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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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