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Posts Tagged ‘mergers’

Might changes to the format of the football World Cup facilitate tacit collusion?

Earlier this week FIFA, the world governing body of football, announced plans to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026. It is fair to say that this has been met with mixed reactions, in part due to the politics and money involved. However, for an economist one particularly interesting question is how the change will affect the incentives of the teams taking part in the competition.

As a result of the change in the first stage of the competition, teams will be play the two other teams in their group. The best two teams in the group will then progress to the next round with the worst team going home. This is in contrast to the current format where the best two teams from a group of four go through to the next round.

Currently, in the final round of group matches all four of the teams in the group play simultaneously. However, an immediate implication of the new format is that this will no longer be the case. Instead, one of the teams will have finished their group matches before the other two teams play each other. This could have important implications for the incentives of the teams involved. To see this we can recall a very famous match played under similar circumstances between West Germany and Austria at the 1982 World Cup.

The results of the earlier group games meant that if West Germany beat Austria by one or two goals to nil both teams would progress to the next round. Any other result would mean that Algeria progressed at the expense of one of these two teams. The way in which the match played out was that West Germany scored early on and much of the rest of the game descended into farce. Both teams refused to attack or tackle their opponents, as they had no incentive to so (see here for some clips of the action, or lack of!).

There is no evidence to suggest that West Germany and Austria had come to a formal agreement to do this. Instead, the two teams appear to have simply had a mutual understanding that refraining from competing would be beneficial for both of them.

This is exactly what economists refer to as tacit collusion – a mutual understanding that refraining from competition and keeping prices high benefits all firms in the market. Much like the fans who had to sit through the farce of a game (you can hear the frustration of the crowd in the video clip linked to above), the end result is harm to consumers who have to pay the higher prices or go without the product.

For this reason governments use competition policy to try to stop situations arising in markets that make the possibility of tacit collusion more likely. One way in which this is done is by preventing mergers in markets where tacit collusion appears possible and would be facilitated by the reduction in the number of firms as a result of the merger. The equivalent for the World Cup would be preventing a change in the format of the competition.

An alternative approach is to tinker with the rules of the game in order to make collusion harder. FIFA seems to have some awareness of the possibility of doing this as it is suggesting that it may require all tied games to extra-time and then a penalty shoot-out in order to determine a winner. Clearly, this would go at least some way to alleviating concerns about tacit collusion in the final group matches because coordinating on a draw would no longer be possible. In a similar fashion, competition authorities can also intervene in markets to change the rules of the game (see for example the recent intervention in the UK cement industry).

Therefore, more generally, the World Cup example highlights the fact that variations in the structure of markets and the rules of the game can have significant effects on firms’ incentives and this can have important consequences for market outcomes. It will certainly be fascinating to see what rules are imposed for the 2026 World Cup and how the teams taking part respond.

Articles
World Cup: Fifa to expand competition to 48 teams after vote BBC News (10/1/17)
How will a 48-team World Cup work? Fifa’s plan for 2026 explained The Guardian, Paul MacInnes (10/1/17)
The Disgrace of Gijón and the 48-team FIFA World Cup Mike or the Don (12/1/17)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between tacit collusion and a cartel?
  2. Why does a reduction in the number of firms in a market make collusion easier?
  3. What other factors make collusion more likely?
  4. How does competition policy try to prevent the different forms of collusion?
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Consolidation amongst the high-street bookies

This time last year bookmakers Ladbrokes and Coral announced their intention to merge. This was closely followed by a merger between Betfair and Paddy Power. This wave of consolidation appears to have been partly motivated by the rise of online gambling, stricter regulation and increased taxation.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) commenced an initial investigation into the Ladbrokes-Coral merger in late 2015 and, at the request of the merging parties, agreed to fast track the case to a detailed phase 2 investigation.

Despite the growth in the online market, the CMA’s investigation recognised the continued importance of high-street betting shops:

Although online betting has grown substantially in recent years, the evidence we’ve seen confirms that a significant proportion of customers still choose to bet in shops – and many will continue to do so after the merger.

The CMA identified almost 650 local markets where it believed there would be a substantial lessening of competition. It concluded that this could have both local and national effects:

Discounts and offers of free bets to individual customers are 2 of the ways betting shops respond to local competition which could be threatened by the merger. Such a widespread reduction in competition at the local level could also worsen those elements that are set centrally, such as odds and betting limits.

