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Posts Tagged ‘monopoly power’

CMA imposes record fine

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has imposed a record fine of £84m on the American pharmaceutical manufacturing company Pfizer and of £5.2m on its UK distributor, Flynn Pharma. The CMA found that the companies charged unfair prices to the NHS for phenytoin sodium capsules, the anti-epilepsy drug.

The price was previously regulated, but Pfizer deliberately de-branded the drug in September 2012 and immediately raised the price to Flynn Pharma by between 780% and 1600%, which, in turn, raised the price to the NHS by nearly 2600%. This made the drug many times more expensive than in any other European country.

The cost to the NHS rose from around £2m per year to around £50m in 2013. Although other generic drugs are available, there would be serious health risks to patients forced to switch drugs. The NHS thus had no alternative to paying the higher price.

Pfizer claimed that the drug was loss-making before it was de-branded. However, the CMA calculated that this did not justify the size of the price increase; that the higher price enabled Pfizer to recover all these claimed losses within just two months.

The usual practice is for pharmaceutical companies to charge high prices for new drugs for a period of time to enable them to recover high research and development costs. Later, the drugs become available as generic drugs that other manufacturers can produce. The price then normally falls dramatically.

Phenytoin sodium was invented many years ago and there has been no recent innovation and no significant investment. But, unlike with many other drugs, there has been no switching by the NHS because of possible dangers to patients. This has given Pfizer and its distributor considerable market power. As the CMA states in its press release:

Epilepsy patients who are already taking phenytoin sodium capsules should not usually be switched to other products, including another manufacturer’s version of the product, due to the risk of loss of seizure control which can have serious health consequences. As a result, the NHS had no alternative to paying the increased prices for the drug.

In conclusion, the CMA found that “both companies have held a dominant position in their respective markets for the manufacture and supply of phenytoin sodium capsules and each has abused that dominant position by charging excessive and unfair prices”.

Articles
Pfizer fined record £84.2m for overcharging NHS 2600% Independent, Zlata Rodionova (7/12/16)
Pfizer fined record £84.2m over NHS overcharging The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/12/16)
CMA fines drug firms £90m for over-charging NHS nhe (7/12/16)
Pfizer hit with record fine after hiking price of NHS epilepsy drug by 2,600pc – costing taxpayer millions The Telegraph (7/12/16)
Pfizer, Flynn Get Record Fine on 2,600% Drug Price Increase Bloomberg, Patrick Gower (7/12/16)

CMA publications
Phenytoin sodium capsules: suspected unfair pricing Competition and Markets Authority: Case reference: CE/9742-13, Competition and Markets Authority cases (updated 7/12/16)
CMA fines Pfizer and Flynn £90 million for drug price hike to NHS CMA Press Release (7/12/16)

Questions

  1. What are the arguments for drug companies being allowed to charge high prices for new drugs?
  2. How long should these high prices persist?
  3. Sketch a diagram to illustrate Pfizer’s price for its anti-epilepsy drug before and after it was de-branded. Illustrate the effect on Pfizer’s profits from the drug.
  4. What determines the price elasticity of demand for (a) a drug which is branded and unique; (b) a drug produced by a specific producer but which is generic and can be produced by a number of producers; (c) a generic drug produced by many producers?
  5. How should a regulator like the CMA decide what price a firm with market power should be allowed to charge?
  6. Under what legislation did the CMA fine Pfizer and Flynn Pharma? What is the upper limit to the fine it is able to impose? Did it impose the maximum fine on Pfizer?
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Prosumers and a new ‘free’ market paradigm

Profits are maximised where marginal cost equals marginal revenue. And in a perfectly competitive market, where price equals marginal revenue, profits are maximised where marginal cost equals price. But what if marginal cost equals zero? Should the competitive profit-maximising firm give the product away? Or is there simply no opportunity for making a profit when there is a high degree of competition?

This is the dilemma considered in the articles linked below. According to Jeremy Rifkin, what we are seeing is the development of technologies that have indeed pushed marginal cost to zero, or close to it, in a large number of sectors of the economy. For example, information can be distributed over the Internet at little or no cost, other than the time of the distributor who is often willing to do this freely in a spirit of sharing. What many people are becoming, says Rifkin, are ‘prosumers’: producing, sharing and consuming.

