Ok, I made a bad prediction in my previous post about gasoline coming to Georgia in the wake of Hurricane Ike. I know it was a bad prediction, because I drove to Atlanta Airport on Sunday and did not see a single gas station with petrol (although news reports say about half do). So why was I wrong, and why has the market appeared to fail? First of all, my prediction was based on the premise that the market would be allowed to work. Gas can be found in the Southeast—just not in Atlanta. Why did every station I saw in rural Mississippi and Alabama earlier this week have gas, while those in Atlanta did not? The answer is that it would be illegal to sell the gas available in the country or suburbs in Atlanta proper. The American gasoline market is not a single unified market, but a deeply fragmented patchwork of markets where federal clean air mandates dictate what types of gasoline (called boutique fuels) can be sold where. Because of its air pollution problems, only a special boutique fuel can be sold in Atlanta. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the federal government wisely suspended these fuel mandates and momentarily recreated a national market for gasoline. While this measure did have a temporary effect on air quality, it prevented many of the shortages that we now see today. Unfortunately, the feds did not follow this policy after Ike, but kept the mandates in place, which is the reason that Atlantans wanting to fill up either have to wait for scant fuel deliveries or dive to the suburbs or country.
Another curious going on is that when there is gas in Atlanta, prices do not appear elevated and are roughly on par with those before the hurricane. So why with all this scarcity, are gas stations charging prices close to pre-hurricane levels? The answer probably lies in the overt threats from state and federal officials that they will go after price “gougers” for selling gasoline at high prices. As I mentioned in the previous post, the Georgia price “gouging” law is fairly toothless and not even currently applicable (the governor has to declare a state of emergency for the statute to come into force). I erroneously believed that the benign nature of this law would not impede rises in Georgia gas prices and subsequently encourage conservation and supply. However, most gas station owners are either only vaguely aware of this or think the feds will get them instead. The effect has been a de facto price ceiling on gas prices in the Atlanta area, which gives motorists the incentive to snap up gas when it is available, rather than weighing much higher prices (say $8 a gallon) and buying only a few gallons at a time. This is exactly what I—and everyone else ay my neighborhood station—did when a gasoline shipment arrived. As a result, folks who would otherwise drive around with half or quarter tanks fill them up (and top them off) whenever possible. I am running with a full tank right now but would have left more for my fellow Atlantans had the price been higher. Unfortunately, the situation has unleashed my (and apparently everyone else’s) inner speculator.