All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1974

Windfall Profits

Mr. Anderson has taught economics and business management and now is Executive Secretary and Director of Seminars at the Foundation for Economic Education.

Of all aspects of the free market economic system, the role of profit-making by individuals is the one most subject to controversy. An air of apology seems to permeate any discussion of profit-making, even among those who generally commend the market society.

Companies seem duty-bound to defend their latest financial reports. Any increase in profits is contrasted with earlier periods of losses or “inadequate” profits. The relative smallness of profits is demonstrated in terms of capital invested, annual sales, or total wages. Public relations departments tremble over reported company success and gear themselves for the inevitable onslaught such favorable reports will bring.

Among the charges most feared is the accusation that the firm has reaped windfall profits. While “normal” profits might be tolerated, anything above so-called normalcy is invariably subject to public charges of exploitation. The implication subtly drawn is that windfall profits accrue as a result of someone else’s losses. While the public might overlook small injustices, large profits are simply intolerable.

This massive assault on profit-making reflects a belief that profits are something extra, the elimination of which would result in a general improvement in human welfare, that profits are gained at the expense of others—”unearned” and “unjust.”

This anti-profit mentality stems from a failure to understand the true nature and source of profits, the integral relationship existing between profits and losses, and their basic importance to the functioning of the market system. It is a failure to understand that an attack upon profits, even excess or windfall profits, is an attack upon the market system itself.

Within the framework of a free market price system, profits show which producers have best satisfied the wants of consumers. Profits appear as the result of actions taken earlier by those producers most successful in anticipating and serving the demands of the consumer. Profits demonstrate how well a producer has employed scarce resources in the past toward the satisfaction of consumer wants. Profits are a record of experience, a reward for satisfactory service rendered.

The process of profit-making, however, is not the same thing as the amount of profits recorded. Profits earned in the past serve as no specific guide for future productive activity, though the fact that they were earned may offer hope of future profits. Past profitable activity in a given form of production assures nothing about the future. Attempts to imitate activities that have been profitable have resulted in many business failures.

The opportunity for profit-making stems from the changing values of consumers over time, and the reflection of these changing values on prices. The individual who foresees correctly these developing changes in market prices, and acts upon his foresight, will be the profit-maker.

Adjusting to Change

If man were omniscient, or if his values were to remain static, the concept of profit and loss would not exist. But fallibility and change are part of the human condition and necessarily affect man’s economic behavior.

Today’s market prices are reflections of values previously held by consumers and of the production those values generated. The prices so established will be either too high or too low with respect to the market conditions of tomorrow, conditions which could only be known by knowing the future, which is impossible.

The profit-maker, however, must attempt the impossible. The uncertainty of the future overrides all human action. The fact that future prices are uncertain does not dissuade the potential profit-maker from acting.

It is this potential of profit-making that provides the entrepreneur’s motivation and incentive for production. The entrepreneur identifies resources in today’s market that he believes will possess a higher market value tomorrow. If his foresight about the future values of the consumers is correct, a profit can be realized. The magnitude of the profit will depend upon the degree of change in future market prices and the entrepreneurial decision to act on his foresight.

When the rise in prices is large, the entrepreneur holding the resources so affected will experience large profits. The identification of this development as excess or windfall profits has been grossly misleading. The fact that he did not anticipate the precise degree of change in prices is no basis for denying the owner of the resources his right to the gain.

The concept of windfall profit merely observes that large gains can be realized from drastic changes in consumer evaluations and their resultant impact on market prices. The owner of the affected resources experiences a dramatic and sudden increase in the value of his property. But, if consumer evaluations change in the other direction, market prices can just as suddenly and dramatically fall, causing windfall losses to the owners of resources so affected.

Windfall profits or losses simply emphasize the risk of productive activity resulting from the changing values of consumers. While the entrepreneur attempts to calculate future market conditions, he is not omniscient. An underestimate of future prices may yield him a higher profit than he had anticipated when he took productive action, but that same higher profit becomes the magnet for an influx of new competitive activity.

A Reliable Guide

With the profit and loss system as their guide, competing entrepreneurs decide how resources shall be directed for future consumption. Anticipated profitability attracts the productive capital of the entrepreneurs, but the ultimate profit is determined by the actions of the consumers. The entrepreneur’s astuteness in judging the consumer’s demands will decide whether profits or losses are to be realized by him in the future.

