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Posts Tagged ‘competition’

Not in the Window

In 2009, the European Commission investigated Microsoft’s practice of bundling its own browser, Internet Explorer, with new copies of Windows. It found that this was an abuse of market power and created an unfair barrier to entry of other browsers, such as Firefox.

An agreement was reached that Microsoft would include a ‘choice screen’ in which users in the EU would be given a full list of alternative browsers and asked which they would like to install. On making their selection, a link would take them to the browser site to download the installation program. This screen would be available until 2014. Between March 2010, when the choice screen was first provided and November of the same year, 84 million browsers were downloaded through it.

In May 2011, however, the screen was no longer present on new Windows 7 purchases. The Commission took some time to realise this: indeed it was Microsoft’s rivals that pointed it out. The screen reappeared some 13 months later, after some 15m copies of Windows software had been sold.

For this lapse, the Commission has just fined Microsoft €561m. Commission Vice President in charge of competition policy, Joaquín Almunia, said:

In 2009, we closed our investigation about a suspected abuse of dominant position by Microsoft due to the tying of Internet Explorer to Windows by accepting commitments offered by the company. Legally binding commitments reached in antitrust decisions play a very important role in our enforcement policy because they allow for rapid solutions to competition problems. Of course, such decisions require strict compliance. A failure to comply is a very serious infringement that must be sanctioned accordingly.

This may seem unduly harsh, given that Internet Explorer’s share of the browser market has fallen dramatically. In 2009, it had around 50% of the European market, with its main rival at the time, Mozilla’s Firefox, having just under 40%. By 2013, Internet Explorer’s share has fallen to around 24% and Firefox’s to around 29%. Google’s Chrome, which was just starting up in 2009, has seen its share of the European market rise to around 35% and is now the market leader. Partly this is due to the rise in tablets and smartphones, a large proportion of which use Google’s Android operating system and the Chrome browser.

Not surprisingly, the European Commission is investigating Google to see whether it is abusing a dominant position. Is Google’s case, it’s not just about its share of the browser market, it’s more about its share of the search market, which in the EU is around 90% (compared with around 65% in the USA). As The Economist article below states:

The Commissioner believes that Google may be favouring its own specialised services (eg, for flights or hotels) at rivals’ expense; that its deals with publishers may unfairly exclude competitors; and that it prevents advertisers from taking their data elsewhere.

Joaquín Almunia asked Google to respond to these concerns by January 31. Google delivered its suggestions on the deadline, but we await to hear precisely what it said and how the Commission will respond. It is understood that Google’s proposal is for clearly labelling its own products on its search engine.

Articles
Microsoft Fined $732 Million By EU Over Browser eWeek, Michelle Maisto (6/3/13)
Microsoft faces hefty EU fine The Guardian (6/3/13)
Sin of omission The Economist (9/3/13)
Microsoft fined by European Commission over web browser BBC News (6/3/13)
EU commissioner Joaquin Almunia announces Microsoft fine BBC News (6/3/13)
Microsoft’s European Fine Comes in an Era of Browser Diversity Forbes, J.P. Gownder (6/3/13)
Life after Firefox: Can Mozilla regain its mojo? BBC News, Dave Lee (11/4/12)
Google responds to European commission’s antitrust chief The Guardian, Charles Arthur (31/1/13)
Google May Clinch EU Settlement After ‘Summer,’ Almunia Says Bloomberg Businessweek, Stephanie Bodoni and Aoife White (22/2/13)

European Commission Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines Microsoft for non-compliance with browser choice commitments Europa (6/3/13)

Questions

  1. Why did Microsoft’s share of the browser market continue to decline between May 2011 and June 2012?
  2. Why would it matter if Microsoft had market power in the browser market, given that it’s free for anyone to download a browser?
  3. In what ways might Google be abusing a dominant position in the market?
  4. Can Mozilla regain its mojo?
  5. According to the second Guardian article, the Microsoft-backed lobby group Icomp said “To be seen as a success, any settlement must … include specific measures to restore competition and allow other parties to compete effectively on a level playing field with Google in the key markets of search and search advertising.” Give examples of such measures and assess how successful they might be.
  6. Would “clearly labelling its own products on its search engine” be enough to ensure adequate competition?
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An auditing of competition

The Big Four are well known: Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG and PWC. They act as auditors for 90% of the UK’s stock-market listed companies. They have a very close relationship with the companies that they audit and because of this have faced criticism of not warning of the financial crisis. A further accusation is that the relationship between auditors and managers has become blurred.

