Category: Essential Economics for Business: Ch 05

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?

The term ‘Google it’ is now part of everyday language. If there is ever something you don’t know, the quickest, easiest, most cost-effective and often the best way to find the answer is to go to Google. While there are many other search engines that provide similar functions and similar results, Google was revolutionary as a search engine and as a business model.

This article by Tim Harford, writing for BBC News, looks at the development of Google as a business and as a search engine. One of the reasons why Google is so effective for individuals and businesses is the speed with which information can be obtained. It is therefore used extensively to search key terms and this is one of the ways Google was able to raise advertising revenue. The business model developed to raise finance has therefore been a contributing factor to the decline in newspaper advertising revenue.

Google began the revolution in terms of search of engines and, while others do exist, Google is a classic example of a dominant firm and that raises certain problems. The article looks at many aspects of Google.

Just google it: The student project that changed the world BBC News, Tim Harford (27/03/17)

Questions

  1. Is Google a natural monopoly? What are the characteristics of a natural monopoly and how does this differ from a monopoly?
  2. Are there barriers to entry in the market in which Google operates?
  3. What are the key determinants of demand for Google from businesses and individuals?
  4. Why do companies want to advertise via Google? How might the reasons differ from advertising in newspapers?
  5. Why has there been a decline in advertising in newspapers? How do you think this has affected newspapers’ revenue and profits?

Price fixing agreements between firms are one of the most serious breaches of competition law. Therefore, if detected, the firms involved face substantial fines (see here for an example), plus there is also the potential for jail sentences and director disqualification for participants. However, due to their secretive nature and the need for hard evidence of communication between firms, it is difficult for competition authorities to detect cartel activity.

In order to assist detection, competition authorities offer leniency programmes that guarantee full immunity from fines to the first participant to come forward and blow the whistle on the cartel. This has become a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels. Recently, competition authorities have introduced a number of new tools to try to enhance cartel detection.

First, the European Commission launched an online tool to make it easier for cartels to be reported to them. This tool allows anonymous two-way communication in the form of text messages between a whistle blower and the Commission. The Commissioner in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:

If people are concerned by business practices that they think are wrong, they can help put things right. Inside knowledge can be a powerful tool to help the Commission uncover cartels and other anti-competitive practices. With our new tool it is possible to provide information, while maintaining anonymity. Information can contribute to the success of our investigations quickly and more efficiently to the benefit of consumers and the EU’s economy as a whole.

Second, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an online and social media campaign to raise awareness of what is illegal under competition law and to encourage illegal activity to be reported to them. The CMA stated that:

Cartels are both harmful and illegal, and the consequences of breaking the law are extremely serious. That is why we are launching this campaign – to help people understand what cartel activity looks like and how to report it so we can take action.

This campaign is on the back of the CMA’s own research which found that less that 25% of the businesses they surveyed believed that they knew competition law well. Furthermore, the CMA is now offering a reward of up to £100,000 and guaranteed anonymity to individuals who provide them with information.

It will be fascinating to see the extent to which these new tools are used and whether they aid the competition authorities in detecting and prosecuting cartel behaviour.

Articles

CMA launches crackdown on cartels as illegal activity rises The Telegraph, Bradley Gerrard (20/03/17)
European Commission launches new anonymous whistleblower tool, but who would use it? Competition Policy Blog, Andreas Stephan (21/03/17)
CMA launches campaign to crackdown on cartels Insider Media Limited, Karishma Patel (21/03/17)

Questions

  1. Why do you think leniency programmes are a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels?
  2. Who do you think is most likely to blow the whistle on a cartel (see the article above by A.Stephan)?
  3. Why is it worrying that so few businesses appear to know competition law well?
  4. Which of the two tools do you think is most likely to enhance cartel detection? Explain why.

The UK Parliament’s Culture Media and Sport Select Committee has been examining the secondary ticketing market. The secondary market for events is dominated by four agencies – viagogo, eBay-owned StubHub and Ticket-master’s Get Me In! and Seatwave. These buy tickets to events in the primary market (i.e. from the events or their agents) and then resell them, normally at considerably inflated prices to people unable to get tickets in the primary market.

One example has grabbed the headlines recently. This is where viagogo was advertising tickets for an Ed Sheeran charity concert for £5000. The original tickets were sold for between £40 and £110, with the money going to the Teenage Cancer Trust. None of viagogo’s profits would go to the charity. The tickets were marked ‘not for resale’; so there was doubt that anyone buying a ticket from viagogo would even be able to get into the concert!

