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Posts Tagged ‘oligopoly’

An energy price cap – a sensible response to a market imperfection?

Following concerns about the market power of the Big Six energy suppliers in the UK and high prices for gas and electricity, the industry regulator, Ofgem, referred the industry to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in June 2014. The CMA published its final report in June 2016. This argued that while there was sufficient potential for competition, consumers nevertheless needed further encouragement to switch suppliers. This would strengthen competition in the market.

To encourage switching, the CMA proposed the creation of a database that would include the details of customers who have been on a supplier’s standard variable tariff (SVT) for three or more years. Competitor energy suppliers would have access to this database to offer better deals for these customers.

There had already been calls for price caps to be imposed on suppliers. For example, in the run-up to the 2015 general election, the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, proposed imposing a price freeze. This was criticised by the Conservatives for being too anti-market, that it would encourage energy companies to raise prices prior to the freeze and that it would be of no benefit in times of falling wholesale energy prices (which was the position in 2015).

Indeed, in its 2016 report, the CMA recommended price caps only for the 16% of people on prepayment meters and these would be variable caps not freezes. This was followed in February 2017, by Ofgem’s announcement that a temporary price cap for such customers would come into effect in April 2017. The level of the cap would vary by meter type and region. It would also be reviewed every six months to reflect changes in costs and remain in place until 2020. There would be no cap on other customers.

But in the run-up to the 2017 election, the Conservatives announced that they would, after all, introduce a price cap on SVTs – 66% of customers are on such tariffs. Before the details were announced, there was much speculation as to what form such a cap would take? It would not be a simple freeze. But there was debate as to whether caps would vary with wholesale costs or whether they would be relative to the company’s lowest tariffs or to those of its rivals.

As it turned out, the proposal was for a cap on standard variable tariffs. It would be set by Ofgem and reviewed every six months. The cap would be based on the cheapest standard variable tariffs in each part of the UK, taking into account the variable costs for transporting energy there. Ofgem will adjust the cap every six months to reflect changes in the wholesale cost of energy.

Articles before details were anniunced
U.K. Energy Industry Faults May’s Election Pledge to Cap Prices Bloomberg, Rakteem Katakey (23/4/17)
Conservatives promise to cap prices in UK energy market Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (23/4/17)
How might an energy price cap work? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/4/17)
UK government vows strong action to rein in energy companies The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (19/4/17)
Energy bills: what’s the difference between Tory cap and Miliband freeze? The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (23/4/17)
Capping energy prices? Still a bad idea Adam Smith Institute blogs, Sam Dumitriu (25/4/17)
Bulb becomes ‘first’ provider to cut energy prices this year Moneywise (24/4/17)
Experts slam Conservative plans to cap energy bills as ‘clumsy and counterproductive’ The Telegraph, Lauren Davidson (23/4/17)
Capping energy tariffs isn’t a one-way ticket to Venezuelan-style economic ruin Independent, Ben Chu (25/4/17)

Articles after details were anniunced
Conservatives defend plans to cap UK energy bills Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (9/5/17)
What is the energy price cap – and what does it mean for bills? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
The new energy price cap con? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
May defends plan to cap ‘rip-off energy bills’ BBC News (9/5/17)
Q&A: The Tory plan to cap energy prices BBC News, Brian Milligan (9/5/17)
Energy prices could still go up under Theresa May’s price cap plans, admits Business Secretary Greg Clark Independent, Rob Merrick (9/5/17)
Tory claims over energy price cap are just hot air The Guardian, Nils Pratley (9/5/17)

Video and audio
UK government energy price cap ‘sheer politics’: Bernstein CNBC, Deepa Venkateswaran and Andrew Sentance (25/4/17)
Energy UK: price cap could backfire Sky News, Lawrence Slade (24/4/17)
Scottish Power: Capping prices ‘damages customers’ BBC News, Keith Anderson (24/4/17)
Tories to pledge energy bill cap BBC News, Michael Fallon (24/4/17)
Tories: Energy cap will protect vulnerable people BBC Today Programme, Business Secretary Greg Clark (9/5/17)
Energy cap: good or bad for consumers? Sky News, Stephen Fitzpatrick and James Kirkup (9/5/17)

