Corporate profits accounted for more than half — 53 percent — of inflation from April to September 2023. That’s an astronomical percentage. Corporate profits drove just 11 percent of price growth in the four decades prior to the pandemic.
By , Groundwork Collaborative
Many Americans are still experiencing the sticker shock they first faced two years ago when inflation hit its peak. But if inflation is down now, why are families still feeling the pinch?
The answer lies in corporate profits — and we have the data to prove it.
Our new report for the Groundwork Collaborative finds that corporate profits accounted for more than half — 53 percent — of inflation from April to September 2023. That’s an astronomical percentage. Corporate profits drove just 11 percent of price growth in the four decades prior to the pandemic.
Businesses have been quick to blame rising costs on supply chain shocks from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. But two years later, our economy has mostly returned to normal. In some cases, companies’ costs to make things and stock shelves have actually decreased.
Let’s demonstrate with one glaring example: diapers.
The hyper-consolidated diaper industry is dominated by just two companies, Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, which own well-known diaper brands like Pampers, Huggies, and Luvs. The cost of wood pulp, a key ingredient for making diapers absorbent, did spike during the pandemic, increasing by more than 50 percent between 2020 and 2021.
But last year it declined by 25 percent. Did that drop in costs lead Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark to lower their prices? Far from it. Diaper prices have increased to nearly $22 on average.
These corporate giants have no plans to bring prices down anytime soon. In fact, their own executives are openly bragging about how they’re going to “expand margins” on earnings calls. Procter & Gamble predicted $800 million in windfall profits as input costs decline. Kimberly-Clark’s CEO said the company has “a lot of opportunity” to expand margins over time.
It’s not just diapers — while many corporations were quick to pass along rising costs, they’ve been in no hurry to pass along their savings. A recent survey from the Richmond Fed and Duke University revealed that 60 percent of companies plan to hike prices this year by more than they did before the pandemic, even though their costs have moderated.
Corporations across industries, from housing to groceries and used cars, are juicing their profit margins even as the cost of doing business goes down. And they’re not hiding the ball. Since the summer of 2021, Groundwork began listening in on hundreds of corporate earnings calls where we heard CEO after CEO boasting about their ability to raise prices on consumers.
Now we hear something slightly different: CEOs crowing about keeping their prices high while their costs go down.
PepsiCo raised its prices on snacks and beverages by roughly 15 percent twice in the last year while bragging to shareholders that their profit margins will grow as input costs come down. Tyson’s earnings report flaunted how their higher prices have “more than offset” their higher costs. The CFO of Hershey said last quarter that pricing gains more than offset inflation and higher costs.
So what can we do about it?
The Biden administration has taken important steps to rein in corporate profiteering and address the longstanding affordability crisis, from eliminating junk fees to strengthening global supply chains and cracking down on corporate concentration.
With the 2017 Trump tax cuts set to expire, Congress should also take this opportunity to raise taxes on corporations. Taxing profits helps disincentivize price gouging and profiteering because large corporations will have to send a greater share of their windfall to Uncle Sam.
We’ve come a long way in bringing inflation down since its peak in 2022. But stamping out inflation once and for all will require a concerted effort to rein in the corporate profiteering.
Lindsay Owens is the Executive Director of the Groundwork Collaborative. Liz Pancotti is Strategic Advisor to Groundwork. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org. OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online. Photo from Pixabay, public domain.