In some sense, there is a problem of divorce of ownership from control. The companies that are audited by the Big Four have shareholders who are interested in profits and their dividends. But they employ managers who are responsible for the day-to-day running of the business. However, there are concerns that the auditors have become more concerned with meeting the interests of the managers and not of the shareholders. It has been suggested that the company’s management tend to ‘present their accounts in the most favourable light, whereas shareholder interests can be quite different.’ Laura Carstensen, the chair of the Audit Investigation Group said:

It is clear that there is significant dissatisfaction amongst some institutional investors with the relevance and extent of reporting in audited financial reports … management may have incentives to present their accounts in the most favourable light, whereas shareholder interests can be quite different.

The Big Four have been criticised for limiting competition in the industry. The Competition Commission has said that companies typically stay with the same auditing firm and this acts to limit competition. One suggestion to encourage competition is to enforce rotation of Auditors. However, the Big Four have said that the market remains competitive, ‘healthy and robust’ and that any enforcement as noted above would not be in the public interest. Other, smaller auditing companies have praised the preliminary report of the Competition Commission. One firm said:

No one solution will achieve market correction, but rather a combination of tendering requirements, encouragement of transparency and dialogue between auditors, companies and investors, and reform of outdated exclusionary practices should provide a backdrop for a healthier FTSE 350 audit market.

The report is not yet final, but the future of the Big Four is somewhat uncertain, especially with the European Commission’s desire to break them up. The following articles look at this industry.

Big Four accountants reject claims over high prices and poor competition The Guardian, Josephine Moulds and David Feeney (22/2/13)
Competition Commission raps Big Four accountants BBC News (22/2/13)
Big Four’s rivals welcome audit shake-up Financial Times, Adam Jones (22/2/13)
UK’s “Big Four” accountants under fire from watchdog Reuters, Huw Jones (22/2/13)
Big Four chastised by Competition Commission The Telegraph, Helia Ebrahimi (22/2/13)
The uncompetitive culture of auditing’s big four remains undented The Guardian, Prem Sikka (23/2/13)
Big Four accountants ‘in closed club on audits’ Independent, Mark Leftly (23/2/13)

Questions

  1. What is the role of the Competition Commission?
  2. Explain with other examples the problem of the divorce of ownership from control. How might the interest of shareholders and managers differ? Can they ever be aligned?
  3. Is market share a good measure of the competitiveness of an industry?
  4. What are the benefits of competition?
  5. Why has the regulator suggested that the Big Four are limiting competition?
  6. What solutions have been proposed by the Competition Commission? Explain how they are likely to stimulate competition in this market.
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Will airline prices fly out of reach?

Investment is crucial in all sectors of the economy. With growing demand for travel abroad, airports across the world have begun implementing investment strategies to increase capacity. Airport bosses at Heathrow are currently considering a 5 year investment plan that is expected to cost £3 billion.

Although investment is certainly needed and passengers will benefit in the long run, the cost of this investment will have to be met by someone. If these plans are approved by the airport bosses, it is likely that ticket prices will be pushed upwards to pay for it. Any increase in charges will have to receive approval by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The plan at the moment would see ticket prices, via landing charges, increase by £19.33 per passenger before a further rise to £27.30. The impact on customers has already been raised as a key concern.

If the investment plans proceed, Heathrow expects to see its passenger numbers increase by 2.6m over the next 5 years, despite the proposed price hikes. This would naturally increase revenue and this money would provide at least some of the funds to repay the cost of the investment.

The price rises have been described as ‘incredibly steep’ and there are concerns that they will penalize customers. Airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic have recognized the need for more investment, but are more focused on finding ways to provide it without the price rises.

However, Colin Matthews, the Heathrow Chief said:

Heathrow faces stiff competition from other European hubs and we must continue to improve the service we offer passengers and airlines.

Passengers have already seen prices rise and Heathrow’s cost base has been described by British Airways as ‘inefficient’. Despite the fact that the decision by the CAA is not expected until January 2014, speculation will undoubtedly continue until any decision is reach. The following articles consider this case.