There are four major issues.

The first is that the tickets are often sold, as in the case of the Ed Sheeran concert, at many times their face value. We examined this issue back in September 2016 in the blog What the market will bear? Secondary markets and ticket touts).

The second is that the secondary sites use ‘bots’ to buy tickets in bulk when they first come on sale. This makes it much harder for customers to buy tickets on the primary site. Often all the tickets are sold within seconds of coming on sale.

The third is whether the tickets sold on the secondary market are legitimate. Some, like the Ed Sheeran tickets, are marked ‘not for resale’; some are paperless and yet the secondary ticket agencies are accused of selling paper versions, which are worthless.

The fourth is that multiple seats that are listed together are not always located together and so people attending with friends or partners may be forced to sit separately.

These are the issues that were addressed by the Culture Media and Sport committee at its meeting on 21 March. It was due to take evidence from various people, including viagogo, the agency which has come in for the most criticism. Viagogo, however, decided not to attend. This has drawn withering criticism from the press and on social media. One of the other witnesses at the meeting, Keith Kenny, sales and ticketing director for the West End musical Hamilton, described viagogo as ‘a blot on the landscape’. He said, ‘Ultimately, our terms and conditions say ticket reselling is forbidden. If you look at the way that glossy, sneaky site is constructed, they’ve gone an awful long way not to be compliant in the way they’ve built their site.’

The Competition and Markets Authority launched an enforcement investigation last December into suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary tickets market. This follows on from an earlier report for the government by an independent review chaired by Professor Waterson.

The government itself is considering amending the Digital Economy Bill to make it illegal to use bots to buy tickets in excess of the limit set by the event. Online touts who break this new law would face unlimited fines.

Articles

Touts to face unlimited fines for bulk-buying tickets online Independent, Roisin O’Connor (13/3/17)
Unlimited fines for bulk buying ticket touts BBC News (11/3/17)
Ticket touts face unlimited fines for using ‘bots’ to buy in bulk The Guardian, Rob Davies (10/3/17)
Ticket touts face unlimited fines in government crackdown on bots Music Week, James Hanley (11/3/17)
Government confirms bots ban and better enforcement in response to secondary ticketing review CMU, Chris Cooke (13/3/17)
The ‘Viagogo Glitch’: Why Fans Must Be Put First In The Secondary Ticketing Market Huffington Post, Sharon Hodgson (14/3/17)
Angry MPs accuse no-show Viagogo of ‘fraudulent mis-selling’ of Ed Sheeran tickets i News, Adam Sherwin (21/3/17)
Ed Sheeran’s manager Stuart Camp on secondary ticketing BBC News, Stuart Camp (21/3/17)
Fury at Viagogo no-show as MPs probe tickets on sale for thousands Coventry Telegraph, James Rodger (22/3/17)
Music fans given 10-step guide on how to tackle ticket touts Daily Record, Mark McGivern (20/3/17)
Viagogo snubs MPs’ inquiry into online ticket reselling The Guardian, Rob Davies (21/3/17)
Viagogo a No-Show at U.K. Hearing Into Secondary Ticketing: ‘Huge Lack of Respect’ Billboard, Richard Smirke (21/3/17)
Daily Record campaign against ticket touts reaches Parliament but Viagogo don’t show up to answer claims Daily Record, Torcuil Crichton and Keith McLeod (22/3/17)
Ticketmaster is using its software — and your data — to take on ticket-buying bots recode, Peter Kafka (14/3/17)

Official sites and documents
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee holds a further evidence session on ticket abuse. Culture, Media and Sport Commons Select Committee (20/3/17)
CMA launches enforcement investigation into online secondary ticketing Competition and Markets Authority, Press Release (19/12/16)
Independent Review of Consumer Protection Measures concerning Online Secondary Ticketing Facilities Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Professor Michael Waterson (May 2016)
Ticket abuse: ban digital ‘harvesting’ software says Committee Culture, Media and Sport Commons Select Committee (24/11/16)