Questions

  1. What scope is there for tacit collusion between the Big Six energy suppliers?
  2. What is meant by the RPI–X price cap? How does it differ from proposals being considered by the government?
  3. Why are people often reluctant to switch energy supplier?
  4. How could people be encouraged to switch supplier?
  5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing a price cap for SVTs (a) relative to costs; (b) relative to lower-priced tariffs?
  6. Comment on Centrica’s chief executive officer Iain Conn’s statement that “price regulation will result in reduced competition and choice, and potentially impact customer service”.
  7. Comment on the statement by Lawrence Slade, chief executive officer of Energy UK, that intervention would create “huge uncertainty around government intentions, potentially putting at risk the billions in investment and jobs needed to renew our energy system”.
  8. Would an announcement of the introduction of a price cap in the near future necessarily encourage energy companies to raise their price now?
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Up in the cloud

Cloud computing is growing rapidly and has started to dominate many parts of the IT market. Cloud revenues are rising at around 25% per year and, according to Jeremy Duke of Synergy Research Group:

“Major barriers to cloud adoption are now almost a thing of the past, especially on the public-cloud side. Cloud technologies are now generating massive revenues for technology vendors and cloud service providers, and yet there are still many years of strong growth ahead.”

The market leader in cloud services (as opposed to cloud hardware) is Amazon Web Services (AWS), a subsidiary of Amazon. At the end of 2016, it had a market share of around 40%, larger than the next three competitors (Microsoft, Google and IBM), combined. AWS originated cloud computing some 10 years ago. It is set to have generated revenue of $13 billion in 2016.

The cloud computing services market is an oligopoly, with a significant market leader, AWS. But is the competition from other players in the market, including IT giants, such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, enough to guarantee that the market stays competitive and that prices will fall as technology improves and costs fall?

Certainly all the major players are investing heavily in new services, better infrastructure and marketing. And they are already established suppliers in other sectors of the IT market. Microsoft and Google, in particular, are strong contenders to AWS. Nevertheless, as the first article states:

Neither Google nor Microsoft have an easy task since AWS will continue to be an innovation machine with a widely recognized brand among the all-important developer community. Both Amazon’s major competitors have an opportunity to solidify themselves as strong alternatives in what is turning into a public cloud oligopoly.

Articles
While Amazon dominates cloud infrastructure, an oligopoly is emerging. Which will buyers bet on? diginomica, Kurt Marko (16/2/17)
Study: AWS has 45% share of public cloud infrastructure market — more than Microsoft, Google, IBM combined GeekWire, Dan Richman (31/10/16)
Cloud computing revenues jumped 25% in 2016, with strong growth ahead, researcher says GeekWire, Dan Richman (4/1/17)

Data
Press releases Synergy Research Group

Questions

  1. Distinguish the different segments of the cloud computing market.
  2. What competitive advantages does AWS have over its major rivals?
  3. What specific advantages does Microsoft have in the cloud computing market?
  4. Is the amount of competition in the cloud computing market enough to prevent the firms from charging excessive prices to their customers? How might you assess what is ‘excessive’?
  5. What barriers to entry are there in the cloud computing market? Should they be a worry for competition authorities?
  6. Are the any network economies in cloud computing? What might they be?
  7. Cloud computing is a rapidly developing industry (for example, the relatively recent development of cloud containers). How does the speed of development impact on competition?
  8. How would market saturation affect competition and the behaviour of the major players?
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A lorry load of fines

Record fines have been imposed by the European Commission for the operation of a cartel. Truck makers, Volvo/Renault, Daimler, Iveco and DAF have been fined a total of €2.93bn. The fines were considerably higher than the previous record fine of €1.7bn on banks for rigging the LIBOR rate.

