“Grocery store chains don’t have some anti-Chicago bias. If the people in charge of the city made those neighborhoods safe and economical places to do business, groceries would be as plentiful as they are anywhere else in America. Reducing Chicago’s high crime rate would surely help, though that’s admittedly a long-term project. But there is something city officials could do almost overnight: Reduce Chicago’s commercial property tax rates, which are some of the highest in the country, or the city’s high sales taxes that incentivize consumers (the ones who can, anyway) to do their shopping outside the city.
At best, a government-run grocery store is merely addressing the symptoms, not the underlying problems plaguing Chicago—and it seems unlikely to improve the symptoms, for that matter.”
“Food companies say their price increases merely reflect how much their costs have gone up due to “inflationary pressures,” like higher labor costs, transportation delays, and capacity issues, or the higher price of grains and animal feed. Yet inflation in 2022 outpaced the rise in wages in most industries, and the prices of many agricultural commodities have come down.
The eyebrow-raising spikes at the grocery store can only partly be blamed on manufacturers’ higher costs. The inflation narrative offers the perfect jumping-off point for companies to raise prices, and major food manufacturers are taking advantage of the moment to boost their profits.
The proof? Look at just how rich companies have gotten since the start of the pandemic.”
““Corporate profits have hit their highest level ever, and corporate profit margins — how much they’re making on each unit that they’re selling — have hit the highest level in 70 years,” said Chris Becker, senior economist at the Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive economic advocacy organization.”
“Why are corporate profits so high at a time when regular people feel increasingly strapped? Because a small number of players have gobbled up most of the food chain. Cargill and just three other agribusiness companies control about 70 percent of the world’s agriculture market, according to Oxfam. Brands like PepsiCo, Nestle, Mondelez, and Conagra produce and market the vast majority of the offerings found in US grocery stores.
“We look at the supermarket shelf, and we might be buying tea, cereal, whatever it might be, and we think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a real offer of choice here on the product I want to buy,’” Ahmed, of Oxfam, told Vox. “Frankly, it’s an illusion of choice, because so many of those products are actually owned by the same company.”
Grocery retailers, too, have become increasingly consolidated.”
“Evan Wasner, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst economist who authored a recent paper on companies’ price-setting power with economist Isabella Weber, said that companies tend to raise prices when they think they won’t see a huge backlash — like when everyone else is hiking prices, too. “In a sense, economy-wide cost increases act as a kind of coordinating mechanism which allows firms competing with one another for market share to safely raise prices together,” said Wasner.”
“Market dominance makes the supply chain more brittle, too, because it means there are just a few vulnerable points for failure. Last year’s baby formula shortage is an example of how dangerous the results can be. Just two US companies control about 80 percent of the market, which meant that when one manufacturing plant shut down, the entire nation struggled to buy baby formula.
Becker blames the vulnerable state of supply chains in part on market deregulation over the last several decades, which has enabled companies to cut corners. In the 1980s, the growing popularity of “just-in-time” inventory systems, where companies order just the amount of inventory needed right now without a buffer, allowed companies to become more efficient. That has meant lower prices for consumers, usually, and higher profits for companies — until a crisis hits, and suddenly there are shortages and supply bottlenecks.”
“Transcripts of corporations’ recent earnings calls illuminate that they’re well aware of their power right now. Groundwork has been collecting highlights from corporate earnings calls on its website. “They’re saying a lot about cost increases and supply shocks, but they’re also saying it doesn’t matter,” said Becker. “We do have these higher costs that we’re paying, but we have so much pricing power, we’re so capable of passing all these prices on to consumers, that it doesn’t matter.””
“Becker echoed that the current economic orthodoxy on how to fix inflation — to rein in Americans’ ability to spend money by attempting to raise unemployment levels — should be questioned.
“I would say that we have this really toxic narrative out there that the only way we can get inflation under control is to throw a bunch of people out of work,” said Becker. “Larry Summers recently claimed that we would need 10 percent unemployment [for one year], which is about 11 million jobs lost, to get inflation under control.”
“We’re going to try to solve a cost-of-living crisis by making people poor or losing their jobs? I think that’s crazy,” he continued.
