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Posts Tagged ‘regulation’

BT, Openreach and Ofcom

The government plans to improve broadband access across the country and BT is a key company within this agenda. However, one of the problems with BT concerns its natural monopoly over the cable network and the fact that this restricts competition and hence might prevent the planned improvements.

Ofcom, the communications watchdog has now said that BT must open up its cable network, making it easier for other companies to access. This will allow companies such as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk to invest in the internet network in the UK, addressing their criticisms that BT has under-invested in Openreach and this is preventing universal access to decent and affordable broadband. There have been calls for Ofcom to require BT and Openreach to separate, but Ofcom’s report hasn’t required this, though has noted that it ‘remains an option’.

BT has been criticised as relying on old cables that are not sufficient to provide the superfast broadband that the government wants. The report may come as a relief to BT who had perhaps expected that Ofcom might require it to sell its Openreach operation, but it will also remain concerned about Ofcom’s constant monitoring in the years to come. BT commented:

“Openreach is already one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the world but we have volunteered to accept tighter regulation … We are happy to let other companies use our ducts and poles if they are genuinely keen to invest very large sums as we have done.”

Its rivals will also be in two minds about the report, happy that some action will be taken, but wanting more, as Ofcom’s report suggests that “Openreach still has an incentive to make decisions in the interests of BT, rather than BT’s competitors”. A spokesperson for Vodafone said:

“BT still remains a monopoly provider with a regulated business running at a 28% profit margin …We urge Ofcom to ensure BT reinvests the £4bn in excess profits Openreach has generated over the last decade in bringing fibre to millions of premises across the country, and not just make half-promises to spend an unsubstantiated amount on more old copper cable.”

The impact of Ofcom’s report on the competitiveness of this market will be seen over the coming years and with a freer market, we might expect prices to come down and see improved broadband coverage across the UK. In order to achieve the government’s objective with regards to broadband coverage, a significant investment is needed in the network. With BT having to relinquish its monopoly power and the market becoming more competitive, this may be the first step towards universal access to superfast broadband. The following articles consider this report and its implications.

Ofcom opens a road to faster broadband The Guardian, Harriet Meyer and Rob Davies (28/2/16)
Ofcom: BT must open up its Openreach network Sky News (25/2/16)
How Ofcom’s review of BT Openreach could improve your internet service Independent, Doug Bolton (25/2/16)
Ofcom’s digital review boosts faltering broadband network Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (25/2/16)
The Observer view on broadband speeds in Britain The Observer, Editorial (28/2/16)
Ofcom tells BT to open up cable network to rivals’ BBC News (25/2/16)
Ofcom should go further and break up BT Financial Times, John Gapper (25/2/16)
BT escapes forced Openreach spin-off but Ofcom tightens regulations International Business Times, Bauke Schram (25/2/16)

Questions

  1. Why does BT have a monopoly and how might this affect the price, output and profits in this market?
  2. Ofcom’s report suggests that the market must be opened up and this would increase competitiveness. How is this expected to work?
  3. What are the benefits and costs of using regulation in a case such as this, as opposed to some other form of intervention?
  4. How might a more competitive market increase investment in this market?
  5. If the market does become more competitive, what be the likely consequences for consumers and firms?
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California’s new targets on greenhouse gas emission

The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, has issued an executive order to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 (a 44% cut on 2012 levels). This matches the target set by the EU. It is tougher than that of the US administration, which has set a target of reducing emissions in the range of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

The former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had previously set a target of reducing emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Brown’s new target can be seen as an interim step toward meeting that longer-term goal.

There are several means by which it is planned to meet the Californian targets. These include:

a focus on zero- and near-zero technologies for moving freight, continued investment in renewables including solar roofs and distributed generation, greater use of low-carbon fuels including electricity and hydrogen, stronger efforts to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (methane, black carbon and fluorinated gases), and further efforts to create liveable, walkable communities and expansion of mass transit and other alternatives to travelling by car.

Some of these will be achieved through legislation, after consultations with various stakeholders. But a crucial element in driving down emissions is the California’s carbon trading scheme. This is a cap-and-trade system, similar to the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

The cap-and-trade rules came into effect on January 1, 2013 and apply to large electric power plants and large industrial plants. In 2015, they will extend to fuel distributors (including distributors of heating and transportation fuels). At that stage, the program will encompass around 360 businesses throughout California and nearly 85 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Under a cap-and-trade system, companies must hold enough emission allowances to cover their emissions, and are free to buy and sell allowances on the open market. California held its first auction of greenhouse gas allowances on November 14, 2012. This marked the beginning of the first greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program in the United States since the group of nine Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program for power plants, held its first auction in 2008.

