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Posts Tagged ‘pricing’

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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When it’s a pain choosing the right painkiller

One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.

Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.

Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.

And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.

The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.

So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.

Articles
Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)

Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release
Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)

Questions

  1. Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
  2. What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
  3. How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
  4. Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
  5. If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
  6. What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
  7. Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’
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Wobbly answer to oligopoly

Virtually all manual toothbrushes sold in the UK are made by Oral B (Procter & Gamble), Colgate (Colgate-Palmolive) or Listerene Reach (Johnson & Johnson). This is a powerful oligopoly.

The manufacturers distribute toothbrushes primarily through large powerful retailers, such as supermarkets and Boots. It is difficult for new entrants to persuade these retailers to stock their product. What is more, with large advertising and marketing budgets, existing toothbrush manufacturers make it difficult for new brands to attract customers.

But one company has successfully entered the children’s section of the market when Boots agreed to stock its product. The Rockabilly Kids toothbrush has a feature likely to appeal to both children and their parents. It wobbles! With a weight in the bottom, the brush rights itself, with a wobble, when dropped or simply placed on the basin or shelf.

This clearly appeals to small kids. It also appeals to their parents who can do away with unhygienic toothbrush holders. What is more, the self-righting wobbly toothbrush, by making the whole process of teeth cleaning fun for young kids, can help them gain good habits of oral hygiene.

So just how did the manufacturer overcome the barriers to entry into this well-established oligopoly? The following article examines how.

Can ‘wobbly’ kids toothbrushes shake the Oral B/Colgate oligopoly? The Telegraph, Rebecca Burn-Callander (10/1/15)

Questions

  1. What barriers to entry exist in the manual toothbrush market?
  2. How did Hamish Khayat overcome these barriers?
  3. Why did he decide against a toothbrush subscription service?
  4. How would you decide whether £6.99 is the right price?
  5. Is it a good idea for him to diversify into electric kids toothbrushes?
  6. How are the big toothbrush manufacturers likely to respond to the expansion of Rockabilly Kids?
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The Big Six: for how much longer? (Elizabeth’s post)

The energy market is complex and is a prime example of an oligopoly: a few dominant firms in the market and interdependence between the suppliers. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the so-called ‘big six’ and collectively they generate 80% of the country’s electricity. There are two further large generators (Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK), meaning the electricity generation is also an oligopoly.

This sector has seen media attention for some years, with criticisms about the high profits made by suppliers, the high prices they charge and the lack of competition. Numerous investigations have taken place by Ofgem, the energy market regulator, and the latest development builds on a simple concept that has been a known problem for decades: barriers to entry. It is very difficult for new firms to enter this market, in particular because of the vertically integrated nature of the big six. Not only are they the suppliers of the energy, but they are also the energy generators. It is therefore very difficult for new suppliers to enter the market and access the energy that is generated.

Ofgem’s new plans will aim to reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus make it easier for new firms to enter and act as effective competitors. The big six energy generators are vertically integrated companies and thus effectively sell their energy to themselves, whereas other suppliers have to purchase their energy before they can sell it. The regulator’s plans aim to improve transparency by ensuring that wholesale power prices are published two years in advance, thus making it easier for smaller companies to buy energy and then re-sell it. Andrew Wright, the Chief Executive of Ofgem, said:

These reforms give independent suppliers, generators and new entrants to the market, both the visibility of prices, and [the] opportunities to trade, [that] they need to compete with the largest energy suppliers…Almost two million customers are with independent suppliers, and we expect these reforms to help these suppliers and any new entrants to grow.

Although such reforms will reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus should aim to increase competition and hence benefit consumers, many argue that the reforms don’t go far enough and will have only minor effects on the competitiveness in the market. There are still calls for further reforms in the market and a more in-depth investigation to ensure that consumers are really getting the best deal. The following articles consider this ongoing saga and this highly complex market.

Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big six accounts Telegraph, Denise Roland (27/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem force trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)
Ed Davey calls on Ofgem to investigate energy firms’ gas profits The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Jennifer Rankin (10/2/14)
UK forces big power companies to reveal wholesale prices Reuters (26/2/14)
Watchdog unveils new rules on Big six energy prices Independent, Tom Bawden (26/2/14)
Energy Bills: New rules to boost competition Sky News, (26/2/14)

Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of an oligopoly?
  2. Explain the reason why the vertically integrated nature of the big six energy companies creates a barrier to the entry of new firms.
  3. What are the barriers to entry in (a) the electricity supply market and (b) the electricity generating market?
  4. What action has Ofgem suggested to increase competition in the market? How effective are the proposals likely to be/
  5. Why is there a concern about liquidity in the market?
  6. If barriers to entry are reduced, how will this affect competition in the market? How will consumers be affected?
  7. Why are there suggestions that Ofgem’s proposals don’t go far enough?
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Tackling market power in the UK power industry

The UK electricity supply market is an oligopoly. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the ‘big six’: British Gas (Centrica), EDF Energy, E.ON, npower (RWE), Scottish Power (Iberdrola) and SSE. The big six also generate much of the electricity they supply; they are vertically integrated companies. Between them they generate nearly 80% of the country’s electricity. There are a further two large generators, Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK, making the generation industry an oligopoly of eight key players.

Ofgem, the energy market regulator, has just published a report on the wholesale electricity market, arguing that it is insufficiently liquid. This, argues the report, acts as a barrier to entry to competitor suppliers. It thus proposes measures to increase liquidity and thereby increase effective competition. Liquidity, according to the report, is:

… the ability to quickly buy or sell a commodity without causing a significant change in its price and without incurring significant transaction costs. It is a key feature of a well-functioning market. A liquid market can also be thought of as a ‘deep’ market where there are a number of prices quoted at which firms are prepared to trade a product. This gives firms confidence that they can trade when needed and will not move the price substantially when they do so.

A liquid wholesale electricity market ensures that electricity products are available to trade, and that their prices are robust. These products and price signals are important for electricity generators and suppliers, who need to trade to manage their risks. Liquidity in the wholesale electricity mark et therefore supports competition in generation and supply, which has benefits for consumers in terms of downward pressure on bills, better service and greater choice.

So how can liquidity be increased? Ofgem is proposing that the big six publish prices for two years ahead at which they are contracting to purchase electricity from generators in long-term contracts. These bilateral deals with generators are often with their own company’s generating arm. Publishing prices in this way will allow smaller suppliers to be able to seek out market opportunities. The generating companies will not be allowed to refuse to contract to supply smaller companies at the prices they are being forced to publish.

In addition, Ofgem is proposing that generators would have to sell 20% of output in the open market instead of through bilateral deals. As it is, however, some 30% of output is currently auctioned on the wholesale spot market (i.e. the market for immediate use).

But it is pricing transparency plus small suppliers being able to gain access to longer-term contracts that are the two key elements of the proposed reform.

Articles
UK utilities face having to disclose long-term deals Reuters, Karolin Schaps and Rosalba O’Brien (12/6/13)
Ofgem set to ‘break stranglehold’ in the energy market BBC News, John Moylan (12/6/13)
Ofgem plan ‘to end energy stranglehold’ BBC Today Programme, John Moylan and Ian Marlee (12/6/13)
Ofgem outlines proposals to ‘break stranglehold’ of big six energy suppliers on electricity market The Telegraph (12/6/13)
Ofgem widens investigation into alleged rigging of gas and power markets The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/6/13)
Ofgem moves to break stranglehold of ‘big six’ energy suppliers Financial Times, Guy Chazan (12/6/13)
Ofgem to crackdown on Big Six energy suppliers in bid to cut electricity prices Independent, Simon Read (12/6/13)