Heathrow hits turbulence over airport charges The Telegraph, Nathalie Thomas (12/2/13)
Heathrow Airport proposes ‘to raise ticket prices’ BBC News (12/2/13)
Heathrow investment to raise ticket prices Sky News (12/2/13)
Cost of Heathrow flights to rise by £27 in five years thanks to investment surcharge plans Mail Online, Helen Lawson (12/2/13)
Airlines fly into a rage as Heathrow warns charges must climb steeply Independent, Simon Calder (12/2/13)
Heathrow investment plan may lead to ticket price rise Reuters (12/2/13)
Heathrow calls for rise in airline tariffs Financial Times, Andrew Parker (12/2/13)

Questions

  1. If you had to undertake a cost-benefit analysis concerning the above investment proposal, which factors would you consider as the private and external benefits?
  2. Which factors would have to be taken into account as the private and external costs for any cost-benefit analysis?
  3. How important is it for the CAA to consider external costs and benefits when making its decision?
  4. If prices rise as the plans propose, what would you expect to be the effect on passenger numbers? How would this change be shown on a demand and supply diagram?
  5. According to Heathrow, they are expecting passenger numbers to increase, despite the price rises. What does this suggest about the demand curve? Illustrate your answer.
  6. Would you expect such an investment to have any macroeconomic impact?
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Anyone want to take a bite out of Apple?

The technology sector is highly complex and is led by Apple. However, as the tablet market is continuing to grow, it is becoming increasingly competitive with other firms such as Samsung gaining market share. Although both firms sell many products, it is the growing tablet market which is one of the keys to their continued growth.

Tablet PCs have seen a growth in the final quarter of 2012 to a high of 52.5 million units, according to IDC. Although Apple, leading the market, has seen a growth in its sales, its market share has declined to 43.6%. Over the same period, Samsung has increased its market share from 7.3% to 15.1%. While it is still a huge margin behind Apple in the tablet PC market, Samsung’s increase in sales from 2.2 million to 7.9 million is impressive and if such a trend were to continue, it would certainly cause Apple to take note.

It’s not just these two firms trying to take advantage of this growing industry. Microsoft has recently launched a new tablet PC and although its reception was less than spectacular, it is expected that Microsoft will become a key competitor in the long run. There are many factors driving the growth in this market and the war over market share is surely only just beginning. The chart shows the 75.3% growth in sales in just one year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

A Research Director at IDC said:

We expected a very strong fourth quarter, and the market didn’t disappoint…New product launches from the category’s top vendors, as well as new entrant Microsoft, led to a surge in consumer interest and very robust shipments totals during the holiday season’

Apple has been so dominant in this sector that other companies until recently have had little success in gaining market share. However, with companies such as Samsung and ASUS now making in-roads, competition is likely to become fierce. There are already concerns that Apple’s best days are behind it and its share price reflects this. People are now less willing to pay a premium price for an Apple product, as the innovations of its competitors have now caught up with those of the leading brand name. The following articles consider this growing market.

Samsung gain tablet market share as Apple lead narrows BBC News (1/2/13)
Apple snatches US lead from Samsung Financial Times, Tim Bradshaw (1/2/13)
Apple revenues miss expectations despite high sales figures BBC News (24/1/13)
Samsung eats into Apple sales in the tablet market Mirror, Ruki Sayid (1/2/13)
MacWorld’s Apple celebration opens amid fears of tech giant’s decline Guardian, Rory Carroll (31/1/13)
Samsung’s tablet sales soar as Apple’s grip on market loosens Daily News and Analysis, Richard Blagden (2/2/13)
Samsung takes a nibble out of Apple’s tablet lead InfoWorld, Ted Samson(31/1/13)
Tablet Sales up 75% as Samsung and Asus Gain on Apple Interational Business Times, Edward Smith (31/1/13)

Questions

  1. Which factors are behind this exceptional growth in the tablet PC market?
  2. Using the Boston matrix, where do you think tablet PCs fit in terms of market size and market growth?
  3. Where would you place this market in terms of the product life cycle?
  4. What does the product life cycle say about the degree of competition, the impact on pricing on profits etc. in the phase that you placed the tablet PC market in your answer to question 3?
  5. Why have Apple’s shares fallen recently? Do you think this will be the new trend?
  6. Microsoft’s new tablet didn’t attract huge sales. What explanation was given for this? Use a diagram to help answer this question.
  7. Tablet PCs are relatively expensive, yet sales of them have increased significantly over the past few years. What explanation is there for this, given that we have been (and still are) in tough financial times?
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A lack of competition in banking

Over the past five years the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has been closely studying the market for personal bank accounts in the UK. Last week, it announced its latest findings and the evidence seems to suggest that there remains a lack of competition in the market.