Since January 2014, the Californian cap-and-trade scheme has been linked to that of Quebec in Canada and discussions are under way to link it with Ontario too. Also California is working with other west-coast states/provinces, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, to develop a co-ordinated approach to greenhouse gas reductions

To achieve sufficient reductions in emissions, it is not enough merely to have a cap-and-trade system which, through trading, encourages an efficient reduction in emissions. It is important to set the cap tight enough to achieve the targeted reductions and to ensure that the cap is enforced.

In California, emissions allowances are distributed by a mix of free allocation and quarterly auctions. Free allocations account for around 90% of the allocations, but this percentage will decrease over time. The total allowances will decline (i.e. the cap will be tightened) by 3% per year from 2015 to 2020.

At present the system applies to electric power plants, industrial plants and fuel distributors that emit, or are responsible for emissions of, 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year or more. The greenhouse gases covered are the six covered by the Kyoto Protocol ((CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, SF6), plus NF3 and other fluoridated greenhouse gases.

Articles
California governor orders aggressive greenhouse gas cuts by 2030 Reuters. Rory Carroll (29/4/15)
California’s greenhouse gas emission targets are getting tougher Los Angeles Times, Chris Megerian and Michael Finnegan (29/4/15)
Jerry Brown sets aggressive California climate goal The Desert Sun, Sammy Roth (29/4/15)
California’s Brown Seeks Nation-Leading Greenhouse Gas Cuts Bloomberg, Michael B Marois (29/4/15)
California sets tough new targets to cut emissions BBC News, (29/4/15)
California’s New Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target Puts Obama’s To Shame New Republic, Rebecca Leber (29/4/15)
Governor Brown Announces New Statewide Climate Pollution Limit in 2030 Switchboard, Alex Jackson (29/4/15)
Cap-and-trade comes to Orego Watchdog, Chana Cox (29/4/15)
Cap and trade explained: What Ontario’s shift on emissions will mean The Globe and Mail, Adrian Morrow (13/4/15)
California’s Forests Have Become Climate Polluters Climate Central, John Upton (29/4/15)
States Can Learn from Each Other On Carbon Pricing The Energy Collective, Kyle Aarons (28/4/15)

Executive Order
Governor Brown Establishes Most Ambitious Greenhouse Gas Reduction Target in North America Office of Edmund G. Brown Jr. (29/4/15)
Frequently Asked Questions about Executive Order B-30-15: 2030 Carbon Target and Adaptation California Environmental Protection Agency: Air Resources Board (29/4/15)

Californian cap-and-trade scheme
Cap-and-Trade Program California Environmental Protection Agency: Air Resources Board (29/4/15)
California Cap and Trade Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (January 2014)

Questions

  1. Explain how a system of cap-and-trade, such as the Californian system and the ETS in the EU, works.
  2. Why does a cap-and-trade system lead to an efficient level of emissions reduction?
  3. How can a joint system, such as that between California and Quebec, work? Is it important to achieve the same percentage pollution reduction in both countries?
  4. What are countries coming to the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris in November 2015 required to have communicated in advance?
  5. How might game theory be relevant to the negotiations in Paris? Are the pre-requirements on countries a good idea to tackle some of the ‘gaming’ problems that could occur?
  6. Why is a cap-and-trade system insufficient to tackle climate change? What other measures are required?
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A windfall for electricity producers?

When an industry produces positive externalities, there is an argument for granting subsidies. To achieve the socially efficient output in an otherwise competitive market, the marginal subsidy should be equal to the marginal externality. This is the main argument for subsidising wind power. It helps in the switch to renewable energy away from fossil fuels. There is also the secondary argument that subsidies help encourage the development of technologies that would be too uncertain to fund at market rates.

If subsidies are to be granted, it is important that they are carefully designed. Not only does their rate need to reflect the size of the positive externalities, but also they should not entail any perverse incentive effects. But this is the claim about subsidies given to wind turbines: that they create an undesirable side effect.

Small-scale operators are encouraged to build small turbines by offering them a higher subsidy per kilowatt generated (through higher ‘feed-in’ tariffs). But according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), this is encouraging builders and operators of large turbines to ‘derate’ them. This involves operating them below capacity in order to get the higher tariff. As the IPPR overview states:

The scheme is designed to support small-scale providers, but the practice of under-reporting or ‘derating’ turbines’ generating capacity to earn a higher subsidy is costing the taxpayer dearly and undermining the competitiveness of Britain’s clean energy sector.

