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Posts Tagged ‘UK exports’

Ramifications from the recent dispute between Tesco and Unilever

An earlier post on this site described a recent row between Tesco and Unilever that erupted when Unilever attempted to raise the prices it charges Tesco for its products. Unilever justified this because its costs have increased as a result of the UK currency depreciation following the Brexit decision.

It also appears that more general concerns that the fall in the value of sterling would lead to higher retail prices were prevalent around the time that the Tesco Unilever dispute came to light. Former Sainsbury’s boss, Justin King, made clear that British shoppers should be prepared for higher prices. He also said that:

Retailers’ margins are already squeezed. So there is no room to absorb input price pressures and costs will need to be passed on. But no one wants to be the first to break cover. No business wants to be the first to blame Brexit for a rise in prices. But once someone does, there will be a flood of companies because they will all be suffering.

It is interesting to consider further why the Tesco and Unilever case was the first to make the headlines and why their dispute was resolved so quickly. In addition, what are the more general implications for the retail prices consumers will have to pay?

Arguably, Unilever saw itself as having a strong hand in negotiations with Tesco because its product portfolio includes a wide variety of must-stock brands, including Pot Noodles, Marmite and Persil, that are found in 98% of UK households..

Unilever has been criticised for using the currency devaluation as an excuse to justify charging Tesco more, since most of its products are made in the UK. However, Unilever was quick to point outthat commodities it uses in the manufacture of products are priced in US dollars, so the currency devaluation can still affect the cost of products that it manufactures in the UK. In addition, Unilever’s chief financial officer, Graeme Pitkethly, insisted that price increases due to rising costs were a normal part of doing business:

We are taking price increases in the UK. That is a normal devaluation-led cycle.

On the other hand, even if the cost increases faced by Unilever are genuine, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been so quick to adjust its prices downwards in response to a currency appreciation. After all, a commonly observed phenomenon across a range of markets is ‘rockets and feathers’ pricing behaviour i.e. prices going up from a cost increase more quickly than they go down following an equivalent cost decrease.

Compared to Unilever, some other suppliers are likely to have less bargaining power – in particular, those competing in highly fragmented markets and those producing less branded products. In such markets the suppliers may be forced to accept cost increases. For example, almost 50% of butter and cheese consumed in the UK comes from milk sourced from EU markets. Protecting such suppliers is one of the key roles of the Grocery code of conduct that the UK competition agency has put in place.

From Tesco’s point of view it will have benefited from good publicity by doing its best to protect consumers from price hikes. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:

Retailers are firmly on the side of consumers in negotiating with suppliers and improving efficiencies in the supply chain to control the inflationary pressure that is building through the devaluation of the pound.

However, it is also clear that Tesco had its own motives for resisting increased costs for Unilever’s products. In such situations both supplier and retailer should be keen to avoid a situation where they both impose their own substantial mark-ups at each stage of the supply chain. It is well established that this creates a double mark-up and not only harms consumers, but also the supplier and retailer themselves. Instead, the firms have an incentive to use more complex contractual arrangements to solve the problem. For example, suppliers may pay slotting allowances to get a place on the retailers’ shelves in exchange for lower retail mark-ups.

It has also been claimed that cutthroat competition in the supermarket industry, especially from discounter retailers Aldi and Lidl, made Tesco particularly keen to prevent price rises. Some arguments suggest that these discounters will be best placed to benefit from the currency devaluation as they sell more own brands, have a limited range, the leanest supply chains and benefit from substantial economies of scale. On the other hand, they source more of their products from abroad and it has been suggested that:

A fall in sterling will push prices up for everyone who sources products from Europe, but Aldi and Lidl will be affected more than most.

One prediction suggests that the overall impact of the currency depreciation on food prices will be an increase of around 3%. This may be particularly worrisome given concerns that the impact will fall most heavily on benefit claimants and other low-income households.

Outside of the food industry, Mike Rake, the chairman of BT, has highlighted the fact that:

Imported mobile phones and broadband home hubs were already 10% more expensive and the cost would have to be passed on to consumers in the near future.

It is therefore clear that the currency devaluation has the potential to create substantial tensions in the supply-chain agreements across a range of markets. The impact on the firms involved and on consumers will depend upon a wide range of factors, including the competitiveness of the markets, the nature of the firms involved and their bargaining power. Furthermore, evidence from an earlier currency depreciation in Latin America makes clear that the price elasticity of demand will be another factor that determines the impact price rises have.

Finally, it is also worth noting that a potential flip side of the currency depreciation is a boost for UK exports. However, it has been suggested that the manufacturing potential to take advantage of this in the UK is limited. In addition, even the manufacturing that does take place, for example in the car industry, often relies on components imported from abroad.

The Brexiteers’ Marmite conspiracy theories exposed their utter ignorance of how markets really work Independent, Ben Chu (16/10/16)
Tesco price dispute sends Unilever brand perceptions tumbling Marketing Week, Leonie Roderick (17/10/16)
Unilever and Tesco both benefit from their price row, but Brexit will bring more pain Marketing Week, Mark Ritson (19/10/16)
Why the Tesco v Unilever feud was good for British business campaign, Helen Edwards (20/10/16)


  1. What are some of the factors that affect a supplier’s bargaining power?
  2. How might the discount retailers respond to the currency devaluation?
  3. Use the figures from Latin America in the article cited above to calculate the price elasticity of demand.
  4. Explain why the price elasticity of demand is an important determinant of the effect of a price rise.
  5. Can you think of other examples of markets that may be particularly prone to price rises following a currency depreciation?
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How sustainable is UK consumer spending? (update)

In our blog How sustainable is UK consumer spending? we considered concerns of some commentators that consumer spending was growing unduly quickly given the absence of any sustained growth in disposable income. The Second Estimate of GDP, Q2 2013 reports that the economy grew by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of the year, with household expenditure growing by 0.4 per cent.