Therefore, earlier this week the CMA announced that before it is prepared to clear the merger, the parties must sell around 350 stores in order to preserve competition in the problem markets (many of these overlap so the number of store sales required is less than the number of problem markets). This divestment represents around 10% of the total number of stores currently owned by the two merging parties. It appears that rivals Betfred and Boylesports, plus a number of private equity investors, are already interested in purchasing the stores.

This may also not be the last consolidation in the industry with the struggling leading bookmaker William Hill apparently attracting merger interest from rival 888 in combination with a casino and bingo hall operator.

Articles
BHA warns CMA over Coral-Ladbrokes merger Racing Post, Bill Barber (7/7/16)
Ladbrokes-Gala Coral must sell 350-400 shops to clear merger BBC, (26/7/16)
William Hill is lukewarm on ambitious three-way merger deal The Telegraph, Ben Martin (25/7/16)

Questions

  1. Why might the merging parties in this case have been so keen to fast track the case to phase 2?
  2. What are the key factors in defining the market in this case? How do you think these would have affected the decision?
  3. Are there arguments that wider social issues in addition to the effect on competition should be taken into account when considering mergers in this market?
  4. Which of the potential purchasers of the divested stores do you think might be best for competition?
  5. How do you think this market will evolve in the future?
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How is the creation of ‘Megabrew’ progressing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

Evidence of widespread tax avoidance has featured heavily in the news recently. Furthermore, recent developments also suggest that avoiding taxes has become an important motivation for merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. For example, Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant that producers Viagra, has for a while been looking to expand through M&A. Following a failed attempt to merge with the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in 2014, it instead agreed late last year to merge with a company called Allergan. This was set to be the largest healthcare merger ever, worth over £100bn.

What is key about Allergan is that, whilst it is run from the USA, it is legally registered as being based in Ireland. It has been strongly argued that the key motivation for the merger was tax avoidance with Pfizer’s strategy described in this way:

They look for a likely partner based in a country with a lower corporate tax regime and suggest a merger. When the merger goes through, the company based in the US moves its HQ – but not the bulk of its operations – to the low-tax jurisdiction, where it books the bulk of its profits. At a stroke, the company’s tax bill is cut.

This practice is sometimes referred to as an inversion. It has been suggested that over the past five years around 40 completed mergers have been motivated by similar objectives.

However, policy makers, in particular in the USA, where corporation tax is high, have increasingly become aware of the practice. President Obama recently made clear that:

If corporations are paying less tax, only one of two things can happen. The US will have less to spend on schools, roads and public health, or taxes will have to be raised on the country’s middle class.

In 2014 some tightening of the tax rules took place, but with limited effect. Then, earlier this month President Obama implemented a series of new rules to attempt to prevent the practice. He stressed that these new rules would help to deter companies from taking advantage of:

one of the most insidious tax loopholes out there, fleeing the country just to get out of paying their taxes.

Almost immediately the Pfizer-Allegan merger was abandoned and Pfizer was required to pay a break-up fee of $150m to Allegran. The parties involved were far from happy and the chief executive of Allegran stated that:

For the rules to be changed after the game has been played is a bit un-American.

However, a spokesman for the White House responded that:

I think it is difficult to have a lot of patience for an American C.E.O. trying to execute a complicated financial transaction to avoid paying taxes in America, talking about what it means to be a good citizen of the United States.

As has been highlighted, the decision to immediately abandon the merger provides a clear indication that the business case and potential synergies arising from combining the two companies were far less important than the benefits from tax avoidance.

Where does the abandoned merger leave Pfizer? One option will be to consider alternative mergers. Perhaps reflecting this possibility, the share prices of foreign rivals such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline increased following the announcement that the Allegran deal had been abandoned. However, an alternative under serious consideration appears to be the opposite strategy of shrinking Pfizer’s operations. It has been argued that this would allow the company to be become more focused.

It remains to be seen in which direction Pfizer will go. However, what this example clearly illustrates is the impact changes in regulatory policy can have on firms’ strategic decisions.