On the positive side, it reports that there has been a large fall in unarranged overdraft fees. However, despite this, according to the OFT banks still make on average £139 per year from every active current account. Furthermore, concentration has increased with the four largest banks (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and RBS) now accounting for 85% of the market and there has been little new entry. It appears that one of the key factors in enabling these main players to dominate the market and reap high profits is a lack of consumer switching behaviour. According to the OFT chief executive, Clive Maxwell:

Customers still find it difficult to assess which account offers the best deal and lack confidence that they can switch accounts easily. This prevents them from driving effective competition between providers.

Despite all these concerns, the OFT declined to refer the market to the Competition Commission for a more in-depth investigation and potential remedial action. Instead, the OFT will look at the market again in 2015. Richard Lloyd, the executive director at the consumer organisation Which?, was disappointed with this decision and was quoted in the The Guardian as saying:

Everyone – consumers, the government, leading bankers and now the OFT – seems to agree that big change is needed in banking, and that much greater competition on the high street is urgently needed to make the banks work for customers, not bankers.

Whilst at least for the moment, the Competition Commission will not get the chance to take action, there are still several reforms underway that may affect competition in the market. First, the OFT is increasing pressure on banks to allow consumers to have portable account numbers that they can take with them if they switch provider. Second, as a result of the Independent Commission’s review, banks will be required to switch a customer’s account in one week, rather than the average of 18 days it currently takes, and this process will become much more seamless. Finally, Lloyds has agreed to sell over 600 branches to the Co-op in order to meet the European Commission’s requirements following the government bail-out of the bank in 2008. This will increase the Co-op’s share of the current account market to 7%. It will be interesting to see how these reforms affect the market. If there is not substantial evidence of increased competition then the market is likely to face more scrutiny from the competition authorities.

Bank accounts: OFT says significant change needed BBC (25/01/13)
OFT: banks failing consumers The Economic Voice (25/01/13)
Let’s make bank accounts as easy to switch as mobiles The Telegraph, Andrew Oxlade (28/01/13)
OFT chief calls for more competitive banking sector The Telegraph, Denise Roland (30/01/13)

Questions

  1. What type of market structure best fits the banking industry?
  2. What are the barriers to entry in this market?
  3. What are the key features of the market that reduce consumer switching behaviour?
  4. Do you think most people are more likely to switch their mobile phone or current account provider? Explain.
  5. Why does limited consumer switching reduce the intensity of competition?
  6. Do you think the current reforms will result in a substantial increase in competition?
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His Master’s Voice is fading

Comet, Peacocks, Woolworths, JJB, Jessops and now HMV – they all have one thing in common. The recession has hit them so hard that they entered administration. HMV is the latest high street retailer to bring in the administrators, despite insisting that it does have a future on the UK’s high streets. With debts of £176m and huge competition from online retailers, the future of HMV is very uncertain.

Over the past decades, companies such as Amazon, ebay, LoveFilm, Netflix and apple have emerged providing very stiff competition to the last remaining high street seller of music and DVDs. People have been turning more and more to the internet to do their shopping, with cheaper prices and greater choice. The speed of delivery, which in the past may have been a disadvantage of buying from somewhere like Amazon, is now barely an obstacle and these substitute companies have created a difficult environment for high street retailers to compete in. Despite going into administration, it’s not necessarily the end of the much-loved HMV. Its Chief Executive said:

We remain convinced we can find a successful business outcomes. We want to make sure it remains on the high street … We know our customers fell the same way.

While the recession has undoubtedly affected sales at HMV, is this the main reason for its demise or are other factors more relevant? As discussed, online retailers have taken over the DVD and music industry and with downloading increasing in popularity and CD/DVDs on sale in numerous locations, including supermarket chains, HMV has felt the competitive pressure and its place on the high street has come into question. As Neil Saunders, the Managing Director of Conlumino said:

By our own figures, we forecast that by the end of 2015 some 90.4 per cent of music and film sales will be online. The bottom line is that there is no real future for physical retail in the music sector.

Further to this, prices have been forced downwards and HMV, having to pay high fixed costs to retain their place on the high streets, have been unable to compete and remain profitable. Another contributing factor could be an outdated management structure, which has not responded to the changing times. Whatever the cause, thousands of jobs have been put at risk. Even if buyers are found, some store closures by the administrators, Deloitte, seem inevitable. Customer gift vouchers have already become worthless and further losses to both workers and customers seem likely. It is thought that there will be many interested buyers and huge support from suppliers, but the former is likely to remain a relatively secretive area for some time.

