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The new approach to improving people’s access to ultrafast broadband – will it work?

Concerns have been expressed about the UK’s relatively poor record of upgrading broadband services so that households can receive ultrafast connectivity. Some commenters have argued that future economic growth prospects will be harmed if the UK continues to lag behind its leading rivals.

Much of the fixed line system that allows people to connect to broadband was originally installed many years ago for the land-line telephone network. The so called ‘final mile’ consists of copper-based wiring that is carried from street cabinets to the premises of the end-user. This wiring is transported via a huge network of telegraph poles and cable ducts (small underground tunnels).

In order for people to gain connectivity to ultrafast broadband this copper based wiring needs to be replaced by fibre optic cables. This is commonly referred to as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). Unfortunately, the UK has a relatively poor record of installing FTTP. Japan and Korea were forecast to have 70% and 63% coverage by the end of 2015 as opposed to just 2% in the UK.

Why is the UK’s record so poor? Many observers blame it on the structure of the industry. In other network industries, such as those for gas pipeline and electricity grids, the business responsible for managing the infrastructure, National Grid, is a regulated monopoly. This company does not directly supply services to consumers using the network it is responsible for maintaining. Instead, customers are supplied by the retail sector of the industry, where firms compete for their business. This sector includes the so-called ‘big six’ (British Gas; npower; SSE; Scottish Power; EDF; E.On) and a number of smaller suppliers such as Ovo Energy and Ebico.

The structure of the fixed line telecommunications sector is very different. The company that manages the ‘final mile’, Openreach, is a subsidiary of BT. BT also competes with other Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as TalkTalk and Sky, to supply broadband to customers using this network. Its market share of 32 per cent makes it the largest player in the broadband market. Sky and TalkTalk have market shares of 22 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. Virgin Media also supplies 20 per cent of this market using its own network of ducts and cables.

Given that in most cases ISPs such as Sky and TalkTalk are stuck with the network Openreach provides, BT may have limited incentives to invest. It can still earn a good return from its infrastructure of copper-based wiring and avoid installing expensive FTTP. Dido Harding, the chief executive of TalkTalk, argued that:

“We need to separate Openreach from the rest of BT to create a more competitive, pro-investment market”

Ofcom, in its recent review of the market, has taken a different approach. Rather than creating an entirely separate monopoly business to manage the network (i.e. splitting Openreach from BT), the regulator instead opted for a policy of encouraging competition between different suppliers that deploy fibre optic cables. It states in the report that:

“We believe competition between different networks is the best way to drive investment in high-quality, innovative services for customers.”

This competition could come from ISPs such as TalkTalk and Sky or other smaller network providers such as CityFibre and Gigaclear.

One major problem with this approach is that potential new entrants might be deterred from entering the market because of the very high initial costs involved in building a new network in order to deploy FTTP. In particular, the costs of digging up the roads and laying the ducts are considerable. Matt Yardley, author of a study on the industry, said:

“It is widely accepted that civil works such as digging trenches account for up to 80% of broadband deployment costs.”

One way of reducing these costs and encouraging more competition is to allow rival firms access to the existing ducts and poles that are currently managed by Openreach. Once access has been obtained, these firms could effectively rent space inside the ducts and lay fibre optic cables alongside the existing copper-based wiring. Vodafone reported that a similar policy in Spain had reduced its capital expenditure of building FTTP by 40 per cent compared with constructing its own network of ducts and poles.

Ofcom first introduced this type of policy in 2010 when it launched its Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) initiative. Unfortunately it has proved to be relatively unsuccessful with very little demand for PIA from rival firms. The success of this type of policy will depend on a number of factors including (1) the prices charged by Openreach to access and rent space inside the ducts; (2) the simplicity of any relevant administration; and (3) the availability and reliability of information about the ducts. With this last point, key issues include:

Where they are located .
How much space is available: i.e. is there enough space for firms to lay fibre optic cables alongside the existing wiring?
What condition they are in: i.e. are they flooded or clogged up with sand and mud, which will involve expensive work to make them usable again?

Firms did complain about the pricing structures and bureaucratic nature of the administration process under the PIA scheme. However, their most significant concerns were about the uncertainty that was created by the lack of information about the ducts and poles. For example, analysts from the consultancy firm, Reburn, argued that if a firm contacted Openreach to try to obtain access to the network it was informed that:

“We don’t know what condition the ducts and poles are in. Please pay £10 000 for a survey. Also unfortunately we are rather busy and we can only start in six weeks.”

Matthew Hare, the chief executive of Gigaclear, argued that it was like going to a shop where the assistant says:

“Give me some money, and I’ll tell you whether you can have it or not.”

In response to these criticisms Ofcom has introduced a number of changes to PIA, which has been re-named Duct and Pole Access (DPA). In particular, it has imposed a new requirement on Openreach to create a database that provides information on the location, condition and capacity of its ducts and poles. The database must be made available to rival ISPs and network providers. DPA must also be provided on the same timescales, terms and conditions to all businesses including other parts of BT – this is referred to as ‘equivalence of inputs’.

The first big test of this policy is in Southend where City Fibre is hoping to deploy 50km of fibre optic cables using DPA. However, reports in the media have suggested that the initial surveys have found very limited capacity in some of the ducts, which would make DPA impossible.

It will be interesting to see how the trial in Southend progresses. If it is successful, then DPA may be viable for about 40 per cent of premises in the UK. If it fails, then Ofcom might ultimately have to force Openreach to be completely separated from BT.

