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Posts Tagged ‘countervailing power’

Countervailing power: irresistible force meets immovable object as Tesco and Unilever battle it out

A row erupted in mid-October between Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, and Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company. Unilever is the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer with many well-known brands, including home care products, personal care products and food and drink. Unilever, which manufactures many of its products abroad and uses many ingredients from abroad in those manufactured in the UK, wanted to charge supermarkets 10% more for its products. It blamed the 16% fall in the value of sterling since the referendum in June (see the blog Sterling’s slide).

Tesco refused to pay the increase and so Unilever halted deliveries of over 200 items. As a result, several major brands became unavailable on the Tesco website. The dispute was dubbed ‘Marmitegate’, after one of Unilever’s products.

This is a classic case of power on both sides of the market: a powerful oligopolist, Unilever, facing a powerful oligopsonist, Tesco. With rising costs for Unilever resulting from the falling pound, either Unilever had to absorb the costs, or Tesco had to be prepared to pay the higher prices demanded by Unilever, passing some or all of them onto customers, or there had to be a compromise, with the prices Tesco pays to Unilever rising, but by less than 10%. A compromise was indeed reached on 13 October, with different price increases for each of Unilever’s products depending on how much of the costs are in foreign currencies. Precise details of the deal remained secret.

An interesting dynamic in the dispute was that Tesco and Unilever were acting as ‘champions’ for retailers and suppliers respectively. Other supermarkets were also facing price rises by Unilever. Their reactions were likely to depend on what Tesco did. Similarly, other suppliers were facing rising costs because of the falling pound. Their reactions might depend on how successful Unilever was in passing on its cost increases to retailers.

This example of ‘countervailing power’, or ‘bilateral oligopoly’, helps to illustrate just how much the consumer can gain when a powerful seller is confronted by a powerful buyer. The battle was been likened to that between two ‘gorillas’ of the industry. Its ramifications throughout industry will be interesting.

Podcasts and Webcasts
Tesco-Unilever row: Can unique shop explain ‘Marmitegate’? BBC News, Dougal Shaw (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever in Brexit price clash Reuters, David Pollard (13/10/16)
Brexit price-rise warning to shoppers BBC News, Simon Jack (10/10/16)
Tesco in Brexit Pricing Spat With Unilever Wall Street Journal (13/10/16)
Tesco battles Unilever over prices Financial Times on YouTube (14/10/16)
Tesco vs Unilever: Who won? ITV News, Joel Hills (14/10/16)

Articles
Tesco removes Marmite and other Unilever brands in price row BBC News (13/10/16)
Marmite Brexit Shortage ‘Just The Beginning’ Of ‘Gorilla’ Grocery Battle As Pound Slumps Huffington Post, Louise Ridley (13/10/16)
Unilever sales increase despite dozens of its brands being removed from Tesco shelves Independent, Ben Chapman (13/10/16)
Tesco-Unilever price row: Why pound value slump has caused Marmite to disappear from shelves Independent, Zlata Rodionova (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls Marmite from online store amid Brexit price row with Unilever The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak, Steven Swinford and Ashley Armstrong (13/10/16)
Tesco runs short on Marmite and household brands in price row with Unilever The Guardian, Sarah Butler (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls products over plunging pound Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Paul McClean (13/10/16)
Brexit means…higher prices The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever settle prices row after pound’s Brexit dive Reuters, James Davey and Martinne Geller (14/10/16)

Questions

  1. To what extent can Tesco and Unilever be seen a price leaders of their respective market segments?
  2. What would you advise other supermarkets to do over their pricing decisions when faced with increased prices from suppliers, and why?
  3. What would you advise manufacturers of other consumer goods sold in supermarkets to do in the light of the Tesco/Unilever dispute, and why?
  4. What determines the price elasticity of demand for branded products, such as Marmite, Persil, Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, PG Tips tea and Wall’s ice cream?
  5. What factors will determine in the end just how much extra the consumer pays when supermarkets are faced with demands for higher prices from major suppliers?
  6. Give some other examples of firms in industries where there is a high degree of countervailing power.
  7. What are the macroeconomic implications of a depreciating exchange rate?
  8. If, over the long term, the pound remained 16% below its level in June 2016, would you expect the consumer prices index in the long term to be approximately 16% higher than it would have been if the pound had not depreciated? Explain why or why not.
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Do you mind if your vegetables are wonky?

