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Miliband’s freeze

For all households, energy is considered an essential item. As electricity and gas prices rise and fall, many of us don’t think twice about turning on the lights, cooking a meal or turning on the heating. We may complain about the cost and want prices brought down, but we still pay the bills. But, is there anything that can be done about high energy prices? And if there is, should anything be done?

The worlds of politics and economics are closely linked and Ed Miliband’s announcement of his party’s plans to impose a 20-month freeze on energy prices if elected in 2015 showed this relationship to be as strong as ever. The price freeze would certainly help average households reduce their cost of living by around £120 and estimates suggest businesses would save £1800 over this 20 month period. The energy companies have come in for a lot of criticism, in particular relating to their control of the industry. The sector is dominated by six big companies – your typical oligopoly, and this makes it very difficult for new firms to enter. Thus competition is restricted. But is a price freeze a good policy?

Part of the prices we pay go towards investment in cleaner and more environmentally friendly sources of energy. Critics suggest that any price freeze would deprive the energy sector of much needed investment, meaning our energy bills will be higher in the future. Furthermore, some argue this price freeze suggests that Labour is abandoning its environmental policy. Energy shortages have been a concern, especially with the cold weather the UK experienced a few years ago. This issue may reappear with price freezes. As Angela Knight, from Energy UK, suggests:

Freezing the bill may be superficially attractive, but it will also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000-plus people dependent on the energy industry and make the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone.

There is a further concern and that is that large energy companies will be driven from the UK. This thought was echoed by many companies, in particular the British Gas owner Centrica, commenting that:

If prices were to be controlled against a background of rising costs it would simply not be economically viable for Centrica to continue to operate and far less to meet the sizeable investment challenge that the industry is facing…The impact of such a policy would be damaging for the country’s long-term prosperity and for our customers.

Share prices naturally fluctuate with global events and a political announcement such as this was inevitably going to cause an effect. But, perhaps the effect was not expected to be as big as the one we saw. Share prices for Centrica and SSE fell following the announcement – perhaps no great shock – but then they continued to fall. The market value tumbled by 5% and share prices kept falling. This has led to Ed Miliband being accused of ‘economic vandalism’ by a major shareholder of Centrica, which is hardly surprising, given the estimated cost of such a price freeze would be £4.5 billion.

The economic implications of such a move are significant. The announcement itself has caused massive changes in the FTSE and if such a move were to go ahead if Labour were elected in 2015, there would be serious consequences. While families would benefit, at least in the short term, there would inevitably be serious implications for businesses, the environmental policy of the government, especially relating to investment and the overall state of the economy. The following articles consider the aftermath of Ed Miliband’s announcement.

Miliband stands firm in battle over fuel bills plan The Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Terry Macalister (25/9/13)
Michael Fallon calls Miliband’s energy prices pledge ‘dangerous’ Financial Times, Elizabeth Rigby and Jim Pickard (26/9/13)
Britain’s labour treads narrow path between populism and prudence Reuters (26/9/12)
Ed Miliband’s radical reforms will make the energy market work for the many Independent (26/9/13)
Has Labour fallen out of love with Business? BBC News (26/9/13)
Top Centrica shareholder Neil Woodford accuses Labour leader Ed Miliband of economic vandalism The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (25/9/13)
Centrica and SSE slide after Labour price freeze pledge The Guardian (26/9/13)
Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge is a timely but risky move The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/9/13)

Questions

  1. Why are energy prices such a controversial topic?
  2. How are energy prices currently determined? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer. By adapting this diagram, illustrate the effect of a price control being imposed. How could it create an energy shortage? What impact would this have after the 20-month price freeze
  3. Why would there be adverse effects on energy companies if prices were frozen and costs increased? Use a diagram to illustrate the problem and use your answer to explain why energy companies might leave the UK.
  4. How would frozen energy prices help households and businesses?
  5. Why were share prices in Centrica and SSE adversely affected?
  6. Is there an argument for regulating other markets with price controls?
  7. Why is there such little competition in the energy sector?
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