Articles
How the gothic city of York became a broadband battleground The Telegraph, Kate Palmer (22/5/16)
City Fibre first to mount BT challenge after Openreach is told to share network The Telegraph, Kate Palmer (1/3/16)
Challenges as CityFibre Moot Using BT Cable Ducts in Southend-on-Sea ISPreview, Mark Jackson (2/5/16)
CityFibre to build pure fibre infrastructure for Southend Networking (5/4/16)
Ofcom tells BT to open up infrastructure to rivals The Guardian, Rob Davies (26/2/16)

Questions

  1. Draw an average total cost curve to illustrate the economics of building a network of ducts and poles. Label the minimum efficient scale.
  2. To what extent does DPA create a contestable market?
  3. For DPA to deliver productive efficiency, what must be true about the economies of scale of laying fibre optic cables?
  4. In the run-up to Ofcom’s review of the telecoms industry, many commentators described Openreach as being a natural monopoly. To what extent do you agree with this argument?
  5. What are the advantages of marginal cost pricing? What issues might a regulator face if it tried to impose marginal cost pricing on a natural monopoly?
  6. Using a diagram, explain how the network of ducts and poles might be a natural monopoly in rural areas but not in densely populated urban areas.
  7. Discuss how Ofcom has tried to increase the level of separation between Openreach and BT.

Is Google abusing its dominant market position?

In April 2015 the European Commission (EC) opened a formal investigation into the behaviour of Google in the market for smartphones and tablets. On the 20th April Google was sent a preliminary judgment (referred to formally as a Statement of Objections) in which it was accused of abusing its dominant market position. The European Commissioner argued that the case was similar to the famous and protracted investigation into the conduct of Microsoft.

In the early 2000s Microsoft had a dominant position in the market for desktop operating systems. It has been estimated that 97% of all computing devices at the time used Microsoft Windows. This market power attracted the attention of the EC who accused the company of using its dominance in the operating systems market to restrict competition in complementary markets for software such internet browsers and media players. This led to a complex legal battle between the two parties.

Windows is proprietory software and computer manufacturers have to pay Microsoft a licence fee to install it on their machines. Before the rulings by the EC, Microsoft could make a licence for Windows conditional on other Microsoft software such as Internet Explorer and Media Player being pre-installed. This is known as bundling and in this case the EC came to the conclusion that it restricted competition. The European Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager recently stated that

“If Microsoft’s media player was already there when you bought a PC, it would be hard to persuade people to even try an alternative, so innovators would be at a big disadvantage”

Microsoft lost most of its competition battles with the EC and had to pay a total of €2.2 billion in various fines. It was also forced to change its conduct. For example, the EC instructed Microsoft to provide its users with a choice of internet browsers.

The marketplace for operating systems has gone through some significant changes since the early 2000s. By 2016 Microsoft’s market share had fallen to 26 per cent. One of the major reasons for this decline has been the increasing popularity of smartphones and tablets.

Google’s Android operating system dominates the mobile market with a market share of over 80 per cent. However, the economics of the Android operating system are very different from those of Windows. Unlike Windows, Android is an example of ‘open-source software’. This means that, rather than having to obtain a licence fee, mobile handset or tablet manufacturers can freely install Android on their devices and are not obliged to pre-install other Google software – both Amazon and Nokia have done this. ,

Another major difference is that it is relatively straightforward for rival firms to develop software that can run on Android. Microsoft was accused of making it very difficult for rival software companies to develop products that would run smoothly on the Windows operating system.

It would appear far easier for rival firms to compete with Google than it ever was with Microsoft when it had a dominant market position. It might therefore seem surprising that the EC has accused Google of abusing its dominant market position.

Rather than any restrictions surrounding the licencing conditions for the operating system the EC’s objections to Google’s behaviour focus on its licencing conditions for other proprietary software products it provides. In particular, the EC has focused on the Google Play Store.

The pre-installation of the Google Play Store is seen as vital to the commercial success of any Android phone. Google Play Store was launched in 2012 and brought three previously separate services together – Android Market, Google Music and Google eBookstore. It is the official app store for all users of a device with an Android operating system. It has been argued that a mobile phone store would not stock an Android phone unless it had Google Play Store pre-installed because it is so highly valued by customers.

Therefore it is vital for Android smartphone and tablet manufacturers to obtain a licence for the Play Store. The conditions for obtaining a licence are outlined in the Mobile Application Distribution Agreement. This specifies that a number of other Google apps must also be pre-installed on the device in order for a licence to be granted for the Play Store. These apps include Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Drive, Google Hangouts, Google Maps, Google Search and YouTube. The manufacturer is free to install any other non-google apps.

The EC has specifically objected to the condition that Google Search has to be installed and set as the default search engine. It is concerned that this that will make it very difficult for other search services to compete with Google because (1) manufacturers will have limited incentives to pre-install any competing search engines and (2) consumers will have less incentive to download competing search engines.

The EC has also expressed concerns that the pre-installation of Google Chrome as the mobile browser will also have a negative impact on competition and innovation in this market.

Companies are given 12 weeks to respond after they have received a preliminary judgment. If they do not accept the objections, then the EC will take several months to come to a final ruling and suggest some appropriate remedies. In this case, the most likely remedy is the removal of the licence conditions for the Google Play Store. If Google appeals the ECs decision to the General Court of the EU, it could take years until a final judgment is made.

Murad Ahmed, the European Technology Correspondent at the Financial Times commented that

“One lesson Google might want to learn from Microsoft’s example is while it fights the EU watchdog it is not overtaken by a less distracted competitor.”

