The USA has seen many horizontal mergers in recent years. This has turned industries that were once relatively competitive into oligopolies, resulting in lower output and higher prices for consumers.
In Europe, by contrast, many markets are becoming more competitive. The result is that in industries such as mobile phone services, airlines and broadband provision, prices are considerably lower in most European countries than in the USA. As the French economist, Thomas Philippon, states in a Guardian article:
When I landed in Boston in 1999, the United States was the land of free markets. Many goods and services were cheaper than in Europe. Twenty years later, American free markets are becoming a myth.
According to Asher Schechter (see linked article below):
Nearly every American industry has experienced an increase in concentration in the last two decades, to the point where … sectors dominated by two or three firms are not the exception, but the rule.
The result has been an increase in deadweight loss, which, according to research by Bruno Pelligrino, now amounts to some 13.3 per cent of total potential surplus.
Philippon in his research estimates that monopolies and oligopolies “cost the median American household about $300 a month” and deprive “American workers of about $1.25tn of labour income every year”.
One industry considered by the final two linked articles below is housebuilding. Since the US housing and financial crash of 2007–8 many US housebuilders have gone out of business. This has meant that the surviving companies have greater market power. According to Andrew van Dam in the linked Washington Post article below:
They have since built on that advantage, consolidating until many markets are controlled by just a few builders. Their power has exacerbated the country’s affordable-housing crisis, some economists say.
According to research by Luis Quintero and Jacob Cosman:
… this dwindling competition has cost the country approximately 150 000 additional homes a year – all else being equal. With fewer competitors, builders are under less pressure to beat out rival projects, and can time their efforts so that they produce fewer homes while charging higher prices.
Thanks to lobbying of regulators and politicians by businesses and various unfair, but just about legal, practices to exclude rivals, competition policy in the USA has been weak.
In the EU, by contrast, the competition authorities have been more active and tougher. For example, in the airline industry, EU regulators have “encouraged the entry of low-cost competitors by making sure they could get access to takeoff and landing slots.” Politicians from individual EU countries have generally favoured tough EU-wide competition policy to prevent companies from other member states getting an unfair advantage over their own country’s companies.
- What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of oligopoly compared with markets with many competitors?
- How can concentration in an industry be measured?
- Why have US markets become more concentrated?
- Why have markets in the EU generally become more competitive?
- Find out what has happened to levels of concentration in the UK housebuilding market.
- What are the possible effects of Brexit on concentration and competition policy in the UK?
The ‘Big 4’ supermarkets in the UK – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – have a 69.5% share of the Great Britain grocery market (see data link below). The next four – Aldi, Co-op, Lidl and Waitrose – have a 23.8% share. If two of the Big 4 were to merge, would there be a significant decline in competition? This is a question the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been considering in the light of Sainsbury’s planned £7.3 billion takeover of Asda (owned by the US retailing giant, Walmart).
In a recently published provisional report, the CMA argues that “the merger could lead to a substantial lessening of competition at both a national and local level.” The CMA has concerns that the merger:
…could lead to a worse experience for in-store and online shoppers across the UK through higher prices, a poorer shopping experience, and reductions in the range and quality of products offered. It also has concerns that prices could rise at a large number of Sainsbury’s and Asda petrol stations. …The combined impact means that people could lose out right across the UK and that the deal could also cost shoppers through reduced competition in particular areas where Sainsbury’s and Asda stores overlap.
Sainsbury’s and Asda currently have a combined market share of 31.2%. This is slightly larger than Tesco’s 27.7%. But would this give the merged companies too much market power? Would there not still be intense competition between the new Big 3? And, with the growth in the German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, as well as competition from Waitrose, the Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Iceland, would there be any significant decline in competition and choice and a rise in prices?
To answer this, it is crucial to define the grocery market. The CMA argues that the major competitors to any Big 4 company are the other Big 4 companies, rather than the German discounters or other supermarkets. Unlike Aldi and Lidl, the Big 4 have a range of facilities, such as fish and meat counters, delivery and a large range of branded products.
