Alexander Vogel poses a question that intrigues me.
He writes, "What would your reaction be if I told you I knew of a company that was going to make a substantial profit this year? Would you want to buy a few hundred shares of stock in the company?
"What if these profits were to be enormous? Would you be interested? Of Course. Any investor would be. Then why haven't the oil company shares shot up in price?"
If you think that question can be adequately answered in a sentence or two, you're not familiar with the complexities involved. Inasmuch as I own no oil company stocks or bonds, permit me to make a few comments.
Oil industry earnings have indeed been high, and give indication of going higher. But dividends have not kept pace, and dividends are the key to stock prices these days.
Investors who once thought earnings are the most important factor in establishing the value of a share of stock now give greater weight to the percentage of return their investment will produce. The result is that the prices of oil shares have been disappointing to the owners of the companies. Some of those owners are middle-class, middle-income men and women who buy shares directly. Some are people whose money has bought shares indirectly, through pension funds, mutual funds, life insurance equities and profit-sharing plans.
When we talk about oil barons who profiteer at the expense of hapless consumers, we think of rich old men whose sole delight in life is counting their money and squeezing blood out of turnips. The truth is, however, that the Rockefellers and their ilk own only a tiny fraction of the oil industry. Most of it is owned by people of modest means who are looking for a prudent way to invest their savings.
These days, one can earn more on his saving by lending the money to the United States government than by buying shares in Exxon Mobil, Shell or the other major oil companies.
Treasury bills pay 9.6 to 9.7 percent, whereas money invested in Exxon shares earns a return of around 7 percent.Mobil's owners get 6.5 percent, and Shell's receive only 5.2 percent. Scores of tax-free bond issues pay more than that.
And those who put their money into U.S. government obligations or tax-free "municipals" don't have to sit up nights worrying about when OPEC will spring another surprise.
None of the foregoing is meant to be an argument for or against deregulation of oil prices or the imposition of an excess profits tax.
I can't form judgments on those issues without more information. For example: what assurance do we have that oil industry profits will be used to search for more oil, or to develop a substitute fuel?
Without such information, I can't develop any strong opinions as to what is best for the country. Therefore I espouse no program. I have passed along Alexander Vogel's question for one purpose only.
Our national debate on oil policy must soon lead us to a consensus that can be enacted into legislation. We are not likely to get good legislation unless we are willing to spend time learning about the issue, discussing it and thinking about it. I hope Vogel's question helps stimulate such activity.
We are not likely to get wise legislation unless we develop an informed public opinion that tells timid congressment what we want. Many of our fearless leaders won't act until they find out which way the parade is moving and where one must go to create the impression he is leading it.
Harriet K. Doyle of Hyattsville was interested in the recent news story about the slashing of hoses at eight Northern Virginia gasoline stations.
"It would have been better," she comments wistfully, "if they had slashed the prices instead."
Harriet, I'll tell you one way they could bring prices down a little. They could stop honoring credit cards in self-service or mini-serve lanes.
If you want full service at a higher price, fine; go to the full service pump. But if it's economy you're after, even to the point of being willing to pump your own gas, bring cash.
The line will move faster, the dealer will sell more in less time, and he won't have to help carry the burden of extending credit.
Don't we waste enough gas as we inch up in gas lines that move at a snail's pace? Is it really necessary to test our patience further as we watch customers up ahead fumbling through wallets and purses for credit cards, and then watch a while longer as attendants stroll off to write out and validate the charge tickets?