Over the past decade millions of consumers have become prosumers, producing and sharing music, videos, news, and knowledge at near-zero marginal cost and nearly for free, shrinking revenues in the music, newspaper and book-publishing industries.

What was once confined to a limited number of industries – music, photography, news, publishing and entertainment – is now spreading.

A new economic paradigm – the collaborative commons – has leaped onto the world stage as a powerful challenger to the capitalist market.

A growing legion of prosumers is producing and sharing information, not only knowledge, news and entertainment, but also renewable energy, 3D printed products and online college courses at near-zero marginal cost on the collaborative commons. They are even sharing cars, homes, clothes and tools, entirely bypassing the conventional capitalist market.

So is a collaborative commons a new paradigm that can replace capitalism in a large number of sectors? Are we gradually becoming sharers? And elsewhere, are we becoming swappers?

Articles
Capitalism is making way for the age of free The Guardian, Jeremy Rifkin (31/3/14)
The End of the Capitalist Era, and What Comes Next Huffington Post, Jeremy Rifkin (1/4/14)
Has the Post-Capitalist Economy Finally Arrived? Working Knowledge, James Heskett (2/4/14)

Questions

  1. In what aspects of your life are you a prosumer? Is this type of behaviour typical of what has always gone on in families and society?
  2. If marginal cost is zero, why may average cost be well above zero? Illustrate with a diagram.
  3. Could a monopolist make a profit if marginal cost was zero? Again, illustrate with a diagram.
  4. Is it desirable for there to be temporary monopoly profits for inventors of new products and services?
  5. What is meant by a ‘collaborative commons’? Do you participate in such a commons and, if so, how and why?
  6. Should tweets and Facebook posts be regarded as output?
  7. What is meant by an internet-of-things infrastructure?
  8. What are the incentives for authors to contribute to Wikipedia?
  9. Could marginal cost ever be zero for new physical products?
  10. Think about the things you buy in the supermarket. Could any of these be produced at zero marginal cost?
  11. How can capitalists make profits as ‘aggregators of network services and solutions’?
  12. Provide a critique of Rifkin’s arguments.
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Maximum prices – the problem’s in the detail

A remarkable event took place in Venezuela on Friday 8th November. Soldiers, on the orders of the president, temporarily occupied a chain of shops run by a leading electrical retailer called Dakar. The shops were forced to cut the prices of their electrical appliances and five managers were arrested and accused of ‘hiking up’ prices.

Unsurprisingly, news of these lower prices spread very quickly and long queues rapidly appeared outside the stores as people hoped to buy plasma televisions, fridges and washing machines at bargain prices. On Sunday 9th November, the president, Nicolas Maduro, gave a televised address in which he condemned the owners of the stores and announced that he was going to ask the National Assembly to grant him extra powers so that he could extend price controls to all consumer goods. He stated that he would next turn his attention to stores selling toys, cars, textiles and shoes.

The use of price controls in Venezuela is not new and dates back to 2003 when they were first introduced by the then president Hugo Chavez. Initially the regulations were imposed on various foods and basic goods. For example, by 2009 maximum prices had been set for cooking oil, white rice, sugar, coffee, flour, margarine, pasta and cheese. Businesses often complained that the maximum prices set by the government were below the costs of production. For example after a maximum price of 2.15 Bolivares was placed on a kilo of rice, producers argued that the cost of producing a kilo of rice was 4.41 Bolivares.

The impact of the maximum prices in Venezuela appears to have been exactly what the theories in the economics textbooks would have predicted – shortages, long queues of people waiting outside shops and a flourishing black market. An article on the shortage of toilet rolls has been discussed in a previous article on this news site: Shortages in Venezuela- what’s the solution? However this has not stopped the Venezuelan government extending the scheme and increasing the number of products that have maximum prices imposed on them. In 2011 Hugo Chavez argued that the policy was required because:

The market has…become a perverse mechanism where big monopolies, the big trans-nationals and the bourgeoise dominate and ransack the people.

Economics textbooks often include some analysis of the impact of price ceilings on a competitive market. The effects on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare are usually discussed. However the potential administrative costs are rarely considered. The Venezuelan case helps to illustrate how in practise these costs could be quite significant.

