Thursday, July 9, 2009

Government Price Controls in the Making

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British Prime Minster Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday entitled, " Oil Prices Need Government Supervision". In this article they recommend that "the Expert Group of the International Energy Forum take the lead in establishing a common long-term view on what price range would be consistent with the fundamentals." They claim at many points in the article that producers and consumers benefit from price stability and the hand of government is needed to assure this. Obviously, their knowledge of history doesn't extend beyond yesterday's lunch.

The Brown/Sarkozy idea was tried on a mass scale in post-war communist Eastern Europe. The government kept prices very stable. That consumers benefited from the chronic shortages that resulted is doubtful. Industrial production was highly inefficient and ultimately fell apart. Some of the worst hyperinflations in history followed in the 1990s. Yes, there is certainly a lot of evidence from the real world that 'government supervision' of markets works well. Brown and Sarkozy hope to bring these benefits to YOU. Note to Brown and Sarkozy: There is already a mechanism for finding the correct long term price for any item - it's called the free market. Just because you don't like that price, doesn't mean it's the wrong price.

Unlike price controls, which is what Brown and Sarkozy are recommending even though they didn't use the term in their article and which NEVER work, there are solutions to the problems they have with the price of oil. Businesses and consumers are paying too high a price in their countries? Well they can cut the extremely high taxes that their governments place on fuel. The price of oil is going up too much. Well, stop letting it be priced in U.S. dollars or tell the U.S to stop running $2 trillion budget deficits and engaging in money printing through quantitative easing. Mr. Brown should follow this advice himself, since Britain is in possibly worse financial shape than the U.S. Don't expect any of these solutions that would actually solve the problem to be implemented though. That would require some real leadership. It is much easier to blame speculators for prices rises and this is the tack the governments have always taken throughout history.

Why should anyone listen to Brown or Sakozy as is? Do either of them have any record of economic success? I don't recall reading about any French 'economic miracle' in the last few years. As for Brown, he was the one that sold half of Britain's gold for $260 an ounce in 1999 and then bought a big chunk of U.S. dollars with the proceeds. The dollars lost a lot of their value subsequently while gold prices were rising to a $1000. The man is obviously an economic 'genius'. Britain also had a worse subprime housing crisis than the U.S. Banks there gave 125% mortgages to people who couldn't pay them back. When someone has done stupid things over and over and over again, it is generally a good idea not to follow their advice.

Nevertheless, you can safely assume that price controls will eventually be implemented because governments that create inflation are governments that try to take the easy way out. You can also safely assume that they will cause shortages. You can also safely assume that prices will subsequently rise much higher than anything previously imagined. You can also safely assume that if Western countries clamp down on free market trading, it will simply move elsewhere (to Dubai, the Far East or possibly any number of offshore money havens). Governments never learn and Brown and Sakozy's article yesterday is just more evidence that things are not going to be any different this time than they have been hundreds of times before in the past.

NEXT: Energy, Commodities and the U.S. Dollar

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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