Questions

  1. Use a demand and supply diagram to demonstrate how secondary ticket agencies are able to sell tickets for popular events at prices several times the tickets’ face value.
  2. If secondary ticket sites and ticket touts are able to sell tickets at well above box office prices, isn’t this simply a reflection of people’s willingness to pay (i.e. their marginal utility)? In which case, aren’t these sellers providing a useful service?
  3. How do secondary ticket agencies reduce consumer surplus? Could they reduce it to zero?
  4. See Tickets, the primary market ticket agency, has set up a secondary site, whereby fans can trade tickets with one another at a mark-up capped at just 5%. Will this help to reduce abuses on the secondary market, or is it a totally separate part of the market?
  5. Would it be a good idea for event organisers to charge higher prices for popular events than they do at present, but still below the equilibrium?
  6. How does the price elasticity of demand influence the mark-up that secondary ticket agencies can make? Illustrate this on a diagram similar to the one in question 1.
  7. What measures would you advocate to make tickets more available to the public at reasonable prices? Explain their benefits and any drawbacks.
  8. What would be the effect on prices if the use of bots could be successfully banned?

In the blog OPEC deal pushes up oil prices John discussed the agreement made by OPEC members to reduce total oil output from the start of 2017, with Saudi Arabia making the biggest cut in output. The amount of oil being provided is a key determinant of the oil price and this agreement to reduce oil output contributed to rising prices. However, now oil prices have begun to fall (see chart below) with Saudi Arabia in particular recording an increase in output but all OPEC nations noting that global crude stocks had risen.

Supply and demand are key here and over the past few years, it has been a problem of excess supply that has led to low prices. OPEC nations have been aiming to achieve greater stability in global oil markets. Given the excess supply, it has been output of oil that the cartel member have been trying to cut. That was the point of the agreement that came into effect from the start of 2017. However, even with the recent increase in production Saudi Arabia notes that its output is still in line with its output target. The 10 percent fall in crude prices over such a short period of time has led to renewed concerns that pledges to reduce production will not be met. However Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry stated:

“Saudi Arabia assures the market that it is committed and determined to stabilising the global oil market by working closely with all other participating Opec and non-Opec producers.”

There were already concerns about the oil market relating to a potential increase in US shale oil output. Oil producers include OPEC and non-OPEC members and so while the cartel has agreed to cut production, it has little control over production from non-cartel members. This was one of the main factors that contributed to the oil price lows that we previously saw. OPEC’s forecast for oil production from non-OPEC member has been raised for 2017 and overall production from all oil producing nations looks set to increase for the year, despite OPEC curbing output by 1.2 million barrels per day. However, despite the 10% drop, the price of crude oil ($50) still remains well above its low of $28 in January 2016.

Oil prices are one of the key factors that affect inflation and with UK inflation expected to rise, this fall in oil prices may provide a small and temporary pause in the rise in the rate of inflation. There are many inter-related factors that affect oil prices and it really is a supply and demand market. If US shale oil production continues to rise, then total oil output will rise too and this will push down prices. If OPEC members undertake further production curbs, then this will push supply back down. Then we have demand to consider! Watch this space.

Report
OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report OPEC (14/3/17)

Articles

Saudis stand by commitment to oil production cuts Financial Times, Anjli Raval and David Sheppard (15/3/17)
Oil prices fall after Opec stocks rise BBC News (14/3/17)
Crude oil price slumps to new three-month low after OPEC supply warning Independent, Alex Lawler (14/3/17)
Opinion: Saudi Arabis has a big motivating interest in keeping oil prices high MarketWatch, Thomas H Kee Jr. (14/3/17)
Why oil prices may come under even more pressure next month Investor’s Business Daily, Gillian Rich (13/3/17)
Oil price crashes back towards $50 as Opec raises US oil forecasts The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (14/3/17)

Data and Information
Brent Crude Prices Daily US Energy Information Administration
OPEC Homepage Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries

Questions

  1. What are the demand and supply-side factors that affect oil prices? Do you think demand and supply are relatively elastic or inelastic? Explain your answer.
  2. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate how OPEC production curbs will affect oil prices.
  3. If we now take into account US shale production rising, how will this affect oil prices?
  4. Why have OPEC members agreed to curb oil production? Is it a rational decision?
  5. What are the key points from the oil market report?
  6. How do oil prices affect a country’s rate of inflation?
  7. What, do you think, are oil prices likely to be at the end of the year? What about in ten years? Explain your answer.
  8. Should the USA continue to invest in new shale oil production?