As they rolled their eyes at the frustratingly familiar sight of price markups in grocery store aisles, shoppers in 2022 might have wondered whether corporations were doing everything they could to keep prices down as inflation hit generational highs. The answer now appears to be a resounding no.
A joint study by think tanks IPPR and Common Wealth found profiteering by some of the world’s biggest companies forced prices up significantly higher than costs during 2022.
Inflation soared across the globe last year, peaking near 11% in the eurozone and above 9% in the U.S.
The source of that high inflation has become a well-trodden line. Analysts have typically laid the blame on supply-chain bottlenecks created by excess demand during the COVID-19 pandemic and exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The war also increased energy prices, leading to further rises in inflation as suppliers factored in higher transport and running costs.
While this obviously contributed to rising prices, the report finds that company profits increased at a much faster rate than costs did, in a process often dubbed “greedflation.”
Profits for companies in some of the world’s largest economies rose by 30% between 2019 and 2022, significantly outpacing inflation, according to the group’s research of 1,350 firms across the U.S., the U.K., Europe, Brazil, and South Africa.
In the U.K., the research found that 90% of profit increases occurred among just 11% of publicly listed firms. Profiteering was more broad in the U.S., where a third of publicly listed firms were responsible for most of the increase in profits.
The biggest perpetrators were energy companies like Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron, which were able to enjoy massive profits last year as demand moved away from Russian oil and gas.
Food producers including Kraft Heinz realized their own profit surges. The war in Ukraine rocked global grain supplies and fertilizer prices, significantly increasing the cost of food, which remains sticky.
The findings add to a growing body of research seeking to highlight the role of major businesses in forcing up inflation last year.
A June study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that 45% of eurozone inflation in 2022 could be attributed to domestic profits. Companies in a position to benefit most from higher commodity prices and supply-demand mismatches raised their profits by the most, the study found.
CEOs of the world’s biggest companies consistently sounded the alarm on inflation as a significant barrier to growth. Many blamed rising input costs on their own price hikes. However, lots of those CEOs appear to have instead used the panic of rising costs to pump up their balance sheet.
In April, Société Générale economist Albert Edwards released a scathing note saying he hadn’t seen anything like the current levels of corporate greed in his four decades working in finance. He said companies were using the war in Ukraine as an excuse to hike prices in search of profits.
“The end of Greedflation must surely come. Otherwise, we may be looking at the end of capitalism,” Edwards wrote. “This is a big issue for policymakers that simply cannot be ignored any longer.”
Prices coming down
Inflation is now beginning to regulate in most major economies and coming closer to most central banks’ targeted 2%. Some companies that previously passed rising costs on to customers to continue making a profit have now sought to repay them with price cuts.
Last week, Ikea stores owner Ingka’s deputy CEO said the company would be spending $1.1 billion to absorb inflation and bring down the prices of goods in its stores.
“People have thin wallets, but they still have needs, dreams, and frustrations,” Juvencio Maeztu told Fortune.
In November, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon suggested the era of high inflation in the U.S. was over, and shoppers may soon begin to experience a contraction in prices—known as “deflation”—in company stores.