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Price Fixing Means Chaos

A panel of experts appointed by the Government has recommended raising fuel prices. The panel, headed by Kirit Parikh, recommended a hike in domestic LPG by Rs 100 a cylinder and PDS Kerosene by Rs 6 a litre. It is not certain that what the panel called for will be implemented. Rangarajan Committee and the Chaturvedi Committee reports in the past went unimplemented. Many newspapers reported that the panel is for deregulating fuel prices? It is not at all evident that a Government orchestrated hike in prices would be a genuine deregulation. If these goods are underpriced, certainly, the hike would be a welcome move. A hike in prices will certainly reduce fuel subsidy burden.

The findings of the panel, it is said, will be unpalatable to the government battling inflation. An increase in fuel prices, however, can’t cause a general rise in prices. Only an increase in money supply would lead to “price inflation”. If fuel prices rise, people will cut down consumption of fuel or other goods. There will not be an increase in aggregate demand. There will be no “cascading effect on food prices”. When subsidies to maintain low fuel prices are removed, the prices of other goods might come down. It will also reduce the fiscal deficit. (A subsidy of over Rs 71,000 crores was given in 2008-2009, at the expense of the innocent, long-suffering tax payer.) Price controls, needless to mention, are not a solution to price rise. Government enforced price controls to deal with price rise, as several economists have noted, is like “trying to hold down expanding pressure in a boiler by manipulating the needle in the boiler’s pressure gauge”

Unfortunately, in India, the prices of fuels and fertilizers are administered by the Government? It should be obvious that no bureaucrat has the necessary information to set the prices of these goods. Lacking profit-loss signals, the prices set by the government would only be arbitrary. It is true that sometimes the market sets the price higher or lower than necessary to clear the market, but no one has the wisdom to correct these discrepancies. The market, left to itself will set this right. If fuel prices are higher than justified, it will send out the signal that it is profitable to produce fuel. More people will enter the market. The supply of fuel will rise. This will bring down the prices. If fuel is priced lower, producers will get the signal that it is not profitable to produce it. Some producers will leave the market. Soon prices will move towards a level which will clear the market. The market is self regulating.

It is important to recognize how the profit mechanism coordinates the market if we are to understand the harmful effects of price controls? Usually, price controls are thought of as a way to curb excess profits. But, in the market there is a tendency towards equalization of profits in all sectors. No sector can be more profitable than any other in the long run. If a sector is more profitable, there will be excess investment in two forms. One, more people will invest I the sector. At the same time, people already involved in the sector will plough back the “excessive” profits.

Government price fixing has harmful, unintended consequences? If the government sets the prices below the market level, there will be chronic shortage. Such a policy fails to take in account why prices are higher. Prices can be high only when there is an increase in money supply or a decrease in supply of goods. Price controls do nothing to cure inflation, which is purely a monetary phenomenon. When prices are set low, less people will produce the goods and the shortage becomes more problematic. The product disappears from the market, and there will be immense pressure on the Government to raise prices, if it is to cure the shortage. If the Government sets the price above the market level, it would lead to unsaleable surplus.

It is true that if the Government gets out of the price fixing business, there would be a sudden rise in prices. It might be painful to most people. But such short term pain is much better than the chaos price controls create. Shortages and unsaleable surpluses are just two such consequence of price fixing. There are several other consequences. Price controls create black markets. Customers become a menace to sellers. The quality of service comes down tremendously. People will have to resort to means of production which are expensive. There will be hoarding and delays in production. People will waste time standing in queues and searching for products. Price controls lead to further controls, and may ultimately lead to socialism, which will entirely wreck the economy. In short, Government price fixing creates chaos.

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