Articles
Europe v Google: how Android became a battleground The Guardian (20/4/16)
EU accuses Google of using Android to skew market against rivals The Guardian (20/4/16)
Google faces EU charge over Android ‘abuse of dominance’ BBC News (20/4/16)
Google hit with EU competition charges for ‘abusing’ dominant position with Android Independent (20/4/16)
Everything you need to know about Google and its EU battle The Telegraph (20/4/16)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to compare and contrast the price and quantity in a competitive market with a situation where a firm has market dominance. Clearly state any assumptions you have made in the analysis.
  2. What factors does the EC consider when judging if a firm has a dominant position in the market?
  3. This blog has focused on one aspect of Google’s behaviour/conduct that has raised concerns with the EC. What other elements of Google’s conduct has the European Commission objected to?
  4. Explain the difference between pure and mixed bundling.
  5. What impact does bundling have on consumer welfare?

How is the creation of ‘Megabrew’ progressing?

On 13th October 2015 the management team of SABMiller (the second largest brewing business in the world) agreed in principle to a $108 billion takeover offer from AB-InBev (the largest brewing business in the world). When the announcement was made it was clear that the global nature of the businesses involved meant that the deal would have to be cleared by numerous competition authorities from all over the world. This blog focuses on the latest developments in the European Union.

The relevant legislation in Europe that addresses Mergers and Acquisitions (M&As) is the Merger Regulation that came into force on the 1st May 2004. This legislation gives the European Commission (EC) the power to investigate M&As that are said to have an ‘EU dimension’ as they exceed certain turnover thresholds.

Businesses involved in an M&A that meet the ‘EU dimension’ are obliged to pre-notify the EC and obtain clearance before going ahead with the deal. AB-InBev formally notified the European Authorities of its intention to acquire SABMiller on 30th March 2016.

Once official notification has been received, the EC launches a Phase 1 investigation which usually has to be completed in 25 working days. The investigation focuses on whether the M&A would:

“significantly impede effective competition, in the internal market or in a substantial part of it, in particular as a result of the creation or strengthening of a dominant market position” (Article 2(2) and (3))

This is often referred to as the ‘SIEC’ test. In addition to worries that an M&A may create or strengthen ‘single-firm dominance’, the ‘SIEC’ test is also used to test for ‘collective dominance’. Collective dominance is the possibility that the M&A might make either formal or tacit collusion more likely.

The European Competition has expressed concerns that the acquisition of SABMiller by AB-InBev might significantly impede effective competition in the premium lager market. Unconditional clearance of the deal would result in the same business owning many of the best-selling premium lager brands in Europe, including Stella Artois, Beck’s, Budweiser, Corona, Peroni and Grolsh.

As part of the Phase 1 investigation, the management of the businesses involved with the M&A can have ‘State of Play meetings’ with officials from the EC. At these meetings EC staff can raise any competition concerns they have with the deal and the businesses can respond by offering to take specific actions that they hope will address any issues. The most common action is a commitment to sell of some of the assets of the newly merged business.

Any commitments must be made no later than 20 days following the formal notification of the merger and they result in the time frame for the Phase 1 investigation being extended from 25 to 35 working days.

On the 8th April, AB-InBev made a commitment to the EC to sell the SABMiller brands Peroni, Grolsch and Meantime as a potential remedy for their competition concerns. A price of €2.55 billion for the deal was agreed with Asahi – the largest Japanese brewery. The sale of the brands is subject to the acquisition of SABMiller by AB-InBev being completed. Following this commitment, the EC extended the deadline for the Phase 1 investigation to May 24th.

It appears that at subsequent State of Play meetings EC officials expressed concerns that this commitment was not enough to address fully their worries over the impact of the acquisition on competition.

On April 27th (just inside the 20-working-day deadline) AB-InBev made an extended package of commitments to the European Union authorities to try to remedy their continued concerns. The commitments now include the sale of the SABMiller breweries in Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Part of this sale would also include the Pilsner Urquell brand – a best-selling beer in the Czech Republic – and the Drecher brand – a best-selling beer in Hungary.

If the EC decides that the deal still raises concerns and could significantly impede effective competition in the single market, then the acquisition will be referred for a Phase 2 investigation. Phase 2 investigations are far more detailed than at Phase 1 and place far greater burdens on the parties involved. They also take much longer. The initial deadline for completion is 90 working days, but this can be extended to 125 working days in certain circumstances. Taking holidays into account they could last for 6 to 7 months before coming to a final decision.

This may help to explain why AB-InBev is willing to sell off nearly all of SABMiller’s European assets in the hope of obtaining clearance for a deal at the end of the Phase 1 investigation. The company aims to finalise the takeover in autumn of this year and is therefore very keen to avoid any regulatory delay created by a more detailed Phase 2 investigation.

Its willingness to sell off the European assets also confirms AB InBev’s main motive for its acquisition of SABMiller – to gain access to new and growing markets in Africa and Latin America.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of the Phase 1 investigation on May 24th.

Articles
AB InBev accepts Asahi offer for Peroni and Grolsch Independent (19/4/16)
Asahi laps up Peroni and Grolsch to smoothe AB InBev’s SABMiller deal The Telegraph (19/4/16)
Peroni and Grolsch sold as AB Inbev and SABMiller deal nears The Guardian (19/4/16)
AB InBev offers more SAB Europe assets to win EU deal approval Reuters (29/4/16)
Peroni and Grolsch brands sold by AB InBev to Asahi BBC News (19/4/16)

Questions

  1. What threshold criteria have to be met in order for a merger to be classed as having a European dimension?
  2. Discuss the different types of decision that can be made by the European Commission at the end of a Phase 1 investigation.
  3. Compare the notification system used by the European Commission with the one used by the UK competition authorities.
  4. Discuss some of the market conditions that would make either formal or tacit collusion more likely.
  5. Discuss some factors that might make it in the interests of society for an M&A to go ahead?
  6. To what extent does the evidence suggest that M&As have delivered the benefits predicted by the managers of the businesses involved?