At a national level the CMA finds that the merger would reduce competitive pressure, so that a Big 3 would be less competitive than the Big 4, with higher prices and with reduced quality, range of products and in-store services.
At the local level the effects are likely to be serious. Often the consumer has very limited choice of supermarkets at a local level. If a particular area has just two supermarkets, Sainsbury’s and Asda, then the merger of the two could result in a substantial loss of competition. The only alternative for consumers in such areas would be to use small shops, which tend to be more highly priced anyway and do not compete head-to-head with the supermarkets, or to drive to another area or to shop online, depending on how far rival supermarkets are prepared to deliver. Similar arguments apply to supermarket petrol stations, where the only competition to supermarkets is from roadside petrol stations, often selling more highly priced petrol.
In response to the CMA’s findings, Sainsbury’s chief executive, Mike Coupe, claims that they focus too much on competition between the Big 4 and do not take into account competition from Lidl and Aldi, both of which are expending rapidly and now have a combined market share of 12.8% (compared with 10.7% two years ago).
Sainsbury’s and Asda also claim that there would be considerable scope for economies of scale, with lower costs being achieved through purchasing and logistics. In a joint statement they state that:
Combining Sainsbury’s and Asda would create significant cost savings, which would allow us to lower prices. Despite the savings being independently reviewed by two separate industry specialists, the CMA has chosen to discount them as benefits.
The two companies and other interested parties have until 13 March to respond to the provisional findings. The CMA will then issue its final report by 30 April 2019. If it sticks to its provisional findings, then either the merger will be blocked or the merging companies would have to ‘sell off a significant number of stores and other assets – potentially including one of the Sainsbury’s or Asda brands – to recreate the competitive rivalry lost through the merger.’ This might be very difficult to achieve as the new buyer would have to be big enough to provide effective competition to the remaining Big 3. Perhaps this could be an opportunity for Amazon to move into in-store grocery retailing. Or there may be some private equity company that would like to do the same.
It is likely that if the CMA sticks to its ruling, the two supermarkets will apply for a judicial review of the CMA’s decision.
Competition and Markets Authority Report
- In what market segments do the Big 4 supermarkets compete?
- Research earlier investigations of the supermarket sector by the UK competition authorities. What were their findings?
- In what ways might the proposed takeover of Asda by Sainsbury’s affect consumers’ interests (a) at a national level; (b) at the local level?
- What is the ‘GUPPI index’? How is it calculated and how is it used in assessing the effects of the proposed takeover? (See pages 88–91 and 109–11 of the CMA’s Provisional Report and pages I5–I15 of the Appendices and Glossary.)
- Distinguish between horizontal and vertical mergers. How is the distinction relevant in drawing lessons from the Tesco takeover of Booker for the Sainsbury’s takeover of Asda?
- Rather than blocking the takeover, one alternative would be for the CMA to permit it, subject to the sale of specific stores where there are problems of the merger limiting competition in a particular locality. Do you think that this would be a better alternative than blocking the takeover? Explain.
One of the announcements in the recent UK Budget was the ending of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), including its revised form, PF2. PFI was introduced by the Conservative government in 1992. Subsequently, it was to become central to the Labour government’s ‘Third-way’ approach of using the private sector to deliver public projects and services.
PFI involves a public–private partnership (PPP). The private sector builds and/or runs public projects, such as new schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, student accommodation, and so on. The public sector, in the form of government departments, NHS foundation trusts, local authorities, etc., then pays the private sector company a rent for the infrastructure or pays the company to provide services. The benefit of PFI is that it allows private-sector capital to be used for new projects and thus reduces the need for government to borrow; the disadvantage is that it commits the public-sector body to payments over the long-term to the company involved.
As the chart shows, PFI became an important means of funding public service provision during the 2000s. In the 10-year period up to financial year 2007/08, more than 50 new projects were being signed each year.
As the number of projects grew and with them the long-term financial commitments of the public sector, so criticisms mounted. These included:
- Quality and cost. It was claimed that PFI projects were resulting in poorer quality of provision and that cost control was often poor, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term.