For example, in April 2012 price controls in Venezuela were extended to a range of 19 products including fruit juice, toilet paper, nappies, soap, detergent, deodorant, toothpaste, baby food, floor polish, mineral water and razor blades. This caused a reduction in prices of between 4% and 25%. However this did not simply mean setting 19 different maximum prices because the goods were all sold in different quantities or different package sizes. For example a tube of toothpaste could be purchased in 4 different sizes – 50ml, 75ml, 100ml and 150 ml. Therefore officials had to set 4 different figures. Nappies were sold in 12 different package sizes ranging from10 nappies/packet to78 nappies/packet. Once again this meant that the administrators had to set 10 different maximum prices just for nappies. In total across the 19 products government officials had to set prices for 616 different individual items!! Companies were given just one month to adjust to the new legislation.

Whenever maximum prices are imposed on a competitive market both frustrated buyers and sellers have an incentive to evade them and trade illegally. Therefore the government established a number of organisations in an attempt to make sure the prices were enforced. One agency is called The National Superintendency of Fair Costs and Prices or Sundecop. Officials from this agency were sent out to 82 retail outlets in April 2012 to try to make sure that firms were sticking to the new regulated prices. They also printed and handed out leaflets to the public informing them of the changes. Another agency is called ‘The Institute for the Defense of People’s Access to Goods and Services’ or ‘Indepabis’. This organisation launched a new strategy in June 2012 in order to monitor compliance. This included the creation of a network called the Friends of Indepabis which would act as an information point for members of the public to report illegal pricing. A new complaints phone line was also introduced.

If president Maduro is granted the power to extend maximum prices to all consumer products, then one can only begin to imagine the extra administrative costs involved with implementing the policy.

Venezuelan president Maduro ‘to expand price controls’ BBC News (11/11/13)
Venezuela sends in troops to force electronics chain to charge ‘fair’ prices NBC News (13/11/13)
Venezuela appliances crackdown spurs uncertainty ABC news (13/11/13)
Venezuela’s government seizes electronic goods shops BBC News (9/11/13)
Venezuelan government sends TROOPS into electronics chain to force them to sell goods at a “fair price” DailyMirror (10/11/13)
Shocher: Price Controls Lead to Shortages in Venezuela Free Advice, Robert Murphy (2/10/13)
Venezuelan Government Action against Overpricing Welcomed by Citizens, Manipulated by Media venezuelanalysis (12/11/13).

Questions

  1. Explain why a maximum price imposed on a competitive market might generate a shortage. Draw a diagram to illustrate and explain your answer.
  2. Are there any circumstances when a maximum price would not cause a shortage in a competitive market?
  3. Analyse the impact of a maximum price on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare loss. Assume the market is competitive and clearly state any other assumptions you have made in your analysis. Comment on the impact of the price ceiling on economic efficiency.
  4. Illustrate and explain what would happen to consumer surplus and deadweight welfare loss if the available goods for sale were only purchased by the consumers with the lowest willingness to pay.
  5. Why might a maximum price lead to a flourishing black market?
  6. The former president, Hugo Chavez, argued that the price regulations were required because “big monopolies… ransack the people”. Using economic theory discuss this statement. Examine the impact of a maximum price on a pure monopoly.
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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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Abuse of power

EDF, one of the big six energy retailers in the UK, has agreed to pay out a record £4.5m. £1m of this will go to funding an energy advice centre; the rest will go to providing £50 each to 70,000 ‘vulnerable customers’ who struggle to pay their bills and who receive the government’s warm home discount.

The agreement was made with Ofgem after an investigation into mis-selling, both on the doorstep and over the phone. Customers were persuaded to switch energy suppliers with the promise of savings on their bills. As the FT articles states:

Ofgem found that EDF’s sales force did not always provide complete information to customers on some contract terms, or on the way in which their monthly direct debits had been calculated. In some cases, telesales agents claimed savings without knowing whether they were accurate for the specific customer on the call, the regulator said.

Ofgem did not accuse the company of directly sanctioning such practices, but rather of weak monitoring and control of its sales force’s actions.

The £4.5m payment is in lieu of a fine. Consumer groups have welcomed this, preferring the company to pay compensation to a fine, which would have simply increased Treasury funding.

