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Posts Tagged ‘restrictive practices’

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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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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Galvanised into action

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), launched in October 2013, has been operating since April of this year. It is the successor to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the Competition Commission. One of the current cases under investigation by the CMA is that of suspected criminal cartel activity in the supply of galvanised steel tanks.

On 11 July, Clive Geoffrey Dean, a former director of Kondea, and Nicholas Simon Stringer, a former director of Galglass, appeared before Westminster Magistrates Court. They were charged with dishonestly agreeing with others to divide customers, fix prices and rig bids between 2004 and 2012. The deals were with a number of companies. The charges are under section 188 of the Enterprise Act 2002.

This is the second prosecution in this case. On 17 June 2014, Mr Peter Nigel Snee, Managing Director of Franklin Hodge Industries, pleaded guilty to similar charges.

Under the Act, directors found guilty face custodial sentences of up to 5 years and unlimited fines. The CMA and government are keen to send the message that they will not tolerate cartels and that board members had better beware of colluding with other companies. Indeed, the CMA is committed to pursuing cases of suspected criminal cartels more frequently and more rigorously.

The question is whether this will deter criminal collusion or whether it will simply make companies more careful to keep collusion hidden from the authorities.

Two men face charges in ongoing criminal cartel investigation CMA Press Release (11/7/14)
The First Real Test of Sentencing for the UK Cartel Offence Competition Policy Blog: UEA/ESRC/ccp, Andreas Stephan (24/6/14)
An Important Watershed in the CMA’s Prosecution of the Criminal Cartel Offence Eversheds (18/6/14)

Questions

  1. What types of restrictive practices constitute ‘cartel agreements’?
  2. In what ways are cartels against the interests of their customers?
  3. Are there any ways in which consumers might gain from a cartel?
  4. What factors are taken into consideration in deciding whether a director is guilty under section 188 of the 2002 Enterprise Act.
  5. Find out what other cases are being considered by the CMA. Choose one or two and examine how the activities of the firms/people involved might adversely affect consumers or other firms.
  6. Is anti-cartel legislation in the UK similar to that in the EU for cartels operating in more than one EU country?
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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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WhatsApp Doc?

Facebook has announced that it’s purchasing the messaging company WhatsApp. It is paying $19 billion in cash and shares, a sum that dwarfs other acquisitions of start-up companies in the app market. But what are the reasons for the acquisition and how will it affect users?

WhatsApp was founded less than five years ago and has seen massive growth and now has some 450 million active users, 70% of whom use it daily. This compares with Twitter’s 240 million users. An average of one million new users are signing up to WhatsApp each day. As the Wall Street Journal article, linked below, states:

Even by the get-big-fast standards of Silicon Valley, WhatsApp’s story is remarkable. The company, founded in 2009 by Ukrainian Jan Koum and American Brian Acton, reached 450 million users faster than any company in history, wrote Jim Goetz, a partner at investor Sequoia Capital.

Facebook had fewer than 150 million users after its fourth year, one third that of WhatsApp in the same time period.

Yet, despite its large user base, WhatsApp has just 55 employees, including 32 engineers.

For the user, WhatsApp offers a cheap service (free for the first year and just a 99¢ annual fee thereafter). There are no charges for sending or receiving text, pictures and videos. It operates on all mobile systems and carries no ads. It also offers privacy – once sent, messages are deleted from the company’s servers and are thus not available to government and other agencies trying to track people.

With 450 million current active users, this means that revenue next year will not be much in excess of $450 million. Thus it would seem that unless Facebook changes WhatsApp’s charging system or allows advertising (which it says it won’t) or sees massive further growth, there must have been reasons other than simple extra revenue for the acquisition.

Other possible reasons are investigated in the videos and articles below. One is to restrict competition which threatens Facebook’s own share of the messaging market: competition that has seen young people move away from Facebook, which they see is becoming more of a social media platform for families and all generations, not just for the young.

Videos and podcasts
Facebook pays billions for WhatsApp Messenger smartphone service Deutsche Welle, Manuel Özcerkes (19/2/14)
Facebook’s WhatsApp buy no bargain Reuters, Peter Thal Larsen (20/2/14)
Facebook Agrees To Buy WhatsApp For $19bn Sky News, Greg Milam (20/2/14)
Facebook Eliminates Competitor With WhatsApp Bloomberg TV, Om Malik, David Kirkpatrick and Paul Kedrosky (20/2/14)
Why WhatsApp Makes Perfect Sense for Facebook Bloomberg TV, Om Malik, David Kirkpatrick and Paul Kedrosky (20/2/14)
Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19bn BBC News, Mike Butcher (20/2/14)
Is Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp a desperate move? CNBC News, Rob Enderle (19/2/14)
Facebook’s $19bn WhatsApp deal ‘unjustifiable’ BBC Today Programme, Larry Magid (20/2/14)