The loophole sees developers installing ‘derated’ turbines – that is, turbines which are ‘capped’ so that they generate less energy. Turbines are derated in this way so that developers and investors are able to qualify for the more generous subsidy offered to lower-capacity turbines, generating 100–500kW. By installing derated turbines, developers are making larger profits off a feature of the scheme that was designed to support small-scale projects. Currently, the rating of a turbine is declared by the manufacturer and installer, resulting in a lack of external scrutiny of the system.

The subsidies are funded by consumers through higher electricity prices. As much as £400 million could be paid in excess subsidies. The lack of scrutiny means that operators could be receiving as much as £100 000 per year per turbine in excess subsidies.

However, as the articles below make clear, the facts are disputed by the wind industry body, RenewableUK. Nevertheless, the report is likely to stimulate debate and hopefully a closing of the loophole.

Video
Turbine power: the cost of wind power to taxpayers Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (10/2/15)

Articles
Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines Financial Times, Pilita Clark (10/2/15)
Call to Close Wind Power ‘Loophole’ Herald Scotland, Emily Beament (10/2/15)
Wind farm developers hit back at ‘excessive subsidy’ claims Business Green, Will Nichols (10/2/15)
The £400million feed-in frenzy: Green energy firms accused of making wind turbines LESS efficient so they appear weak enough to win small business fund Mail Online, Ben Spencer (10/2/15)
Wind power subsidy ‘loophole’ identified by new report Engineering Technology Magazine, Jonathan Wilson (11/2/15)

Report
Feed-in Frenzy Institute for Public Policy Research, Joss Garman and Charles Ogilvie (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to demonstrate the optimum marginal rate of a subsidy and the effect of the subsidy on output.
  2. Who should pay for subsidies: consumers, the government (i.e. taxpayers generally), electricity companies through taxes on profits made from electricity generation using fossil fuels, some other source? Explain your thinking.
  3. What is the argument for giving a higher subsidy to operators of small wind turbines?
  4. If wind power is to be subsidised, is it better to subsidise each unit of output of electricity, or the construction of wind turbines or both? Explain.
  5. What could Ofgem do (or the government require Ofgem to do) to improve the regulation of the wind turbine industry?
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Is Amazon a monopolist?

The market structure in which firms operate has important implications for prices, products, suppliers and profits. In competitive markets, we expect to see low prices, many firms competing with new innovations and firm behavior that is in, or at least not against the public interest. As a firm becomes dominant in a market, its behavior is likely to change and consumers and suppliers can be adversely affected. Is this the case with Amazon?

Much attention has been given to the dispute centering around Amazon and its actions in the market for e-books, where it holds close to two thirds of the market share. Critics of Amazon suggest that this is just one example of Amazon using its monopoly power to exploit consumers and suppliers, including the publishers and their authors. Although Amazon is not breaking any laws, there are suggestions that its behavior is ‘brutal’ and is taking advantage of consumers, suppliers and its workforce.

But rather than criticizing the actions of a monopolist like Amazon, should we instead be praising the company and its ability to compete other firms out of the market? One of the main reasons why consumers use Amazon to buy goods is that prices are cheap. So, in this respect, perhaps Amazon is not acting against consumers’ interests, as under a monopoly we typically expect low output and high prices, relative to a model of perfect competition. The question of the methods used to keep prices so low is another matter. Two conflicting views on Amazon can be seen from Annie Lowrey and Franklin Foer, who respectively said:

“Amazon relentlessly drives down prices for goods and services and delivers them fast and cheap. It ploughs its profits into price cuts and innovation rather than putting them in the hands of its investors. That benefits millions of families – full stop.”

“In effect, we’ve been thrust back 100 years to a time when the law was not up to the task of protecting the threats to democracy posed by monopoly; a time when the new nature of the corporation demanded a significant revision of government.”

So, with Amazon we have an interesting case of a monopolist, where many aspects of its behaviour fit exactly into the mould of the traditional monopolist. But, some of the outcomes we observe indicate a more competitive market. Paul Krugman has been relatively blunt in his opinion that Amazon’s dominance is bad for America. His comments are timely, given the recognition for Jean Tirole’s work in considering the problems faced when trying to regulate any firm that has significant market power. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. I’ll leave you to decide where you place this company on the traditional spectrum of market structures, as you read the following articles.