Along with MAN, they were found to have colluded for 14 years over pricing. They also colluded in passing on to customers the costs of compliance with stricter emissions rules. Together these five manufacturers account for some 90% of medium and heavy lorries produced in Europe.

The companies have admitted their involvement in the cartel. If they had not, the fines might have been higher. MAN escaped a fine of €1.2bn as it had revealed the existence of the cartel to the Commission.

A sixth company, Scania, is still in dispute with the Commission over its involvement. Thus the final total of fines could be higher when Scania’s case is settled.

In addition, any person or firm adversely affected by the cartel can seek damages from any of the companies in the national courts of member states. They do not have to prove that there was a cartel.

The Commission hopes that the size of the fine will act as a disincentive for other firms to form a cartel. ‘We have, today, put down a marker by imposing record fines for a serious infringement,’ said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner.

Also, by being able to exempt a cartel member (MAN in this case) from a fine if it ‘blows the whistle’ to the authorities, it will help to break existing cartels.

There are some other major possible cartels and cases of abuse of market power currently being considered by the Commission. These include Google and whether unfair tax breaks were given to Apple and Amazon by Ireland and Luxembourg respectively.

Articles
Price-Fixing Truck Makers Get Record E.U. Fine: $3.2 Billion New York Times, James Kanter (19/7/16)
Truckmakers Get Record $3.23 Billion EU Fine for Cartel Bloomberg, Aoife White (19/6/16)
EU fines truckmakers a record €2.93bn for running 14-year cartel Financial Times, Peter Campbell, Duncan Robinson and Alex Barker (19/7/16)
Truckmakers fined by Brussels for price collusion The Guardian, Sean Farrell (19/7/16)

Europa Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines truck producers € 2.93 billion for participating in a cartel European Commission (19/7/16)

Information
Competition DG European Commission

Questions

  1. How have the various stakeholders in the truck manufacturing industry been affected by the operation of the cartel?
  2. What incentive effects are there, (a) for existing cartel members and (b) for firms thinking of forming a cartel, in the fining system used by the European Commission?
  3. Unlike the USA, the EU cannot jail managers for oligopolistic collusion. Compare the relative effectiveness of large fines and jail sentences in deterring cartels.
  4. What determines the profit-maximising price(s) for a cartel?
  5. Apart from the threat of action by the competition authorities, what determines the likely success of a cartel in being able to fix prices?
  6. Choose two other cases of possible cartels or the abuse of market power being examined by the European Commission. What is the nature of the suspected abuse?
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Is a competitive market the wrong model for analysing capitalism?

In the following article, Joseph Stiglitz argues that power rather than competition is a better starting point for analysing the working of capitalism. People’s rewards depend less on their marginal product than on their power over labour or capital (or lack of it).

As inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works.

Thus the huge bonuses, often of millions of pounds per year, paid to many CEOs and other senior executives, are more a reflection of their power to set their bonuses, rather than of their contribution to their firms’ profitability. And these excessive rewards are not competed away.

Stiglitz examines how changes in technology and economic structure have led to the increase in power. Firms are more able to erect barriers to entry; network economies give advantages to incumbents; many firms, such as banks, are able to lobby governments to protect their market position; and many governments allow powerful vested interests to remain unchecked in the mistaken belief that market forces will provide the brakes on the accumulation and abuse of power. Monopoly profits persist and there is too little competition to erode them. Inequality deepens.

According to Stiglitz, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears if markets are based on entrenched power and exploitation.

