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Posts Tagged ‘competition’

A payday inquiry

When people take out loans they typically do so to spend and with the UK economy in its current state, many would argue that this is a good thing. The ‘payday loan’ industry took advantage of the weak economy and the squeezed households in the UK and for the past few years, we have seen constant adverts that will appeal to many households. But, is the industry as competitive as the adverts would have us believe?

An inquiry into this industry has been on-going for some time, and it has now been referred to the Competition Commission, due to ‘deep-rooted problems with the way competition works’. For some, a payday loan is a short term form of finance, but for others it has become a way of living that has led to a debt spiral. Frank McKillop, policy manager at Abcul said:

There is a clear demand for instant credit and across the country we are increasingly seeing members who have debts with multiple payday lenders and a record of rolling over debts, or going to one payday lender to clear the debt to another.

One problem identified by the OFT is that customers have found it difficult to compare costs and this has led, in some cases, to customers paying back significantly more than they originally thought. Customers being unable to repay loans will ring warning bells for many people, with no-one wanting a return to the height of the credit crunch.

The OFT has criticized payday loan companies for competing not on costs, but on the speed of approval and using certain unapproved tactics as part of their advertising. The selling point of such companies is that you can have the money in a very short time period. However, the criticism is that this leads to loans being given to those who are unable to afford them. Key credit checks are not being done and with late night texts being sent to often financially vulnerable people, it is no wonder that complaints have been received. In a statement, the OFT said:

The competitive pressure to approve loans quickly may give firms an incentive to skimp on the affordability assessment which is designed to prevent irresponsible lending and protect consumers.

[the business models of companies were] predicated on making loans which are unaffordable, leading to borrowers paying far more than expected through rollovers, additional interest and other charges.

While payday loans are legal and there are many companies offering them, it is what they are competing over, which seems to be in question. The industry itself has begun to change its practices, providing more information to customers, only allowing loans to be rolled over three times and the potential to freeze repayments if the customer gets into financial difficulty. If more stringent checks are completed and hence timing does not become the only grounds for competition, then the problems above may become less significant. With the ongoing OFT inquiry into the practices of the payday loan industry and the continuing demand for such financing, it is likely that we will see much more of both the good and the bad that it has to offer. The following articles consider the investigation.

Webcasts
Balls warns against payday loans ‘blank cheque’ BBC News (27/6/13)
Payday lender investigation could be delayed by bureaucracy Telegraph, Steve Hawkes (27/6/13)
Payday lenders to face ‘tougher restrictions’ on advertising BBC News, Simon Gompertz (1/7/13)
Payday lending rates BBC News, Julio Martino and Stella Creasy (2/7/13)

Articles
Regulator to investigate payday loan industry Financial Times, Elaine Moore and Robert Cookson (27/6/13)
Q&A: Payday loans BBC News (31/5/13)
Payday loans: reining in an industry that is a law unto itself Guardian (27/6/13)
Payday loans industry to face competition inquiry BBC News (27/6/13)
Payday loans firms face competition inquiry Sky News (27/6/13)
Payday loans market faces competition inquiry Guardian, Hilary Osborne (27/6/13)
OFT refers payday loans to Competition Commission Scotsman, Jane Bradley (27/6/13)
Five reasons why we all need to worry about payday lenders Telegraph, Emma Simon (27/6/13)

OFT documents
Payday lending compliance review Office of Fair Trading (27/6/13)

Questions

  1. Into which market structure would you place the payday loans industry? Make sure you justify your answer.
  2. What is the role of the (a) the OFT and (b) the Competition Commission? Do these authorities overlap?
  3. What part does advertising play in this industry?
  4. To what extent is the payday loan industry a possible cause of another credit crunch?
  5. Why has the OFT referred this industry to the Competition Commission?
  6. To what extent are payday loans an essential part of an economy?
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Avoiding questions of tax avoidance

If you ask most people whether they like paying tax, the answer would surely be a resounding ‘no’. If asked would you like to pay less tax, most would probably say ‘yes’. Evidence of this can be seen in the behaviour of individuals and of companies, as they aim to reduce their tax bill, through both legal and illegal methods.