This latest high street disaster will undoubtedly raise many questions. One theory about recovery from a recession looks at the need for many businesses to go under until the fittest are left and there is sufficient scope for new businesses to emerge.

Could it be that the collapse of companies such as Woolworths, HMV, Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster is an essential requirement for economic recovery? Or was the recession irrelevant for HMV? Was its collapse an inevitable consequence of the changing face of Britain’s high streets and if so, what does the future hold for the high street retailers? The following articles consider the demise of HMV.

HMV: a visual history BBC News (15/1/13)
Chief executive says ‘HMV still has a place on the high street’, as customers are told their gift vouchers are worthless Independent, James Thompson (15/1/13)
Potential buyers circle stricken HMV Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (15/1/13)
HMV and independents to urged to work together to save in-store music market BBC News, Clive Lindsay (15/1/13)
HMV record chain was besest by digital downloads and cheap DVDs The Guardian (15/1/13)
The death of traditional retailers like HMV started when we caught on to one-click and the joy of owning DVDs wore thin Independent, Grace Dent (15/1/13)
HMV shoppers: ‘I’m disappointed, but it’s understandable why they went bust The Guardian, James Brilliant (15/1/13)
HMV: Record labels could take HMV back to its 1920 roots The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (15/1/13)
HMV’s future seen as handful of stores and website Reuters, Neil Maidment and James Davey (15/1/13)
HMV leaves social gap in high street BBC News, Robert Plummer (15/1/13)
Is there good news in HMV’s collapse? BBC News, Robert Peston (15/1/13)
Is it game over for UK retail? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/13)
High Street retailers: Who has been hit hardest? BBC News (16/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons behind the collapse of HMV?
  2. Use a diagram to illustrate the impact the companies such as Amazon and Tesco have had on costs and prices in the entertainment industry.
  3. Has the value we place on owning DVDs truly changed or have other factors led to larger purchases of online entertainment?
  4. Why is online retail providing such steep competition to high street retailers?
  5. Explain why it can be argued that economic recovery will only take place after a certain number of businesses have gone into administration.
  6. To what extent do you think HMV’s collapse is due to its failure to adapt to changing social circumstances?
  7. Briefly outline the wider economic implications of the collapse of a company such as HMV. Think about managers, employees, suppliers, customers and other competitors, as well as other high street retailers.
  8. In which market structure would you place the entertainment industry? Explain your answer. Has this contributed to the demise of HMV?
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Starbucks pays not a bean in corporation tax, thanks to transfer pricing

Original post
Starbucks’ UK sales in 2011 were worth £398m. Costa’s UK sales were worth £377m. But while Costa paid £15m in corporation tax in 2011/12, Starbucks paid nothing! In fact since opening its first coffee shop in the UK in 1998 it has paid just £8.6m in taxes on UK sales of £3bn.

How is this possible? Let’s look at Starbuck’s 2011 UK sales. Even though these were worth £398 million, its costs were recorded as £426.2m, giving a loss of £28.2m. Costa, by contrast, reported a taxable profit of £49.7m.

So is Starbucks a commercial failure in the UK, recording year after year of losses? Not at all. Starbucks regards the UK as a highly profitable part of its business. As the Independent article below states:

…in its briefings to stock market investors and analysts during the past 12 years, Seattle-based Starbucks has consistently stated that its UK unit is “profitable” and three years ago even promoted its UK head, Cliff Burrows, to run its vastly larger US operation.

So how can reported UK losses be reconciled with a profitable UK operation? The answer lies in transfer pricing.

Transfer pricing refers to the prices a company charges itself when goods or services are transferred within the company but from one country to another. By varying the transfer prices, a company can choose where to make its profits. Thus if Starbucks’ US operation charges high prices to its UK operation for various services, such as royalties for the use of branding or for management services, or lends money to its UK operation at high interest rates, Starbucks’ profits will rise in the USA and fall in the UK.

Companies employ tax advisers (see for example) and ‘transfer pricing managers’ to help them move their profits from high tax countries to low tax countries. In Starbuck’s case, by charging its UK operation high prices for such things as ‘use of its logo’ it has chosen to move all its profits out of the UK and thus avoid UK corporation tax.

