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)
- What scope is there for tacit collusion between the Big Six energy suppliers?
- What is meant by the RPI–X price cap? How does it differ from proposals being considered by the government?
- Why are people often reluctant to switch energy supplier?
- How could people be encouraged to switch supplier?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing a price cap for SVTs (a) relative to costs; (b) relative to lower-priced tariffs?
- 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”.
- 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”.
- Would an announcement of the introduction of a price cap in the near future necessarily encourage energy companies to raise their price now?
Earlier this week FIFA, the world governing body of football, announced plans to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026. It is fair to say that this has been met with mixed reactions, in part due to the politics and money involved. However, for an economist one particularly interesting question is how the change will affect the incentives of the teams taking part in the competition.
As a result of the change in the first stage of the competition, teams will be play the two other teams in their group. The best two teams in the group will then progress to the next round with the worst team going home. This is in contrast to the current format where the best two teams from a group of four go through to the next round.
Currently, in the final round of group matches all four of the teams in the group play simultaneously. However, an immediate implication of the new format is that this will no longer be the case. Instead, one of the teams will have finished their group matches before the other two teams play each other. This could have important implications for the incentives of the teams involved. To see this we can recall a very famous match played under similar circumstances between West Germany and Austria at the 1982 World Cup.
The results of the earlier group games meant that if West Germany beat Austria by one or two goals to nil both teams would progress to the next round. Any other result would mean that Algeria progressed at the expense of one of these two teams. The way in which the match played out was that West Germany scored early on and much of the rest of the game descended into farce. Both teams refused to attack or tackle their opponents, as they had no incentive to so (see here for some clips of the action, or lack of!).
There is no evidence to suggest that West Germany and Austria had come to a formal agreement to do this. Instead, the two teams appear to have simply had a mutual understanding that refraining from competing would be beneficial for both of them.
This is exactly what economists refer to as tacit collusion – a mutual understanding that refraining from competition and keeping prices high benefits all firms in the market. Much like the fans who had to sit through the farce of a game (you can hear the frustration of the crowd in the video clip linked to above), the end result is harm to consumers who have to pay the higher prices or go without the product.
For this reason governments use competition policy to try to stop situations arising in markets that make the possibility of tacit collusion more likely. One way in which this is done is by preventing mergers in markets where tacit collusion appears possible and would be facilitated by the reduction in the number of firms as a result of the merger. The equivalent for the World Cup would be preventing a change in the format of the competition.
An alternative approach is to tinker with the rules of the game in order to make collusion harder. FIFA seems to have some awareness of the possibility of doing this as it is suggesting that it may require all tied games to extra-time and then a penalty shoot-out in order to determine a winner. Clearly, this would go at least some way to alleviating concerns about tacit collusion in the final group matches because coordinating on a draw would no longer be possible. In a similar fashion, competition authorities can also intervene in markets to change the rules of the game (see for example the recent intervention in the UK cement industry).
Therefore, more generally, the World Cup example highlights the fact that variations in the structure of markets and the rules of the game can have significant effects on firms’ incentives and this can have important consequences for market outcomes. It will certainly be fascinating to see what rules are imposed for the 2026 World Cup and how the teams taking part respond.
World Cup: Fifa to expand competition to 48 teams after vote BBC News (10/1/17)
How will a 48-team World Cup work? Fifa’s plan for 2026 explained The Guardian, Paul MacInnes (10/1/17)
The Disgrace of Gijón and the 48-team FIFA World Cup Mike or the Don (12/1/17)
- What is the difference between tacit collusion and a cartel?
- Why does a reduction in the number of firms in a market make collusion easier?
- What other factors make collusion more likely?
- How does competition policy try to prevent the different forms of collusion?
A few months ago, in a post on this site I reported that the Competition Commission (CC) had completed their provisional investigation into the concrete and cement market in Great Britain. As I discussed, they concluded that coordination between the main cement producers was resulting in high prices. They are particularly concerned about the impact of high prices in this market because:
Cement is an essential product for the construction and building sectors and the amount of such work that is funded by the public purse only underlines the importance of ensuring that customers get better value for money. We believe our measures can bring about a substantial, swift and lasting increase in competition in this economically vital market.
The next step was for the CC to consider how they could remedy the situation and hopefully improve competition in the market.