Competition in the supply of private healthcare

When people think about healthcare in the UK they tend to associate it with the NHS. However, there is a £5 billion private healthcare market. Concerns have been expressed about the lack of effective competition in this sector and it has been investigated by the competition authorities over a 5-year period.

Approximately 4 million people in the UK have a private medical insurance policy. The majority of these are paid for by employers, although some people pay directly. Four companies dominate the health insurance market (AXA PPP, Bupa, Pru Health and Aviva) with a combined market share of over 90%.

Health insurance companies purchase healthcare services for their policy holders from private hospitals. The majority of private hospitals in the UK are owned by the following businesses – BMI, HCA, Nuffield, Ramsey and Spire. Some concerns have been expressed about the lack of competition between private hospitals in some areas of the country.

After its initial analysis into the sector, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) referred the case to the Competition Commission (CC) in April 2012 to carry out a full market investigation. This process was then taken over by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) when it replaced the OFT and CC. The final report was published on April 2nd 2014.

One specific region that was identified in this report as having a lack of effective competition was central London for patients with health insurance. In particular it was concluded that:

The market in central London was heavily concentrated and HCA had a dominant market position – its aggregated share of admissions across 16 specialities (e.g. Oncology, Cardiology, Neurology, Dermatology etc.) was 45% to 55%.
There were significant barriers to entry including substantial sunk costs. A particular issue for a new entrant or existing business was the problem of securing suitable sites in central London to build new hospitals and in obtaining planning permission. It was pointed out in the report that the market structure in central London had changed very little in the previous 10 years despite a rapidly growing demand for private healthcare.
HCA was charging insured patients higher prices for similar treatments than its leading rival – The London Clinic. HCA was also found to be making returns that were in excess of the cost of capital.

One of the key recommendations of the report was that HCA should be forced to sell–off one or two of the hospitals that it owned in central London to increase the level of competition.

Unsurprisingly HCA was very unhappy with the decision and applied to the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) for a review of the case. During this review, economists working for HCA found errors with the analysis carried out by the CMA into the pricing of health services for insured customers.

In January 2015 the CAT concluded that the findings and recommendations of the report on insured patients in central London should be overturned and the CMA should reconsider the case. In November 2015 the CMA announced that having reviewed the case it had come to a similar set of conclusions: i.e. there was a lack of effective competition and HCA should be forced to sell off two of its hospitals in London.

HCA still claimed that the pricing analysis was incorrect because it did not fully take into account that HCA treated patients with more complex conditions than TLC and that was why their prices were higher.

On March 22nd 2016 the CMA announced that it had reversed its ruling and HCA would no longer be expected to sell off any of its hospitals. The reason given for this change in recommendation was the appearance of new entrants into the market. For example, Cleveland Clinic a US-based private healthcare provider has purchased a long-term lease on a property in Belgravia, central London. It plans to convert the office space into a private hospital with 2015 beds.

A spokesperson for Bupa commented that:

“The CMA has confirmed again that there isn’t enough competition in central London, with HCA dominating the private hospital market and charging higher prices. We ask the CMA to act now to address this gap.”

It will be interesting to see the impact these new entrants have on the market in the future.

Articles
London develops as a global healthcare hub Financial Times Gill Plimmer (31/01/16)
Competition watchdog reverses ruling on private hospitals Financial Times Gill Plimmer, (22/03/16)
CMA’s private healthcare provisional decision on remedies CMA 22/03/16
Competition problems provisionally found in private healthcare CMA 10/11/15
CMA welcomes Court of Appeal verdict in private healthcare case CMA 21/05/15

Questions

  1. Define sunk costs using some real-world examples.
  2. Why might the existence of sunk costs create a barrier to entry?
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate why a profit-maximising business with significant market power might charge higher prices than one in a very competitive environment.
  4. What is the cost of capital? Explain why returns that are greater than the cost of capital might be evidence that a firm is making excessive profits.
  5. Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of new entrants in a market.

Is personalised pricing possible?

A number of famous Business Schools in the UK and US such as MIT Sloan, NYU Stern and Imperial College have launched new programmes in business analytics. These courses have been nicknamed ‘Big Data finishing school’. Why might qualifications in this area be highly valued by firms?

Employees who have the skills to collect and process Big Data might help firms to successfully implement a pricing strategy that approaches first-degree price discrimination.

First-degree price discrimination is where the seller of a product is able to charge each consumer the maximum price he or she is prepared to pay for each unit of the product. Successfully implementing this type of pricing strategy could enable a firm to make more revenue. It might also lead to an increase in economic efficiency. However, the strategy might be opposed on equity grounds.

In reality, perfect price discrimination is more of a theoretical benchmark than a viable pricing strategy. Discovering the maximum amount each of its customers is willing to pay is an impossible task for a firm.

It may be possible for some sellers to implement a person-specific pricing strategy that approaches first-degree price discrimination. Firms may not be able to charge each customer the maximum amount they are willing to pay but they may be able to charge different prices that reflect customers’ different valuations of the product.

How could a firm go about predicting how much each of its customers is willing to pay? Traditionally smaller sellers might try to ‘size up’ a customer through individual observation and negotiation. The clothes people wear, the cars they drive and their ethnicity/nationality might indicate something about their income. Second-hand car dealers and stall-holders often haggle with customers in an attempt to personalise pricing. The starting point of these negotiations will often be influenced by the visual observations made by the seller.

The problem with this approach is that observation and negotiation is a time-consuming process. The extra costs involved might be greater than the extra revenue generated. This might be especially true for firms that sell a large volume of products. Just imagine how long it would take to shop at a supermarket if each customer had to haggle with a member of staff over each item in their supermarket trolley!! There is also the problem of designing compensation contracts for sales staff that provide appropriate incentives.