Reports and data
Opening up Electricity Market to Effective Competition Ofgem Press Release (12/6/13)
Wholesale power market liquidity: final proposals for a ‘Secure and Promote’ licence condition – Draft Impact Assessment Ofgem (12/6/13)
Electricity statistics Department of Energy & Climate Change
The Dirty Half Dozen Friends of the Earth (Oct 2011)

Questions

  1. What barriers to entry exist in (a) the wholesale and (b) the retail market for electricity?
  2. Distinguish between spot and forward markets. Why is competition in forward markets particularly important for small suppliers of electricity?
  3. How will ‘liquidity’ be increased by the measures Ofgem is proposing?
  4. To what extent does vertical integration in the energy industry benefit consumers of electricity?
  5. What is a price reporting agency (PRA)? What anti-competitive activities have been taking place in the short-term energy market and why may PRAs not be ‘fit for purpose’?
  6. Do you think that the measures Ofgem is proposing will ensure that the big generators trade fairly with small suppliers? Explain.
  7. What are the dangers in the proposals for the large generators?
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His Master’s Voice is fading

Comet, Peacocks, Woolworths, JJB, Jessops and now HMV – they all have one thing in common. The recession has hit them so hard that they entered administration. HMV is the latest high street retailer to bring in the administrators, despite insisting that it does have a future on the UK’s high streets. With debts of £176m and huge competition from online retailers, the future of HMV is very uncertain.

Over the past decades, companies such as Amazon, ebay, LoveFilm, Netflix and apple have emerged providing very stiff competition to the last remaining high street seller of music and DVDs. People have been turning more and more to the internet to do their shopping, with cheaper prices and greater choice. The speed of delivery, which in the past may have been a disadvantage of buying from somewhere like Amazon, is now barely an obstacle and these substitute companies have created a difficult environment for high street retailers to compete in. Despite going into administration, it’s not necessarily the end of the much-loved HMV. Its Chief Executive said:

We remain convinced we can find a successful business outcomes. We want to make sure it remains on the high street … We know our customers fell the same way.

While the recession has undoubtedly affected sales at HMV, is this the main reason for its demise or are other factors more relevant? As discussed, online retailers have taken over the DVD and music industry and with downloading increasing in popularity and CD/DVDs on sale in numerous locations, including supermarket chains, HMV has felt the competitive pressure and its place on the high street has come into question. As Neil Saunders, the Managing Director of Conlumino said:

By our own figures, we forecast that by the end of 2015 some 90.4 per cent of music and film sales will be online. The bottom line is that there is no real future for physical retail in the music sector.

Further to this, prices have been forced downwards and HMV, having to pay high fixed costs to retain their place on the high streets, have been unable to compete and remain profitable. Another contributing factor could be an outdated management structure, which has not responded to the changing times. Whatever the cause, thousands of jobs have been put at risk. Even if buyers are found, some store closures by the administrators, Deloitte, seem inevitable. Customer gift vouchers have already become worthless and further losses to both workers and customers seem likely. It is thought that there will be many interested buyers and huge support from suppliers, but the former is likely to remain a relatively secretive area for some time.

This latest high street disaster will undoubtedly raise many questions. One theory about recovery from a recession looks at the need for many businesses to go under until the fittest are left and there is sufficient scope for new businesses to emerge.

Could it be that the collapse of companies such as Woolworths, HMV, Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster is an essential requirement for economic recovery? Or was the recession irrelevant for HMV? Was its collapse an inevitable consequence of the changing face of Britain’s high streets and if so, what does the future hold for the high street retailers? The following articles consider the demise of HMV.

