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Government calls for petrol prices to reflect falling oil prices

A big expenditure for many households is petrol. The price of petrol is affected by various factors, but the key determinant is what happens in the oil market. When oil prices rise, this pushes up the price of petrol at the pumps. But, when they fall, do petrol prices also fall? That is the question the government is asking.

The price of oil is a key cost of production for companies providing petrol and so when oil prices rise, it shifts the supply curve up to the left and hence prices begin to increase. We also see supply issues developing with political turmoil, fears of war and disruption and they have a similar effect. As such, it is unsurprising that petrol prices rise with concern of supply and rising costs. But, what happens when the opposite occurs? Oil prices have fallen significantly: by a quarter. Yet, prices at the pump have fallen by around 6%. This has caused anger amongst customers and the government is now urging petrol retailers to pass their cost savings from a lower price of oil onto customers. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:

“I believe it’s called the rocket-and-feather effect. The public have a suspicion that when the price of oil rises, pump prices go up like a rocket. But when the price of oil falls, pump prices drift down like a feather … This has been investigated before and no conclusive evidence was found. But even if there were a suspicion it could be true this time it would be an outrage.”

However, critics suggest that tax policy is partly to blame as 63% of the cost of petrol is in the form taxation through fuel duty and VAT. Therefore even if oil prices do fall, the bulk of the price we pay at the pumps is made up of tax revenue for the government. Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation said:

“It’s a simple story. Before tax we have just about the cheapest petrol and diesel in Europe. After tax we have just about the most expensive … It’s right to keep the pressure on fuel retailers but if drivers want to know what’s behind the high pump prices of recent years all they have to do is follow the trail back to the Treasury … if ministers are serious about reducing fuel prices further then they should cut duty further.”

(Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

However, even taking out the fuel duty and VAT, Arthur Renshaw, an analyst at Experian has said that the actual price of petrol has fallen by 21% since last year. Still, a much bigger decrease than we have seen at the pumps. One further reason for this may be the fact that dollars is the currency in which oil is traded. The pound has been relatively weak, falling by almost 7% over the past few months and hence even though the price of oil has fallen, the effect on UK consumers has been less pronounced.

The big supermarkets have responded to government calls to cut petrol prices, but how much of this cut was influenced by the government and how much was influenced by the actions of the other supermarkets is another story. A typical oligopoly, where interdependence is key, price wars are a constant feature, so even if one supermarket cut petrol prices, this would force others to respond in kind. If such price wars continue, further price cuts may emerge. Furthermore, with oil production still at such high levels, this market may continue to put downward pressure on petrol prices. Certainly good news for consumers – we now just have to wait to see how long it lasts, with key oil producing countries, such as Russia taking a big hit. The following articles consider this story.

Articles
Supermarkets cut fuel prices again The Telegraph, Nick Collins (6/11/14)
Petrol retailers urged to cut prices in line with falling oil costs The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/11/14)
Supermarkets cut petrol prices after chancellor’s criticism Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (6/11/14)
Governent ‘watching petrol firms’ Mail Online (6/11/14)
Our horrendous tax rates are the real reason why petrol is still so expensive The Telegraph, Allister Heath (6/11/14)
Osborne ‘expects’ fuel price drop after fall in oil price BBC News (6/11/14)
Danny Alexander tells fuel suppliers to pass on oil price cuts to drivers The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (5/11/14)
Further UK fuel cuts expected as pound strengthens The Scotsman, Alastair Dalton (6/11/14)

Data
Spot oil prices Energy Information Administration
Weekly European Brent Spot Price Energy Information Administration (Note: you can also select daily, monthly or annual.)
Annual Statistical Bulletin OPEC

Questions

  1. Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate the impact that a fall in the price of oil should have on the price of petrol.
  2. What is the impact of a tax on petrol?
  3. Why is petrol a market that is so heavily taxed? You should think about the incidence of taxation in your answer.
  4. Why does the strength of the pound have an impact on petrol prices in the UK and how much of the oil price is passed onto customers at the pumps?
  5. Does the structure of the supermarket industry help customers when it comes to the price of petrol? Explain your answer.
  6. Militant action in some key oil producing countries has caused fears of oil disruption. Why is that oil prices don’t reflect these very big concerns?
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