Apart from denying the UK government tax revenues, the practice by Starbucks distorts competition as competing UK companies, such as Costa, AMT, Caffè Ritazza and the many small independents, do not have the same opportunity for transfer pricing and do pay UK corporation tax. As the Guardian article by Richard Murphy below states:

We do have homegrown coffee shops in the UK. A lot of them. And they have to pay their taxes in full here in the UK. They can’t make payments to offshore entities for the use of their logos or advice on how to add hot water to coffee just to avoid tax: they have to pay in full on what they earn in this country. What Starbucks is doing may be legal, but what it also shows is that business does not operate on a level playing field in the UK.

And, as some of the articles below demonstrate, it’s not just Starbucks. Amazon, Facebook and Google have also been accused of avoiding taxes in the UK by engaging in forms of transfer pricing.

Update
On 12 November senior executives from Starbucks, Google and Amazon appeared before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to give evidence on their non-payment of corporation tax and their apparent lack of profits in the UK. As you will see from the videos, the MPs were unimpressed by the answers they received.

At the G20 finance ministers meeting in Mexico the previous week, George Osborne, the UK Chancellor, and Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, called for “concerted international co-operation to strengthen international tax standards that at the minute may mean international companies can pay less tax than they would otherwise owe”.

There seems to be mounting international pressure on multinationals to cease using transfer pricing as a means of avoiding paying taxes. Whether it will be successful remains to be seen.

Further Update (June 2013)
In June 2013, After continuing criticism of its tax avoidance policies, Starbucks agreed to pay £10m in corporation tax tin 2013/14 and a further £10m in 2014/15.

Articles for original post
Starbucks UK tax bill comes under scrutiny The Telegraph, Helia Ebrahimi (15/10/12)
Good bean counters? Starbucks has paid no tax in UK since 2009 Independent, Martin Hickman (16/10/12)
Special Report: How Starbucks avoids UK taxes Reuters, Tom Bergin (15/10/12)
Business Starbucks ‘paid no UK income tax’ since 2009 Channel 4 News (16/10/12)
Starbucks ‘paid just £8.6m UK tax in 14 years’ BBC News, Vicki Young (16/10/12)
Starbucks’ tax payment is ‘unfair’ say independent cafes BBC News, Joe Lynam (16/10/12)
Starbucks ‘paid just £8.6m UK tax in 14 years’ BBC News (16/10/12)
What the Starbucks tax expose means for ordinary companies Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy (16/10/12)
Starbucks ‘pays £8.6m tax on £3bn sales’ The Guardian, Simon Neville (15/10/12)
How much tax do Starbucks, Facebook and the biggest US companies pay in the UK The Guardian Datablog (16/10/12)
Amazon: £7bn sales, no UK corporation tax The Guardian, Ian Griffiths (4/4/12)
Facebook criticised for £238,000 UK tax bill last year BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat, Dan Cairns (11/10/12)
U.S. Companies Dodge $60 Billion in Taxes With Global Odyssey Bloomberg, Jesse Drucker (13/5/10)
EBay ‘pays £1.2m in UK tax’ on sales of £800m BBC News (21/10/12)

Articles for update
Starbucks, Google and Amazon grilled over tax avoidance BBC News (12/11/12)
Companies have ‘social responsibility’ to pay tax BBC Today Programme (12/11/12)
MPs slam Starbucks, Amazon and Google on tax Reuters, Tom Bergin (12/11/12)
A highly taxing session for the men from Amazon, Google and Starbucks The Guardian, Simon Hoggart (12/11/12)
Starbucks is leeching tax revenue from UK The Telegraph, Lord Myners (12/11/12)
UK and Germany agree crackdown on tax loopholes for multinationals The Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Dan Milmo (5/11/12)
Britain, Germany target tax from multinationals Deutsche Welle (5/11/12)
HMRC unable to stop multinational tax avoidance accountancylive, Sharon Khin (6/11/12)
Starbucks ‘planning changes to tax policy’ BBC News (3/12/12)

Articles for further update
Starbucks pays UK corporation tax for first time since 2009 BBC News (22/6/13)
Starbucks pays corporation tax, promising the Exchequer £20m over two years IndependentHeather Saul (2/6/13)
Starbucks pays first tax since 2008 The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (22/6/13)

Report of Public Accounts Committee
Tax avoidance by multinational companies UK Parliament (3/12/12)

Questions

  1. Explain how a multinational company can use transfer pricing as a means of reducing its overall tax liability.
  2. Why may transfer pricing lead to an inefficient allocation of resources?
  3. What policies can governments adopt to clamp down on the use of transfer pricing to limit their tax liability in their country?
  4. What insights are shed by game theory in explaining why it may be very difficult to reach international agreement to clamp down on tax avoidance?
  5. Is it immoral for companies to seek to minimise their tax liability? What are the limits of economics as a discipline in establishing an answer to this question?
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Energising the debate

The energy sector has a history of criticism with regards to prices and practices. In the past, Ofgem have tried to make the sector more competitive, by ensuring that price comparisons are easier. At the beginning of this year, many of the big six providers announced price cuts, but within the next few weeks, we will see the reverse occurring, as energy prices begin to rise.

