Inflation, Supply Chain Disruptions, and the Peculiar Process of Purchasing a Car

Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from the same month in the previous year was 7.9 percent in February 2022, the highest rate since January 1982—near the end of the Great Inflation that began in the late 1960s. The following figure shows inflation in the new motor vehicle component of the CPI.  The 12.4 percent increase in new car prices was the largest since April 1975.

The increase in new car prices was being driven partly by increases in aggregate demand resulting from the highly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies enacted in response to the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and partly from shortages of semiconductors and some other car components, which reduced the supply of new cars.

As the following figure shows, inflation in used car prices was even greater. With the exception of June and July of 2021, the 41.2 percent increase in used car prices in February 2022 was the largest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing these data in 1954. 

Because used cars are a substitute of new cars, rising prices of new cars caused an increase in demand for used cars. In addition, the supply of used cars was reduced because car rental firms, such as Enterprise and Hertz, had purchased fewer new cars during the worst of the pandemic and so had fewer used cars to sell to used car dealers. Increased demand and reduced supply resulted in the sharp increase in the price of used cars.

Another factor increasing the prices consumers were paying for cars was a reduction in bargaining—or haggling—over car prices.  Traditionally, most goods and services are sold at a fixed price. For example, some buying a refrigerator usually pays the posted price charged by Best Buy, Lowes, or another retailer. But houses and cars have been an exception, with buyers often negotiating prices that are lower than the seller was asking.

In the case of automobiles, by federal law, the price of a new car has to be posted on the car’s window. The posted price is called the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), often referred to as the sticker price.  Typically, the sticker price represents a ceiling on what a consumer is likely to pay, with many—but not all—buyers negotiating for a lower price. Some people dislike the idea of bargaining over the price of a car, particularly if they get drawn into long negotiations at a car dealership. These buyers are likely to pay the sticker price or something very close to it.

As a result, car dealers have an opportunity to practice price discrimination:  They charge buyers whose demand for cars is more price elastic lower prices and buyers whose demand is less price elastic higher prices. The car dealers are able to separate the two groups on the basis of the buyers willingness to haggle over the price of a car. (We discuss price discrimination in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5.)  Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability of car dealers to practice this form of price discrimination had been eroded by the availability of online car buying services, such as Consumer Reports’ “Build & Buy Service,” which allow buyers to compare competing price offers from local car dealers. There aren’t sufficient data to determine whether using an online buying service results in prices as low as those obtained by buyers willing to haggle over price face-to-face with salespeople in dealerships.

In any event, in 2022 most car buyers were faced with a different situation: Rather than serving as a ceiling on the price, the MSRP, had become a floor. That is, many buyers found that given the reduced supply of new cars, they had to pay more than the MSRP. As one buyer quoted in a Wall Street Journal article put it: “The rules have changed so dramatically…. [T]he dealer’s position is ‘This is kind of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.’” According to the website Edmunds.com, in January 2021, only about 3 percent of cars were sold in the United States for prices above MSRP, but in January 2022, 82 percent were.

Car manufacturers are opposed to dealers charging prices higher than the MSRP, fearing that doing so will damage the car’s brand. But car manufacturers don’t own the dealerships that sell their cars. The dealerships are independently owned businesses, a situation that dates back to the beginning of the car industry in the early 1900s. Early automobile manufacturers, such as Henry Ford, couldn’t raise sufficient funds to buy and operate a nationwide network of car dealerships. The manufacturers often even had trouble financing the working capital—or the funds used to finance the daily operations of the firm—to buy components from suppliers, pay workers, and cover the other costs of manufacturing automobiles.

The manufacturers solved both problems by relying on a network of independent dealerships that would be given franchises to be the exclusive sellers of a manufacturer’s brand of cars in a given area. The local businesspeople who owned the dealerships raised funds locally, often from commercial banks. Manufacturers generally paid their suppliers 30 to 90 days after receiving shipments of components, while requiring their dealers to pay a deposit on the cars they ordered and to pay the balance due at the time the cars were delivered to the dealers. One historian of the automobile industry described the process:

The great demand for automobiles and the large profits available for [dealers], in the early days of the industry … enabled the producers to exact substantial advance deposits of cash for all orders and to require cash payment upon delivery of the vehicles ….  The suppliers of parts and materials, on the other hand, extended book-account credit of thirty to ninety days. Thus the automobile producer had a month or more in which to assemble and sell his vehicles before the bills from suppliers became due; and much of his labor costs could be paid from dealers’ deposits.

