Greedflation or Gasenomics? Gasoline profit margins nearly doubled during the pandemic
Under the guise of inflation, PepsiCo, Kimberly-Clark, General Mills, Tyson, Conagra, and many other retail giants have raised prices to keep their profit margins fat.
Your corner gas station may be doing the same thing.
At least, that’s the questionable takeaway making the rounds in the media from a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If gas stations are following suit and padding their bottom lines under the pretense of responding to higher producer prices, it doesn’t bode well for your fuel finances.
First, there’s hard proof that “greedflation” has been driving up consumer prices across the board.
A study released in January by economists at the Kansas City Federal Reserve put some numbers on the greedflation problem. (The report calls price increases decided by management “markups” to distinguish them from price increases driven by inflation.)
“Markup growth was a major contributor to inflation in 2021,” the authors, Andrew Glover, José Mustre-del-Río, and Alice von Ende-Becker, wrote. “Specifically, markups grew by 3.4 percent over the year, whereas inflation, as measured by the price index for Personal Consumption Expenditures, was 5.8 percent, suggesting that markups could account for more than half of 2021 inflation.”
Second, wholesale gasoline prices are up 17% in the last month and diesel is up 29%.
There is also talk that production pullbacks by Russia and Saudi Arabia—along with weather-related slowdowns at refineries and growing demand from the U.S— could drive oil past $100 a barrel.
Tack on a fat markup and you’ll be looking at a steep price jump at the pump.
But are gas station margins as much of a villain as they are portrayed to be? The data isn’t as convincing.
Greedflation or plain old gasenomics?
What amount of the resulting increase in gas prices will go into the corner gas station owner’s pocket?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) study, that depends.
The authors write, “Over the past 3 years, the impact of gas station margins on gasoline prices has been volatile. This impact of gas station margins was sometimes inflationary and at other times deflationary.”
The chart below reflects that volatility:
CPI for gasoline, the yellow line, is an index of what you pay at the pump. PPI for gasoline, the purple line, is what the gas station pays for the gasoline it sells. And PPI margins, the red line, is CPI minus PPI, plus any markup.
Around February 2023, at the point the margin was widest post-Covid, gas prices were just a smidge above their 2019 levels. In May 2022, when gas was most expensive and CPI and PPI were at their highest points, margins dipped.
Boots-on-the-ground research appears to further debunk the idea that gas station owners are mustache-twirling villains.
Last year, Fortune published an analysis of some 30,000 gas stations. The author, Alex Kinnier, wrote:
“Gas retailers receive a fraction of the price listed on the sign–their net profit per gallon is around $0.03-$0.07–after factoring in costs like labor, utilities, insurance, and credit card transaction fees. This puts the net profit margin of a gas station at less than two percent. For reference, the banking industry has roughly 30% net profit margins.”
So gas station owners appear to be driven by the same economic forces they’ve always faced—call it gasenomics.
That doesn’t let corporate America off the hook for its depredations during this inflation crisis. But the evidence strongly suggests that those who pump your gas aren’t among the plunderers.