This rather strange question has been central to a storm that has been brewing between various celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the supermarkets. Supermarkets say that consumers don’t want irregular shaped vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes. ‘Nonsense’, say their critics.

At the centre of the storm are the farmers, who find a large proportion of their vegetables are rejected by the supermarkets. And these are vegetables which are not damaged or bad – simply not of the required shape. Although these rejected vegetables have been described as ‘wonky’, in fact many are not wonky at all, but simply a little too large or too small, or too short or too long. Most of these vegetables are simply wasted – ploughed back into the ground, or at best used for animal feed.

And it’s not just shape; it’s colour too. Many producers of apples find a large proportion being rejected because they are too red or not red enough.

But do consumers really want standardised fruit vegetables? Are the supermarkets correct? Are they responding to demand? Or are they attempting to manipulate demand?

Supermarkets claim that they are just responding to what consumers want. Their critics say that they are setting ludicrously rigid cosmetic standards which are of little concern to consumers. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall states:

‘It’s only when you see the process of selection on the farm, how it has been honed and intensified, it just looks mad. There are many factory line systems where you have people looking for faults on the production line; in this system you’re looking for the good ones.

What we’re asking supermarkets to do is to relax their cosmetic standards for the vegetables that all get bagged up and sold together. It’s about slipping a few more of the not-so-perfect ones into the bag.’

In return, consumers must be prepared to let the supermarkets know that they are against these cosmetic standards and are perfectly happy to buy slightly more irregular fruit and vegetables. Indeed, this is beginning to happen through social media. The pressure group 38 degrees has already taken up the cause.

But perhaps consumers ‘voting with their feet’ is what will change supermarkets’ behaviour. With the rise of small independent greengrocers, many from Eastern Europe, there is now intense competition in the fruit and vegetables market in many towns and cities. Perhaps supermarkets will be forced to sell slightly less cosmetically ‘perfect’ produce at a lower price to meet this competition.

Videos
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 1 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2/11/15)
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 2 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (9/11/15)

Articles
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rejects Morrisons’ ‘pathetic’ wonky veg trial The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (9/11/15)
Jamie Oliver leads drive to buy misshapen fruit and vegetables The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (1/1/15)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s war over wonky parsnips The Telegraph, Patrick Foster (30/10/15)
Asda extends ‘wonky’ fruit and veg range Resource, Edward Perchard (4/11/15)
Wearne’s last farmer shares memories and laments loss of farming community in Langport area Western Gazette, WGD Mumby (8/11/15)
Viewpoint: The rejected vegetables that aren’t even wonky BBC News Magazine (28/10/15)
Viewpoint: The supermarkets’ guilty secret about unsold food BBC News Magazine (6/11/15)

Questions

  1. What market failures are there is the market for fresh fruit and vegetables?
  2. Supermarkets are oligopsonists in the wholesale market for fruit and vegetables. What is the implication of this for (a) farmers; (b) consumers?
  3. Is there anything that (a) consumers and (b) the government can do to stop the waste of fruit and vegetables grown for supermarkets?
  4. How might supermarkets estimate the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables and its price elasticity?
  5. What can supermarkets do with unsold food? What incentives are there for supermarkets not to throw it away but to make good use of it?
  6. Could appropriate marketing persuade people to be less concerned about the appearance of fruit and vegetables? What form might this marketing take?
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Milk prices: who gets the cream?

‘Farm-gate’ milk prices (the price paid to farmers) have been rising in the UK. In July they reached a record high of 31.4p per litre (ppl). This was 5.1ppl higher than in July 2012. There were further price rises this month (October). Sainsbury’s increased the price it pays farmers by nearly 2ppl to 34.15ppl and Arla Foods by 1.5ppl to 33.13ppl. Muller Wiseman is set to raise the price it pays to 32.5p per litre.

And yet many farmers are struggling to make a profit from milk production, claiming that their costs have risen faster than the prices they receive. Feed costs, for example, have risen by 2.12ppl. On average, farmers would need over 38p per litre just to cover their average variable costs. What is more, exceptional weather has reduced yields per cow by some 7%.

Meanwhile, in the USA, supply has risen by some 1.3% compared with a year ago. But despite this, the prices of dairy products are rising, thanks to strong demand. Cheese and butter prices, in particular, are rising rapidly, partly because of high demand from overseas. Demand for imported dairy products is particularly high in China, where supply has fallen by some 6% in the past couple of months.

