose by walking away from it.

Which is to say, it is not clear that you really can raise taxes on the rich, even if you try.

At the other end of the spectrum, low-wage workers are those who by definition are not in very much demand and therefore have the least ability to negotiate tax offsets. The same is true for less powerful firms.

So, let’s say you’re Walmart, and your top hundred inventory-management, systems, and finance guys all come to you looking for a 10 percent bump because of the fiscal-cliff tax hike and the Obamacare tax hike. Walmart does not live and die by greeters or Cal Maine eggs — it lives and dies by logistics and finance, and it really needs people who are good at that. It will work as hard to keep its top talent as Apple will to keep its top engineering and design talent. So where does Walmart go to get that money to keep its top talent? If you have 100 high-wage specialists you really need to keep happy and tens of thousands of low-skilled greeters, cashiers, warehousemen, etc., all of whom you are pretty confident you can easily replace, you are going to be tempted to shift some money from the big, low-skilled pot to the small, high-skilled pot. Likewise, if Walmart has a supplier that represents 0.01 percent of its sales but relies on Walmart for 33 percent of its own sales, who do you think is going to prevail if Walmart decides it needs to knock prices down by a nickel?

We may not consciously plan that kind of thing down to the dime, but people know that there is a difference between their pre-tax income and their real income, and people with the market power to maximize the former also have the power to maximize the latter. Put another way: Even a very progressive tax code “does very little to alter the market distribution of income.”

It is transfers, not taxes, that really generate such progressivity as we have in the United States. As Lane Kenworthy shows, the overall U.S. tax system — federal, state, and local — is not all that progressive in its effects, despite a very progressive graduated federal income tax. What low-income workers don’t pay in federal taxes, they make up for in state and local taxes, particularly sales taxes, which are basically a flat income tax for the poor. Kenworthy finds that each quintile pays about 30 percent of its income in taxes. But the system becomes much more progressive when transfers are accounted for.

Tax hikes on the so-called rich may decrease the private sector’s share of income, but they probably will not do much to decrease the real income of high-wage workers and may in reality increase government revenue at the expense of low-wage workers in the long term, though it is very difficult to disaggregate the complex relationships between taxes, wages, and prices. But those who say that they are most interested in economic inequality would do well to follow Kenworthy’s example and look at transfers rather than taxes. Means-testing Social Security and Medicare would do more to make the total package of taxes and transfers more progressive than any tax hike likely to pass Congress in the foreseeable future. It is also a reform that many conservatives and deficit hawks could support. This should be persuasive to those on the Left whose interest in tax hikes on the high-income is not strictly punitive, but I am afraid they are a very small minority.

– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May. 

Democrats Raise Taxes on Poor to Subsidize Millionaires

by Kevin D. Williamson

There are basically two ways of looking at the fiscal-cliff deal. One possible headline reads:

“Congress does basically nothing.”

For all of the operatic angst and wailing surrounding the negotiations, what was produced was essentially a status quo, kick-the-can extension of most current policies, with a few minor changes that will have very little impact on the long-term fiscal health of the country.

But there is another possible headline:

Democrats insist on raising taxes on poor to protect millionaires and billionaires.”

That is not how the New York Times put it, but it is true.

Of all the tax cuts of the Bush-Obama era, the income-tax cuts for the so-called rich (households earning $250,000 or more) were the least expensive in terms of forgone revenue. The Bush tax cuts for $250,000-plus were estimated by the CBO to deprive the Treasury of about $80 billion a year; the income-tax cuts for the middle class were estimated to cost $220 billion a year; the payroll-tax holiday, which disproportionately benefits the poor and middle class, cost about $120 billion a year.

Extending the payroll-tax holiday was on almost nobody’s radar during the fiscal-cliff debate. Why? The cynical answer is that nobody really cares very much about the interests of poor people, and there is something to that. But I think the answer is a bit more complex: Republicans believe (correctly) that temporary tax holidays are bad economic policy, contributing very little in the way of stimulus or long-term growth prospects but increasing uncertainly about future tax conditions. Democrats dislike payroll-tax reductions because they undermine the myth that Social Security is a self-funding investment (payroll taxes allegedly fund Social Security) rather than what it is: a deficit-expanding welfare program for the middle class. And everybody had a good reason to knock that $120 billion a year off of their CBO scoring.

The expiration of the payroll-tax holiday will reduce the real income of middle-class and working-poor households by around 1.5 percent on average. So while the fiscal-cliff deal raises taxes on those making $400,000 and up, it also raises taxes on workers in the bottom (0.00 percent) income-tax bracket, who do pay payroll taxes. Republicans would have been happy to extend all of those tax cuts into the future, but President Obama and his Democratic allies insisted on tax increases — knowing full well that would mean tax increases on the poor as well as on the high-income.

But not all the rich folks got a tax hike. As usual, well-connected special interest groups — from Hollywood to the booze lobby — secured sweetheart deals for their own narrow interests. So the industry that employs Sean Penn and Ed Asner gets a nice fat tax break, and poor people with jobs get the shaft. The people who rail against “corporate welfare” and “crony capitalism” took the time to cut a nice side deal for the rum industry. You will notice that the Bacardi family is not poor. That’s Washington.

My own preference is to eliminate the payroll tax and with it the myth that Social Security and Medicare are self-funding insurance programs rather than old-fashioned welfare programs with a largely middle-class constituency. That would also help to end the game of playing the “discretionary” budget off the “mandatory” budget — all spending is discretionary, and when you’re running trillion-dollar deficits, some real discretion is called for.

Not that you will get it from the incompetents in Washington.

– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near And It’s Going To Be Awesome, will be published in May. 

CRA and Risky Lending

by Kevin D. Williamson

I had assumed that the effects of the Community Reinvestment Act were overstated by its critics. This is one of those times when I do not mind being wrong:

Did the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) Lead to Risky Lending?


Yes, it did. We use exogenous variation in banks’ incentives to conform to the standards of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) around regulatory exam dates to trace out the effect of the CRA on lending activity. Our empirical strategy compares lending behavior of banks undergoing CRA exams within a given census tract in a given month to the behavior of banks operating in the same census tract-month that do not face these exams. We find that adherence to the act led to riskier lending by banks: in the six quarters surrounding the CRA exams lending is elevated on average by about 5 percent every quarter and loans in these quarters default by about 15 percent more often. These patterns are accentuated in CRA-eligible census tracts and are concentrated among large banks. The effects are strongest during the time period when the market for private securitization was booming.


There is a great deal of interesting information in the paper, which you can read here. (What, this isn’t what you do with your Christmas break?)