Article
Monopoly’s New Era Chazen Global Insights, Columbia Business School, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/16)

Questions

  1. What are the barriers to entry that allow rewards for senior executives to grow more rapidly than median wages?
  2. What part have changes in technology played in the increase in inequality?
  3. How are the rewards to senior executives determined?
  4. Provide a critique of Stiglitz’ analysis from the perspective of a proponent of laissez-faire.
  5. If Stiglitz analysis is correct, what policy implications follow from it?
  6. How might markets which are currently dominated by big business be made more competitive?
  7. T0 what extent have the developments outlined by Stiglitz been helped or hindered by globalisation?
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Energising the energy market

In June 2014, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (which governs the energy regulator, Ofgem) referred Great Britain’s retail and wholesale gas and electricity markets to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The market is dominated by the ‘big six‘ energy companies (British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE) and Ofgem suspected that this oligopoly was distorting competition and leading to higher prices.

The CMA presented its report on 10 March 2016. It confirmed its preliminary findings of July and December 2015 “that there are features of the markets for the supply of energy in Great Britain that result in an adverse effect on competition”. It concludes that “the average customer could save over £300 by switching to a cheaper deal” and that “customers could have been paying about £1.7 billion a year more than they would in a competitive market”.

It made various recommendations to address the problem. These include “requiring the largest suppliers to provide fuller information on their financial performance” and strengthening the role of Ofgem.

Also the CMA wants to encourage more people to switch to cheaper suppliers. At present, some 70% of the customers of the big six are on default standard variable tariffs, which are more expensive than other tariffs available. To address this problem, the CMA proposes the setting up of “an Ofgem-controlled database which will allow rival suppliers to contact domestic and microbusiness customers who have been stuck on their supplier’s default tariff for 3 years or more with better deals.”

Another area of concern for the CMA is the 4 million people (16% of customers) forced to have pre-payment meters. These tend to be customers with poor credit records, who also tend to be on low incomes. Such customers are paying more for their gas and electricity and yet have little opportunity to switch to cheaper alternatives. For these customers the CMA proposed imposing transitional price controls from no later than April 2017 until 2020. These would cut typical bills by some £80 to £90 per year. In the meantime, the CMA would seek to remove “restrictions on the ability of new suppliers to compete for prepayment customers and reduce barriers such as debt issues that make it difficult for such customers to switch”.

Despite trying to address the problem of lack of competition, consumer inertia and barriers to entry, the CMA has been criticised for not going further. It has also been criticised for the method it has chosen to help consumers switch to cheaper alternative suppliers and tariffs. The articles below look at these criticisms.

Podcast
Competition and Markets Authority Energy Report BBC You and Yours (10/3/16)

Articles
Millions could see cut in energy bills BBC News (10/3/16)
Shake-up of energy market could save customers millions, watchdog says The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (10/3/16)
UK watchdog divided over energy market reforms Financial Times, Kiran Stacey (10/3/16)
How the CMA energy inquiry affects you Which? (10/3/16)
UK watchdog accused of bowing to pressure from ‘big six’ energy suppliers The Guardian, Terry Macalister (10/3/16)

CMA documents
CMA sets out energy market changes CMA press release (10/3/16)
Energy Market Investigation: Summary of provisional remedies Competition and Markets Authority (10/3/16)

Questions

  1. Find out the market share of the ‘big six’ and whether this has changed over the past few years.
  2. What, if any, are the barriers to entry in the gas and electricity retail markets?
  3. Why are the big six able to charge customers some £300 per household more than would be the case if they were on the cheapest deal?
  4. What criticisms have been made of the CMA’s proposals?
  5. Discuss alternative proposals to those of the CMA for dealing with the problem of excessive prices of gas and electricity.
  6. Should Ofgem or another independent not-for-profit body be allowed to run its own price comparison and switching service? Would this be better than the CMA’s proposal for allowing competitors access to people’s energy usage after 3 years of being with the same company on its standard tariff and allowing them to contact these people?
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A European cartel – fixing the price of car parts

The European Commission has recently carried out a number of investigations into the various sectors of the industry that supplies parts to car manufacturers. Firms have been found guilty of engaging in anti-competitive practices in the supply of bearings, wire harnesses and the foam used in car seats. The latest completed case relates to firms that supply alternators and starters – both important components in a car engine.