- Credit availability. PFI projects are typically dependent on the private partner using debt finance to acquire the necessary funds. Therefore, credit conditions affect the ability of PFI to fund the delivery of public services. With the credit crunch of 2008/9, many firms operating PFI projects found it difficult to raise finance.
- The financial health of the private partner. What happens if the private company runs into financial difficulties. In 2005, the engineering company Jarvis only just managed to avoid bankruptcy by securing refinancing on all 14 of its PFI deals.
Recognising these problems, in 2011 the government set up a review of PFI. The result was a revised form of PFI, known as ‘PF2’. PF2 projects involved tighter financial control, with the government acting as a minority co-investor; more robust tendering processes, with bidders required to develop a long-term financing solution, where bank debt does not form the majority of the financing of the project; the removal of cleaning, catering and other ‘soft services’.
Despite the government’s intention that PPPs remain an important plank of its funding of public services, the number of new PFI/PF2 projects has nonetheless declined sharply during the 2010s as the chart shows. Of the 715 PPP projects as of 31 March 2017, 631 had been signed before May 2010. Indeed, in 2016/17 only 1 new project was signed.
The collapse of Carillion
Concerns over PPPs remained despite the reforms under PF2. These were brought dramatically into focus with the collapse of Carillion plc (see the blog, Outsourcing, PFI and the demise of Carillion). Carillion was a British company focused on construction and facilities management (i.e. support services for organisations). It was a significant private-sector partner in PPP projects. By 2014 it had won 60 PPP projects in the UK and Canada, including hospitals, schools, university buildings, prisons, roads and railways.
However, Carillion had increasing burdens of debt, caused, in part, by various major acquisitions, including McAlpine in 2008. Events came to a head when, on 15 January 2018, an application was made to the High Court for a compulsory liquidation of the company.
A subsequent report for the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in light of the collapse of Carillion found that procurement procedures were fundamentally flawed. It found that contracts were awarded based on cost rather than quality. This meant that some contracts were not sustainable. Between 2016 and the collapse of Carillion the government had been forced to renegotiate more than £120m of contracts so that public services could continue.
The ending of PPPs?
On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there were 716 PFI and PF2 projects at the time, either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models had slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007/8 to only one in 2016/17.’
At its conference in September 2018, the Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said that, if elected, a Labour government would not award any new PFI/PF2 contracts. He claimed that PFI/PF2 contracts were set to cost the taxpayer £200bn over the coming decade. Labour policy would be to review all existing PFI/PF2 contracts and bring the bulk of them fully back into the public sector.
Then in the Budget of 29 October 2018, the Chancellor announced that no further PFI/PF2 projects would be awarded, although existing ones would continue.
I have never signed off a PFI contract as chancellor, and I can confirm today that I never will. I can announce that the government will abolish the use of PFI and PF2 for future projects.
We will honour existing contracts. But the days of the public sector being a pushover, must end. We will establish a centre of excellence to actively manage these contracts in the taxpayers’ interest, starting in the health sector.
But does this mean that there will be no more public-private partnerships, of which PFI is just one example? The answer is no. As the Chancellor stated:
And in financing public infrastructure, I remain committed to the use of public-private partnership where it delivers value for the taxpayer and genuinely transfers risk to the private sector.
But just what form future PPPs will take is unclear. Clearly, the government will want to get value for money, but that depends on the mechanisms used to ensure efficient and high-quality projects. What is more, there is still the danger that the companies involved could end up with unsustainable levels of debt if economic circumstances change and it will still involve a burden on the taxpayer for the future.
- Find out how PF2 differs from PFI and assess the extent to which it overcame the problems identified with PFI.
- The government is not bringing back existing PFI contracts into the public sector, whereas the Labour Party would do so – at least with some of them. Assess the arguments for and against bringing PFI contracts ‘in-house’.
- Find out why Carillion collapsed. To what extent was this due to its taking on PFI contracts?
- What were the main findings of the National Audit Office’s assessment of PFI and PF2?
- The government still supports the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs). What form could these take other than as PFI/PF2 contracts? Would the problems associated with PFI/PF2 also apply to PPPs in general?