Articles
Collapse of $160bn Pfizer and Allergan merger shocks corporate US Financial Times, Barney Jopson, David Crow, James Fontanella-Khan and Arash Massoudi (6/4/16)
It’s off: the end of Pfizer’s $160 billion Allergan merger The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur (6/4/16)
Pfizer and Allergan terminate $160bn merger following US tax crack-down The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (6/4/16)

Questions

  1. Who do you think will be the big winners and losers from the merger being abandoned?
  2. Why do you think break-up fees are used in merger deals?
  3. What are the pros and cons for Pfizer of continuing to pursue M&As rather than downsizing?
  4. Are there any alternative strategies it might consider?
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Tax inversion, Botox and Viagra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

There have been a number of recent developments in communications markets that may significantly alter the competitive landscape. First, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has provisionally cleared BT to takeover the EE mobile phone network. The deal will allow BT to re-establish itself as a mobile network provider, having previously owned O2 until it was sold in 2005. The CMA said that:

They operate largely in separate areas with BT strong in supplying fixed communications services (voice, broadband and pay TV), EE strong in supplying mobile communications services, and limited overlap between them in both categories of service.

BT will therefore be in a better position to compete with rivals such as Virgin Media who were early movers in offering. Second, O2 itself (currently owned by Telefónica) is the subject of a takeover bid from Hutchinson Whampoa who already owns the mobile network Three. Because the companies meet their turnover criteria, this deal is being investigated by the European Commission (EC) and the signs don’t look good. If it goes ahead, it would create the largest mobile operator in the UK and leave just three main players in the market. The EC is concerned that the merger would lead to higher prices, reduced innovation and lower investment in networks. Previously, considerable consolidation in telecommunications markets across Europe has been allowed. However, recent evidence, including the prevention of a similar deal in Denmark, suggests the EC is starting to take a tougher stance.

If we compare the two proposed takeovers, it is clear that the O2–Three merger raises more concerns for the mobile communications market because they are both already established network providers. However, it is increasingly questionable whether looking at this market in isolation is appropriate. As communication services become increasingly intertwined and quad-play competition becomes more prevalent, a wider perspective becomes more appropriate. Once this is taken, the BT–EE deal may raise different, but still important, concerns.

Finally, the UK’s communications regulator, OFCOM, is currently undertaking a review of the whole telecommunications market. It is evident that their review will recognise the increased connections between communications markets as they have made clear that they will:

examine converging media services – offered over different platforms, or as a ‘bundle’ by the same operator. For example, telecoms services are increasingly sold to consumers in the form of bundles, sometimes with broadcasting content; this can offer consumer benefits, but may also present risks to competition.

One particular concern appears to be BT’s internet broadband network, Openreach. This follows complaints from competitors such as BSkyB who pay to use BT’s network. Their concerns include long installation times for their customers and BT’s lack of investment in the network. One possibility being considered is breaking up BT with the forced sale of its broadband network.

It will be fascinating to see how these communications markets develop over time.

BT takeover of EE given provisional clearance by competition watchdog The Guardian, Jasper Jackson (28/10/15)
Ofcom casts doubt on O2/Three merger BBC News, Chris Johnston (08/10/15)
BT and Openreach broadband service could be split in Ofcom review The Guardian, John Plunkett (16/07/15)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of communications markets? Explain how these markets have developed over the last few decades.
  2. What are the pros and cons for consumers of being able to buy a quad-play bundle of services?
  3. How do you think firms that are currently focused on providing mobile phone services will need to change their strategies in the future?
  4. Why is BT in a powerful position as one of the only owners of a broadband network?
  5. Instead of forcing BT to sell its broadband network, what other solutions might there be?
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Fixing the price of envelopes

In December the European Commission (EC) fined 5 envelope makers from Sweden, France, Germany and Spain a total of almost €20m for participating in a cartel. Between 2003 and 2008 these firms had coordinated responses to tenders, fixed prices and exchanged information. This increased the prices paid by their buyers who were stationary distributors and large companies.

Commenting on this case the European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager stated:

On this case we have closed the envelope, sealed it and returned it to the sender with a clear message: don’t cheat your customers, don’t cartelise.

The EC initiated an investigation and undertook dawn-raids on the companies involved following a tip-off from a whistleblower. The Commissioner also had this message for other firms considering taking part in a cartel:

I do hope that you realise that just a simple tip-off from a whistle-blower, from within the company or from a customer is all it takes for your cartel to come up on our enforcement radar.

A previous post on this site highlighted the fact that the game of golf has played a prominent role in a number of previous cartels and that in these code names for their activities were sometimes adopted. The envelope cartel seems to have gone one step further by combining the two and referring to their cartel meetings as ‘golf’ or ‘minigolf’ appointments.