On January 27th the European Commission announced that it was imposing fines on some Japanese manufacturing companies. Melco (Mitsubishi Electric), Hitachi and Denso were found guilty of participating in a cartel between September 2004 and February 2010 that restricted competition in the supply alternators and starters to car manufacturers.

The Commission gathered evidence showing that senior managers in the three businesses held discussions about how to implement various anti-competitive practices. These either took place on the phone or at meetings in offices/restaurants. In particular the firms agreed:

to co-ordinate their responses to tenders issued by car manufacturers. This involved them agreeing on the price each firm would bid.
to exchange commercially sensitive information about pricing and marketing strategies.
which of them would supply each car manufacturer with alternators and starters.

These activities are in breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2009). The European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:

“Today’s decision sanctions three car part producers whose collusion affected component costs for a number of car manufacturers selling cars in Europe, and ultimately European consumers buying them. If European consumers are affected by a cartel, the Commission will investigate it even if the cartel meetings took place outside of Europe”

The fines imposed on the three businesses were as follows:

– Denso €0
– Hitachi €26 860 000
– Melco €110 929 000

How are these fines calculated? When calculating the size of the fine to impose on a firm the Commission takes into account a number of factors. These include:

the size of its annual sales affected by the anti-competitive activities.
its market share.
the geographical area of its sales.
how long it had taken part in the cartel.
whether it had previously been found guilty of engaging in anti-competitive practices.
if it initiated the cartel in the first place i.e. was it the ring leader?

In this particular case the size of the fine imposed on both Hitachi and Melco was increased because they had both previously been found guilty of breaking EU competition rules.

If a member of the cartel comes forward with information that helps the Commission with its investigation, a reduction in the size of the fine can be applied under a provision called a Leniency Notice (2006). Timing as well as the quality of the information provided influences the size of this reduction. For example, only the first firm to come forward with relevant information can receive a reduction of up to 100% i.e. obtain full immunity. This explains how Denso could be found guilty but not have to pay a fine. (This firm’s initial approach to the Commission actually triggered the investigation.) Any subsequent firms that come forward with information receive smaller fine reductions. Hitachi and Melco received reductions of 30% and 28% respectively.

If a firm accepts the Commission’s decision a further reduction of up to 10% can be applied. This is called a Settlement Notice (2008). All three firms were awarded the full 10% discount in this case.

The European Commission is currently investigating the behaviour of firms that supply car thermal systems, seatbelts and exhaust systems.

Articles
Car parts price-fixing fines for Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric BBC News 27/01/16
EU antitrust regulators to fine Japanese car part makers: sources Tech News 26/01/16
Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi get $150 EU cartel fine Bloomberg 27/01/16
EU fines Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi for car part cartel Reuters 27/1/16

Questions

  1. What market conditions would make the formation of a cartel more likely?
  2. Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of a profit maximising cartel agreement on the price, output and profit in an industry.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate the incentive that each firm has to cheat on an agreed cartel price and output.
  4. Why did the European Commission introduce Settlement Notices?
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Is ‘wet rent’ for publicans coming to an end?

Pubs are closing down in the UK at the rate of 29 per week. The total number has fallen from 67,000 in 1982 to approximately 52,000 this year. In response to this decline the government has recently announced some changes to the way the relationship between pub owners and their tenants are regulated.

The ownership of pubs in the UK changed dramatically after a report on the beer market was published by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) in 1989. When this investigation took place over 75% of the beer in the UK was produced by the six largest brewing businesses (Bass, Allied Lyons, Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread, Scottish and Newcastle, Courage) which owned over half the pubs. The nature of the relationship between these breweries and the landlords of the pubs they owned caused the greatest concerns.