The problem for dairy farmers in the UK is partly one of the power balance in the industry. Farmers have little or no market power. Supermarkets, however, have considerable market power. As large oligopsonistic buyers, they can put downward pressure on the prices paid to their suppliers. These are mainly large processing firms, such as Robert Wiseman Dairies, Arla Foods and Dairy Crest. They, in turn, can use their market power to keep down the price they pay to farmers.

Articles
Dairy farmers renew protests over milk prices Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (5/9/13)
Dairy farmers ‘lost more than 1p/litre last year’ Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (2/10/13)
South West farming businesses and producers still making a loss on milk South West Business (3/10/13)
Q&A: Milk prices row and how the system works BBC News (23/7/12) (note date of this)
Positive Dairy Trend: Rising Milk Production and Strong Demand The Farmer’s Exchange, Lee Mielke (27/9/13)
Chinese supply crisis to delay dairy price adjustment Rabobank (25/9/13)
China milk ‘crisis’ fuels world dairy price rise Agrimoney (1/10/13)

Data
UK milk prices and composition of milk ONS
Combined IFCN world milk price indicator IFCN

Questions

  1. Give some examples of (a) variable costs and (b) fixed costs in milk production.
  2. Why may farmers continue in dairy production, at least for a time, even if they are not covering their average variable costs?
  3. What factors determine (a) the price of milk paid to farmers; (b) the retail price in supermarkets?
  4. Explain how dairy futures markets work.
  5. Could the milk processors use their market power in the interests of farmers? Is it in the interests of milk processors to do so?
  6. Why is there a Chinese “dairy supply crisis”? What is its impact on the rest of the world? What is the relevance of the price elasticity of demand for dairy products in China to this impact?
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Supply in chains

The news in many European countries has been dominated in February by the ‘horse meat scandal’. Small traces of horse meat may be the result of faulty quality control. But the significant amount of horse found in several processed meat products suggest fraud at one or more points in the supply chain from farm to supermarket or other outlet. Indeed several specific suppliers, from abattoirs to processors are facing criminal investigation.

The scandal has put the supply chain under intense scrutiny. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is often very long and complex. As the Guardian article states:

The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalised in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.

Then there is the huge pressure on all parts of the supply chain to reduce costs.

Supermarkets use their market power to drive down the prices of the products they buy from their suppliers and this has a knock-on effect backwards down the supply chain. This pressure has intensified as real wages have fallen and consumers have found their budgets squeezed.

At the same time, beef and other meat prices have been rising as the costs of animal feed have soared. This all puts tremendous pressure on suppliers to add cheaper ingredients. Again to quote the Guardian article:

Manufacturers add other cheap ingredients including water and fat, and use concentrated proteins to bind the water and fat in. They may appear on labels as ‘seasoning’. One of the cheapest sources of these protein additives is pork rind. It is possible that horse hide is now also being used. The widespread adulteration of cheap chicken breast with pig and beef proteins and water has been uncovered in previous scandals. The beef proteins were derived from hydrolysed cattle hides. It is not illegal to use these protein concentrates so long as they are identified correctly to the manufacturer.

It is not surprising that if cheap horse meat becomes available to suppliers, such as from old horses towards the end of their working lives, some processing companies may be tempted to add it fraudulently, stating that it is beef.

The articles look at the issues of long and complex supply chains in the processed food industry and assess why they have evolved into their current form and the difficulties in regulating them.

Horsegate: heed economics of the cold chain The Grocer, Andrew Godley (16/2/13)
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (15/2/13)
After the horse has been bolted The Economist (16/2/13)
Slavery, not horse meat, is the real scandal on our doorstep The Telegraph, Fraser Nelson (14/2/13)
Industry must take the reins on food safety Globe and Mail (Canada)Sylvain Charlebois (15/2/13)
Supply chains changed the growth model The Economist, Richard Baldwin (15/8/12)
Supply-chain management The Economist (6/4/09)
Tesco pledges to open up supply chain after horse meat scandal The Telegraph (16/2/13)
Horse meat scandal: Shoppers who buy ‘cheapest food’ at risk The Telegraph, James Quinn, Jason Lewis and Patrick Sawer (16/2/13)
Let Them Eat Horse Bloomberg, Marc Champion (15/2/13)
Scandal shows meat supply chain must be policed heraldscotland (14/2/13)
MPs push for new powers for FSA as officials seize yet more suspect meat Independent, Martin Hickman (13/2/13)