Articles
Facebook to buy WhatsApp for $19 billion in deal shocker ReutersGerry Shih and Sarah McBride (20/2/14)
Facebook to Pay $19 Billion for WhatsApp Wall Street Journal, Reed Albergotti, Douglas MacMillan and Evelyn M. Rusli (19/2/14)
Facebook to buy WhatsApp for $19bn The Telegraph, Katherine Rushton (19/2/14)
Facebook buys WhatsApp: Mark Zuckerberg explains why The Telegraph (19/2/14)
WhatsApp deal: for Mark Zuckerberg $19bn is cheap to nullify the threat posed by messaging application The Telegraph, Katherine Rushton (20/2/14)
Why did Facebook buy WhatsApp? TechRadar, Matt Swider (20/2/14)
What is WhatsApp? What has Facebook got for $19bn? The Guardian, Alex Hern (20/2/14)
Facebook to buy messaging app WhatsApp for $19bn BBC News (20/2/14)
WhatsApp – is it worth it? BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (20/2/14)
Facebook buys WhatsApp: what the analysts say The Telegraph (19/2/14)
Facebook ‘dead and buried’ as teenagers switch to WhatsApp and Snapchat – because they don’t want mum and dad to see their embarrassing pictures Mail Online (27/12/13)
Facebook and WhatsApp: Getting the messages The Economist (22/2/14)

Questions

  1. Are Facebook and WhatsApp substitutes or complements, or neither?
  2. What does Facebook stand to gain from the acquisition of WhatsApp? Is the deal a largely defensive one for Facebook?
  3. Has Facebook paid too much for WhatsApp? What information would help you answer this question?
  4. Would it be a good idea for Facebook to build in the WhatsApp functionality into the main Facebook platform or would it be better to keep the two products separate by keeping WhatsApp as a self contained company?
  5. What effects will the acquisition have on competition in the social media and messaging market? Is this good for the user?
  6. Will the deal attract the attention of Federal competition regulators in the USA? If so, why; if not, why not?
  7. What are the implications for Google and Twitter?
  8. Find out and explain what happened to the Facebook share price after the acquisition was announced.
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An energy cartel?

As Elizabeth noted in Fuelling the Political Playing Field, there has been much debate recently about energy prices in the UK. Four of the ‘Big Six’ energy companies have now announced price rises. They average 9.1% – way above the rate of consumer price inflation and even further above the average rate of wage increases. What is more, they are considerably above the rate of increase in wholesale energy prices, which, according to Ofgem, have risen by just 1.7% in the past year.

The bosses of the energy companies have appeared before the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee to answer for their large price increases. The energy companies claim that the increases are necessary to cover not only rising wholesale prices, but also green levies by the government and ‘network charges’ for investments in infrastructure. However, it is hard to see how, even taking into account all three of these possible sources of cost increases, the scale of price increases can be justified.

Another possible explanation for the price hikes is that they are partly the result of a system of transfer pricing (see). The energy industry is vertically integrated. Energy companies are not only retailers to customers, but also generators of electricity and wholesale shippers of gas. It is possible that, by the producing/shipping arms of these companies charging higher prices to their retailing arms, the retailers’ costs do indeed go up more than the wholesale market cost. The result, however, is higher profits for the producing arms of these businesses. In other words, a higher transfer price allows profits to be diverted from each company’s retailing arm to its producing arm.

This is an argument for making the wholesale market more competitive and for stopping the by-passing of this market by producing arms of companies selling directly to their retailing arms. What the companies are being accused of is an abuse of market power and possibly of colluding with each other, at least tacitly, to support the continuation of such a practice.

So is the answer a price freeze, as proposed by the Labour Party? Is it an investigation of the energy market by the Competition Commission? Or is it, at least as a first step, much more openness by the energy companies and transparency about their pricing practices? Or is it to encourage consumers to switch between energy companies, including the smaller ones, which at present account for less than 5% of energy supply? The videos, podcasts and articles consider these issues.