Some pubs are run as managed houses. In this type of business relationship the person who manages and runs the pub (the publican) is a direct employee of the brewery. However, in many instances this is not the case. Instead they are independent entrepreneurs who enter into a tenancy agreement with the owner of the pub. In other words they rent the pub from the brewery and have some freedom over the way it is run including the setting of prices.

These arrangements have proved to be very controversial because of one particular aspect of many of the tenancy agreements – the exclusive supply contract. Known as the ‘tied lease model’, ‘beer tie’ or ‘wet rent’, it significantly reduces the freedom of publicans to run the business, as they have to purchase almost all their beverages from the brewery that owns the pub.

The MMC report in 1989 concluded that a significant reason for the increasing real price of beer was the market power exerted by the brewers through the tied lease model. It recommended that the number of pubs owned and operated by the brewers should be substantially reduced. Known as the ‘Beer Orders’, the brewers responded by gradually selling off 14,000 pubs. They also eventually sold the breweries to international rivals and companies such as Whitbread and Bass moved into the retail, leisure and hotel sectors. Whitbread currently owns Costa, Brewers Fayre and Premier Inn hotels while Bass, renamed Intercontinental Hotels Groups, owns both Crown Plaza and Holiday Inn hotels.

The beer tie between the pubs and the big national breweries might have disappeared but the tied lease arrangement still exists. Instead of being tied to national brewers, many publicans are tied to either smaller regional breweries, such as Everards and Adnams, or another type of business – the pub company known as ‘pubcos’. Some of the larger pubcos include Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns, Mitchells&Butlers and JD Weatherspoon. They negotiate deals with the breweries and then supply the beer to their pubs.

In 2014, The British Beer and Pub Association estimated that two-fifths of pubs in the UK were owned by pubcos, while another fifth were owned by regional breweries. In 2013, The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimated that 48 per cent of pubs in the UK had landlords who were tied to either a regional brewer or a pub company.

The ownership of pubs may have changed radically over the past 20 years but the tied lease system continues to be extremely controversial. The main argument against the system is that it leads to tied publicans having to pay significantly above free market prices for their beer. The pubcos accept this claim but maintain that, in return for being in a tied lease, the publican pays a lower rent and receives business support services.

Parliament passed the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act in March 2015 (see Part 4). This included provisions for the introduction of:

  a statutory Pubs Code to govern the relationship between the businesses that own the pubs and their tenants;
a new independent Adjudicator to enforce the code;
a Market Rent Only (MRO) option.

In October 2015 the government announced some proposals for how the MRO option could be implemented as part of its consultation process with the industry. These include giving the tied publican the right to ask for a rent assessment every five years or whenever the owner of the pub significantly changes the beer prices it charges the tenant. As part of this rent assessment the publican can take the option to switch to an MRO contract. This gives them the freedom to purchase beer from any supplier rather than being tied to those supplied by the owner of the pub.

Enterprise Inns, the largest pubco, operates nearly all of its pubs on the tied lease model. In response to the changes proposed by the Government, the company has announced plans significantly to increase the number of its directly managed pubs from just 16 to 800.

Could the tied lease system finally be about to end?

Articles
Enterprise Inns to grow pub numbers after death of the ‘beer tie’ The Telegraph, Ben Martin, and Peter Spence (12/05/15)
What is the ‘beer tie’ The Telegraph, Denise Roland (19/11/14)
Q&A: Calling time on the beer tie BBC News, Katie Hope (19/11/14)
Chin chin! Fair deal for pub tenants under a new beer tie crackdown City AM, Suzie Neuwirth (29/10/15)
Industry Reacts to New Statutory Pubs Code Eat Out, Nathan Pearce (29/10/15)
What does new pub code mean for the leased pubs? Burton Mail, Andrew Musgrove (04/11/15)

Questions

  1. What has happened to the big six national brewers which once dominated the beer industry in the UK?
  2. What factors have caused the decline in the number of pubs?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate the impact that the market power of the pubcos might have on the prices paid by publicans in a tied lease.
  4. Discuss some of the potential advantages of the tied lease model.
  5. The global brewers and pubcos might create a situation where market power exists in successive stages of the vertical supply chain. Analyse some of the potential implications of this structure and discuss the concept of double marginalisation.
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The student’s dilemma

A professor in the USA recently posed an interesting dilemma to students taking his psychology exam. At the end of the exam students were provided with a bonus question in order to gain extra credit. All they had to do was decided whether they would like two or six additional marks adding on to their final score. The twist was that if more than 10% of the class opted for an additional six marks then everyone would get nothing added on!