However the rise of e-commerce may lead to a very different trading environment. Whenever people use their smart phones, laptops and tablets to purchase goods, they are providing huge amounts of information (perhaps unconsciously) to the seller. This is known as Big Data. If this information can be effectively collected and processed then it could be used by the seller to predict different customers’ willingness to pay.

Some of this Big Data provides information similar to that observed by sellers in traditional off-line transactions. However, instead of visual clues observed by a salesperson, the firm is able to collect and process far greater quantities of information from the devices that people use.

For example, the Internet Protocol (IP) address could be used to identify the geographical location of the customer: i.e. do they live in a relatively affluent or socially deprived area? The operating system and browser might also indicate something about a buyer’s income and willingness to pay. The travel website, Orbitz, found that Apple users were 40 per cent more likely to book four or five star hotel rooms than customers who used Windows.

Perhaps the most controversial element to Big Data is the large amount of individual-level information that exists about the behaviour of customers. In particular, browsing histories can be used to find out (a) what types of goods people have viewed (b) how long they typically spend on-line and (c) their previous purchase history. This behavioural information might accurately predict price sensitivity and was never available in off-line transactions.

Interestingly, there has been very little evidence to date that firms are implementing personalised pricing on the internet. One possible explanation is that effective techniques to process the mass of available information have not been fully developed. This would help to explain the growth in business analytics courses offered by universities. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently announced its aim to recruit one thousand more data scientists over the next two years.

Another possible explanation is that firms fear a backlash from customers who are deeply opposed to this type of pricing. In a widely cited survey of consumers, 91% of the respondents believed that first-degree price discrimination was unfair.

Articles
Big data is coming for your purchase history – to charge you more money The Guardian, Anna Bernasek and DT Mongan (29/5/15)
Big data is an economic justice issue, not just a Privacy Problem The Huffington Post, Nathan Newman (16/5/15)
MIT’s $75,000 Big Data finishing school (and its many rivals) Financial Times, Adam Jones (20/3/16)
The Government’s consumer data watchdog New York Times, Natasha Singer (23/5/2015)
The economics of big data and differential pricing The Whitehouse blog, Jason Furman, Tim Simcoe (6/2/2015)

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between first- and third-degree price discrimination.
  2. Using an appropriate diagram, explain why perfect price discrimination might result in an economically more efficient outcome than uniform pricing.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate how a policy of first-degree price discrimination could lead to greater revenue but lower profits for a firm.
  4. Why would it be so difficult for a firm to discover the maximum amount each of its customers was willing to pay?
  5. Explain how the large amount of information on the individual behaviour of customers (so-called Big Data) could be used to predict differences in their willingness to pay.
  6. What factors might prevent a firm from successfully implementing a policy of personalised pricing?

A European cartel – fixing the price of car parts

The European Commission has recently carried out a number of investigations into the various sectors of the industry that supplies parts to car manufacturers. Firms have been found guilty of engaging in anti-competitive practices in the supply of bearings, wire harnesses and the foam used in car seats. The latest completed case relates to firms that supply alternators and starters – both important components in a car engine.

On January 27th the European Commission announced that it was imposing fines on some Japanese manufacturing companies. Melco (Mitsubishi Electric), Hitachi and Denso were found guilty of participating in a cartel between September 2004 and February 2010 that restricted competition in the supply alternators and starters to car manufacturers.

The Commission gathered evidence showing that senior managers in the three businesses held discussions about how to implement various anti-competitive practices. These either took place on the phone or at meetings in offices/restaurants. In particular the firms agreed:

to co-ordinate their responses to tenders issued by car manufacturers. This involved them agreeing on the price each firm would bid.
to exchange commercially sensitive information about pricing and marketing strategies.
which of them would supply each car manufacturer with alternators and starters.

These activities are in breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2009). The European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:

“Today’s decision sanctions three car part producers whose collusion affected component costs for a number of car manufacturers selling cars in Europe, and ultimately European consumers buying them. If European consumers are affected by a cartel, the Commission will investigate it even if the cartel meetings took place outside of Europe”

The fines imposed on the three businesses were as follows:

– Denso €0
– Hitachi €26 860 000
– Melco €110 929 000

How are these fines calculated? When calculating the size of the fine to impose on a firm the Commission takes into account a number of factors. These include:

the size of its annual sales affected by the anti-competitive activities.
its market share.
the geographical area of its sales.
how long it had taken part in the cartel.
whether it had previously been found guilty of engaging in anti-competitive practices.
if it initiated the cartel in the first place i.e. was it the ring leader?

In this particular case the size of the fine imposed on both Hitachi and Melco was increased because they had both previously been found guilty of breaking EU competition rules.

If a member of the cartel comes forward with information that helps the Commission with its investigation, a reduction in the size of the fine can be applied under a provision called a Leniency Notice (2006). Timing as well as the quality of the information provided influences the size of this reduction. For example, only the first firm to come forward with relevant information can receive a reduction of up to 100% i.e. obtain full immunity. This explains how Denso could be found guilty but not have to pay a fine. (This firm’s initial approach to the Commission actually triggered the investigation.) Any subsequent firms that come forward with information receive smaller fine reductions. Hitachi and Melco received reductions of 30% and 28% respectively.

If a firm accepts the Commission’s decision a further reduction of up to 10% can be applied. This is called a Settlement Notice (2008). All three firms were awarded the full 10% discount in this case.

The European Commission is currently investigating the behaviour of firms that supply car thermal systems, seatbelts and exhaust systems.