Because household spending makes up about two-thirds of aggregate demand in the UK it is important to keep an eye on it. The latest figures show that the real value of consumer spending by British households has risen in each quarter since 2011 Q4. In other words, the volume of household purchases has risen for seven consecutive quarters. Over the period, the growth in real consumer spending has averaged 0.4 per cent per quarter.

The chart helps to demonstrate the stark turnaround in the growth in consumer spending. Over the period from 2008 Q1 to 2011 Q3, real consumer spending typically fell by 0.4 per cent each quarter. As we noted in our previous blog, this was a period when the global financial system was in distress, with the availability of credit severely dampened, but also a period when households were concerned about their own financial balances and the future prospects for growth. Over the same period, real GDP typically fell by a little under 0.3 per cent each quarter. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The real value of consumer spending has yet to return to its 2007 Q4 peak (£242 billion at 2010 prices). In 2013 Q2 the real value of consumer spending is estimated still to be 3 per cent below this level (£235 billion at 2010 prices). These figures are mirrored by the economy at large. Real GDP peaked in 2008 Q1 (£393 billion at 2010 prices). Despite the back-to-back quarterly increases in real GDP of 0.3 per cent in Q1 and 0.7 per cent in Q2, output in 2013 Q2 (£380 billion at 2010 prices) remains 3.2 per cent below the 2008 Q1 peak.

While real consumption values are below their 2007 Q4 peak, the concern is whether current rates of growth in consumer spending are sustainable. In particular, should this growth cause the household sector financial distress there would be real pain for the economy further down the line. Some commentators argue that the latest GDP figures are consistent with a more balanced recovery. In Q2 economic growth was supported too by other parts of the economy. For instance, we saw a 3.6 per cent rise in export volumes and a 1.7 per cent rise in gross fixed capital formation (i.e. investment expenditure).

Nonetheless, it is the protracted period over which consumer spending has been growing robustly that concerns some economists. Hence, we will need to continue to monitor the growth in all components of aggregate demand and, in particular, changes in household consumption, income, saving and borrowing.

Second Estimate of GDP, Q2 2013 Dataset Office for National Statistics


New articles
UK economic growth revised up to 0.7% BBC News, (23/8/13)
UK GDP revised up to 0.7pc in second quarter: reaction Telegraph, (23/8/13)
UK rallying faster than thought as exports leap boosts GDP Independent, Russell Lynch and Ben Chu (24/8/13)
UK economy expanding faster than first thought, GDP revision shows Guardian, Heather Stewart (23/8/13)
Growth upgrade points to ‘sustainable’ recovery Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/8/13)

Previous articles
UK wages decline among worst in Europe BBC News, (11/8/13)
Squeezing the hourglass The Economist, (10/8/13)
UK first-quarter growth unchanged BBC News, (28/5/13)
Summer heatwave triggers shopping spree in ‘Wongaland’ economy Telegraph, Steve Hawkes and Steven Swinford (15/8/13)
Retail sales data better than expected as UK economy enjoys summer bounce Guardian, Heather Stewart (15/8/13)
Mark Carney is banking on you to keep spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (10/8/13)
NIESR upgrades UK economy but warns on consumer spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/13)
Consumers ‘expect better economy’ Belfast Telegraph, (4/8/13)


  1. Explain what you understand by a ‘sustainable’ economic recovery.
  2. What are the expenditure components that make up Aggregate Demand?
  3. Explain what you understand by consumption smoothing.
  4. Why would we would typically expect consumption growth to be less variable than that in disposable income?
  5. Would we expect consumption growth to always be less variable than that in disposable income? Explain your answer.
  6. What impact do you think the financial crisis has had on consumer behaviour?
  7. To what extent do you think the current growth in consumer spending is sustainable?
  8. How important are expectations in determining consumer behaviour?
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The trade gap: good news or bad?

There’s some good news and some bad news concerning the balance of payments, according to figures just released. First the good: the trade in goods and services deficit narrowed from £4.89bn in August to £4.57bn in September; and the trade in goods deficit narrowed from £8.47bn to £8.23bn. Now the bad: the trade in goods and services deficit rose from £12.63bn in quarter 2 to £14.28bn in quarter 3 and the trade in goods deficit rose from £19.72bn to £21.33bn over the same period.

This is worrying as the recovery depends to a large part on a recovery in exports. These rose by only 1.36% from quarter 2 to quarter 3, whereas imports rose by 3.33%. And this is despite a fall in the exchange rate of the pound against the UK’s trading partners over the past four years. Looking at the quarter 3 figures, the exchange rate index was 104.3 in 2007, 91.6 in 2008, 82.9 in 2009 and 81.8 in 2010. What is also worrying is a very modest rise in manufacturing output.

UK’s September trade deficit smallest since June BBC News (9/11/10)
Record trade deficit for UK Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/11/10)
Britain’s trade gap: What the economists say Guardian (9/11/10)

UK Trade National Statistics
Statistical Bulletin: UK Trade September 2010 National Statistics
United Kingdom Balance of Payments – The Pink Book National Statistics (Balance of payments data going back many years)
Statistical Interactive Database: Effective exchange rates Bank of England


  1. How is a depreciation of its currency likely to affect a country’s balance of payments?
  2. What are the requirements for the UK to achieve an export-led recovery?
  3. Why did the UK’s balance of trade deteriorate between Q2 and Q3 of 2010?
  4. How might supply-side policy affect the balance of trade?
  5. What determines the income elasticity of demand for (a) UK imports; (b) UK exports?
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