British Gas has announced price rises of 6% from 16th November that will affect over 8 million customers by adding approximately £80 per year to the annual dual fuel bill. Npower will also put its prices up 10 days later (8.8% for gas and 9.1% for electricity), creating higher bills for 3 million people.

In January of this year, when we saw energy prices fall, it was not solely due to Ofgem’s findings. We had a relatively mild winter, which reduced the demand for energy and this fed into lower prices. As the winter now approaches once more, demand for energy will begin to increase, feeding into prices that are now higher.

Furthermore, the energy companies have said that a range of external factors are also adding to their costs and putting increasing pressure on them to increase their charges. Npower’s Chief Commercial Officer said:

“There is never a good time to increase energy bills, particularly when so many people are working hard to make ends meet…But the costs of new statutory schemes, increases in distribution charges and the price of gas for the coming winter are all being driven up by external factors, for example government policy”

Significant investment is needed in the energy sector. Energy companies are required to set aside money for maintaining and improving the national grid and investing in renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. In order for the energy companies to fund these investments, more money must be raised and the logical method is to put up prices. However, critics are simply blaming ‘these very big lazy companies’ who are passing ‘above-inflation price rises’ onto already squeezed households.

Part of this is undoubtedly to do with the market structure of this sector. A typical oligopoly creates a market which, under certain circumstances, can be highly competitive, but because of barriers to entry that prevent new firms from entering the market may charge higher prices and be inefficient. Indeed, Ofgem has plans to reduce the power of the main energy providers by forcing them to auction off some of the electricity they generate. The aim of this is to free up the market and make it more competitive.

While only three providers have announced price rises, it is inevitable that the other three will follow. The relative increases will create incentives for consumers to switch providers, but crucial to this is an ability to understand the different tariffs on offer and lack of clarity on this has been a big criticism previously levelled at the energy sector. Indeed, half of UK customers have never switched energy providers. Perhaps this is the time to think about it, firstly as a means of saving money and secondly as a means of putting the energy companies in competition with each other. The following articles consider this market.

Energy price rises: how to switch, save and safeguard your supply The Guardian, Mark King (12/10/12)
Npower and British Gas raise energy prices (including video) BBC News (12/10/12)
Energy price rises? We’re like turkeys voting for Christmas The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (12/10/12)
British Gas and Npower to raise prices fuelling fears of a ‘long, cold winter’ for more households Independent
, Graeme Evans
(12/10/12)Wholesale prices rise as energy costs jump Wall Street Journal, Sarah Portlock and Jeffrey Sparshott (12/10/12)
British Gas raises gas and electricity prices by 6pc The Telegraph (12/10/12)
Osborne warns energy firms over price hikes Reuters (12/10/12)
Energy price hikes to take effect from next week Independent, Simon Read(13/10/12)

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons influencing the recent price rises? In each case, explain whether it is a demand- or supply-side factor.
  2. Using your answer from question 1, illustrate the effect of it on a demand and supply diagram.
  3. Which features of an oligopolistic market are relevant to the energy sector. How can we use them to explain these higher prices.
  4. How has government policy affected the energy sector and energy prices?
  5. Why are customers reluctant to change energy providers? Does this further the energy company’s ability to raise prices?
  6. Are there any government policies that could be implemented to reduce the power of the energy companies?
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What’s driving the premiums up?

Everyone who drives in the UK is required to take out car insurance. Whilst fully comprehensive is voluntary, it is compulsory to have at least third party insurance, which covers damage to other vehicles. Insurance premiums are calculated based on a number of different variables, such that two people driving the same car may face wildly different costs.

Although there are many insurance companies to choose from, this industry has been referred to the Competition Commission by the OFT as it was ‘worried the structure of the market was making costs and premiums unnecessarily high.’