Amazon: Monopoly or capitalist success story? BBC News, Kierran Petersen (14/10/14)
Why the Justice Department won’t go after Amazon, even though Paul Krugman thinks it’s hurting America Business Insider, Erin Fuchs (20/10/14)
Is Amazon a monopoly? The Week, Sergio Hernandez (19/11/14)
Big, bad Amazon The Economist (20/10/14)

Questions

  1. What are the typical characteristics of a monopoly? To what extent does Amazon fit into this market structure?
  2. Why does Paul Krugman suggest that Amazon is hurting America?
  3. How does Amazon’s behaviour with regard to (a) its suppliers and (b) its workers affect its profitability? Would it be able to behave in this way if it were a smaller company?
  4. Why is Amazon able to charge its customers such low prices? Why does it do this, given its market power?
  5. Is there an argument for more regulation of firms with such dominance in a market, as is the case with Amazon?
  6. The debate over e-books is ingoing. What is the argument for publishers to be able to set a minimum price? What is the argument against this?
  7. Should customers boycott Amazon in a protest over the alleged working conditions of Amazon factory employees?
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Intervening in labour markets – Different types of salary cap in professional sport leagues

Officials from Rugby Union’s Aviva Premiership recently announced that the salary cap used by the league would increase from £4.76 million to £5.1 million per team for the 2015-16 season. It is not the only professional sports league to use this type of regulation. The NFL currently has a salary cap of $133 million/team while in the NBA it is set at $63 million/team. What is the rationale for placing restrictions on the amount an organisation can pay its employees? How do these caps work in practice?

A salary cap is a regulation that limits the amount that an organisation can pay its employees. Sanctions are usually imposed if the ceiling is broken.

It is hard to imagine this type of policy being introduced in most industries. For example there may have been a number of calls for much greater regulation of the big six firms in the energy market with the Labour party suggesting that prices should be frozen for 20 months. However in amongst all the calls for more intervention, nobody has suggested that limits should be placed on the wages that these firms pay their staff.

One example where the authorities are thinking of intervening on pay is the proposal by the European Union to introduce a cap on the size of bonuses that can be paid by firms in the banking industry. However this is more of a constraint on the method of remuneration rather than an absolute limit on the level of pay. If the policy was introduced there would be nothing preventing firms from increasing basic salaries in order to make up for any shortfall caused by the reduction in bonuses.

There is one sector of the economy where salary caps are widely used – professional team sports. There are a number of different ways they have been implemented. For example the Football Association once placed a limit on the amount that a club could pay an individual player. This was originally set at £4/week in 1901 and increased to £20/week before it was finally abolished in 1961.

In recent times it has been far more common for salary caps in professional sports leagues to place limits on the size of a team’s total wage bill rather than the amount that can be paid to an individual player. This is the case in the Aviva Premiership, the NFL and the NBA. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to these policies as a cap on payrolls rather than on salaries.

The Aviva Premiership gives the following 4 reasons for having the payroll cap that it first introduced in 1999:

To ensure the financial viability of the clubs;
To ensure a competitive Aviva Premiership Rugby competition;
To control inflationary pressures on clubs’ costs;
To provide a level playing field for the clubs.

It is claimed that the policy has helped the league to achieve these objectives as (a) more clubs are now breaking even and (b) compared with other rugby competitions it has the greatest number of games that finish with less than one score between the teams.

There are a number of different ways that a payroll cap can be implemented. With an absolute payroll scheme all the teams in the league, no matter what their size, face the same constraint. This is the policy adopted by the NFL, NBA and the Aviva Premiership. An alternative is to implement a percentage payroll cap. Examples of these can be found in League 1 and League 2 of the English Football League. League 1 teams can spend up to 60% of their turnover on wages while League 2 teams can spend up to 55% of their turnover on wages. Obviously this means that well supported clubs with a larger turnover can spend more on players’ wages than less well supported clubs with a smaller turnover.

Another way that payroll caps differ is whether they are ‘hard’ caps or ‘soft’ caps. With a ‘hard’ cap there are no exceptions to the scheme. All the teams’ payrolls must remain within the same limit set by the league officials. With a ‘soft’ cap the authorities identify some exceptions that enable clubs to exceed the limit. The payroll cap used in rugby union is an example of a soft cap and works in the following way.

There are a number of elements to the scheme:

The senior salary cap;
Excluded players;
The academy credits.

The senior salary cap is the major part of the regulation and the Aviva Premiership announced that this would increase from £4.76 million per team in the current season to £5.1 million per team for 2015-16. The Academy credits enable teams to exceed this £5.1 million limit if they train and develop younger players. The teams have to prove that they have young players that meet the following criteria:

They are under the age of 24 before the season started;
They joined the youth academy before their eighteenth birthday;
They earn more than £30,000 per year.

For a player who meets these conditions it is only their salary in excess of £30,000/year that is considered. For example if a young player was paid £50,000/year then only £20,000 of his wages would count towards the team’s payroll cap. The first £30,000 would not count. The Aviva Premiership recently announced that a home grown player credit would replace the academy credits. Under the new scheme the upper age limit will be removed and clubs can claim up to £400,000 in allowances. This means that teams could spend up to £5.5 million a year on wages if they train and develop younger players.

