From food to gas to clothing, the price of everything is going up. Manufacturers and retailers say it’s the inevitable result of the pandemic and the war, but data from Wall Street prove there’s a lot of outright price-gouging going on, too. | LM Otero | AP
If you’ve been slammed lately by higher prices on everything from groceries to rental cars and gas prices, you’re probably wondering what on earth is behind these skyrocketing costs.
Corporations are quick to blame this new reality on the pandemic or the war in Ukraine, but another major culprit is hiding in plain sight: their own profiteering.
Four times a year, corporations are required by law to update their investors on how they’re doing in terms of sales and profits. These are called “earnings reports,” and the companies will usually hold calls with the investors to walk them through the latest report.
My organization, Groundwork Collaborative, recently got our hands on the transcripts from hundreds of these earnings calls. And you won’t believe what CEOs are boasting about.
Knowing that the current inflation frenzy is a convenient scapegoat, these companies are charging customers even more to pad their profit margins. They aren’t just admitting it—they’re openly bragging to investors about how well it’s working.
“I think we’ve done a great job with our pricing,” boasted the CFO of Hormel, a maker of popular grocery brands. “I think it’s been very effective.” As prices went up, the company improved its operating income by 19% in the first quarter of 2022 compared to 2021.
Constellation Brands, the parent company of popular beers Modelo and Corona, is also engaging in bald-faced profiteering. On its January call, Constellation’s CFO admitted that its consumer base “skews a bit more Hispanic” and the company wants to “take as much as [we] can” from them.
And now, the conflict in Ukraine is providing yet another opportunity for oil and gas companies to pad their bottom lines. “It’s tragic what’s going on in Eastern Europe,” said one oil executive in late February. “But if anything, these high prices, the volatility, drive even more energy security and long-term contracting.”
This pandemic profiteering is taking a massive toll on consumers, workers, and small businesses.
Low-income Americans are pinching pennies to feed their families and pay their bills. And while mega-companies can use their market power to raise prices and generate record profits, small businesses and independent retailers are struggling to keep their doors open.
The appalling price gouging and monopolistic behavior we’re monitoring come on top of decades of disinvestment in our workers and supply chain, excessive corporate power, and financial markets maximizing short-term profits. This broken system left us wholly unprepared to accommodate increases in demand.
But make no mistake: Next time you experience sticker shock in the checkout line, it’s a safe bet that corporate executives and shareholders are reaping the rewards.
People are catching on: A new poll from Data for Progress and Groundwork finds that 63% of voters believe that “large corporations are taking advantage of the pandemic to raise prices unfairly on consumers and increase profits.”
Policymakers are taking notice, too. The New York Attorney General’s office just announced new price gouging rules, paving the way for other states to follow suit.
And days after President Joe Biden promised action on pandemic price gouging, congressional oversight panels opened investigations into the three major ocean shipping alliances. These outfits control about 80% of seaborne cargo and have seen their profits increase seven-fold from the previous year.
Finally, a recently-introduced bill, the COVID-19 Price Gouging Prevention Act, would help the Federal Trade Commission and State Attorneys General protect people across the country from pandemic profiteering.
Without competition and robust regulation to keep them in check, big corporations have gotten away with using the pandemic to push up prices and fatten their profit margins—and if they aren’t reined in, high prices could be here to stay.
Lindsay Owens, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Groundwork Collaborative. Owens has deep expertise in economic inequality, poverty, housing policy, and labor markets. In addition to serving as a senior economic policy adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Owens worked as deputy chief of staff and legislative director to then Congressman Keith Ellison and Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal.
People’s World, March 14, 2022, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/its-not-just-inflation-its-price-gouging/