A significant contributor to a smoothly functioning market is the much maligned speculator. As an entrepreneur, the speculator acts in anticipation of the changing values of consumers. His buying and selling of resources creates a more orderly market, reducing erratic fluctuations in prices, and thus holds down the magnitude and severity of gains and losses. Accurate foresight by the speculator mitigates the errors of resource pricing and the consequent large profits or losses brought on by changing consumer tastes.

Once profits are understood to evolve from the actions of the consumers, it becomes pointless to speak of profits as being “fair,” “normal,” “excess,” or whatever.

The decision on how to allocate existing resources into future use is made by entrepreneurs on the basis of their interpretation of the consumer’s actions in the market place of the future. Through a subsequent return of profits and losses to the entrepreneur, the consumer is constantly signaling entrepreneurs, as to how to direct scarce resources toward best satisfying consumer wants.

This relationship between the entrepreneur and the consumer is much like that of a revocable trust. The trustee-entrepreneur allocates resources for the benefit of the trustee-consumer, a relationship perpetuated by profits and revoked by losses. Through the signal of these profits and losses the consumer steers the producer.

The allure of profit-making is the catalyst for productive activity. Sparked by an entrepreneurial decision on the future state of the market, resources are continually being directed into hopefully productive use. The soundness of the original decision is reflected by profits or losses generated by the venture. Without some prospect that profits will substantiate the original decision, no productive activity would be undertaken. The problem of determining how resources should be allocated could not be resolved. There would be no response to the will of the consumer in the market. The market would be in a state of chaos.

The Fundamental Issue Concerns Property Rights

The real controversy over the concept of excess or windfall profits evolves over who should be the beneficiary of these subsequent unanticipated changes in market prices. The fundamental issue in this controversy is one of property rights. In a free market system the entrepreneur subjects his property to risk in a productive activity in the hope of generating a profit. If his judgment of the future demand of the consumers proves correct, his property increases in value, and he profits. The extent of his gain is thus determined by the consumer. In a market system of private ownership the gains would therefore accrue to the owner of the property.

Similarly, the burden of windfall losses is borne by the entrepreneur. If he directs his property into productive activities later rejected by the consumer’s changing values, he is responsible for his erroneous decision. The sudden abstention from buying on the part of the consumers causes a fall in the value of his property and a loss to the entrepreneur. Within such a market system, the entrepreneur subjects his property to risk—to the gain or loss that accrues from the changing tastes of the consumer.

The notion that windfall profits accrue at another’s expense or loss is patently false. They result from the same forces that bring windfall losses: changes in the values of consumers. Such windfalls result from future uncertainty, and should accrue to the owners who expose their property to the risks of production.

Profits or Losses Stem from Changing Values of Consumers

Once it is understood that profits and losses evolve from the changing values of consumers, it becomes obvious that abolishing windfall profits or windfall losses is impossible. Fallibility and change are a part of our nature, and both large errors and great changes are inevitable. To deny to the entrepreneur the gains or losses resulting from such error or change does not eliminate gains or losses; it eliminates entrepreneurs, disrupts the market, and ultimately leaves everyone under the dead hand of government control.

As long as consumers continue to express their changing values in the market place, profits, anticipated or not, will continue to materialize. The only question is whether the gain in the value of the entrepreneur’s property should accrue to the owner or to someone else.

When the government attempts to make itself the beneficiary of windfall profits, it can only disrupt the productive processes of the market. The natural adjustments in supply and demand that occur in the free market are hampered, and further disequilibrium develops. The consumer’s urgent signal for increased production, which is the essence of windfall profits, cannot be heard or acted upon by producers to whom the market is closed. The ultimate consequence must inevitably be even higher prices for the resources involved. Thus, the expropriation of windfall profits is not only counterproductive, but also denies the sovereignty of the consumer in the structuring of society.

If the individual as consumer is to retain his personal liberty, if he is to remain the sovereign force in the structuring of society, he must be free to reflect fully his changing values in the market place. This requires that the profit and loss signal must remain unhampered. For that is the only signal to which entrepreneurs can reasonably respond.  

  • Robert G. Anderson taught economics and business management at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, and served as Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Economic Education in the 1970s.