The franchise system had some drawbacks for car manufacturers, however. A car dealership benefits from the reputation of the manufacturer whose cars it sells, but it has an incentive to free ride on that reputation. That is, if a local dealer can take an action—such as selling cars above the MSRP—that raises its profit, it has an incentive to do so even if the action damages the reputation of Ford, General Motors, or whichever firm’s cars the dealer is selling.  Car manufacturers have long been aware of the problem of car dealers free riding on the manufacturer’s reputation. For instance, in the 1920s, Ford sent so-called road men to inspect Ford dealers to check that they had clean, well-lighted showrooms and competent repair shops in order to make sure the dealerships weren’t damaging Ford’s brand.

As we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.3, consumers often believe it’s unfair of a firm to raise prices—such as a hardware store raising the prices of shovels after a snowstorm—when the increases aren’t the result of increases in the firm’s costs. Knowing that many consumers have this view, car manufacturers in 2022 wanted their dealers not to sell cars for prices above the MSRP. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it: “Historically, car companies have said they disapprove of their dealers charging above MSRP, saying it can reflect poorly on the brand and alienate customers.”

But the car manufacturers ran into another consequence of the franchise system. Using a franchise system rather than selling cars through manufacturer owned dealerships means that there are thousands of independent car dealers in the United States. The number of dealers makes them an effective lobbying force with state governments. As a result, most states have passed state franchise laws that limit the ability of car manufacturers to control the actions of their dealers and sometimes prohibit car manufacturers from selling cars directly to consumers. Although Tesla has attained the right in some states to sell directly to consumers without using franchised dealers, Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers still rely exclusively on dealers. The result is that car manufacturers can’t legally set the prices that their dealerships charge. 

Will the situation of most people paying the sticker price—or more—for cars persist after the current supply chain problems are resolved? AutoNation is the largest chain of car dealerships in the United States. Recently, Mike Manley, the firm’s CEO, argued that the substantial discounts from the sticker price that were common before the pandemic are a thing of the past. He argued that car manufacturers were likely to keep production of new cars more closely in balance with consumer demand, reducing the number of cars dealers keep in inventory on their lots: “We will not return to excessively high inventory levels that depress new-vehicle margins.” 

Only time will tell whether the situation facing car buyers in 2022 of having to pay prices above the MSRP will persist. 

Sources: Mike Colias  and Nora Eckert, “A New Brand of Sticker Shock Hits the Car Market,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2022; Nora Eckert and Mike Colias, “Ford and GM Warn Dealers to Stop Charging So Much for New Cars,” Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2022; Gabrielle Coppola, “Car Discounts Aren’t Coming Back After Pandemic, AutoNation Says,” bloomberg.com, February 9, 2022; cr.org/buildandbuy; Lawrence H. Seltzer, A Financial History of the American Automobile Industry, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1928; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Will the U.S. Ban on Russian Oil Imports Reduce Russian Oil Revenue?

Photo of Russian oil refinery from the New York Times.

On March 8, 2022, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would no longer allow new shipments of oil from Russia to the United States. Russian oil made up about 8 percent of total U.S. oil imports and about 2 percent of U.S. oil consumption.  European countries, which are much more heavily dependent on oil imports from Russia, announced plans to gradually reduce Russian oil imports.

The point of these policy actions was to reduce the revenues Russia would receive from oil exports as retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beyond the effect of direct action against Russian oil imports, Russian oil exports were reduced further as a result of other sanctions imposed on the Russian economy by the United States and other countries. These sanctions made it difficult for Russia to access shipping services and the international payments system.

The decline in Russian oil exports reduced the total supply of oil on the international oil market, pushing up the price of the oil. The following figure shows the daily price in dollars per barrel of Brent crude oil, which is the most commonly used benchmark price of oil.

Will the actions taken by the United States and other countries reduce Russian oil revenues? As we discuss in Microeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.3, whether a seller’s total revenue will decrease as a result of a decrease in the quantity sold depends on the price elasticity of demand for the seller’s product. If demand is price elastic, the revenue the seller receives will fall. If demand is price inelastic, the revenue the seller receives will rise. 