It is the first settlement in a broader investigation into mis-selling, involving four of the six major suppliers.

Articles
EDF to pay out £4.5m in mis-selling case Financial Times, Guy Chazan and Hannah Kuchler (9/3/12)
EDF agrees to pay £4.5m misleading sales ‘fine’ Guardian, Lisa Bachelor (9/3/12)
Is it a fine? Is it a penalty? No, it’s EDF’s mystery Ofgem payment Management Today, Rebecca Burn-Callander (9/3/12)
‘Misleading claims’ cost EDF a £4.5m payout from watchdog , Independent, Tom Bawden (10/3/12)
EDF Energy agrees to pay a £4.5m ‘fine’ BBC News (9/3/12)
EDF Energy agrees to pay a £4.5m ‘fine’ BBC News, John Moylan (9/3/12)
More energy payouts could follow EDF’s £4.5m The Telegraph, Kara Gammell (9/3/12)

Ofgem ruling
EDF energy agrees to invest £4.5 million to help vulnerable customers following Ofgem investigation Ofgem

Questions

  1. What types of market failure are present in the energy supply industry?
  2. What are the arguments for and against fines being paid directly to victims of crime rather than to the government?
  3. In what ways could the energy industry be made more competitive?
  4. Why do the utilities, such as gas, electricity and water, require their own regulator rather than simply being subject to competition law?
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A faster spread of super-fast

Ofcom, the communications regulator, is keen to encourage the spread of super-fast broadband through investment in fibre-optic cabling. So far, super-fast broadband is available to around 46 per cent of the UK population. Both Virgin Media (formerly Telewest and NTL) and BT have invested in fibre optic cables, but Ofcom is keen to extend the use to rival companies.

It proposes two methods: the first is to give competitors access to BT’s cables; the second is to allow competitors to install their own cables using BT’s ducts and telegraph poles. In both cases BT would charge companies to use its infrastructure and would be free to set prices so as to ensure a ‘fair rate of return’.

The articles below consider this ‘solution’ and its likely success in developing competition in the super-fast broadband market through competition, or whether BT’s and Virgin’s market dominance will continue to the detriment of consumers. You can also find links below to the Ofcom report and summaries

Articles
BT welcomes Ofcom’s fibre access plans Reuters, Kate Holton (23/3/10)
Ofcom to encourage super-fast broadband Business Financial Newswire (23/3/10)
Ofcom tells BT to open its fibre network ShareCast (23/3/10)
Ofcom wants BT to open up infrastructure Financial Times, Philip Stafford (23/3/10)
Ofcom push to give broadband rivals access to BT tunnels Financial Times, Tim Bradshaw and Andrew Parker (23/3/10)
BT UK Pushes Ofcom to Open Virgin Medias Broadband Cable Ducts SamKnows, Phil Thompson (23/3/10)
BT welcomes Ofcom’s fibre access plans ISPreview, MarkJ (8/3/10)

Report and summaries
Summary: Enabling a super-fast broadband Britain Ofcom (23/3/10)
Review of the wholesale local access market: full document Ofcom (23/3/10)
Review of the wholesale local access market: summary Ofcom (23/3/10)

Questions

  1. What forms does competition take in the broadband market?
  2. What are the barriers to entry to the super-fast broadband market?
  3. Are fibre-optic networks a natural monopoly? Explain the significance of your answer for competition in the super-fast broadband market.
  4. Will Ofcom’s desire for BT to get a fair return on its wholesale pricing of access to its cabling, ducts and telegraph poles be sufficient to ensure effective competition and that profits are not excessive?
  5. Explain whether it would be in consumers’ interests for competitors to be given access to Virgin’s cables and ducts.
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Searching questions for Google

The European Commission has received three complaints against Google for anti-competitive practices. The complainants are Microsoft’s Ciao, UK price comparison site Foundem and French legal search engine ejustice.fr

“The Commission has not opened a formal investigation for the time being. As is usual when the Commission receives complaints, it informed Google earlier this month and asked the company to comment on the allegations. The Commission closely cooperates with the national competition authorities. No further information can be given at this stage.”