Articles
Car parts price-fixing fines for Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric BBC News 27/01/16
EU antitrust regulators to fine Japanese car part makers: sources Tech News 26/01/16
Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi get $150 EU cartel fine Bloomberg 27/01/16
EU fines Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi for car part cartel Reuters 27/1/16

Questions

  1. What market conditions would make the formation of a cartel more likely?
  2. Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of a profit maximising cartel agreement on the price, output and profit in an industry.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate the incentive that each firm has to cheat on an agreed cartel price and output.
  4. Why did the European Commission introduce Settlement Notices?

The sexist surcharge!!

Recent reports in the media have included headlines such as “Sexist surcharge” and “Pink premium?” Various claims have been made that women pay significantly higher prices for similar products than men.

The Times newspaper recently published the results from an investigation it carried out on the prices of hundreds of similar products that were marketed at both men and women. The study found that those products marketed at women cost 37% more on average than similar versions that were marketed at men. Examples included:

Disposable razors: Tesco priced a packet of five of its own-brand disposable razors for women at £1. The key characteristic that targeted the razors at female customers was the colour – they were pink. For the same price, a packet targeted at male customers (i.e. they were blue) contained 10 disposable razors.
Ballpoint pens: Staples priced a packet of five pastel-coloured Bic pens marketed ‘for her’ at £2.99. A packet of five Bic pens that were not in the ‘for her’ range (i.e. they had transparent barrels) were priced at £1.98.
Scooters: Argos increased the price of a child’s scooter by £5 if it was pink instead of blue.

Maria Miller, the chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, stated that:

“It is unacceptable that women face higher costs for the same product just because they are targeted at women. Retailers have got to explain why they do this.”

A more detailed study carried out by New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs was published in December 2015. Average prices were collected for 794 individual items across 5 different industries. The key findings were that products marketed at women were

7 per cent more for toys and accessories
4 per cent more for children’s clothing
8 per cent more for adult clothing
13 per cent more for personal care products
8 per cent more for health products

Interestingly whereas the investigation in the UK only found examples of women paying higher prices than men, the New York study found some goods where the price was higher for men.

Reports in the media have claimed that this is clear evidence of price discrimination. Although this is likely to be true, it is impossible to say for certain without more detailed information on costs.

For example, when referring to the higher price for the razors marketed at women in the UK study, Richard Hyman, an analyst at RAH Advisory, stated that:

“the packaging will be different and they will sell fewer so it could be to do with the volume”

If economies of scale and the different costs of packaging can fully account for the difference in prices between the razors then it is not an example of price discrimination.

Articles
The sexist surcharge – how women get ripped off on the high street The Guardian 19/01/16
Women paying more than men for everyday products The Independent 19/01/16
Price differences for men and women ‘astonishing’ BBC 19/01/16
Pink premium? There are greater problems The Guardian 24/01/16
Being a women costs more than being a man CNBC 23/12/15

Questions

  1. Define price discrimination.
  2. Outline and explain the three different categories of price discrimination.
  3. Could a situation where a firms charges all of its customers the same price for a good or service ever be classed as an example of price discrimination?
  4. A firm with market power may still not be able to successfully implement a policy of price discrimination. Explain why.
  5. Under what circumstances could price discrimination improve allocative efficiency?

How is Wikipedia funded?

Wikipedia logo: source Wikimnedia CommonsWikipedia is a free on-line encyclopedia which is compiled and maintained by some of the people who use it regularly. It has been estimated that on any given day 15% of all internet users visit the website. Anyone can write new articles or edit existing material. The encyclopedia has over 5 million entries. So how is it financed?

If you visit the Wikipedia website at the moment you will be greeted by the following message:

DEAR READERS, We’ll get right to it: This week we ask you to help Wikipedia. To protect our independence, we’ll never run ads. We’re sustained by donations averaging about £10. Only a tiny portion of our readers give. If everyone reading this right now gave £2, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. That’s right, the price of a cup of coffee is all we need. We’re non-profit with costs of a top website: servers, staff and programs. We believe everyone should have access to free knowledge, without restriction or limitation. If Wiki We believe everyone should have access to free knowledge, without restriction or limitation. If Wikipedia is useful to you, please take one minute to keep our work going another year. Thank you.pedia is useful to you, please take one minute to keep our work going another year. Thank you.

Wikipedia Foundation, the not-for-profit company that manages the Wikipedia website, has been running these donation drives for a number of years. The 2014/15 financial year was their most successful to date as 4 million donations were made by people from all over the world. A total of $75 million was raised compared with $15 million in 2009/10. Although the average contribution was $15.20 in 2014/15, some people contributed over $250,000!

Many of you studying economics might find these figures surprising as Wikipedia would appear to have some of the characteristics associated with public goods. On the one hand, the material is perfectly non-rival. If someone decides to read an entry on Wikipedia it does not prevent other users from being able to read the same article. The article does not get used up or depleted in the act of being read. On the other hand, however, it is possible to exclude non-payers from gaining access to the material. For example in June 2010, the Times and Sunday Times introduced a subscription service for access to on-line versions of the newspapers. The New York Times recently announced that it had one million digital subscribers. However given its non-rivalrous nature, material could be shared between payers and non-payers. Groups of people could even get together and share one subscription.

The statement provided by Wikipedia clearly expresses the importance it attaches to free access. Given that it is non-rivalrous in consumption and free of charge to all users, does economic theory predict that people will (i) make voluntary monetary donations (ii) contribute and edit the on-line entries?

If all users are driven by narrowly self-interested preferences and act in a rational manner, then they will not pay and no donations will be made. People will choose to free ride as they can read exactly the same material whether they have paid for it or not.

Given the results of the fund-raising drive are so at odds with this prediction, it suggests that a significant number of Wikipedia users have either altruistic preferences and/or respond to social norms.