However other exceptions means that teams can exceed even this figure. The payroll cap arrangements allow teams to identify one player whose wages are not included when the payroll cap is calculated. In order to be nominated the exempted player has to meet certain criteria. In the 2015-16 season teams will be allowed to have two excluded players.

Sir Iain McGeechan has suggested that these changes will increase the effective salary cap to £7 million/year with some star players earning £1 million/season. However this would still be below the level of the basic salary cap in the French Rugby Union Super 14 League which is €10 million per season (approximately £8.5 million)

Premiership salary cap will leave small clubs playing catch-up The Telegraph (20/9/14)
Bath line up move for Australian Will Genia as new salary cap regulations come into effectThe Telegraph (15/9/14)
The salary cap in Rugby Union Law in Sport (15/4/14)
Barwell blasts salary cap ‘cheats’ ESPN (1/3/13)
Salary Cap changes confirmed Premiership Rugby (17/9/14)
What is meant by a salary cap in Sport and would this ever be used in English football? In Brief (accessed on 22/9/14)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of a salary cap on a perfectly competitive market and explain your answer.
  2. Which teams in the Aviva Premiership would be in favour of the increase in the salary cap and which teams would be opposed? Explain your answer.
  3. Do you think that an absolute or percentage salary cap would be more effective at maintaining competitive balance in a league? Which teams would be more in favour of an absolute salary cap?
  4. Why do think some leagues have introduced a ‘soft’ rather than a ‘hard’ salary caps?
  5. To what extent do you think that salary/payroll caps are consistent with European single market principles about the free movement of people?
  6. Officials from the Aviva Premiership provide the clubs with a long list of payments which must be counted as part of a player’s salary. These include holiday costs, school fees, payment for off-field activities on behalf of the club, payments in kind and signing on fees. Why do you think that the authorities provide such a large list?
  7. Find out the criteria that must be met in order for a player to be exempted from the team’s payroll calculations. Provide some reasons why you think these criteria were used.
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Making UK energy supply more competitive (John’s post)

The UK energy industry (electricity and gas) is an oligopoly. There are six large suppliers: the ‘Big Six’. These are British Gas (Centrica, UK), EDF Energy (EDF, France), E.ON UK (E.ON, Germany), npower (RWE, Germany), Scottish Power (Iberdrola, Spain) and SSE (SSE Group, UK). The Big Six supply around 73% of the total UK market and around 90% of the domestic market.

Energy suppliers buy wholesale gas and electricity and sell it to customers. The industry has a considerable degree of vertical integration, with the energy suppliers also being involved in both generation and local distribution (long-distance distribution through the familiar pylons is by National Grid). There is also considerable horizontal integration, with energy suppliers supplying both electricity and gas and offering ‘dual-fuel’ deals, whereby customers get a discount by buying both fuels from the same supplier.

Smaller suppliers have complained about substantial barriers to entry in the industry. In particular, they normally have to buy wholesale from one of the Big Six. Lack of transparency concerning their costs and internal transfer prices by the Big Six has led to suspicions that they are charging more to independent suppliers than to themselves.

Under new regulations announced by Ofgem, the industry regulator, the Big Six will have to post the prices at which they will trade wholesale power two years in advance and must trade fairly with independent suppliers or face financial penalties. In addition, ‘a range of measures will make the annual statements of the large companies more robust, useful and accessible.’ According to the Ofgem Press Release:

From 31 March new rules come into force meaning the six largest suppliers and the largest independent generators will have to trade fairly with independent suppliers in the wholesale market, or face financial penalties. The six largest suppliers will also have to publish the price at which they will trade wholesale power up to two years in advance. These prices must be published daily in two one-hour windows, giving independent suppliers and generators the opportunity and products they need to trade and compete effectively.

But will these measures be enough to break down the barriers to entry in the industry and make the market genuinely competitive? The following articles look at the issue.

