Americans hear it every day now during Gov. Andrew Cuomo's press briefings. In the middle of a crushing pandemic, New York and other states are being grossly gouged as they shop around for medical supplies. With most of their regular relationships exhausted, states are competing against each other, a nonsensical and costly "bidding war" that Cuomo has blamed on President Trump.
N95 masks, which are now among the most prized commodities on the planet, are in such short supply, that some hospitals in NYC simply don't have them to provide to workers, forcing them to improvise. Cuomo says masks that recently cost just 40 or 50 cents are now being sold for $7 a pop, a roughly 13x markup.
While the administration's failure to better prepare for the epidemic certainly hasn't helped, the New York Times on Friday pointed out another, bigger factor that's greatly contributed to this problem. Complex globalized supply chains have been disrupted by the outbreak, and with production largely centered in China, producers are effectively using the masks as political chits: Beijing has given them to Italy, and the UK - and even a few to the US.
But beyond that, the chaos caused by the outbreak caused such a mad scramble to buy up these supplies, that brokers are selling them at crazy markups, many because they bought them at already-crazy markups, and are now either trying to make a sliver of profit, or just break even. Even wannabe 'Good Samaritans' have fallen prey to this cycle, as the dogooders ask simply to be reimbursed for their costs, or just accept that they will lose money, which is hard to do during a time of looming economic catastrophe. At a certain point, it almost becomes difficult to differentiate the scammers from the do-gooders.
Others are exploiting relationships to act as 'brokers', middle-manning N95 masks and other supplies - the masks especially will become even more scarce and costly once the White House and CDC inevitably advise people to wear them in public - for modest profits.
Rampant crisis profiteering has already been well-documented by the press, as have the efforts by states and the federal government to police it. Earlier this week, AG Barr got up at the White House's daily press conference and warned that federal prosecutors would be cracking down. And many have been publicly shamed.
But even as Amazon bans the sale of masks to the general public, next-level 'brokers' are using the power of the internet to deal with hospital systems and other health-care providers who have essentially been forced to participate in the shadowy grey market to acquire essential supplies at a time when people's lives - even the lives of young, healthy people - are very much on the line.
One of the details that most stood out to us in Friday's New York Times story was the description of the practice as "medical supply arbitrage." Here's how it works, according to NYT:
Not every new entrant to the market is a good Samaritan. Groups on Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram are teeming with posts hawking thousands of masks at inflated prices.
Some are wholesalers who bought pallets of masks from China or in liquidation sales and then marked them up. Many more are simply middlemen who call themselves brokers. They scour the groups for masks advertised for a relatively low price, and then repost the offer for a few thousand dollars more. They don’t handle the masks or put up their own money.
Yaear Weintroub is one of those brokers. A 22-year-old community college student from Brooklyn, he typically sells wholesale electronics to Amazon sellers. But the online forums he searches for deals became flooded with listings for masks last month, so he now spends his days trying to connect buyers and sellers for a bit of medical-supply arbitrage.
In a recent interview, he said he was working with a partner to close a deal for 280,000 surgical masks that would increase their price 20 percent and net the pair a roughly $40,000 profit. He said many of the brokers sold to other brokers, each one marking up the price, until the masks presumably make it to a nursing home or a hospital. He said he would prefer to sell directly to hospitals.
"They’re just more serious," he said. "So if I have the goods, I want a serious buyer for them. And besides, it’s a morally good reason."
To these sellers, medical supplies are simply another hot product to flip for a profit. Avraham Eisenberg, a New York wholesaler who is trying to ship masks from China, compared the rush for masks to the fad several years ago for fidget spinners.
As prosecutors crack down on re-sellers of medical supplies, the line between what constitutes 'gouging' and simple sales of products that aren't illegal to sell to the general public is becoming more difficult to discern. Barr's press conference appearance aside, last month, the DoJ said it would investigate people manipulating the medical-supply market. Then, five days later, federal authorities charged a Brooklyn man with lying about price gouging after he tried to sell 1,000 masks and other supplies to a doctor for $12,000 (he was also charged with assault for coughing on one of the agents).
It might still be legal, but anybody who's still doing this should watch their backs.