Our tax revenues are used for many different things, ranging from the provision of merit goods to the redistribution of income, so for most people they don’t object to paying their way. However, maintaining profitability and increasing disposable income is a key objective for companies and individuals, especially in weak economic times. Some high profile names have received media coverage due to accusations of both tax avoidance and tax evasion. Starbucks, Amazon, Googe and Apple are just some of the big names that have been accused of paying millions of pounds/dollars less in taxation than they should, due to clever (and often legal) methods of avoiding tax.

The problem of tax avoidance has become a bigger issue in recent years with the growth of globalisation. Multinationals have developed to dominate the business world and business/corporation tax rates across the global remain very different. Thus, it is actually relatively easy for companies to reduce their tax burden by locating their headquarters in low tax countries or ensuring that business contracts etc. are signed in these countries. By doing this, any profits are subject to the lower tax rate and are thus such companies are accused of depriving the government of tax revenue. Apple is currently answering questions posed by a US Senate Committee, having been accused of structuring its business to create ‘the holy grail of tax avoidance’.

Many may consider the above and decide that these companies have done little wrong. After all, many schemes aimed at tax avoidance are legal and are often just a clever way of using the system. However, in a business environment dominated by the likes of Google, Apple and Amazon, the impact of tax avoidance may not just be on the government’s coffers. Indeed John McCain, one of the Committee members asked:

…Couldn’t one draw the conclusion that you and Apple have an unfair advantage over domestic based corporations and companies, in other words, smaller companies in this country that don’t have the same ability that you do to locate in Ireland or other countries overseas?

The concern is that with such ability to avoid huge amounts of taxation, large companies will inevitably compete smaller ones out of the market. Local businesses, without the ability to re-locate to other parts of the world, pay their full tax bills, but multinationals legally (in most cases) manage to avoid paying their own share. With a harsh economic climate continuing globally, these large companies that aim to further increase their profitability through such means as tax avoidance will naturally bear the wrath of smaller businesses and individuals that are struggling to get by. It’s likely that this topic will remain in the media for some time. The following articles consider some of the companies accused of participating in tax avoidance schemes and the consequences of doing so.

Is Apple’s tax avoidance rational? BBC News, Robert Peston (21/5/13)
Apple’s Tim Cook defends tax strategy in Senate BBC News (21/5/13)
Senator accuses Apple of ‘highly questionable’ billion-dollar tax avoidance scheme The Guardian, Dominic Rushe (21/5/13)
Apple’s Tim Cook faces tax avoidance questions Sky News (21/5/13)
EU leaders look to end Apple-style tax avoidance schemes Reuters, Luke Baker and Mark John (21/5/13)
Apple Chief Tim Cook defends tax practices and denies avoidance Financial Times, James Politi (21/5/13)
Apple CEO Tim Cook tells Senate: tiny tax bill isn’t our fault, it’s yours Independent, Nikhil Kumar (21/5/13)
Miliband promises action on Google tax avoidance The Telegraph (19/5/13)
Google is cheating British tax payers out of millions…what they are doing is just immoral’: Web giant accused of running ‘scandalous’ tax avoidance scheme by whistleblower Mail Online, Becky Evans (19/5/13)
Multinational CEOs tell David Cameron to rein in tax avoidance rhetoric The Guardian, Simon Bowers, Lawrie Holmes and Rajeev Syal (20/5/13)
Fury at corporate tax avoidance leads to call for a global response The Guardian, Tracy McVeigh (18/5/13)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance? Is it rational to engage in such schemes?
  2. What are tax revenues used for?
  3. Why are multinationals more able to engage in tax avoidance schemes?
  4. Is the problem of tax avoidance a negative consequence of globalisation?
  5. How might the actions of large multinationals who are avoiding paying large amounts of tax affect the competitiveness of the global market place?
  6. Is there justification for a global policy response to combat the issue of tax avoidance?
  7. What are the costs and benefits to a country of having a low rate of corporation tax?
  8. How would a more ‘reasonable’ tax on foreign earnings allow the ‘free movement of capital back to the US’?
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Parachute payment problems for the English Football League

The English Premier League (EPL) has negotiated a record TV deal which will generate £5.5 billion of revenue over the next 3 years – beginning in the season 2013–14. This represents a 70% increase on the previous deal. Controversy has arisen over some initial proposals put forward by the EPL as to how the money will be spent. The owners of the clubs in the Championship of the English Football League (EFL) are particularly concerned about the size of the proposed payments to the three teams relegated from the EPL.