HMV: a visual history BBC News (15/1/13)
Chief executive says ‘HMV still has a place on the high street’, as customers are told their gift vouchers are worthless Independent, James Thompson (15/1/13)
Potential buyers circle stricken HMV Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (15/1/13)
HMV and independents to urged to work together to save in-store music market BBC News, Clive Lindsay (15/1/13)
HMV record chain was besest by digital downloads and cheap DVDs The Guardian (15/1/13)
The death of traditional retailers like HMV started when we caught on to one-click and the joy of owning DVDs wore thin Independent, Grace Dent (15/1/13)
HMV shoppers: ‘I’m disappointed, but it’s understandable why they went bust The Guardian, James Brilliant (15/1/13)
HMV: Record labels could take HMV back to its 1920 roots The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (15/1/13)
HMV’s future seen as handful of stores and website Reuters, Neil Maidment and James Davey (15/1/13)
HMV leaves social gap in high street BBC News, Robert Plummer (15/1/13)
Is there good news in HMV’s collapse? BBC News, Robert Peston (15/1/13)
Is it game over for UK retail? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/13)
High Street retailers: Who has been hit hardest? BBC News (16/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons behind the collapse of HMV?
  2. Use a diagram to illustrate the impact the companies such as Amazon and Tesco have had on costs and prices in the entertainment industry.
  3. Has the value we place on owning DVDs truly changed or have other factors led to larger purchases of online entertainment?
  4. Why is online retail providing such steep competition to high street retailers?
  5. Explain why it can be argued that economic recovery will only take place after a certain number of businesses have gone into administration.
  6. To what extent do you think HMV’s collapse is due to its failure to adapt to changing social circumstances?
  7. Briefly outline the wider economic implications of the collapse of a company such as HMV. Think about managers, employees, suppliers, customers and other competitors, as well as other high street retailers.
  8. In which market structure would you place the entertainment industry? Explain your answer. Has this contributed to the demise of HMV?
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Research, publications, pricing and incentives

Academic research is encouraged by universities. Indeed, the number and quality of research publications is the most important criterion for promotion in many universities.

Periodically university research in the UK is publicly assessed. The latest assessment is known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and will be completed in 2014. Most research that will be considered by the REF is published in peer-reviewed journals. Most of these journals are subscription based. Universities pay large amounts of money in subscriptions.

In recent years there has been much criticism by both academics and universities about the high cost of such subscriptions. In a movement dubbed the Academic Spring, pressure has mounted for journal articles to be made available free of charge – i.e. on open access.

The government too has been concerned that the results of publicly-funded research has been disappearing behind ‘paywalls’ and hence not available free to people outside the universities which subscribe to such journals. Indeed, no single university can afford licences for all the 25,000 peer-reviewed journals currently being published. As a result, the government set up a committee under the chair of Professor Janet Finch to examine alternative ways of making research more accessible. The committee has just published its report.

It advocates an expansion of open-access journals:

The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable…

Instead of relying on subscription revenues provided by or on behalf of readers, most [open-access journals] charge a fee to authors…before an article is published. Access for readers is then free of charge, immediately on publication, and with very few restrictions on use and re-use.

Under this model, universities would essentially pay to have their academics’ articles published rather than paying to purchase the journal. Alternatively, research councils could fund the publication of articles based on research already funded by them.

Many people go further. They argue that authors ought to be able to have their published research in any journal made freely available, after an embargo period, through their university’s website.

So is the current pricing model the best for encouraging research and for disseminating its findings? Or is open access a better model – and if so, of what form? Or would it discourage publishers and lead, in the end, to less being published or to a less rigorous peer review process? The questions are ones of pricing, incentives, choices and investment – the questions that economists are qualified to consider.

Articles
Open access may require funds to be rationed Times Higher Education, Paul Jump (21/6/12)
Set science free from publishers’ paywalls New Scientist, Stephen Curry (19/6/12)
Scientists must make research an open book Independent, Martin Hickman (18/6/12)
Report calls on government to back open access science BBC News, Pallab Ghosh (19/6/12)
Open access is the future of academic publishing, says Finch report Guardian, Alok Jha (19/6/12)
Open access to science – its implications discussed in UK raport ZME Science (19/6/12)
UK move to ‘open access’ in publishing Phys.Org, Justin Norrie (20/6/12)

Report
Finch Group Report: Overview Research Information Network (June 2012)
Finch Group Report: Executive Summary Research Information Network (June 2012)
Finch Group Report: Full Report Research Information Network (June 2012)

