Last fall, as container ships piled up outside the Port of Los Angeles, it looked as if inflation was going to be with us for longer than many had predicted. Curious how C.E.O.s were justifying higher prices, my team and I started listening in on hundreds of earnings calls, where, by law, companies have to tell the truth. While official statistics on inflation such as the Consumer Price Index can tell you that prices are rising, earnings calls provide rich, qualitative data that speak to why and how.
Executives from the nation’s largest publicly traded companies had a lot to report to their shareholders about supply chain snarls, product shortages and rising prices — mostly that they were very good for business. What was striking in the earnings calls was not the supply chain shortages or companies’ typical profit motives; it was the plain old corporate profiteering. The Economics 101 adage that “inflation is just too much money chasing too few goods” doesn’t come close to the full story. This raises the question: When companies are exploiting consumers in a time of national crisis, when should government step in?
Companies that historically might have kept prices low to pick up profit by gaining additional market share are instead using the cover of inflation to raise prices and increase profits. Consumers are now expecting higher prices at the checkout line, and companies are taking advantage. The poor and those on fixed incomes are hit the hardest.