Questions

  1. Why do supermarkets and their suppliers use long supply chains?
  2. Explain the concepts of ‘countervailing power’ and ‘monopsony or oligopsony power’? How do they apply in the processed meat supply chain?
  3. Identify the types of transactions costs in the processed meat industry.
  4. In what ways do consumers (a) gain and (b) lose from such supply chains?
  5. Why is the problem of fraud in processed food supply chains likely to have intensified in recent years?
  6. How have supermarkets reacted to the horse meat scandal? Why has it taken the scandal to make them react in this way?
  7. To what extent is the problem simply one of inaccurate labelling?
  8. To what extent is there a principal–agent problem in the processed meat supply chain?
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A new Penguin House

Two of the biggest publishing companies, Pearson of the UK and Bertelsmann of Germany are to form a joint venture by merging their Penguin and Random House imprints. Bertelsmann will have a majority stake in the venture of 53% and Pearson will have 47%.

The Penguin imprint, with a turnover of just over £1bn, has an 11% share of the English language book publishing market. Random House has a 15% share, with turnover of around £1.5bn. The new ‘Penguin Random House’, as it will be called, will have nearly 26% of the market, which should give it considerable market power to combat various threats in the book publishing market.

One threat is from online retailers, such as Amazon, Apple and Google, which use their countervailing power to drive down the prices they pay to publishers. Another threat is from the rise of electronic versions of books. Although e-books save on printing costs, competition is driving down prices, including the prices of paper books, which may make publishers more reluctant to publish new titles in paper form.

There has been a mixed reception from authors: some are worried that an effective reduction in the number of major publishers from six to five will make it harder to get books published and may squeeze royalty rates; others feel that an increased market power of publishers to take on the online retailers will help to protect the interests of authors

The following videos and articles look at the nature of this joint venture and its implications for costs, revenues and publishing more generally.

Videos and webcasts
Penguin and Random House merge to take on digital giants Channel 4 News, Matthew Cain (29/10/12)
Penguin and Random House confident merger will be approved BBC News, Will Gompertz (29/10/12)
Penguin Books and Random House to merge BBC News, Matt Cowan (29/10/12)

Articles
Random House and Penguin merge to take on Amazon, Apple Reuters, Kate Holton (29/10/12)
Pearson’s Penguin joins Random House Independent, Amy Thomson and Joseph de Weck (29/10/12)
Penguin and Random House sign merger deal Financial Times, Gerrit Wiesmann and Robert Budden (29/10/12)
March of the Penguin The Economist, Schumpeter blog (29/10/12)
Penguin chief: News Corp can’t derail Random House deal The Guardian, Mark Sweney (29/10/12)
Penguin and Random House confident merger will be approved BBC News, Anthony Reuben (29/10/12)
And so I bid Penguin a sad farewell Independent, Andrew Franklin (29/10/12)

Questions

  1. How does a joint venture differ from a merger?
  2. What types of economies of scale are likely to result from the joint venture?
  3. How are authors likely to be affected?
  4. Will the joint venture benefit the book reading public?
  5. The relationship between publishers and online retailers can be described as one of ‘bilateral oligopoly’. Explain what this means and why it is impossible to determine an ‘equilibrium’ wholesale price of books in such a market.
  6. What criteria would the competition authorities use to assess whether or not the joint venture should be permitted to proceed?
  7. What is likely to be the long-term outlook for Penguin Random House?
  8. Assess the benefits and costs of a News Corporation takeover of the Penguin division? This was an alternative offer to Pearson had it not gone with Bertelsmann. (News Corp. has the Harper Collins imprint.)
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Electricity switches

Centrica, owners of British Gas, has warned that electricity and gas prices in the UK are set to rise in the autumn. Centrica blames this on the expected rise in the costs of wholesale gas and other non-energy inputs.

One of the other ‘big six’ energy suppliers, E.On, has responded by saying that it will not raise energy prices this year. Whether it will raise prices after 1 Jan next year remains to be seen.

Last autumn, household energy prices rose substantially: between 15.4% and 18% for gas and between 4.5% and 16% for electricity. This spring, in response to lower wholesale energy prices, suppliers cut prices for either electricity or gas (but not both) by around 5%.

The government and various pressure groups are encouraging consumers to use price comparison sites to switch to a cheaper supplier. The problem with this is that supplier A may be cheaper than supplier B one month, but B cheaper than A the next. Nevertheless, switching does impose some degree of additional competitive pressure on suppliers.

More powerful pressure could be applied by ‘collective switching’. This is where a lot of people switch via an intermediary company, which sources a deal from an energy supplier. This collective buying is a form of countervailing power to offset the oligopoly power of the suppliers. Such schemes are being encouraged by the Energy Minister, Ed Davey.