Although the complaints are different (see articles below), the common feature is that Google has used its dominant market position to the detriment of competitors and consumers. Not surprisingly, Google has vigorously defended itself against the accusations.

So just what is the case against Google? Are the complaints justified, or are they merely competitors whinging about their relative lack of success? The following articles look at the facts and the issues.

EU launches antitrust inquiry into Google ‘dominance’ Times Online, Mike Harvey (24/2/10)
Google Says It Faces Competition Complaints in Europe BusinessWeek, Brian Womack and Joseph Galante (24/2/10)
Google faces anti-monopoly probe by European Commission Guardian, Andrew Clark (24/2/10)
Why Europe could prove Google’s undoing Guardian, Bobbie Johnson (24/2/10)
Analysis: not evil? Are you sure? Times Online, Mike Harvey (24/2/10)
Google faces Brussels antitrust scrutiny Financial Times, Richard Waters and Nikki Tait (24/2/10)
EU Opens Antitrust Investigation Into Google. Microsoft’s Fingerprints Are Everywhere. Washington Post, MG Siegler (23/2/10)
Google Hit With Antitrust Probe in Europe PC World, James Niccolai (23/2/10)
Is Redmond The Puppet Master In Google EU Anti-Trust Investigation? search engine land, Greg Sterling (23/2/10)
Google Under Investigation by European Union PCMag, Mark Hachman (24/2/10)
EU inquiry points the searchlight on Google’s methods Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (24/2/10)
Google under investigation for alleged breach of EU competition rules Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (24/2/10)

Questions

  1. What is the case against Google? Does this make it in breach of EU competition law?
  2. Assess Google’s response.
  3. Is Google “doing anything to choke off competition or hurt our users and partners”?
  4. How could competition be increased for Google? Is this likely to happen?
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Bitter sweet

Kraft was seeking to take over Cadbury since September 2009, (see Cadbury: Chocolate all change and A Krafty approach to Cadbury). But the Cadbury board had rejected previous bids as being too low. The September bid, for example, was valued at £10.2bn. On 19 January 2010, however, after heated negotiations the board accepted the latest offer by Kraft valued at £11.5bn ($19bn).

But is the deal good news? Or will what is sweet for senior management and the financial institutions which brokered the deal be dark bitter news for the main stakeholders – consumers, workers and shareholders? The following articles explore the issues.

Cadbury battle ends with midnight handshake Financial Times, Lina Saigol (19/1/10)
Cadbury takeover: a crafty bit of business or an overpriced confection? Telegraph, Jonathan Sibun (20/1/10)
Cadbury’s sweet City deal leaves a bitter taste in Bournville Guardian, Heather Stewart and Nick Mathiason (19/1/10)
Thousands of Cadbury jobs under threat as Kraft swallows a British icon (including video) Times Online, Helen Nugent and Catherine Boyle (20/1/10)
Cadbury deal ‘the price of globalisation’ Financial Times, Jenny Wiggins and Jonathan Guthrie (19/1/10)
Cadbury sale ‘right thing to do’ FT video (19/1/10)
Bitterness as Kraft wins Cadbury Independent, Nick Clark (20/1/10)
The winners: Management duo in line for bumper pay packet from takeover deal Independent, Nick Clark (20/1/10)
Kraft came hunting in the only country that would sell – Britain Independent, James Moore (20/1/10)
Kraft’s takeover leaves a bitter taste in the mouth Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (19/1/10)
A sweet deal – or a takeover that is hard to swallow? Independent, Hamish McRae (20/1/10)
Cadbury: banks are the real winners BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (20/1/10)
Warren Buffett blasts Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury Guardian, Graeme Wearden (20/1/10)
Cadbury says job cuts inevitable after Kraft takeover (including videos) BBC News (19/1/10)
Cadbury and the open market theory: they’d better be right Guardian blog, Michael White (20/1/10)
The Business: Bonus season and the Cadbury takeover Guardian podcast, Aditya Chakrabortty
How did Quakers conquer the British sweet shop? BBC News Magazine, Peter Jackson (20/1/10)
Why Kraft must keep organic cacao farmers sweet Guardian blog, Craig Sams (20/1/10)

Questions

  1. What were the incentives for the Cadbury board to accept the proposed offer by Kraft?
  2. Do such incentives lead to the efficient operation of markets?
  3. Explain what is meant by ‘competition for corporate control’. To what extent is such competition in the interests of consumers?
  4. What economies or diseconomies of scale are likely to result from the takeover? What will determine the extent to which changes in costs are passed on to the consumer?
  5. How will the following stakeholders fare from the takeover, both in the short run and in the long run: (a) consumers; (b) workers; (c) shareholders?
  6. Examine Warren Buffet’s arguments for rejecting the deal.
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Monopoly power?

