Category: Essential Economics for Business: Ch 09

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?

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?

Economists were generally in favour of the UK remaining in the EU and highly critical of the policy proposals of Donald Trump. And yet the UK voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump was elected.

People rejected the advice of most economists. Many blamed the failure of most economists to predict the 2007/8 financial crisis and to find solutions to the growing gulf between rich and poor, with the majority stuck on low incomes.

So to what extent are economists to blame for the rise in populism – a wave that could lead to electoral upsets in various European countries? The podcast below brings together economists and politicians from across the political spectrum. It is over an hour long and provides an in-depth discussion of many of the issues and the extent to which economists can provide answers.

Podcast

Should economists share the blame for populism? Guardian Politics Weekly podcast, Heather Stewart, joined by Andrew Lilico, Ann Pettifor, Jonathan Portes, Rachel Reeves and Vince Cable (23/2/17)

Questions

  1. Why has globalisation become a dirty word?
  2. Assess the arguments for and against an open policy towards immigration?
  3. In what positive ways may economists contribute to populism?
  4. Do economists concentrate too much on growth in GDP rather than on its distribution?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which various popular interpretations of economic phenomena may confuse correlation with causality.
  6. Why did the proportions of people who voted for and against Brexit differ considerably from one part of the country to another, from one age group to another and from one social group to another?
  7. In what ways have economists and the subject of economics contributed towards a growth in human welfare?
  8. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the trend for undergraduate economics curricula to become more mathematical (at least until relatively recently)?

UK productivity growth remains well below levels recorded before the financial crisis, as Chart 1 illustrates. In fact, output per hour worked in 2016 Q3 was virtually the same as in 2007 Q4. What is more, as can be seen from Chart 2, UK productivity lags well behind its major competitors (except for Japan).

But why does UK productivity lag behind other countries and why has it grown so slowly since the financial crisis? In its July 2015 analysis, the ONS addressed this ‘productivity puzzle’.

Among the many reasons suggested are low levels of investment, the impact of the financial crisis on bank’s willingness to lend to new businesses, higher numbers of people working beyond normal retirement age as a result of population and pensions changes, and firms’ ability to retain staff because of low pay growth. While these and other factors may be relevant, they do not provide a complete explanation for the weakness in productivity.

The lack of investment in technology and lack of infrastructure investment have been key reasons for the sluggish growth in productivity. Many companies are prepared to continue using relatively labour-intensive techniques because wage growth has been so low and this reduces the incentive to invest in labour-saving technology.

Another factor has been long hours and, for many office workers, being constantly connected to their work, checking and responding to emails and messages away from the office. The Telegraph article below reports Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, as saying:

“This is having a deleterious effect on the health of managers, which has a direct impact on productivity. UK workers already have the longest hours in Europe and yet we’re less productive.”

Another problem has been ultra low interest rates, which have reduced the burden of debt for poor performing companies and has allowed them to survive. It may also have prevented finance from being reallocated to more dynamic companies which would like to develop new products and processes.

Another feature of UK productivity is the large differences between regions. This is illustrated in Chart 3. Productivity in London in 2015 (the latest full year for data) was 31.5% above the UK average, while that in Wales was 19.4% below.

This again reflects investment patterns and also the concentration of industries in particular locations. Thus London’s financial sector, a major part of London’s economy, has experienced relatively large increases in productivity and this has helped to push productivity growth in the capital well above other parts of the country.

Another factor, which again has a regional dimension, is the poor productivity performance of family-owned businesses, where ownership and management is passed down the generations within the family without bringing in external managerial expertise.

The government is very aware of the UK’s weak productivity performance. Its recently launched industrial policy is designed to address the problem. We look at that in a separate post.

Articles

UK productivity edges up but growth still flounders below pre-crisis levels The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (6/1/17)
Weak UK productivity spurs warnings of living standards squeeze The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/1/17)
Productivity gap yawns across the UK BBC News, Jonty Bloom (6/1/17)
The UK productivity puzzle Fund Strategy. John Redwood (26/1/17)
Productivity puzzle remains for economists despite UK growth in third quarter of 2016 City A.M., Jasper Jolly (6/1/17)

Portal site
Solve the Productivity Puzzle Unipart

Report

Productivity: no puzzle about it TUC (Feb 2015)

Data

Labour Productivity: Tables 1 to 10 and R1 ONS (6/1/17)
International comparisons of UK productivity (ICP) ONS (6/10/16)
Gross capital formation (% of GDP) The World Bank

Questions

  1. In measuring productivity, the ONS uses three indicators: output per worker, output per hour and output per job. Compare the relative usefulness of these three measures of productivity.
  2. How would you explain the marked difference in productivity between regions and cities within the UK?
  3. How do flexible labour markets impact on productivity?
  4. Why is investment as a percentage of GDP so low in the UK compared to that in most other developed countries (see)?
  5. Give some examples of industrial policy measures that could be adopted to increase productivity growth.
  6. Examine the extent to which very low interest rates and quantitative easing encourage productivity-enhancing investment.