In the last few years there have been growing concerns (see here for example) that markets in the USA are becoming increasingly dominated by a small number of firms. It is feared that the result of this will be a reduction in competition. Consistent with this, evidence suggests that the profits these firms make have increased. Last month The Economist and the Resolution Foundation published evidence (see references below) suggesting a similar picture may be emerging in Britain.
The Economist divided the British economy into 600 sub-sectors and found that in 58% of these the share of total revenue accruing to the 4 biggest firms had increased since 2008. The Resolution Foundation found a similar picture, especially in manufacturing industries where from 2004-16 the top five firms’ share of total revenue increased by over 10%.
Economic theory would suggest that as markets become more concentrated prices are likely to rise and The Economist cites research showing that mark-ups charged by firms in Britain have indeed risen. In addition to consumers facing higher prices, there is also concern that the lack of competition both in the USA and the UK is leading to lower wages being paid to workers. On the other hand, unlike in the USA, the evidence from the UK does not so far suggest there has also been an increase in corporate profits. Instead, it appears that the more successful firms’ profits have increased at the expense of their rivals.
This evidence on profits is line with a number of arguments that suggest we should perhaps be less concerned when markets are dominated by a small number of firms. Large firms may benefit from economies of scale and, being sufficiently large may be necessary for firms to innovate in new products and processes. Furthermore, high market shares may result from the competitive process as a reward for a firm developing a unique product or being more efficient than its rivals.
The Economist cites the supermarket industry as an example where concentrated is high, but competition is intense. Interestingly, this is a market where the British competition authorities have previously been concerned about the level of competition and spent considerable amounts of time investigating.
Despite these two opposing viewpoints, overall, The Economist argues strongly that we should be concerned about the situation in Britain. Not only are prices too high and wages too low, but growth in productivity is slow, even for the leading firms. Furthermore, they make clear that the situation may worsen following Brexit. It is argued that:
leaving the EU’s single market and customs union would reduce trade, easing competitive pressure from abroad.
This is consistent with evidence that joining the EC in the mid 1970s increased foreign competition in the UK and helped to end the low productivity growth that had plagued the economy since the 1930s.
Furthermore, it is suggested that:
to attract investment the government might look more favourably on proposed mergers—and loosening regulations would be easier outside the EU’s competition regime.
Therefore, it is clear that in the future there will be a vital role for the UK’s competition authority to remain independent of political objectives and aim to promote competition. In particular, they must prevent mergers that raise concentration and harm competition and intervene if they believe firms are abusing their dominant positions. Of course, following Brexit the case load of the competition authority in the UK will increase dramatically as they have to take on cases previously dealt with by the European Commission. One estimate is that it will need to look at around 40% more merger cases. It will certainly be interesting to see how competition in markets in Britain evolves over the next few years and the role competition policy plays in regulating this process.
- Outline the ways in which concentration in a market is usually measured.
- Explain the different price levels that arise under the alternative models of market structure.
- Why do you think competition is currently so intense in the supermarket industry?
On 15 January 2018, Carillion went into liquidation. It was a major construction, civil engineering and facilities management company in the UK and was involved in a large number of public- and private-sector projects. Many of these were as a partner in a joint venture with other companies.
It was the second largest supplier of construction and maintenance services to Network Rail, including HS2. It was also involved in the building of hospitals, including the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital and Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick. It also provided maintenance, cleaning and catering services for many schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, government departments and local authorities. In addition it was involved in many private-sector projects.
Much of the work on the projects awarded to Carillion was then outsourced to other companies, many of which are small construction, maintenance, equipment and service companies. A large number of these may themselves be forced to close as projects cease and many bills remain unpaid.
Many of the public-sector projects in which Carillion was involved were awarded under the Public Finance Initiative (PFI). Under the scheme, the government or local authority decides the service it requires, and then seeks tenders from the private sector for designing, building, financing and running projects to provide these services. The capital costs are borne by the private sector, but then, if the provision of the service is not self-financing, the public sector pays the private firm for providing it. Thus, instead of the public sector being an owner of assets and provider or services, it is merely an enabler, buying services from the private sector. The system is known as a Public Private Partnership.