Articles
Boost for small energy firms as Big Six are ordered to trade fairly on wholesale markets or face multi-million pound fines This is Money, Rachel Rickard Straus (26/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News, Rachel Fletcher (26/2/14)
Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big Six accounts The Telegraph, Denise Roland (26/2/14)
‘Big six’ told to trade fairly – will it make a difference? Channel 4 News, Emma Maxwell (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem forces trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)

Information
Ofgem tears down barriers to competition to bear down as hard as possible on energy prices Ofgem Press Release (26/2/14)
The energy market explained Energy UK
Gas Ofgem
Electricity Ofgem
Energy in the United Kingdom Wikipedia
Big Six Energy Suppliers (UK) Wikipedia

Questions

  1. Describe the structure of the UK energy industry.
  2. What are the barriers to the entry of new energy suppliers and generators in the UK?
  3. To what extent is vertical integration in the electricity generation and supply industry in the interests of consumers?
  4. To what extent is horizontal integration in the electricity and gas markets in the interests of consumers?
  5. How will requiring the six largest energy suppliers to post their wholesale prices for the next 24 months increase competition in the energy market?
  6. Is greater transparency about the revenues, costs and profits of energy suppliers likely to make the market more competitive?
  7. Identify and discuss other measures which Ofgem could introduce to make the energy market more competitive.
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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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Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?

In an apparent U-turn, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has decided to cap the interest rates and other charges on payday loans and other short-term credit. As we have seen in previous news items, the sky-high interest rates which some of the poorest people in the UK are being forced to pay on these loans have caused outrage in many quarters: see A payday enquiry and Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, the payday loan industry has been referred by the OFT to the Competition Commission (CC). The CC is required to report by 26 June 2015, although it will aim to complete the investigation in a shorter period.

It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that the government would not wait until the CC reports. It has been under intense pressure to take action. But the announcement on 25 November 2013 that the government would cap the costs of payday loans took many people by surprise. In fact, the new body, the Financial Conduct Authority, which is due to start regulating the industry in April 2014, only a month ago said that capping was very intrusive, arguing that it could make it harder for many people to borrow and push them into the hands of loan sharks. According to paragraph 6.71 of its consultation paper, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit:

The benefits of a total cost of credit cap has been looked at by the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol. This report highlighted that 17 EU member states have some form of price restriction. Their research was ambiguous, on the one hand suggesting possible improved lending criteria and risk assessments. On the other, prices may drift towards a cap, which could lead to prices increasing or lead to a significant reduction in lenders exercising forbearance. Neither of these latter outcomes would be beneficial for consumers. Clearly this is a very intrusive proposition and to ensure we fully understand the implications we have committed to undertake further research once we begin regulating credit firms and therefore have access to regulatory data.

The government announcement has raised questions of how imperfections in markets should be dealt with. Many on the centre right argue that price controls should not be used as they can further distort the market. Indeed, the Chancellor has criticised the Labour Party’s proposal to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months if it wins the next election, arguing that the energy companies will simply get around the freeze by substantially raising their prices before and after the 20 months.

Instead, those on the centre right argue that intervention should aim to make markets more competitive. In other words, you should attempt not to replace markets, but to make them work better.

So what is the reasoning of the government in capping payday loan charges? Does it feel that, in this case, there is no other way? Or is the reasoning political? Does it feel that this is the most electorally advantageous way of answering the critics of the payday loan industry?

Webcasts and podcasts
Payday Loans To Be Capped By Government Sky News (25/11/13)
New law to cap cost of payday loans BBC News, Robert Hall (25/11/13)
Osborne: ‘Overall cost’ of payday loans to be capped BBC Today Programme (25/11/13)
George Osborne announces cap on payday loan charges amid concerns ITV News (25/11/13)

Articles
UK to cap payday lenders’ interest charges Reuters, Steve Slater, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and William James (25/11/13)
Capping payday loans: from light touch to strong arm Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (25/11/13)
Payday loans: New law to cap costs BBC News (25/11/13)
Payday loan ‘risk to mortgage applications’ BBC News (26/11/13)
Q&A: Payday loans BBC News (25/11/13)
George Osborne is playing social democratic catch-up on payday loans The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/11/13_
Payday loans cap: George Osborne caves in following intervention led by Archbishop of Canterbury Independent, Oliver Wright (25/11/13)
The principle, the practice and the politics of fixing payday loan prices: why? And why now? Conservative Home, Mark Wallace (25/11/13)
George Osborne and the risky politics of chutzpah New Statesman, Rafael Behr (26/11/13)
Chancellor too quick off the mark on payday lending cap The Telegraph, James Quinn (25/11/13)
Crap and courage of convictions: the political problem with Osborne’s payday loan plan Spectator, Isabel Hardman (26/11/13)

Payday loan calculator
Payday loan calculator: how monthly interest can spiral BBC Consumer (7/11/13)