According to Moneysupermarket, the average cost of car insurance reached a high of £554 in April 2011, but have fallen by £76 since. With tight incomes across the UK for many families, high car insurance premiums is another strain and thus this investigation will come at an apt time, even though the findings of the CC may not be reported for 2 years. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) said that the investigation would:

‘bring much-needed reforms to the market that will, in turn, result in lower car insurance premiums for consumers’.

The problem seems to be that when an individual is involved in an accident and sends their car off for repairs, their insurance company doesn’t have much control over the bills they end up paying, which can be inflated by £155 each time. This therefore leads into higher costs for the insurance company, which are then passed on the driver in the form of an increased premium. Other concerns were that courtesy cars were being offered, at an estimated cost of £560 per vehicle (according to the OFT) and that drivers were using these cars for longer than necessary, once again causing costs to rise.

Altogether, it has been suggested that the actions of the insurance company of ‘not-at-fault’ drivers, car hire companies, repairers and brokers push up the prices for ‘at-fault’ drivers’ insurance companies. Given that any insurance company is just as likely to be the ‘at-fault’ insurance company, they all face rising costs.

Back in May, the OFT had already decided that the car insurance market required a more detailed investigation, because of the ‘dysfunctionality’ of the market. Following a public consultation, the industry will now face an investigation by the CC. One additional area that may be of interest to the CC came to light last year, where it was found that insurance companies were claiming against themselves in a bid to drive up premiums. Although the investigation will take some time, it is still a timely review for many drivers, who have seen the cost of motoring reach record highs. The following articles consider the market for car insurance.

Car insurance market referred to Competition Commission BBC News (28/9/12)
No quick fix for motor insurance abuses, says watchdog Independent, Simon Read (29/9/12)
Car insurance industry faces probe The Press Association (28/9/12)
Competition Commission referral will take time to lower motor insurance premiums The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (28/9/12)
UK car insurance probe over-shadows Direct Line IPO Reuters, Matt Scuffham and Myles Neligan (28/9/12)
Car insurance scrutinized over high premiums Sky News (28/9/12)
Rip-off motor insurance firms face competition watchdogs probe over £225million racket Mail Online, Ray Massey (28/9/12)

Questions

  1. Why are car insurance firms willing to take on other people’s risks?
  2. What conditions must exist in a market for private companies to provide acr insurance (or insurance of any kind)?
  3. Why is third-party insurance compulsory, whereas people can opt for fully comprehensive insurance?
  4. What powers does (a) the OFT and (b) the Competition Commission have? Is it likely that this report will have any impact on car insurance premiums?
  5. What allegations have been made that help to explain why insurance premiums I this industry have increased?
  6. Is there an argument for allowing the industry itself to provide its own regulation?
  7. In which market structure would you place the car insurance industry?
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A changing supply chain

With globalisation, more and more businesses have found it beneficial to ‘go global’. There are many reasons why a firm might choose to expand its production or market to other countries and one particular advantage is cutting costs in the manufacturing of products.

Countries such as China and India have become leaders in production. Look at many of the items you own – I’m sure you’ll see a ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in India’ amongst them. These fast emerging countries were highly sought after as places to produce due to much cheaper production costs. This advantage led to Western companies outsourcing much of their manufacturing base to China, as a means of retaining a competitive advantage.

However, the cost advantages that China boasted are now less significant and we may be about to see the emergence of a new manufacturing hub. Other countries that are further behind the BRICS in the development process now have cost advantages over places like China and so we may see another transfer of manufacturing to other parts of the world.

When splitting up a supply chain to gain cost advantages a key consideration is the extent to which you lose control. Communication and co-ordination issues can emerge when design takes place in one country; production in another and then the products are sold around the world. When cost differences are huge, these problems can be overlooked, as what they might cost you in terms of lost time etc. is easily made up by savings through cheaper labour.

However, when the cost advantages of production in China shrink, companies are still left with the problems of communication and co-ordination. These now represent more significant costs that could be reduced were production to revert to the country of design or if production were to be moved to an even cheaper country.

The following article from BBC News considers the issues surrounding the supply chain and how businesses may benefit from more collaboration.

Better collaboration lets businesses take back the supply chain BBC News, Alastair Sorbie (15/6/12)

Questions

  1. What are the arguments for becoming a multinational?
  2. Why do host countries, such as the BRICS accept inward investment? What do they gain from it?
  3. Explain how the product life cycle can affect the profitability of a MNC and how the company might respond.
  4. What are the disadvantages to a MNC from ‘going global’?
  5. What are the problems faced by developing countries acting as host nations?
  6. How has technology affected both big and small businesses?
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