Webcasts and Podcasts
Energy bosses blame high bills on wholesale prices Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon (29/10/13)
Why are energy bosses being questioned? BBC News, Stephanie McGovern (29/10/13)
Key questions Big Six energy companies must answer The Telegraph, Ann Robinson (29/10/13)
Energy bosses offer excuses for prices rises The Telegraph (29/10/13)
Energy bosses face MPs over price rises BBC News, John Moylan (29/10/13)
Energy boss ‘can’t explain’ competitors’ price hikes The Telegraph (29/10/13)
Ovo boss: Competition Commission would take too long BBC News (30/10/13)
Dale Vince: Energy market is ‘dysfunctional’ BBC Today Programme (30/10/13)
Tony Cocker: Public mistrust energy industry BBC Today Programme (30/10/13)
Ed Davey: Energy deals not just for ‘internet savvy’ BBC Today Programme (31/10/13)

Articles
Energy giants ‘charge as much as they can get away with’ The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (29/10/13)
UK energy markets need perestroika Financial Times (27/10/13)
Britain’s energy utilities must embrace glasnost Reuters, John Kemp (29/10/13)
Small energy firms ‘escape levies’ BBC News (30/10/13)
Is the energy market structurally flawed? BBC news, Robert Peston (30/10/13)
The energy market needs a Competition Commission investigation Fingleton Associates, John Fingleton (12/10/13)
Energy firms raised prices despite drop in wholesale costs The Guardian, Rowena Mason (29/10/13)
Only full-scale reform of our energy market will prevent endless price rises The Observer, Phillip Lee (26/10/13)
Energy Giants Blame Rising Bills On Green ‘Stealth Taxes’ Huffington Post, Asa Bennett (29/10/13)
Big Six energy firms ‘like cartel’ Belfast Telegraph (30/10/13)
Energy boss says he hasn’t done sums on green levies The Telegraph, Georgia Graham (30/10/13)
Graphic: How your energy bills have soared in ten years The Telegraph, Matthew Holehouse (30/10/13)
British energy suppliers’ explanations for price hikes just don’t add up The Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/10/13)
The 18th energy market investigation since 2001: Will this one be different? The Carbon Brief, Ros Donald (31/10/13)
Energy: Is there enough competition in the market? BBC News, Hugh Pym (26/11/13)

Information and Reports
Wholesale [electricity] market Ofgem
Wholesale [gas] market Ofgem
Response on wholesale energy costs Ofgem Press Release (29/10/13)
Response to Government’s Annual Energy Statement Ofgem Press Release (31/10/13)
Real Energy Market Reform The Labour Party

Questions

  1. Why may the costs of energy paid by the energy retailers to energy producers/shippers have risen more than the wholesale price?
  2. Explain what is meant by transfer pricing. How could transfer pricing be used to divert profits between the different divisions of a business?
  3. How can transfer pricing be designed by multinational companies to help them minimise their tax bills?
  4. Why is policing transfer pricing arrangements notoriously difficult?
  5. What evidence is there to show that switching between retailers by customers can help to drive retail energy prices down?
  6. How did the old electricity pool system differ from the current wholesale system?
  7. Should electricity companies be forced to pool the electricity they generate and not sell it to themselves through bilateral deals?
  8. Comment on the following: “The current electricity trading arrangements ‘create the very special incentive for the oligopolists. …The best of all possible worlds is where nobody invests. As supply and demand close up, the price spikes upwards, and supernormal profits result.’”
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OPEC cartel faces lawsuit for price fixing

Cartels are formal collusive agreements between firms, typically to fix prices, restrict output or divide up markets. As in the case of monopoly, the lack of competition may harm consumers, who are likely to have to pay higher prices. This, as economic theory demonstrates, results in a reduction in overall welfare.

For this reason competition authorities throughout the world now impose substantial fines on firms found to be involved in collusive activities and participants also face the threat of substantial jail sentences.

One of the most famous cartels is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This is an agreement between 12 countries to limit their production of oil. The OPEC cartel has been in place for over 50 years. Arguably, the intergovernmental nature of the cartel and political ramifications of intervening have meant that OPEC has been able to operate free from prosecution for so long.

However, very interestingly Freedom Watch, a US public interest group founded by a former US Department of Justice lawyer, has this week filed a lawsuit against OPEC for violation of competition laws. Quoted in the above press release, Larry Klayman, the founder of Freedom Watch, says that:

These artificially-inflated crude oil prices fall hard on the backs of Americans, many of whom cannot afford to buy gasoline during these severely depressed economic times.

Furthermore, how some of the members use the profits gained from the cartel is also called into question. He also goes on to suggest that the lack of intervention from US government agencies may be because the leaders of both political parties:

… line their pockets from big oil interests and are just sitting back and not doing anything.

This is not the first time that Freedom Watch has served a lawsuit on OPEC. In 2008, at an OPEC meeting in Florida:

In a bold move in front of members of the news media, Freedom Watch Chairman and Chief Legal Counsel Larry Klayman literally jumped out from behind a line of TV cameras and microphones on Friday, October 24, to serve a complaint on an OPEC oil minister.

That complaint was unsuccessful.

It will be fascinating to see the outcome of this latest case and, if successful, the implications for OPEC – updates to appear on this blog in due course.

