Mergers and Other Factors That Influence Gasoline Prices
GAO-07-894T, May 23, 2007
Few issues generate more attention and anxiety among American consumers than the price of gasoline. The most current upsurge in prices is no exception. According to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average retail price of regular unleaded gasoline in the United States has increased almost every week this year since January 29th and reached an all-time high of $3.21 the week of May 21st. Over this time period, the price has increase $1.05 per gallon and added about $23 billion to consumers' total gasoline bill, or about $167 for each passenger car in the United States. Given the importance of gasoline for the nation's economy, it is essential to understand the market for gasoline and the factors that influence gasoline prices. In this context, this testimony addresses the following questions: (1) what key factors affect the prices of gasoline and (2) what effects have mergers had on market concentration and wholesale gasoline prices?
The price of crude oil is a major determinant of gasoline prices. However, a number of other factors also affect gasoline prices including (1) increasing demand for gasoline; (2) refinery capacity in the United States that has not expanded at the same pace as the demand for gasoline; (3) a declining trend in gasoline inventories and (4) regulatory factors, such as national air quality standards, that have induced some states to switch to special gasoline blends. Petroleum industry consolidation plays a role in determining gasoline prices too. The 1990s saw a wave of merger activity in which over 2600 mergers occurred in all segments of the U.S. petroleum industry. This wave of mergers contributed to increased market concentration in U.S. refining and marketing segments. Econometric modeling GAO performed on eight of these mergers showed that, after controlling for other factors including crude oil prices, the majority resulted in higher wholesale gasoline prices--generally between 1 and 7 cents per gallon. While these price increases seem small, they are not trivial--according to FTC's standards for merger review in the petroleum industry, a 1-cent increase is considered to be significant. Additional mergers occurring since 2000 are expected to increase the level of industry concentration further, and because GAO has not yet performed modeling on these mergers, we cannot comment on any potential price effects at this time. We are currently studying the effects of the mergers that have occurred since 2000 as a follow up to our previous work on mergers in the 1990s. Also, we are working on a separate study on issues related to petroleum inventories, refining, and fuel prices.