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between the ‘gold’ and ‘green’ models of open-access journal article publishing?
  2. What externalities are involved in journal publication? What are the implications of this for socially efficient pricing?
  3. How could journal publication be made profitable under an open-access system?
  4. What are the incentive effects for (a) academics and (b) universities of ranking journals? Does the REF, whereby research articles are judged on their own merits, overcome problems of ranking journals?
  5. Does the existence of journal rankings allow the top journals in each discipline to maintain a position of market power? How is this likely to impact on journal or article pricing?
  6. How would university finances be affected by a move towards gold open access journals (a) in the short term; (b) in the long term?
  7. Would it be in universities’ interests to produce their own open-access journals?
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Electricity switches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

Fuel prices at German petrol stations fluctuate wildly – by up to €0.14 per day. They are also often changed several times per day. In morning rush hours, when demand is less elastic, prices may shoot up, only to drop again once people are at work.

But is this a sign of healthy competition? Critics claim the opposite: that it’s a sign of the oligopoly power of the oil companies. More than two-thirds of Germany’s petrol stations are franchises of five big oil companies: BP/Aral, Esso, Jet, Shell and Total. These five companies directly control the prices at the pumps. According to the Der Spiegel article below, oil companies:

have sophisticated computer systems that allow them to precisely control, right down to the minute, when they increase their prices nationwide, and by how many cents. The prices are not set by the individual franchise holders. Instead, they are centrally controlled – for example, in the town of Bochum, at the headquarters of Aral, a BP subsidiary that is the market leader in Germany.

The price manager merely presses a button and price signs immediately change at all 2,391 Aral service stations in Germany. All filling stations are electronically linked with Bochum via a dedicated network called Rosi. After each price increase, they watch closely to see how the competition reacts and whether they follow suit.

… If the competitor’s prices are significantly cheaper, the Aral franchise holder can, with the help of Rosi, apply for permission to reduce the prices again.

Not only do the oil companies control the prices at the pumps, but they observe closely, via their franchise holders, the actions of their rivals, and then respond in ways which critics claim is collusive rather than competitive. The problem has become worse with the introduction of incentives to the franchise owners of additional commission if they exceed the price of their competitors within the local area. This has the effect of ratcheting prices up.

The sophisticated pricing strategies, with prices adjusted frequently according to price elasticity of demand, are making it very hard for independent operators to compete.

In response, the German Cartel Office has launched an investigation into the oil companies and in particular into the issues of collusion and frequent price changes and how these impact on independent operators.

German anti-trust authority probes alleged fuel cartel Deutsche Welle (4/4/12)
German antitrust watchdog to probe oil majors-paper Reuters, Ludwig Burger (3/4/12)
Oil giants probed over claims they rigged petrol prices in Germany The Telegraph, Nathalie Thomas (4/4/12)
BP, Exxon, Esso, Jet, Shell and Total in Germany Price Fix Probe International Business Times (9/4/12)
German cartel office probes petrol company pricing MarketWatch (4/4/12)
Kartellverfahren gegen fünf Mineralölkonzerne (in German) Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Helmut Bünder and Manfred Schäfers (4/4/12)
Crazy gas prices driving German consumers mad msnbc, Andy Eckardt (3/4/12)
Big Oil’s Strategy for Jacking Up Gas Prices Der Spiegel, Alexander Jung and Alexander Neubacher (5/4/12)

Questions

  1. What the features of the German road fuel oligopoly?
  2. Why does the price elasticity of demand for petrol and diesel vary with the time of day? Is it likely to vary from one week to another and, if so, why?
  3. In what ways have the actions of the big five oil companies been against the interests of the independent petrol station operators?
  4. Consider the alternatives open to the German Federal Cartel Office for making the market more competitive.
  5. Would it be a good idea for the big five German companies to be forced to adopt the Western Australian system of price changes?
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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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