If a rational self-interested person receives no monetary payment for writing or editing an entry would they ever contribute to the website? Given the effort involved it would seem highly unlikely. However the Wikipedia website claims that over 125,000 people contribute regularly. They are referred to as ‘Wikipedians’.

One possible explanation for this behaviour is that some individuals gain utility/pleasure from other people reading and finding their entries both useful and interesting. This utility might increase with the number of potential readers. Therefore keeping access free is a motivating factor for a number of contributors as it maximises the potential readership of their entries. However, the number of contributors fell by a one third between 2007 and 2014.

An interesting question is whether the quantity and quality of contributions would increase if Wikipedia implemented a subscription service which generated enough revenue to enable contributors to be paid but also significantly reduced the number of users.

An alternative way of generating revenue would be to allow advertisements on the website while keeping access free of charge. This option has been resisted so far.

Articles
The Wikipedia fundraising banner sad but untrue Wikipediocracy, The Masked Maggot and friends (11/12/2014)
Newsonomics:10 numbers on the New York times 1 million digital-subscriber milestone Nieman. Ken Doctor (6/8/2015)
The trouble with “Free Riding” Freedom to tinker, Timothy B. Lee (24/8/2008)
The future of Wikipedia: Wikipeaks? The Economist (1/3/2014)

Wikimedia publications
Fundraising report 2014-2015 Wikimedia foundation (26/10/2015)
Wikipedia community

Questions

  1. How do economists classify goods or services that have a low degree of rivalry but where it is relatively easy to exclude non-payers? Give some real world examples to illustrate your answer.
  2. How do economists classify goods and services that have a high degree of rivalry but where it is relatively difficult to exclude non-payers? Give some real world example to illustrate your answer.
  3. Explain why an economically rational individual might still make a donation towards the running of the Wikipedia website.
  4. Why do you think the number of contibutors has fallen?
  5. People often complain that Wikipedia entrees are badly written and contain numerous mistakes. To what extent do you think that paying contributors would help to overcome this problem?
  6. What are the possible advantages/disadvantages of financing Wikipedia by using advertising revenue?

Is ‘wet rent’ for publicans coming to an end?

Pubs are closing down in the UK at the rate of 29 per week. The total number has fallen from 67,000 in 1982 to approximately 52,000 this year. In response to this decline the government has recently announced some changes to the way the relationship between pub owners and their tenants are regulated.

The ownership of pubs in the UK changed dramatically after a report on the beer market was published by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) in 1989. When this investigation took place over 75% of the beer in the UK was produced by the six largest brewing businesses (Bass, Allied Lyons, Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread, Scottish and Newcastle, Courage) which owned over half the pubs. The nature of the relationship between these breweries and the landlords of the pubs they owned caused the greatest concerns.

Some pubs are run as managed houses. In this type of business relationship the person who manages and runs the pub (the publican) is a direct employee of the brewery. However, in many instances this is not the case. Instead they are independent entrepreneurs who enter into a tenancy agreement with the owner of the pub. In other words they rent the pub from the brewery and have some freedom over the way it is run including the setting of prices.

These arrangements have proved to be very controversial because of one particular aspect of many of the tenancy agreements – the exclusive supply contract. Known as the ‘tied lease model’, ‘beer tie’ or ‘wet rent’, it significantly reduces the freedom of publicans to run the business, as they have to purchase almost all their beverages from the brewery that owns the pub.

The MMC report in 1989 concluded that a significant reason for the increasing real price of beer was the market power exerted by the brewers through the tied lease model. It recommended that the number of pubs owned and operated by the brewers should be substantially reduced. Known as the ‘Beer Orders’, the brewers responded by gradually selling off 14,000 pubs. They also eventually sold the breweries to international rivals and companies such as Whitbread and Bass moved into the retail, leisure and hotel sectors. Whitbread currently owns Costa, Brewers Fayre and Premier Inn hotels while Bass, renamed Intercontinental Hotels Groups, owns both Crown Plaza and Holiday Inn hotels.

The beer tie between the pubs and the big national breweries might have disappeared but the tied lease arrangement still exists. Instead of being tied to national brewers, many publicans are tied to either smaller regional breweries, such as Everards and Adnams, or another type of business – the pub company known as ‘pubcos’. Some of the larger pubcos include Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns, Mitchells&Butlers and JD Weatherspoon. They negotiate deals with the breweries and then supply the beer to their pubs.

In 2014, The British Beer and Pub Association estimated that two-fifths of pubs in the UK were owned by pubcos, while another fifth were owned by regional breweries. In 2013, The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimated that 48 per cent of pubs in the UK had landlords who were tied to either a regional brewer or a pub company.

The ownership of pubs may have changed radically over the past 20 years but the tied lease system continues to be extremely controversial. The main argument against the system is that it leads to tied publicans having to pay significantly above free market prices for their beer. The pubcos accept this claim but maintain that, in return for being in a tied lease, the publican pays a lower rent and receives business support services.

Parliament passed the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act in March 2015 (see Part 4). This included provisions for the introduction of:

  a statutory Pubs Code to govern the relationship between the businesses that own the pubs and their tenants;
a new independent Adjudicator to enforce the code;
a Market Rent Only (MRO) option.

In October 2015 the government announced some proposals for how the MRO option could be implemented as part of its consultation process with the industry. These include giving the tied publican the right to ask for a rent assessment every five years or whenever the owner of the pub significantly changes the beer prices it charges the tenant. As part of this rent assessment the publican can take the option to switch to an MRO contract. This gives them the freedom to purchase beer from any supplier rather than being tied to those supplied by the owner of the pub.

