The U.S. gasoline market is beginning to resemble a giant pinball machine. Some inept player is recklessly jiggling the board, causing it to go "tilt." But in a highly curious manner. The bells and lights of shortage - station closings, long lines and tank-topping - are not tripping off in a generalized, nationwide pattern, but sporadically, locally, almost randomly - one city at a time.
This hit-and-run pattern is the key to fingering the culprit. Thus, despite all its imperfections, the "invisible" hand of the marketplace automatically gets exonerated because it is inherently incapable of dispensing injustice so capriciously. Faced with an estimated 9 percent gap nationally between apparent demand and available supplies, the marketplace would close this gap by substituting higher prices for long lines. That would mean a market-clearing (line-eliminating) price in the range of $1.20 to $1.30 per gallon. Nor would price rationing dump the entire shortage burden on one or a few localities. The price would not be $1.50 per gallon in Washington where there are currently massive lines and only 85 cents per gallon in Albuquerque where there are no lines and half the stations are open 24 hours a day.
Instead - in response to opportunities to buy lower and sell higher - brokers, jobbers and speculators would move available supplies around in a hurry so that price would equilibriate somewhere in between. The burden of shortage would be shared equally by all geographic areas and end-use sectors, as occurred when the nation's foreign coffee supplies percipitately dropped by 25 percent two years ago.
But something is at work in the internal marketplace, transforming the present 9 percent shortage in the national gasoline pool into a far more severe problem in a selective set of local retail markets. What is it?
In this instance, the major oil companies are not a plausible villain. While not noted for their political acumen, even they are not stupid enough to pick two of the nation's major political hot buttons - Washington D.C., and Los Angeles - for a demonstration strike. The same reasoning holds for the greedy, panic-stricken consumer explanation. The aggregate 9 percent gasoline shortfall has not elicited a run on the retail gasoline bank in 90 percent of the country. While motorists in Washington and Southern California are admittedly unique in their political and cultural propensities, there is no evidence that they are any more irrational than average in their gas-buying habits.
The fact is, the fingerprints that appear on literally every barrel of gasoline that moves outward from the nation's 200 refineries, through 12,000 wholesalers and 200,000 retail outlets, for ultimate deposit in 120 million thirsty vehicle tanks, are those of the Department of Energy. Like the fabled handiwork of the Lilliputians, 3,000 pages of regulations and interpretive opinions rigidly bind the exact price and volume of each transaction through the marketing chain, and ultimately determine the precise street-corner destination of each of the 300 million gallons that move through the system daily.
The first thingt o note about this massive pile of regulations is that it is stacked against the retail market, motorists, cities and growth areas - and toward farmers, non-metropolitan areas, gasoline marketers and hoarders.
This month available supplies nationwide amount to 92 percent of the June 1978 base period. But most D.C. area retail stations are getting only 75 to 85 percent of last year's volume, at best. Why? Because 15 percent of the total supply is being skimmed off the top of the national pool for the state set-aside and so-called high priority users. The retail network gets an allocation fraction based on the diminished residual supply.
State capitol bureaucrats are supposed to distribute part of this - the 5 percent state set-aside - to areas of greatest need. But evidence from the 1973-74 experience suggests a good portion is going to pals, politically connected marketers and squeaky wheels in the commerical sector.
Similarly, in the last four months the share going to the other top-of-the-pool category - high-priority users - has more than doubled. Moreover, these high-priority users - especially farmers - are entitled to 100 percent of their "current needs," which is defined as whatever they say it is. For all practical purposes, this means unlimited entitlement to scarce supplies for priority claimants who are self-certified from the bottom of the marketing chain up. The fact that delivery times for 1,000 to 10,000 gallon steel tanks have balloned dramatically in recent months suggests that "current needs" include the right to hoard for future use.
Overall, a substantial share of available supplies is being diverted out of the retail market to various categories of legally privileged and politically connected users who face absolutely no incentive to conserve, a wide-open opportunity to hoard, and an artificially low, controlled price to boot.
The second major distortion stems from the fact that the price-control regulations encourage dealers to respond to the present "sellers market" in a perverse way. While the retail price ceilings are leaky and ill-enforced, they most definitely do restrain the rate of price increase relative to what would otherwise occur in a supply-short market. This is supposed to protect the consumer, but what it actually does is encourage the dealer to take his seller's-market profits in an alternative way: Instead of raising prices, he reduces hours and operating costs, thereby widening his actual margin.
Thus, facing an already artificially low allocation fraction, retailers find it possible to move a fixed monthly gallonage by cutting out their highest cost hours - weekends and evenings. This in turn induces motorists to line up on Monday and Friday, which permits a further compression of sales hours. Soon there are Tuesday and Thursday lines, even fewer sales hours, still lower operating costs and even higher profits over a price-controlled but constant volume of sales. Fed by a spiral of consumer panic, the ultimate outcome is obvious. Your friendly gas-and-go operator, who normally moves 25,000 gallons to 3,000 customers over the course of a week stretching upwards of 90 hours, arrives at the crack of dawn on Wednesday to find a week's worth of customers neatly queued in a two-mile line - whence he laughs all the way to the bank or his favorite fishing hole by noon.
In the absence of the DOE ceilings, of course, some operators would sell higher and stay open longer; others would sell higher and stay open different hours; and the most enterprising dealers and jobbers would be out scrounging the regional and national market for additional, higher-priced supplies that will always gravitate toward the strongest local seller's market.
Yet under DOE rules, in which every gallon is earmarked, there are no free supplies and nothing for local jobbers to bid for in order to shift the short-run allocation. Necessarily then, motorists work harder and longer, marketers work less and more profitably, and eventually the system tilts. That this DOE-designed market-clogging outcome is of any more benefits to the consumer than the market-clearing outcome is by no means apparent.
Finally, the Lilliputian regulators as now applying a special supply noose to the cities. During the recreation season, the big cities are heavy exporters of weekend traffic, which creates seasonal bulges in gasoline demand along the interstates and in the beach, resort and vacation receiving areas. The allocation system is now perfectly reflecting this normal distribution of sales by allocating to each station an equal fraction of last year's base.
But worried motorists don't behave normally - and aren't reflecting last year's pattern. Exhausted from hustling for gas or apprehensive about being stranded, a significant fraction are staying inside the beltway on weekends. Last Friday, for instance, traffic across the Bay Bridge was down a full 20 percent from the same week last year. Unfortunately, when the traffic stops flowing down Route 50, the gasoline delivery trucks don't. The allocation system thus drains the cities and floods the highways and countryside.
Unless total supplies improve substantially in the next six weeks, the tilt lights will start popping in most major cities in the East and elsewhere. The administration can avoid this unhappy outcome instantly by pulling the rip cord on the Lilliputian regulators now knotting up the gasoline market. But Congress would have 15 days to veto such a decontrol plan. Undoubtedly it would do so. Better to risk massive dislocation, push public tempers to the flash point and beat the drums harder against scapegoats than to tell the public the truth: Gasoline is no longer cheap. Ironically, however, the present regulatory camouflage will utlimately prove even more costly. CAPTION: Picture, no caption