Traffic light muddles around antitrust law: haphazardly at the pump

The federal government does not know exactly how fuel prices in Germany are generated.

Traffic light muddles around antitrust law: haphazardly at the pump

The federal government does not know exactly how fuel prices in Germany are generated. Although according to the Cartel Office there is no evidence of market manipulation, she hopes to solve the problem by tightening cartel law. After the embarrassment with the tank discount, a reliable analysis would be appropriate.

Fuel prices are rising and the federal government seems increasingly awkward: the tank discount turns out to be a flop. For formal legal and ideological reasons, the traffic light coalition does not dare to introduce a so-called excess profit tax based on the Italian model. So now a change in antitrust law is coming.

The basic idea, which also appeals to many economists, is that when the mineral oil companies make extraordinarily high profits, someone is obviously preventing competition. Because on a "perfect market" with "complete competition" there are - according to the theory - at most marginal profits, at least no idle "excess profits".

However, according to its own statements, the Federal Cartel Office, which is responsible for ensuring functioning competition in the mineral oil industry, has so far found no evidence that fuel prices are being manipulated in any illegal way, for example through cartel agreements or through the market power of a monopolist. The office has not only been examining this industry since the extreme price increases of the past few months, but for ten years.

These years of investigations have not only revealed no evidence of violations of the law. The cartel office and the federal government do not even know in detail how fuel prices in Germany arise. The refinery and wholesale levels in particular are still a black box for politicians and authorities. In fact, the displeasure expressed by motorists and politicians about the mineral oil companies is based on just one observation: consumer prices for petrol and diesel have recently risen more sharply than crude oil prices on the world market, with which they have usually developed in parallel in the past.

The federal government apparently no longer has time for detailed investigations. After the previous ideas against the alleged rip-off at the gas stations have failed, action should be taken quickly. Antitrust law is to be specially adapted to this case so that the antitrust authorities can intervene, even if it is not yet known where the problem lies.

After the political bankruptcy of the tank discount, which was cobbled together against all knowledge, the traffic light coalition partners should certainly take the time to thoroughly prepare for their next attempt to tame fuel prices. In economic theory, the problem and solution may be quite clear. In practice, however, there are indications that, in addition to a possible abuse of market power, many other factors could be responsible for the divergence in crude oil and fuel prices.

Among other things, the exchange rate development also influences the cost of fuel production. Crude oil is traded in dollars. The recent euro weakness acts as an additional price increase for Europe. In addition, the refineries are also complaining about the high costs for the energy required to produce the fuel, as well as about price increases for chemicals and transport.

Above all, there is a separate international market for refined products from fuels to bitumen. While demand from many sectors, from aviation to transportation to road construction, continues to rise in many parts of the world, supply is struggling. With the entry into force of the European oil boycott against Russia at the latest, the refineries not only lack a large part of the crude oil supplies. So far, Germany and other European countries have also obtained a significant proportion of their diesel and partially refined oil from Russia. To compensate for the loss of these deliveries, the refineries in Europe probably lack the necessary capacities, even if they could buy enough crude oil on the world market.

All of these factors contribute, at least in part, to fuel prices rising faster than the cost of crude oil. A large part of this so-called "crack spread" is likely to remain with the refineries and their operators as additional profit. However, if the reason for this is not distortion of competition, but simply high demand with a scarce supply, antitrust measures will be in vain. The possible unbundling of refineries and gas station networks that is now being considered will hardly lead to falling prices as long as a lack of capacity in the refineries meets high demand from motorists at the gas stations and from other energy consumers.

Before running the risk of embarrassing itself with another blind attempt, the coalition should at least be able to present a reliable analysis of the problem.

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