The other approach, apart from doing nothing, is for Ofgem, the energy regulator, to impose tough conditions on pricing. But at present, Ofgem’s approach has been to try to make the market more competitive (see also), rather than regulating prices.

British Gas owner Centrica warns of higher energy bills BBC News (11/5/12)
E.ON to keep residential energy prices unchanged in 2012 Reuters, Adveith Nair (14/5/12)
E.ON promises to hold energy prices for 5million customers in 2012 This is Money, Tara Evans (14/5/12)
British Gas owner Centrica feels cold blast from critics ShareCast, John Harrington (11/5/12)
Gas and electricity price battle lines drawn BBC News (14/5/12)
Taking on the energy giants: The co-operative insurgency gains ground Left Foot Forward, Daniel Elton (11/5/12)
Group Energy Buying hits the UK Headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe, Peter Smith (11/5/12)
Think tank calls for competition to break Big Six rip-off Energy Live News, Tom Gibson (30/4/12)
Collective switching will not fix the UK’s broken energy market Guardian, Reg Platt (27/4/12)
Make your own small switch for cheaper energy The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (14/5/12)

Questions

  1. What are the barriers to entry in the electricity supply market?
  2. How competitive is the retail energy market at present?
  3. To what extent do price comparison sites put pressure on energy companies to reeduce prices or limit price increases?
  4. What scope is there for collective buying of gas and electricity from the six energy suppliers by (a) households; (b) firms?
  5. Assess Ofgem’s package of proposals for a simpler and more competitive energy market.
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Oligopolies galore

Oligopoly: it’s a complex market structure and although closer to the monopoly end of the ‘Market Structure Spectrum’, it can still be a highly competitive market. The characteristics are well-documented and key to the degree of competition within any oligopoly is the number of competitors and extent to which there are barriers to entry.

The greater the barriers and the fewer the competitors the greater the power the established firms have. This can then spell trouble for pricing and hence for consumers. The following articles are just some examples of the oligopolies that exist around the world and some of the benefits and problems that accompany them.

Articles
Oligopoly of PSU oil cos reason for high ATF prices The Indian Express, Smita Aggarwal (30/4/12)
Group energy buying hits the UK headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe(18/1/11)
German cartel office probes petrol companies on pricing Fox Business (4/4/12)
Gov’t unveils steps to lower fuel prices Yonhap News (19/4/12)
How big banks threaten our economy Wall Street Journal, Warren Stephens (29/4/12)
UK Governance: Call for Whitehall to simplify the landscape for SME suppliers to win more government contracts The Information Daily (26/4/12)

Other blogs
Pumping up the price: fuel cartels in Germany April 2012
Energy profit margins up by over 700% October 2011
Every basket helps October 2011
The art of oligopoly December 2010

Questions

  1. What are the assumptions of an oligopolistic market structure?
  2. Consider (a) the energy sector and (b) the banking sector. To what extent does each market conform with the assumptions of an oligopoly?
  3. In the ‘Spend Matters’ article, a group of people in a Lincolnshire village formed a local buying consortium to negotiate deals for heating oil. What could we refer to this as?
  4. To what extent is an oligopoly in the public interest?
  5. Explain how barriers to entry in oligopolies affect the competitiveness and efficiency of a market.
  6. Illustrate how an oligopolistic market structure can fix prices and hence exploit consumers.
  7. How have the actions of the big oil companies in both the UK and Germany been against independent retailers and the consumer interest?
  8. What action can governments take to break up oligopolies? Will it always be effective?
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A health check for healthcare

This podcast is from the Guardian. The first part consists of a report by Anna Dixon, Director of Policy at the King’s Fund (an independent ‘think tank’). The podcast considers “the economics of healthcare. Why are the Americans so opposed to adopt a system of socialised medicine? Does the NHS make economic sense? And how will the squeeze on public finances impact upon our most cherished of services?”

The Business: The NHS and economic recovery Guardian podcast (19/8/09)

Questions

  1. How do the UK and US healthcare systems differ?
  2. Why does the US system result in greater healthcare inequality than the National Health Service system in the UK?
  3. For what reasons may Americans resist healthcare reform?
  4. What lessons can be learned by the NHS from the US healthcare system?
  5. Compare the issues of monopoly power of drug companies, doctors and hospitals in the two systems? In which system is the countervailing power of purchasers likely to be greater?
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