The professor had placed the students in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario. To see this consider an individual student weighing up which option to choose; if more than 90% of the class chose two additional marks, then this student is better off choosing six additional marks. Whereas if more than 90% of the class chose six additional marks, then this student is indifferent between the two options (the student will get no additional marks regardless of their choice). It follows that choosing six additional marks is a weakly dominant strategy.

In a similar fashion, in the classic prisoners setting keeping quiet is collectively better, however, each criminal has a strong individual incentive to confess. Likewise, in oligopoly markets the interdependence between firms results in a tension between cooperation and competition. Firms collectively benefit from keeping prices high, but an individual firm has an incentive to undercut its rivals and steal a large share of the market. A strong prediction when self-interested participants play the prisoner’s dilemma game just once and choose their strategies independently is therefore that the prisoners will confess to the crime and that firms will set low prices.

So did the US professor end up giving away many bonus marks? No, about 20% of the class opted for six additional marks and as a result all the students ended up with no extra marks. In fact, the professor claims to have been running the same experiment for the previous seven years and only once has he ended up giving away any bonus marks. On the one hand, this result is consistent with what is predicted in the prisoner’s dilemma game. However, running contrary to this is the fact that around 80% of the students opted for just two additional marks. It would certainly be interesting to see what would happen if in future years the professor relaxed the threshold above which all students get no extra marks.

UMD ‘tragedy of the commons’ tweet goes viral The Baltimore Sun, Quinn Kelley (09/07/15)
A professor tested the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ on his students by bribing them with extra credit points Tech Insider, Will Haskell (17/07/15)

Questions

  1. Draw the payoff matrix for the student’s dilemma.
  2. What are some of the possible explanations for around 80% of the class choosing two extra marks?
  3. How do you think the outcome of the game might have changed if students were allowed to communicate with each other before making their choice on the number of additional marks to ask for?
  4. How do you think student choices would change if the threshold above which all students get no extra marks was varied?
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The breakdown of oligopoly Down Under

Many of the major industries in Australia are oligopolies/oligopsonies. Examples include banking, telecoms, supermarkets, insurance and iron ore. The dominant firms in these markets have been accused of exploiting their market power, both in charging high prices to consumers and driving down the prices paid to suppliers. The result, it is claimed, is that they have been making excessive profits.

But things may be changing. With the rise of online trading, barriers to entry in these markets have been falling. Many of the new entrants are established firms in other countries and hence already have economies of scale.

The first article below examines the challenge to established oligopolists in Australia.

Articles and blogs
The death of the oligopoly: Australia’s incumbents face new rivals Financial Review (Australia), Michael Smith (21/4/15)
Australian Oligopolies The Grapevine, Adam Dimech (27/12/14)

Paper
Breaking up Australia’s oligopolies Ashurst Australia (14/8/13)

Questions

  1. Find out which are the major firms in Australia in the five industries identified above. What is their market share and how has this been changing?
  2. What barriers to entry exist in each of these industries in Australia? To what extent have they been declining?
  3. What can new entrants do to overcome the barriers to entry?
  4. What technological developments allow other companies to challenge Foxtel’s pay television monopoly?
  5. To what extent are developments in the supermarket industry in Australia similar to those in the UK?
  6. To what extent does Australia benefit from increased globalisation?
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Do people have the energy to switch?