Questions

  1. What types of market failing exist in the payday loan industry?
  2. What types of controls of the industry are being proposed by George Osborne?
  3. What is the experience of Australia in introducing such controls?
  4. What alternative forms of intervention could be used to tackle the market imperfections in the industry?
  5. What were the proposals of the FCA? (See paragraph 6.6 in its document, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit.)
  6. According to a representative example on Wonga’s website, a loan of £150 for 18 days would result in charges of £33.49 (interest of £27.99 and a fee of £5.50). This would equate to an annual APR of 5853%. Explain how this APR is calculated.
  7. The proposal is to allow a relatively large upfront fee and to cap interest rates at a relatively low level, such as 4% per month, as is the case in Australia. Explain the following comment about this in the Faisal Islam article above: “The upfront fee, in theory, should change the behavioural finance of consumers around taking the loan in the first place (there are ways around this though). So this is an intervention based not on lack of competition, but asymmetries of information in consumer finance.”
  8. Comment on the following statement by Mark Wallace in the Conservative Home article above: “If overpriced payday loans should be capped, why not overpriced DVDs, sandwiches or, er, energy bills?”
  9. Compare the relative advantages and disadvantages of George Osborne’s proposal with that of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (see the news item, Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury).
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Who controls the airports?

No matter the product or service, price is always a key factor and never more so than in tough economic times. In most cases, prices are allowed to be determined by the forces of demand and supply, which gives the equilibrium price. However, in some cases, the government may choose to intervene with a price control, for example rent controls and the national minimum wage. Another market where there is also regulation is the airline industry and the Civil Aviation Authority have recently been criticized by Heathrow Airport for its price control plan.

Whenever we go on holiday, the price we pay for an airline ticket will depend in part on the airport we are taking off from and landing at, as they will charge the airline for landing fees, security, terminals etc. Heathrow airport had proposed that annual rises to its tariffs charged to airlines would increase by 4.6% above RPI inflation. However, this plan has been rejected by the CAA, which has said that the annual tariff rise between 2014 and 2018 should not be above the RPI. Though Heathrow are criticizing the CAA about this restriction, it is an improvement from the initial proposal which would have capped price rises at the RPI minus 1.3%.

Controversy has naturally been created, with the CAA arguing that such price controls are needed to keep prices down and thus benefit consumers and retain the competitiveness of Heathrow airport. But, in contrast, Heathrow has argued that such a cap will put its competitive position under pressure and will risk future investment in the UK. But this isn’t the only criticism of the CAA. Airlines aren’t happy with the ruling either, arguing that the CAA has bowed to the pressure of Heathrow. The contrasting positions of the CAA, Heathrow and airlines are evident in the following quotes, firstly from the Chairwoman of the CAA:

The proposals will put an end to over a decade of prices rising faster than inflation at Heathrow. Tackling the upward drift in Heathrow’s prices is essential to safeguard its globally competitive position. The challenge for Heathrow is to maintain high levels of customer service while reducing costs. We are confident this is possible and that our proposals create a positive climate for further capital investment, in the passenger interest.

Secondly, from Heathrow’s Chief Executive:

This proposal is the toughest Heathrow has ever faced. The CAA’s settlement could have serious and far-reaching consequences for passengers and airlines at Heathrow … We want to continue to improve Heathrow for passengers. Instead, the CAA’s proposals risk not only Heathrow’s competitive position but the attractiveness of the UK as a centre for international investment. We will now carefully consider our investment plans before responding fully to the CAA.

And finally from the IAG Chief Executive, who said:

[The CAA] neglected its new primary statutory duty to further the interests of passengers by endorsing a settlement that allows the UK’s monopoly hub to ignore its inefficiencies and over-reward investors by imposing excessive charges … It is a bad day for customers who have been let down by the CAA.

Any price rise from the airports will be passed on to airlines and these in turn will translate into higher prices for customers. However, is there any truth to Heathrow’s claims that investment will be adversely impacted? As costs rise, profit margins and profit will fall, unless the revenue generated can increase. Price controls restrict the amount that prices can rise and thus unless demand increases by a significant margin, profits will decline. With lower profits, there will be less money for investment and arguably the service that customers face will also decline. However, the CAA suggests that Heathrow will be able to cut its costs and thus protect investment into the future, while retaining its competitive position globally by charging lower prices to airlines. This is unlikely to be the end of the journey, but for the moment, the CAA appears to have put its foot down. The following articles consider the battleground between the CAA and Heathrow.