Is the power supply industry a cartel? Are the energy companies exploiting a position of market dominance to increase profits at the expense of consumers? At first sight, it would certainly seem so. Despite falling wholesale prices for gas and electricity, the six main power suppliers have not reduced prices to their customers. The result has been a substantial rise in profits. Over the past three years, the average annual gross profit for supplying each dual-fuel customer has been £110. The figure has now risen to £170, a rise of 55%. This is likely to rise further in the short term with further reductions in wholesale energy prices over the next few weeks.

But despite this large increase in profits, the power companies are considering increasing prices this coming winter if wholesale energy prices start to rise again, even though the expected wholesale price rise would still leave them with a gross profit of £140 per dual-fuel customer.

Ofgem, the gas and electricity industry regulator, wrote to the six main companies asking them to explain their pricing position. You can read Ofgem’s report from the link below. In it, Ofgem argues that there is scope for the companies to cut their prices. But Ofgem no longer has the power to cap prices: in 2002 the RPI-X system of price cap regulation was abandoned, since it was felt that there was enough competition between suppliers not to warrant price regulation.The articles below consider the question of whether the companies are justified in their pricing policy or whether they are exploiting their market power to make excessive profits.

No energy cuts despite huge profits (video) Channel 4 News (18/9/09)
Energy bills may rise despite wholesale price drop Times Online (19/9/09)
Where is the will to power? Times Online (19/9/09)
Energy bills set to rise further, companies warn Guardian (18/9/09)
Energy bills ‘unlikely to fall’ BBC News (18/9/09)
Bills face a power surge (Douglas Fraser’s Ledger) BBC News (18/9/09)
An Electricity and Gas Price Cartel? Why Ofgem Can’t Tell iStockAnalyst (17/9/09)

Evidence from Ofgem:
Ofgem’s letter to the six main suppliers and their responses to Ofgem can be read here
Ofgem’s findings can be read in Quarterly Wholesale / Retail Price Report – August 2009
Ofgem Factsheet: Household energy bills explained

Questions

  1. Assess the justification by the power companies for not reducing the price of gas and electricity to their customers.
  2. Explain what is meant by ‘hedging’ in the context of the purchase of gas and electricity.
  3. The power suppliers are an oligopoly. If there is collusion between them, what form does it take? Why is it very hard to find evidence of collusion?
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To share or not to share? – that is the question for competition authorities

Competition authorities in the USA and Europe tend to have a different approach to firms that have a dominant market position by virtue of their ownership of specific intellectual property, such as software codes. Thus companies such as Microsoft can exploit network economies, thereby making it hard for rival firms to compete. After all, if most people use Windows, there is an incentive to keep using it so as to be compatible with other users. Similar arguments apply to the ownership of physical property, such as ports, airports, railways and power lines, where the owners may choose to deny access to competitors.

So should companies such as Microsoft grant rivals access to their intellectual property? Would such access increase competition, or would it be a disincentive for rivals to innovate? The following article from The Economist considers the issue and refers to a recent paper by Sir John Vickers, former head of the Office of Fair Trading and now Warden of All Souls College, Oxford and President of the Royal Economic Society. He argues for a mid-way course between Europe and America – more interventionist than in the USA, but less rigidly regulated than in the EU.

What’s mine is yours The Economist (28/5/09)
Competition Policy and Property Rights, John Vickers Oxford University , Department of Economics, Discussion Paper Series (26/5/09)
See also
‘Intel inside’ could be outside the law

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘network economies’ and give some examples.
  2. What are the arguments for and against requiring companies to give rivals access to their intellectual property?
  3. If companies are required by the competition authorities to give others access to their intellectual property, should they be allowed to charge their rivals for using such property, and, if so, how would the authorities determine the appropriate amount?
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