Articles
Profile: Opec, club of oil producing states BBC News (01/02/12)
OPEC accused of conspiracy against consumers WND World, Bob Unruh (09/05/12)
Freedom Watch Attorney Sues OPEC Oil Minister for Economic Terrorism Conservative Crusader, Jim Kouri (31/10/08)

Lawsuits
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (7/5/12)
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (9/6/08)

Questions

  1. Why are cartels so severely punished?
  2. Why might it be important to punish the individuals involved as well as fine the cartel members?
  3. Why is fixing the price of oil particularly harmful for the economy?
  4. Why do you think the OPEC cartel has survived for so long?
  5. What do you think might be the long term implications of the lawsuit for OPEC?
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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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Creating a monopoly of the competition authorities

As part of its drive to reduce the number of ‘quangos’ (quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organisations), the government has decided to merger the two main competition authorities: the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading. The aim is to streamline the investigation of mergers, restrictive practices and the abuse of monopoly power, thereby saving costs and reducing the time taken before a decision is made. At present an initial OFT investigation can take many months before a reference is then made to the Competition Commission, which then starts the process of investigation from the beginning again.

Business leaders have welcomed the announcement, seeing the merger as a means of simplifying and speeding up investigations. But will the proposal be more effective in preventing the abuse of market power and encouraging competition? The following articles look at some of the issues.

OFT merger to shake up competition regime in UK Belfast Telegraph (15/10/10)
Competition lawyers gear up for merger of OFT and Competition Commission Legal Week, Friederike Heine (14/10/10)
Labour’s antitrust system dismantled Financial Times, Michael Peel (13/10/10)
Watchdog merger that merits review Financial Times (14/10/10)
Merged competition agency divides opinion Financial Times, Michael Peel (14/10/10)
Office of Fair Trading and Competition Commission to merge Guardian, Julia Kollewe (14/10/10)
Concerns at merger of OFT and Competition Commission Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (15/10/10)

Questions

  1. What are the current roles and responsibilities of the OFT and the Competition Commission?
  2. What types of market abuse are the two agencies designed to reduce or prevent? What instruments do they have at their disposal for enforcing their findings?
  3. What are the arguments in favour of the merger of the two agencies?
  4. What are the dangers of the merger?
  5. How will consumer protection be provided under the new regime?
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A smoking gun

In 2003, the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into possible collusion between tobacco manufacturers and retailers to fix prices. The investigation sought to establish whether the firms had breached the Chapter I prohibition of the Competition Act 1998. Chapter I is concerned with Restrictive Practices.

The allegation was that two tobacco manufacturers, Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher, had colluded with 11 retailers to fix the retail prices and thereby reduce competition. The details of the allegations are given in a 2008 press release.

As a result of its investigations, the OFT has decided to impose fines of £225m. “The OFT has concluded that each manufacturer had a series of individual arrangements with each retailer whereby the retail price of a tobacco brand was linked to that of a competing manufacturer’s brand. These arrangements restricted the ability of these retailers to determine their selling prices independently and breached the Competition Act 1998.” As the Times Online article states:

The OFT said that the companies were guilty of “price-linking” or “price matching”. It said that Imps and Gallaher had come to an arrangement with each retailer that if one or other manufacturer increased or decreased prices the retailer would alter the price of the competitor brand in line, up or down accordingly – a practice known in competition law circles as “vertical price collusion”.

Articles
‘Unlawful’ tobacco pricing leads to £225m fine by OFT BBC News (16/4/10)
OFT levies £225m fine for cigarette price fixing Guardian, Richard Wray (17/4/10)
Tobacco giants face £225m fine for price-fixing Independent, Alistair Dawber
(17/4/10)
OFT case will send smoke signals Financial Times, Michael Peel, Elizabeth Rigby and Pan Kwan Yuk (16/4/10)
Imperial and Morrison set to appeal OFT fine Financial Times, Michael Peel, Pan Kwan Yuk and Elizabeth Rigby (16/4/10)
OFT faces challenge to £225m price-fixing ruling Times Online, Robert Lea (17/4/10)
OFT gets tough on tobacco as price-fixing net is cast wider Independent, Nick Clark (26/4/08)

OFT Press Release
OFT imposes £225m fine against certain tobacco manufacturers and retailers over retail pricing practices OFT Press Release (16/4/10)

Questions

  1. What are the allegations against the tobacco manufacturers and retailers?
  2. Why has the OFT judged that such behaviour is in breach of the 1988 Competition Act, and hence against the public interest?
  3. What are the arguments put by the tobacco companies and retailers in their defence?
  4. Is giving companies an amnesty if they alert the OFT an example of a prisoners’ dilemma game? What credible threats or promises may the companies have in such a situation?
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