What will break the cycle of not just inflation, but of consumers having to pay ever-higher prices for essential goods while the world’s food producers become richer? Experts offered several potential solutions. One is stronger antitrust laws and improved enforcement of preventing and breaking up monopolies. Anti-price gouging laws are another tool in the arsenal. Oxfam, for one, has been a vocal advocate of a windfall profits tax on food corporations. “It’s a tax on those corporations which are raising prices substantially in excess of costs,” Ahmed explained. The fact that it would raise tax revenue is great. But “fundamentally, it reins in companies’ monopoly power and disincentives corporate greed.” Other countries already have similar measures in place. Spain expects to raise about $6.39 billion from its windfall tax on energy companies and banks.
“Corporations are really making profits on the backs of consumers and households,” said Becker. “Let’s tax those windfall profits — and let’s do something with that money.
“There’s nothing that really stops corporations right now from just doing whatever they want.””
“The worst bout of inflation in four decades has battered consumers for months, but it has been even worse for businesses. When the Consumer Price Index peaked at 9.1 percent annual growth in June, the Producer Price Index, which shows the change in selling prices received by domestic producers for their output, hit a 48-year high of 22 percent.
Despite what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and others have suggested, grocery stores and similar corporations don’t appear to be hiking prices to gouge Americans already beset by high inflation. If anything, businesses that buy from producers and sell to consumers seem to be shielding the rest of us.”
“Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) led a bipartisan group of lawmakers—all of them from Florida—in submitting a petition to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai seeking “an investigation” into what the lawmakers call “the flood of imported seasonal and perishable agricultural products from Mexico.” They ask Tai to invoke Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 to impose “trade remedies” that will protect American growers from the scourge of…low-priced produce.
While they don’t come out and say it directly, it’s obvious from the letter that Rubio and his colleagues are seeking tariffs on Mexican produce. Section 301 is the same mechanism the Trump administration used to impose wide-ranging tariffs on goods imported from China. It’s a law that grants the executive branch broad, unilateral power over trade.
Rubio and the other lawmakers say the Mexican government is subsidizing its domestic agricultural infrastructure as part of a scheme to undercut the prices charged by U.S. growers. “Mexico poses a direct threat to Florida’s seasonal and perishable agricultural industry,” they conclude.”
“Anyone who has taken a basic economics class should be able to explain what’s happening there. A high level of supply tends to push prices downward. Whether grown in Mexico or Florida, it makes sense that cucumber prices would be at their lowest when there are a lot of cucumbers in the market.
But that’s not how Rubio and his colleagues see it. Instead, the petition describes this minor pricing difference as “a clear attempt to displace Florida cucumbers from the U.S. market.”
Take a moment to enjoy the fact that some of the most powerful men and women in the U.S. government are freaking out over the idea that American consumers might get to save a few cents on their next cucumber purchase. Then amuse yourself with the optics of American agricultural special interests—which are, of course, pulling Rubio’s strings here—complaining about subsidies, as if “direct government aid” doesn’t account for nearly 40 percent of American farmers’ annual income.
“These Florida politicians are following a time-honored tradition of trying to help their local constituents at the expense of Americans in other states, who benefit from low-priced fruits and vegetables regardless of where they are grown,” says Bryan Riley, director of the free trade initiative at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. “
“So-called “core CPI,” which filters out the more volatile categories like food and fuel prices, rose by 0.6 percent in August. In short, falling gasoline prices helped to offset broader and more pernicious inflation across the rest of the economy.”
“Warren could hardly have picked a worse industry to use as an example: Grocery stores consistently have among the lowest profit margins of any economic sector. According to data compiled this month by New York University finance professor Aswath Damodaran, the entire retail grocery industry currently averages barely more than 1 percent in net profit. In its most recent quarter, Kroger reported a profit margin of 0.75 percent, during a time in which Warren claims that the chain was “expanding profits” due to its “market dominance.”
In actuality, for much of the last year, grocery stores have seen enormous boosts in revenue, but not increased profitability, for the simple reason that everything has been costing more: not just products, but transportation, employee compensation, and all the extra logistical steps needed to adapt to shopping during a pandemic. Couple that with persistent inflation—which Warren also recently blamed on “price gouging”—and it is no wonder that things seem a bit out of balance.”