Clearly, there are immediate benefits to the public finances from using private, rather than public, funds to finance a project. Later, however, there is potentially an extra burden of having to buy the services from the private provider at a price that includes an element for profit. What is hoped is that the costs to the taxpayer of these profits will be more than offset by gains in efficiency.
Critics, however, claim that PFI projects have resulted in poorer quality of provision and that cost control has often been inadequate, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term. What is more, many of the projects have turned out to be highly profitable, suggesting that the terms of the original contracts were too lax.
There was some modification to the PFI process in 2012 with the launching of the government’s modified PFI scheme, dubbed PF2. Most of the changes were relatively minor, but the government would act as a minority public equity co-investor in PF2 projects, with the public sector taking stakes of up to 49 per cent in individual private finance projects and appointing a director to the boards of each project. This, it was hoped, would give the government greater oversight of projects.
With the demise of Carillion, there has been considerable debate over outsourcing by the government to the private sector and of PFI in particular. Is PFI the best model for funding public-sector investment and the running of services in the public sector?
On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there are currently 716 PFI and PF2 projects either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models has slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007-08 to only one in 2016-17.’
Should the government have closer oversight of private providers? The government has been criticised for not heeding profit warnings by Carillion and continuing to award it contracts.
Should the whole system of outsourcing and PFI be rethought? Should more construction and services be brought ‘in-house’ and directly provided by the public-sector organisation, or at least managed directly by it with a direct relationship with private-sector providers? The articles below consider these issues.
Carillion collapse: How can one of the Government’s biggest contractors go bust? Independent, Ben Chu (15/1/18)
The main unanswered questions raised by Carillion’s collapse The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans (15/1/18)
Carillion taskforce to help small firms hit by outsourcer’s collapse The Telegraph, Rhiannon Curry (18/1/18)
Carillion Q&A: The consequences of collapse and what the government should do next The Conversation, John Colley (17/1/18)
UK finance watchdog exposes lost PFI billions Financial Times, Henry Mance and George Parker (17/1/18)
PFI not ‘fit for purpose’, says UK provider Financial Times, Gill Plimmer and Jonathan Ford (6/11/17)
Revealed: The £200bn Cost Of ‘Wasteful’ PFI Contracts Huffington Post, George Bowden (18/1/18)
U.K. Spends $14 Billion Per Year on Carillion-Style Projects Bloomberg, Alex Morales (18/1/18)
Carillion may have gone bust, but outsourcing is a powerful public good The Guardian, John McTernan (17/1/18)
PFI deals ‘costing taxpayers billions’ BBC News (18/1/18)
Taxpayers will need to pay £200bn PFI bill, says Watchdog ITV News (18/1/18)
The PFI bosses fleeced us all. Now watch them walk away The Guardian, George Monbiot (16/1/18)
Carillion’s collapse shows that we need an urgent review of outsourcing The Guardian, David Walker (16/1/18)
Carillion collapse: What next for public services? LocalGov, Jos Creese (16/1/18)
Taxpayers to foot £200bn bill for PFI contracts – audit office The Guardian, Rajeev Syal (18/1/18)
A new approach to public private partnerships HM Treasury (December 2012)
Private Finance Initiative and Private Finance 2 projects: 2016 summary data GOV.UK
PFI and PF2 National Audit Office (18/1/18)
- Why did Carillion go into liquidation? Could this have been foreseen?
- Identify the projects in which Carillion has been involved.
- What has the government proposed to deal with the problems created by Carillion’s liquidation?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Private Finance Initiative?
- Why have the number and value of new PFI projects declined significantly in recent years?
- How might PFI projects be tightened up so as to retain the benefits and minimise the disadvantages of the system?
- Why have PFI cost reductions proved difficult to achieve? (See paragraphs 2.7 to 2.17 in the National Audit Office report.)
- How would you assess whether PFI deals represent value for money?
- What are the arguments for and against public-sector organisations providing services, such as cleaning and catering, directly themselves rather than outsourcing them to private-sector companies?
- Does outsourcing reduce risks for the public-sector organisation involved?