Regulation in the passenger’s interest, support investment and driving competition The Civil Aviation Authority (3/10/13)
Passengers at Heathrow ‘face £1bn fares hike’ Independent, Matthew Beard (4/10/13)
Heathrow airport attacks regulator’s price control plan BBC News (3/10/13)
CAA proposed Heathrow charges rise in line with inflation The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (13/10/13)
Passengers face fare increases as Heathrow and Gatwick are allowed to up landing fees Mail Online (3/10/13)
Heathrow and airlines enraged by CAA price proposals The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (3/10/13)
Heathrow attacks Civil Aviation Authority over airport charges Financial Times, Andrew Parker (3/10/13)
BAA considers life outside Heathrow as CAA backtracks on charges The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (3/10/13)
Heathrow charge plan disappoints all round Wall Street Journal, Peter Evans (3/10/13)

Questions

  1. What is the role of a regulator?
  2. Explain how the price control outlined by the CAA will affect Heathrow.
  3. If Heathrow is unable to cut costs, what is the likely effect? Using a diagram illustrate the impact on profitability if costs (a) can be reduced and (b) cannot be reduced.
  4. Why are the CAA being criticised by airlines and airports?
  5. How will customers be affected by Heathrow’s planned price rises and the CAA’s proposal?
  6. ‘Regulation in the airlines industry is essential to retain competitiveness.’ Evaluate the validity of this statement.
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A payday inquiry

When people take out loans they typically do so to spend and with the UK economy in its current state, many would argue that this is a good thing. The ‘payday loan’ industry took advantage of the weak economy and the squeezed households in the UK and for the past few years, we have seen constant adverts that will appeal to many households. But, is the industry as competitive as the adverts would have us believe?

An inquiry into this industry has been on-going for some time, and it has now been referred to the Competition Commission, due to ‘deep-rooted problems with the way competition works’. For some, a payday loan is a short term form of finance, but for others it has become a way of living that has led to a debt spiral. Frank McKillop, policy manager at Abcul said:

There is a clear demand for instant credit and across the country we are increasingly seeing members who have debts with multiple payday lenders and a record of rolling over debts, or going to one payday lender to clear the debt to another.

One problem identified by the OFT is that customers have found it difficult to compare costs and this has led, in some cases, to customers paying back significantly more than they originally thought. Customers being unable to repay loans will ring warning bells for many people, with no-one wanting a return to the height of the credit crunch.

The OFT has criticized payday loan companies for competing not on costs, but on the speed of approval and using certain unapproved tactics as part of their advertising. The selling point of such companies is that you can have the money in a very short time period. However, the criticism is that this leads to loans being given to those who are unable to afford them. Key credit checks are not being done and with late night texts being sent to often financially vulnerable people, it is no wonder that complaints have been received. In a statement, the OFT said:

The competitive pressure to approve loans quickly may give firms an incentive to skimp on the affordability assessment which is designed to prevent irresponsible lending and protect consumers.

[the business models of companies were] predicated on making loans which are unaffordable, leading to borrowers paying far more than expected through rollovers, additional interest and other charges.

While payday loans are legal and there are many companies offering them, it is what they are competing over, which seems to be in question. The industry itself has begun to change its practices, providing more information to customers, only allowing loans to be rolled over three times and the potential to freeze repayments if the customer gets into financial difficulty. If more stringent checks are completed and hence timing does not become the only grounds for competition, then the problems above may become less significant. With the ongoing OFT inquiry into the practices of the payday loan industry and the continuing demand for such financing, it is likely that we will see much more of both the good and the bad that it has to offer. The following articles consider the investigation.

Webcasts
Balls warns against payday loans ‘blank cheque’ BBC News (27/6/13)
Payday lender investigation could be delayed by bureaucracy Telegraph, Steve Hawkes (27/6/13)
Payday lenders to face ‘tougher restrictions’ on advertising BBC News, Simon Gompertz (1/7/13)
Payday lending rates BBC News, Julio Martino and Stella Creasy (2/7/13)

Articles
Regulator to investigate payday loan industry Financial Times, Elaine Moore and Robert Cookson (27/6/13)
Q&A: Payday loans BBC News (31/5/13)
Payday loans: reining in an industry that is a law unto itself Guardian (27/6/13)
Payday loans industry to face competition inquiry BBC News (27/6/13)
Payday loans firms face competition inquiry Sky News (27/6/13)
Payday loans market faces competition inquiry Guardian, Hilary Osborne (27/6/13)
OFT refers payday loans to Competition Commission Scotsman, Jane Bradley (27/6/13)
Five reasons why we all need to worry about payday lenders Telegraph, Emma Simon (27/6/13)

OFT documents
Payday lending compliance review Office of Fair Trading (27/6/13)

Questions

  1. Into which market structure would you place the payday loans industry? Make sure you justify your answer.
  2. What is the role of the (a) the OFT and (b) the Competition Commission? Do these authorities overlap?
  3. What part does advertising play in this industry?
  4. To what extent is the payday loan industry a possible cause of another credit crunch?
  5. Why has the OFT referred this industry to the Competition Commission?
  6. To what extent are payday loans an essential part of an economy?
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