In this case, Russia’s oil revenue will decline if the percentage increase in the price of oil is less than the percentage decrease in the quantity of oil Russia is selling. The energy information firm Energy Intelligence has estimated that Russian oil exports have declined by about one-third. On the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the price of Brent crude oil was about $99 per barrel. It then rose to $129 per barrel on March 7 before falling to $109 per barrel on March 10.  Based on these values, the price Russia received per barrel of oil increased between 9 and 29 percent or by less than the 33 percent decline in the quantity of oil Russia sold.

Because the percentage decline in quantity was greater than the percentage increase in price, we can conclude that the actions taken by the United States and other countries reduced Russian oil revenue. In fact, the reduction in revenue is probably larger than indicated by the change in the price of Brent crude oil. Media reports indicate that to find buyers Russia is having to discount its oil by more than $10 per barrel from the Brent price.  In addition, the countries of the European Union have pledged to reduce Russian oil imports by two-thirds by the end of 2022 and the United Kingdom has pledged to end them entirely. Although Russia might be able to redirect to other countries some oil it had been exporting to Europe and the United States, it seems likely that Russia’s total oil exports will eventually decline by more than the initial one-third.

Sources: Andrew Restuccia and Josh Mitchell, “Biden Bans Imports of Russian Oil, Natural Gas, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2022; Stanley Reed, “The Future Turns Dark for Russia’s Oil Industry,” New York Times, March 8, 2022; Collin Eaton, “How Much Oil Does the U.S. Import From Russia and Why Is Biden Banning It?” Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2022; “Russian Oil Exports Fall by One-Third,” energyintel.com, March 2, 2022; and Tsuyoshi Inajima and Serene Cheong, “More Russian Oil Deeply Discounted as Ban Risk Alarms Buyers,” bloomberg.com, March 7, 2022. Brent crude oil price data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the Wall Street Journal.

Would Cutting the Federal Excise Tax on Gasoline Lower the Price that Consumers Pay?

Photo from bloomberg.com.

The federal government levies an excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline. (An excise tax is a tax that a government imposes on a particular product. In addition to the tax on gasoline, the federal government imposes excise taxes on tobacco, alcohol, airline tickets, and a few other products.) In February 2022, inflation was running at the highest level in several decades. The average retail price of gasoline across the country had risen to $3.50 per gallon from $2.60 per gallon a year earlier. The following figure shows fluctuations in the retail price of gasoline since January 2000. 

Policymakers were looking for ways to lessen the effects of inflation on consumers. An article in the Wall Street Journalreported that several Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, including Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Raphael Warnock of Georgia proposed that the federal excise tax on gasoline be suspended for the remainder of 2022. The sponsors of the proposal believed that cutting the tax would reduce the price of gasoline that consumers pay at the pump. Other members of the Senate weren’t so sure, with one quoted as saying that cutting the tax was “not going to change anything” and another arguing that oil companies would receive most of the benefit of the tax cut.

Some members of Congress were opposed to suspending the gasoline tax because the revenue raised from the tax is placed in the highway trust fund, which helps to pay for federal contributions to highway building and repair and for mass transit. In that sense, the gasoline tax follows the benefits-received principle, under which people who receive benefits from a government program—in this case, highway maintenance—should help pay for the program. (We discuss the principles for evaluating taxes in Microeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2 and in Economics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2) Other members of Congress were opposed to suspending the tax because they believe that the tax helps to reduce the quantity of gasoline consumed, thereby helping to slow climate change. 

Focusing just on the question of the effect of suspending the tax on the retail price of gasoline, what can we conclude? The question is one of tax incidence, which looks at the actual division of the burden of a tax between buyers and sellers in a market. In other words, tax incidence looks beyond the fact that gasoline stations collect the tax and send the revenue to federal government to the issue of who actually pays the tax. As we note in Chapter 17, Section 17.3:

When the demand for a product is less elastic than supply, consumers pay the majority of the tax on the product. When the demand for a product is more elastic than supply, firms pay the majority of the tax on the product. 

Consumers would receive all of the tax cut—that is, the retail price of gasoline would fall by 18.4 cents—only in the polar case where the demand for gasoline were perfectly price inelastic. Similarly, consumers would receive none of the tax cut and the price of gasoline would remain unchanged—so oil companies would receive all of the tax cut—only in the polar case where the demand for gasoline is perfectly price inelastic. (It’s a worthwhile exercise to show these two cases using demand and supply graphs.)