All firms involved in the cartel settled their case with the EC, resulting in reduced fines. The EC encourages such resolution of cases because it frees up resources and allows them to pursue a larger number of cases. In addition, the fines imposed on two of the companies were reduced due to their inability to pay.

Finally, it is also interesting to note that, following the collapse of the cartel, one of the companies involved went into liquidation and subsequently merged with one of its former cartel co-conspirators. This coincides with broader evidence of merger activity following the breakdown of cartels. One explanation for this is that merger activity is a response to competition breaking out in the post cartel environment.

Antitrust: Commission fines five envelope producers over €19.4 million in cartel settlement European Commission – Press release (11/12/14)
EU regulators bust envelope cartel in time for holiday cards The Guardian (11/12/14)
European Commission fines envelope cartel €19.5m PrintWeek, Simon Nias (06/01/15)
Kipper Williams on the envelope cartel The Guardian, Kipper Williams (12/12/14)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of the market for envelopes?
  2. Do the features of this market make it particularly prone to collusive behaviour?
  3. What are the trade-offs involved in reducing the fines for firms that are willing to settle?
  4. Is it right that cartel fines are reduced if firms are unable to pay?
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Competition Commission action in the cement market: remedies announced

A few months ago, in a post on this site I reported that the Competition Commission (CC) had completed their provisional investigation into the concrete and cement market in Great Britain. As I discussed, they concluded that coordination between the main cement producers was resulting in high prices. They are particularly concerned about the impact of high prices in this market because:

Cement is an essential product for the construction and building sectors and the amount of such work that is funded by the public purse only underlines the importance of ensuring that customers get better value for money. We believe our measures can bring about a substantial, swift and lasting increase in competition in this economically vital market.

The next step was for the CC to consider how they could remedy the situation and hopefully improve competition in the market.

Earlier this month, the CC announced the remedies they intend to impose. Having previously suggested that they intended to impose hard-hitting measures, they have been true to their word. The market leader, Lafarge Tarmac, will be required to sell one of its cement plants to facilitate a new entrant into the market. According to Professor Martin Cave, the CC’s Deputy Chairman who led the inquiry:

We believe that the entry of a new, independent cement producer is the only way to disturb the established structure and behaviour in this market which has persisted for a number of years and led to higher prices for customers.

In addition, the CC is also putting in place measures to limit the publication of production data and price announcements. It is hoped that these measures will reduce transparency in the market.

However, Lafarge Tarmac disagrees with the sale they are being forced to make. This is in part because, as I discussed in the earlier post, they had previously been allowed by the CC to form a joint venture (JV) with one its main rivals:

We are disappointed that the Competition Commission has asked Lafarge Tarmac to divest another cement plant only a year after it allowed the creation of the JV. This is not reasonable or proportionate and we have not been given a fair opportunity to defend our position.

In addition, Lafarge Tarmac is quoted in the above article as suggesting that the end result of the CC’s intervention will be harm to consumers. It will be extremely interesting to monitor how this market develops.

Articles
Competition Commission confirms plan for new cement producer The Construction Index, (14/01/14)
Competition Commission improves competition in the UK. Again. Global Cement, (22/01/14)

Report
Aggregates, cement and ready-mix concrete market investigation, Final report, Competition Commission, (14/01/14)

Questions

  1. Why might the publication of production data and price announcements help to facilitate coordination between firms?
  2. Would you expect the new entrant or the measures to limit the publication of production data and price announcements to have more impact on competition in the market?
  3. Using a supply and demand model, describe the impact the CC’s intervention could have on the construction market.
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Competition Commission promises hard-hitting action in the cement market

The Competition Commission (CC) recently completed their provisional investigation into the cement and concrete market in Great Britain (press release). They concluded that coordination between the main cement producers is resulting in high prices.

In contrast, to illegal cartels (see for example the recent post on this site), the firms in this market are not accused of doing anything illegal. Instead, the CC’s concern is with tacit collusion. Here, no illegal communication between firms takes place, firms simply do not compete intensely due to a mutual understanding that high prices are collectively beneficial.

Economic theory suggests that one key factor that facilitates tacit coordination is a low number of firms in the market. The UK cement market certainly meets this criteria as it is an oligopoly with just three main players plus a new entrant. The CC concluded that:

In a highly concentrated market where the product doesn’t vary, the established producers know too much about each other’s businesses and have concentrated on retaining their respective market shares rather than competing to the full.