Over 90% of UK households buy their gas and electricity from one of the ‘big six’ energy suppliers – British Gas (Centrica), EDF, E.ON, npower (RWE), Scottish Power (Iberdrola) and SSE. The big six are currently being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for possible breach of a dominant market position.

An updated ‘issues statement‘ summarises the investigation group’s initial thinking based on the evidence it has received. In paragraph 16 it states:

Comparing all available domestic tariffs – including those offered by the independent suppliers – we calculate that, over the period Quarter 1 2012 to Quarter 2 2014, over 95% of the dual fuel customers of the Six Large Energy Firms could have saved by switching tariff and/or supplier and that the average saving available to these customers was between £158 and £234 a year (depending on the supplier).

Between 40% and 50% of customers have been with a supplier for more than 10 years. The companies are thus accused of exploiting these ‘loyalty’ customers, many of whom are too busy or ill-informed to switch to an alternative supplier. According to the uSwitch article below:

This is a particular issue for the most vulnerable of customers, including the elderly, who view switching as ‘impossible’.

But the elderly were not the only consumers losing out; the CMA found that those customers most likely to be on expensive standard tariffs were less educated, or on lower incomes, or single parents, and did not necessarily have access to the Internet.

And the problem of penalising ‘loyalty’ customers who do not shop around applies in other industries, most notably banking. People who regularly switch savings accounts can get higher interest rates, often for a temporary ‘introductory’ period. Similarly, people who regularly transfer credit card debt from one card to another can take advantage of low interest rate, or even zero interest rate, deals for an introductory period.

Returning to the energy industry. Is the problem one of oligopoly? Do the big six have too much market power and, if so, what can be done about it? Should they be split up? Should regulation be tightened? Should new entrants be encouraged and, if so, what specific measures can be taken? The following articles explore the issues and possible policies.

Articles
British energy customers missed out on savings Reuters, Nina Chestney (18/2/15)
U.K. Energy Customers Could Save by Shopping Around: CMA BloombergBusiness, Aoife White (18/2/15)
Big six energy firms overcharging customers by up to £234 a year The Guardian, Sean Farrell (18/1/15)
Big six energy firms may lose quarter of customers by 2020, analysts warn The Guardian, Terry Macalister (1/10/14)
UK watchdog says big energy groups do not enjoy unfair advantage Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (18/2/15)
CMA energy market investigation update: millions are punished for being loyal uSwitch, Lauren Vasquez (19/2/15)
Gas and electricity bills – the key questions Channel 4 News (18/2/15)
Energy customers miss big savings, says CMA inquiry BBC News, John Moylan (18/2/15)
Big Six energy companies overcharging loyal customers by up to £234 a year says watchdog Independent, Simon Read (18/2/15)
Consumer groups demand change after ‘Big Six’ accused of penalising customers out of hundreds of pounds Independent, Simon Read (19/2/15)
Energy companies’ loyalty problem lights the way forward The Conversation, Bridget Woodman (19/2/15)

CMA press releases and reports
Energy market investigation – updated issues statement Competition and Markets Authority (18/2/15)
Energy market investigation Competition and Markets Authority (23/2/15)
Energy Market Investigation: Updated Issues Statement Competition and Markets Authority (18/2/15)

Questions

  1. What barriers to entry exist in the electricity and gas supply markets?
  2. Explain how the big six are practising price discrimination. What form does it take and how are the markets separated?
  3. Find out what tariffs are offered by each of the big six. When you have done so, reflect on how easy it was to find out the information and why so few customers switch.
  4. How could more people be encouraged to ‘shop around’ and switch energy suppliers?
  5. Explain the five theories of harm identified by the CMA. Would a rise in market share of the smaller energy suppliers adequately combat each of the five types of harm?
  6. In what ways may UK energy regulation be ‘a barrier to pro-competitive innovation and change’?
  7. What are the arguments for and against breaking up the big six?
  8. What are the arguments for and against electricity and gas price control?
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