The Real Oil Scandal


AN OLD ADAGE goes, there are three types of liars--liars, damned liars, and statistics. The energy crisis has had more than its share of all three.

In the past two weeks, the profits for the first quarter of 1974 for the largest U.S. oil companies have been widely reported as showing great gains for the oil companies. Texaco's profits were up 123 per cent, Standard Oil of Indiana's profits were up 81 per cent, and Exxon's profits were up 38 per cent. But what do these statistics mean?

In a completely socialized economy, if a shortage developed in some commodity, the central planners would want to allocate extra resources to the commodity's production. But how much should they allocate and from what other industries should they allocate it? The planners would have no way of knowing.

But in a free market economy, the proper reallocations are made automatically. When a commodity is in short supply, its price rises, increasing profits for the producers. This gives them both the money and incentive to increase production.

In actual practice this has been the case for the oil companies. When the oil shortage made Exxon's profits rise 60 per cent in 1973 to $2.4 billion, the company increased 1974 investment in the search for oil 73 per cent, to $6.1 billion. Gulf's profits were up 79 per cent in 1973, to $800 million, but Gulf has increased its 1974 capital investment to $2 billion. Atlantic Richfield, making $270 million last year, plans to double its capital investment in 1974 to $1.1 billion. The same is true for all oil companies, large and small. The oil companies are reinvesting all of their higher profits, and even more.


But there is another reallocating mechanism in the market. Producers of other commodities, seeing the rising prices of the shortage commodity, try to switch into production of it as much as possible.

Again, in the oil industry, this has been the case. The New York Times reports that even very small operators are entering the industry. "The price of new oil is bringing about development like I've never seen before," said H.L. Sonny Brown in a Times article on March 10. Brown is an independent oilman who has just begun putting up his own rigs in Texas. "In 19 years I've never seen this area like it has been the past few months. Everybody wants to do things."

"The oil business looks more attractive to me than it has in the past 15 years," said Don E. Weber of Midlands, Texas, also in a Times interview. "The rewards are now commensurate with the risks." Weber has just gone into the oil business in partnership with a geologist.

"Where we are now I thought we wouldn't be for two or three years," said Jeff E. Montgomery, chairman of Kirby Industries. "We're packing all the capital we can into exploration and production." Kirby Industries once owned a few oil wells in the '60s but then moved into the prefabrication of steel buildings.

"In those days," Montgomery said, "we weren't making money finding oil. You couldn't make a reasonable rate of return. We set out to get in some other business." But now Kirby Industries is back in oil.

The extra production from increased investment by old and new producers would eliminate the shortage. The oil companies plan to add 2.1 million barrels a day to production in the next four years. This extra production will also drive down prices until profits are back to normal. Thus, higher oil profits mean merely that the market is doing what government allocators would want to do themselves, if only they knew how. The free market reallocating mechanism is far superior to any reallocating mechanism in planned economics.

In this process the temporarily high profits a company makes during the shortage are its payment for switching resources to their most important uses and for providing a commodity when it is most needed--during the shortage.

THESE REALLOCATIONS are the proper ones because they are determined by consumer choices. The more important a commodity is to consumers, the higher they will bid up its price and the profits of its producers during a shortage. But the higher prices and profits are, the more old and new producers will shift resources into production of that commodity.

But why would anyone be allowed to make profits at the expense of others? Someone who produces a product creates a value. He has combined various inputs and created a more valuable output. The extra value is his because he created it and his profit is payment for this value. His profit does not mean he is appropriating a bigger share of available wealth, it means he is increasing total wealth and his profit is the amount he increased it by. He doesn't make this profit at the expense of others, he creates the value of the profit by producing the product.

So even if oil profits were high, that would not reveal a scandal. It would simply reveal the rational, just, efficient, workings of the market.