They estimate that this cost consumers over £180m in a 3 year period.

Whilst tacit collusion is not illegal, competition authorities can try to prevent it from arising by intervening in mergers that they believe will make it more likely. In fact, the new entrant to the cement market came about due to sales required by the CC before they would allow a joint-venture between two of the main players to go ahead. Clearly the CC’s recent findings suggest that this intervention was not sufficient to ensure intense competition in the market. However, an additional tool available to the authorities in the UK is to be able to remedy harm to competition undercovered as a result of an investigation into the market. In some cases this may even involve breaking-up firms in the market (see for example the decision to force BAA to sell several airports).

When deciding on how to remedy the problem in the cement market, the CC will be keen to avoid the past mistakes of their Danish counterparts. In a famous case, in 1993 the Danish authorities attempted to increase competition in the concrete market by publishing individual sellers’ prices. The idea was that this would stimulate competition by encouraging buyers to shop around. However, evidence published here suggests that this in fact increased prices by around 15%! Why? The paper examines possible explanations and concludes that the information published by the competition authorities helped firms to monitor each others behaviour and therefore facilitated tacit coordination in the market. This is entirely consistent with economic theory which shows that another key factor which facilitates tacit coordination is market transparency.

The CC suggest that such monitoring is also possible in the GB market:

Established information channels such as price announcement letters can signal their plans, and tit-for-tat behaviour and cross-sales can be used to prevent or retaliate against any moves to disturb the overall balance between the different players in this market.

According to the above press release, the remedies the CC are considering include: the sale of capacity or plants by the leading players in the market, creation of buying groups, prohibition on price announcements and restrictions on the publication of industry level data. This suggests that the CC are well aware that reducing market transparency can play a key role in preventing coordination. It will be fascinating to, first, see what the CC opt for, then, what impact this has on competition in the industry.

Articles
Same product, same price? Competition in the UK Global Cement (22/05/13)
Competition Commission uncovers `serious problems’ in cement market Graham Huband, The Courier (22/05/13)
Competition Commission call for cement sell-off Mark Leftley, London Evening Standard (21/05/13)

Competition Commission documents
CC looks to break open cement market Competition Commission Press Release (21/5/13)
Aggregates, cement and ready-mix concrete market investigation Competition Commission core documents (various dates)

Questions

  1. Explain tacit collusion using a Prisoner’s dilemma game.
  2. Is cement the type of product where we might expect coordination to be most likely?
  3. Why is cement an important market in the UK economy?
  4. The first article above suggests that most of the management team at the new entrant came from the other main players in the market. Do you think this may significantly affect the likelihood of tacit collusion?
  5. Evaluate the pros and cons of the alternative remedies the CC are considering.
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Power down under

Competition authorities across the world are in a constant battle against the abuse of monopoly power and the collusion of oligopolists to gang up against the consumer. They are also concerned with mergers where these result in a reduction in competition. The following articles look at market power in Australia and at some high profile cases of oligopolist collusion. Examples include the big four banks in Australia and the two supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths, which dominate the sector.

The articles also examine the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Australia’s equivalent to the UK’s Competition Commission and Office of Fair Trading (soon to be merged).

Articles
Get out of monopoly free cards can’t be left to the roll of the dice Sydney Morning Herald, Jessica Irvine (27/10/10)
Australia watchdog adds voice to criticism of banks Reuters (22/10/10)
Major banks to beat wage rise The Australian, Blair Speedy (6/10/10)
Analysis: Australian firms forced into deals abroad Reuters, Michael Smith and Sonali Paul (21/10/10)
Hockey outlines plan for banking reform Business Spectator (25/10/10)
Banks are laughing all the way to… the bank Sydney Morning Herald, Josh Gordon (24/10/10)
Xenophon: ACCC Allows Woolworths & Lowes to Hurt Consumers & Competition Mathaba (27/10/10)
Woolies still the target of Coles firepower Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Baker (27/10/10)

Competition authority in Australia
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

Questions

  1. In what ways can competition authorities bring about greater competition in oligopolistic industries?
  2. Explain the distinction between a demand-side and a supply-side approach to competition policy.
  3. Why do Australian airlines find it more difficult than Australian banks to pass on cost increases to consumers?
  4. Are highly competitive markets always better for consumers than oligopolistic ones? Explain.
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