May 3, 2008

WSJ's "Windfall Profits For Dummies"

A year ago when Exxon's quarterly profits were announced, Hillary Clinton was famously quoted as saying "I want take those profits and put them into an alternative energy fund...", presuming as statists do, not only that government could more wisely put that money to use, but that it is entitled to confiscate other people's money in the first place if it chooses to.

Now Barack Obama and a growing chorus of others are proposing to tax the "excess profits" of the oil companies. What is especially galling is that they suggest this will help to reduce gasoline prices. As usual, history offers these people no guide to formulating policy. And the WSJ reminds us that we've been here before...

You may also be wondering how a higher tax on energy will lower gas prices. Normally, when you tax something, you get less of it, but Mr. Obama seems to think he can repeal the laws of economics. We tried this windfall profits scheme in 1980. It backfired. The Congressional Research Service found in a 1990 analysis that the tax reduced domestic oil production by 3% to 6% and increased oil imports from OPEC by 8% to 16%. Mr. Obama nonetheless pledges to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, which he says "costs America $800 million a day." Someone should tell him that oil imports would soar if his tax plan becomes law. The biggest beneficiaries would be OPEC oil ministers.

There's another policy contradiction here. Exxon is now under attack for buying back $2 billion of its own stock rather than adding to the more than $21 billion it is likely to invest in energy research and exploration this year. But hold on. If oil companies believe their earnings from exploring for new oil will be expropriated by government – and an excise tax on profits is pure expropriation – they will surely invest less, not more. A profits tax is a sure formula to keep the future price of gas higher.

Exxon's profits are soaring with the recent oil price spike, but the energy industry's earnings aren't as outsized as the politicians seem to think. Thomson Financial calculates that profits from the oil and natural gas industry over the past year were 8.3% of investment, while the all-industry average is 7.8%. And this was a boom year for oil. An analysis by the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor finds that between 1970 and 2003 (which includes peak and valley years for earnings) the oil and gas business was "less profitable than the rest of the U.S. economy." These are hardly robber barons.

This tiff over gas and oil taxes only highlights the intellectual policy confusion – or perhaps we should say cynicism – of our politicians. They want lower prices but don't want more production to increase supply. They want oil "independence" but they've declared off limits most of the big sources of domestic oil that could replace foreign imports. They want Americans to use less oil to reduce greenhouse gases but they protest higher oil prices that reduce demand. They want more oil company investment but they want to confiscate the profits from that investment. And these folks want to be President?

Posted by dan at May 3, 2008 11:58 AM