In the real world, we would expect to be somewhere in between these two cases, with consumers receiving some of the benefit of suspending the tax and producers receiving the remainder of the benefit. The short-run price elasticity of demand for gasoline is quite small; according to one estimate it is only −.06.  The short-run price elasticity of supply of gasoline is likely to be somewhat larger than that in absolute value, which means that we would expect that consumers would receive the majority of the tax cut. (Note that we would expect the long-run price elasticities of demand and supply to both be larger for reasons we discuss in Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and 6.6.) In other words, the retail price of gasoline would fall, holding all other factors constant, but not by the full tax cut of 18.4 cents.

Joseph Doyle of MIT and Krislert Samphantharak of the University of California, San Diego studied the effect of suspension in the state excise tax on gasoline in Indiana and Illinois in 2000. In that year, Indiana suspended collecting its gasoline excise tax for 120 days and Illinois suspended its tax for 184 days. The authors estimate that consumers received about 70 percent of the tax cut in the form of lower gasoline prices. If we apply that estimate to the federal gasoline tax, then suspending the tax would lower the price of gasoline by about 12.9 cents per gallon, holding all other factors that affect the price of gasoline constant. As the above figure shows, the retail price of gasoline frequently fluctuates up and down by more than 12.9 cents, even over fairly brief periods of time. In that sense, the effect on the gasoline market of suspending the federal excise tax on gasoline would be relatively small.  

Sources: Andrew Duehren and Richard Rubin, “Some Lawmakers Want to Halt Gas Tax Amid High Inflation. Others See a Gimmick,” Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2022; Tony Romm and Jeff Stein, “White House, Congressional Democrats Eye Pause of Federal Gas Tax as Prices Remain High, Election Looms,” Washington Post, February 15, 2022; Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Krislert Samphantharak, “$2.00 Gas! Studying the Effects of a Gas Tax Moratorium,” Journal of Public Economics, Vol. 92, No.s 3-4, April 2008, pp. 869-884; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The Many Uses of Elasticity: An Example from Law Enforcement Policy

In this chapter, we have studied several types of elasticities, starting with the price elasticity of demand. Elasticity is a general concept that economists use to measure the effect of a change in one variable on another variable. An example of a more general use of elasticity, beyond the uses we discussed in this chapter, appears in a new academic paper written by Anne Sofie Tegner Anker of the University of Copenhagen, Jennifer L. Doleac of Texas A&M University, and Rasmus LandersØ of Aarshus University. 

The authors are interested in studying the effects of crime deterrence. They note that rational offenders will be deterred by government policies that increase the probability that an offender will be arrested. Even offenders who don’t respond rationally to an increase in the probability of being arrested will still commit fewer crimes because they are more likely to be arrested. Governments have different policies available to reduce crime. Given that government resources are scarce, efficient allocation of resources requires policymakers to choose policies that provide the most deterrence per dollar of cost.

The authors note “we currently know very little about precisely how much deterrence we achieve for any given increase in the likelihood that an offender is apprehended.” They attempt to increase knowledge on this point by analyzing the effects of a policy change in Denmark in 2005 that made it much more likely that an offender would have his or her DNA entered into a DNA database: “The goal of DNA registration is to deter offenders and increase the likelihood of detection of future crimes by enabling matches of known offenders with DNA from crime scene evidence.”

The authors find that the expansion of Denmark’s DNA database had a substantial effect on recidivism—an offender committing additional crimes—and on the probability that an offender who did commit additional crimes would be caught. They estimate that “a 1 percent higher detection probability reduces crime by more than 2 percent.” In other words, the elasticity of crime with respect to the detection probability is −2.

Just as the price elasticity of demand gives a business manager a useful way to summarize the responsiveness of the quantity demanded of the firm’s product to a change in its price, the elasticity the authors estimated gives a policymaker a useful way to summarize the responsiveness of crime to a policy that increases the probability of catching offenders.  

Source: Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer L. Doleac, and Rasmus LandersØ, “The Effects of DNA Databases on the Deterrence and Detection of Offenders,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Vol. 13, No. 4, October 2021, pp. 194-225.