Some 30 years ago the money generated from the sale of television rights was equally shared between all the teams in the then four divisions of the English Football League (EFL). In 1992 the top division of the English Football League broke away and formed the English Premier League (EPL). This newly formed EPL negotiated a separate television deal and kept the majority of the money. However, some payments were and still are made to the teams in the EFL and to organisations such as the League Managers Association and Professional Footballers Association. For example in 2011-–12 the EPL donated £189.4 million of the £1.2 billion generated from that year’s TV deal.

The majority of the money donated by the EPL is spent in two main ways. First, some money is redistributed to all the teams in the EFL: i.e. The Championship, League 1 and League 2. These are known as ‘solidarity payments’ and in 2011–12 the EPL spent £49.8 million on this scheme. Each club in the Championship received £2.3 million. It has been proposed that the amount paid into this scheme should be increased by 5% in the season 2013–14. Second, a relatively large amount of money is paid over a four-year period to the three teams relegated each season from the EPL into the Championship. These are known as ‘parachute payments’ and in the season 2011–12 the EPL spent £90.9 million on this scheme. The rationale for having parachute payments is to help the relegated teams adjust their wage bills to the much lower revenue streams that come from playing in the Championship. Proposed changes to the scheme are outlined in Table 1.

The chairmen of the football league clubs met on the 20th March 2013 and a number of them expressed concerns about the relatively large increase in the parachute payments compared to the solidarity payments. They were particularly concerned that the changes to the funding would damage the competitive balance of the Championship.

Competitive balance refers to how the most talented players are distributed amongst the teams in a league. For example, are the majority of the most talented footballers playing for just a couple of the teams? In this case the league is competitively imbalanced and the teams with the best players will tend to win far more games than the other teams. The outcome of the league will be very predictable. If the most talented players were more evenly spread across all the teams in the league, then it would be more competitively balanced. Matches and the outcome of the league would become more unpredictable.

Does the level of competitive balance matter? Some sports economists have argued that it may have a significant impact on the success of the league. This is because fans may value the unpredictability of the results. It follows that closer and more unpredictable results will generate higher match-day attendances and increase the revenues of the clubs.

This is an interesting argument and is the opposite of what economic theory would predict for most markets. For example, the standard prediction would be that as firms outperform their rivals, they generate more revenue and profit. If they manage to drive all their rivals out of business, they would become a pure monopoly and make large abnormal profits. However in professional team sports the outcome may differ significantly. If the unpredictability of the league is highly valued by fans, then teams will generate more revenue when they have strong and evenly matched rivals.

It has been reported that further discussions about the distribution of the money will take place this month with the owners of the championship clubs arguing that there should be smaller increases in parachute payments and much larger increases in solidarity payments. Representatives of the EPL have argued that the parachute payments do not distort competition and make the championship predictable. They point out that at present only one of the top six teams in the championship (Hull) receives parachute payments, while only one of the teams promoted from the Championship in the season 2012–13 (West Ham) received these payments.

Articles
Premier League warned over rich and poor split in wake of TV deal The Guardian, Owen Gibson (19/3/13)
Championship clubs angered by Premier League parachute boost Daily Mail, Charles Sale (6/2/13)
Football league is to lessen the advantage of parachute payments The Guardian, Owen Gibson (20/3/13)
Championship clubs warn Premier League over hike in parachute payments for relegated teams The Independent, Majid Mohamed (20/3/13)
Increased parachute payments could lead to a salary cap in the Championship The Post, A. Stockhausen (21/3/13)
Scudamore:Parachute payment system fair Eurosport, Andy Eckardt (22/3/13)
Parachute payments more than a softened landing The Daisy Cutter, Richard Brook (21/3/13)

Questions

  1. What factors will influence the size of the attendance at a football match?
  2. To what extent do you think that the money generated from the sale of television rights should be equally shared between all the clubs in the English Premier League and the English Football League
  3. Can you think of any ways of measuring the competitive balance of a football league?
  4. Explain why a very competitively imbalanced league may reduce the revenue for all the clubs in that league?.
  5. In traditional economic theory it is assumed that firms aim to maximise their profits. What do you think is the objective of a typical football club in the English Premier League?
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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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