Robert Murphy

When it comes to public hatred of big business, there’s no better target than oil companies. This hatred has been all the more intense since Exxon Mobil announced last year’s net income at $40.6 billion, the largest-ever profit for a publicly-traded company. With the threat of recession looming, many policymakers have been tempted to pay for relief measures by raising taxes on “Big Oil”—including the House’s recent bill rolling back tax deductions on integrated oil companies (though leaving them in place for other companies). Understandable as this impulse may be, it is a bad idea for average Americans. If the government tries to “do something” about record oil profits, it won’t provide meaningful relief revenue, but will certainly raise the price at the pump.

Part of the reason for giant oil profits is that the industry itself is huge. But viewed in relative terms, oil and gas earnings are less impressive. The industry’s net profit per dollar of revenue was just under 9 cents, compared to 13 cents for the S&P 500, meaning the “markup” for the oil and gas industry is below average .

Granted, total profits reported by these companies will be large, because the industry volume is enormous. But why did the integrated oil majors do so well in 2007? The answer is record oil prices, which are set by supply and demand on the world market. The average price of crude was $72.30 per barrel in 2007, compared to a historical average of $25.95 during the period 1986 – 2006. This explains why not only Exxon Mobil, but most of its competitors, had strong years: Royal Dutch Shell earned $31.3 billion, Chevron earned $18.7 billion, and ConocoPhillips came in with a respectable $11.9 billion annual profit.

So now we’ve pushed back the problem one step, and we have to ask, Why were oil prices so high last year? Perhaps the greedy oil companies colluded to restrict supply, and stick it to the helpless consumers!

The problem with this theory is that the supply of oil is also at an all-time high. The worldwide average number of barrels produced per day was an estimated 84.8 million in 2007, compared to 72.4 million during the period 1986 – 2006. The oil industry responds to high prices just as any other industry does. When the price of a product goes up, companies have the incentive to sell more of it.

Robert Murphy

Robert Murphy has a Ph.D. in economics and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism (Regnery 2007).

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