Enterprise Inns, the largest pubco, operates nearly all of its pubs on the tied lease model. In response to the changes proposed by the Government, the company has announced plans significantly to increase the number of its directly managed pubs from just 16 to 800.

Could the tied lease system finally be about to end?

Articles
Enterprise Inns to grow pub numbers after death of the ‘beer tie’ The Telegraph, Ben Martin, and Peter Spence (12/05/15)
What is the ‘beer tie’ The Telegraph, Denise Roland (19/11/14)
Q&A: Calling time on the beer tie BBC News, Katie Hope (19/11/14)
Chin chin! Fair deal for pub tenants under a new beer tie crackdown City AM, Suzie Neuwirth (29/10/15)
Industry Reacts to New Statutory Pubs Code Eat Out, Nathan Pearce (29/10/15)
What does new pub code mean for the leased pubs? Burton Mail, Andrew Musgrove (04/11/15)

Questions

  1. What has happened to the big six national brewers which once dominated the beer industry in the UK?
  2. What factors have caused the decline in the number of pubs?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate the impact that the market power of the pubcos might have on the prices paid by publicans in a tied lease.
  4. Discuss some of the potential advantages of the tied lease model.
  5. The global brewers and pubcos might create a situation where market power exists in successive stages of the vertical supply chain. Analyse some of the potential implications of this structure and discuss the concept of double marginalisation.

Tax inversion, Botox and Viagra

On Monday 23rd November, the US based pharmaceutical business Pfizer (producer of Viagra) announced that it had reached a $160 billion deal to acquire the Irish based pharmaceutical business Allergan (producer of Botox). If it is successful it will be the third largest deal in takeover history.

In a previous blog on this website a number of reasons were discussed to explain why businesses may engage in mergers and acquisitions (M&As) Are large mergers and acquisitions in the interests of the consumer . These include market power, access to growing markets, economies of scale and reducing x-inefficiency. One of the interesting things about the Pfizer and Allegan deal is the importance of another factor that was not discussed in the article – tax avoidance.

Rates of corporation tax vary considerably between countries and may deter some businesses from operating in the US where it is at the relatively high level of 35%. This compares with a rate of 20% in the UK, 12.5% in Ireland and 0% in Bermuda. The global average rate is 23.7% whereas the average across EU countries is 22.2%.

However, a far bigger incentive for a US firm to merge with or acquire businesses in other countries is the unusual way the US authorities tax profits. Most countries use a territorial system. This means that tax is only paid on the profit earned in that country. For example if a UK multinational business has subsidiaries in other countries it only pays corporation tax in the UK on profits earned in the UK. The profits earned by its subsidiary businesses would be taxed at the rate set by the government in the country where they were located.

The US authorities use a worldwide system. This means that profits earned by a subsidiary in another country are also taxed in the US. This is best explained with the help of a simple numerical example.

Assume a US multinational earns $100,000 in profits from a subsidiary based in Ireland. These profits will be taxed in Ireland at the rate of 12.5% and the company would have to pay $12,500 to the Irish government. If that profit was returned to the US it would be taxed again at a rate of 22.5%: i.e. 35% – 12.5%. The company would have to pay the US authorities $22,500.The worldwide system means that the total rate of tax paid by the firm is 35% but it is split between two different countries. If the territorial system was used, the firm would only pay the $12,500 to the Irish government.

So how could M&As change things? If an M&A enables a US multinational business to change its country of incorporation (i.e. move the address of its headquarters) from the US to another country that operates a territorial system its payments will fall. This is sometimes referred to as tax inversion. As the Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine stated:

If we’re incorporated in the U.S., we’ll pay 35 percent taxes on our income in the U.S. and Canada and Mexico and Ireland and Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, but if we’re incorporated in Canada, we’ll pay 35 percent on our income in the U.S. but 15 percent in Canada and 30 percent in Mexico and 12.5 percent in Ireland and zero percent in Bermuda and zero percent in the Cayman Islands.

As a result of the merger with Allergan, Pfizer will move the address of its headquarters to Ireland even though its global operations and executives will still be based in New York. It has been estimated that this will generate a one off tax saving of $21 billion as Pfizer would avoid having to pay US taxes on $128 billion of profits generated by its non US subsidiaries.

A number of US politicians have condemned the proposed deal. For example Hilary Clinton stated:

This proposed merger, and so called inversions by other companies, will leave US taxpayers holding the bag.

Twenty US companies have moved their headquarters to countries that operate a territorial system of taxation since 2012. These include Burger King’s move to Canada and Medtronic’s move to Ireland.

The US government has tried to tighten the rules but the two major parties disagree about how to deal with the problem.

Articles
Pfizer Seals $160bn Allergan deal to create drugs giant BBC News,(23/11/15)
Pfizer’s $160bn Allergan deal under pressure in the US BBC News,(24/11/15)
Pfizer set to buy Allergan in $150bn historic deal The Telegraph,(23/11/15)
Pfizer and Allergan poised to announce history’s biggest healthcare merger-corporate-tax The Guardian,(22/11/15)
Pfizer takeover: what is a tax inversion deal and why are they so controversial? The Guardian,(23/11/15)

Questions

  1. The newly merged business would jump above Johnson and Johnson to become the world’s largest biotech and pharmaceutical company in the world. Who are the other biggest eight Biotech and pharmaceutical businesses in the world?
  2. What exactly is a subsidiary? Give some real-world examples.
  3. How have the US authorities changed the rules in an attempt to deter tax inversions?
  4. Assume that a US multinational makes $1 million profit in the US and $1 million profit from its subsidiary in Ireland. Explain how changing its country of incorporation from the US to Ireland will alter the amount of corporation tax that it has to pay.