Earlier this month, the CC announced the remedies they intend to impose. Having previously suggested that they intended to impose hard-hitting measures, they have been true to their word. The market leader, Lafarge Tarmac, will be required to sell one of its cement plants to facilitate a new entrant into the market. According to Professor Martin Cave, the CC’s Deputy Chairman who led the inquiry:
We believe that the entry of a new, independent cement producer is the only way to disturb the established structure and behaviour in this market which has persisted for a number of years and led to higher prices for customers.
In addition, the CC is also putting in place measures to limit the publication of production data and price announcements. It is hoped that these measures will reduce transparency in the market.
However, Lafarge Tarmac disagrees with the sale they are being forced to make. This is in part because, as I discussed in the earlier post, they had previously been allowed by the CC to form a joint venture (JV) with one its main rivals:
We are disappointed that the Competition Commission has asked Lafarge Tarmac to divest another cement plant only a year after it allowed the creation of the JV. This is not reasonable or proportionate and we have not been given a fair opportunity to defend our position.
In addition, Lafarge Tarmac is quoted in the above article as suggesting that the end result of the CC’s intervention will be harm to consumers. It will be extremely interesting to monitor how this market develops.
Competition Commission confirms plan for new cement producer The Construction Index, (14/01/14)
Competition Commission improves competition in the UK. Again. Global Cement, (22/01/14)
Aggregates, cement and ready-mix concrete market investigation, Final report, Competition Commission, (14/01/14)
- Why might the publication of production data and price announcements help to facilitate coordination between firms?
- Would you expect the new entrant or the measures to limit the publication of production data and price announcements to have more impact on competition in the market?
- Using a supply and demand model, describe the impact the CC’s intervention could have on the construction market.
The Competition Commission (CC) recently completed their provisional investigation into the cement and concrete market in Great Britain (press release). They concluded that coordination between the main cement producers is resulting in high prices.
In contrast, to illegal cartels (see for example the recent post on this site), the firms in this market are not accused of doing anything illegal. Instead, the CC’s concern is with tacit collusion. Here, no illegal communication between firms takes place, firms simply do not compete intensely due to a mutual understanding that high prices are collectively beneficial.
Economic theory suggests that one key factor that facilitates tacit coordination is a low number of firms in the market. The UK cement market certainly meets this criteria as it is an oligopoly with just three main players plus a new entrant. The CC concluded that:
In a highly concentrated market where the product doesn’t vary, the established producers know too much about each other’s businesses and have concentrated on retaining their respective market shares rather than competing to the full.
They estimate that this cost consumers over £180m in a 3 year period.
Whilst tacit collusion is not illegal, competition authorities can try to prevent it from arising by intervening in mergers that they believe will make it more likely. In fact, the new entrant to the cement market came about due to sales required by the CC before they would allow a joint-venture between two of the main players to go ahead. Clearly the CC’s recent findings suggest that this intervention was not sufficient to ensure intense competition in the market. However, an additional tool available to the authorities in the UK is to be able to remedy harm to competition undercovered as a result of an investigation into the market. In some cases this may even involve breaking-up firms in the market (see for example the decision to force BAA to sell several airports).
When deciding on how to remedy the problem in the cement market, the CC will be keen to avoid the past mistakes of their Danish counterparts. In a famous case, in 1993 the Danish authorities attempted to increase competition in the concrete market by publishing individual sellers’ prices. The idea was that this would stimulate competition by encouraging buyers to shop around. However, evidence published here suggests that this in fact increased prices by around 15%! Why? The paper examines possible explanations and concludes that the information published by the competition authorities helped firms to monitor each others behaviour and therefore facilitated tacit coordination in the market. This is entirely consistent with economic theory which shows that another key factor which facilitates tacit coordination is market transparency.
The CC suggest that such monitoring is also possible in the GB market:
Established information channels such as price announcement letters can signal their plans, and tit-for-tat behaviour and cross-sales can be used to prevent or retaliate against any moves to disturb the overall balance between the different players in this market.
According to the above press release, the remedies the CC are considering include: the sale of capacity or plants by the leading players in the market, creation of buying groups, prohibition on price announcements and restrictions on the publication of industry level data. This suggests that the CC are well aware that reducing market transparency can play a key role in preventing coordination. It will be fascinating to, first, see what the CC opt for, then, what impact this has on competition in the industry.
Same product, same price? Competition in the UK Global Cement (22/05/13)
Competition Commission uncovers `serious problems’ in cement market Graham Huband, The Courier (22/05/13)
Competition Commission call for cement sell-off Mark Leftley, London Evening Standard (21/05/13)
Competition Commission documents
CC looks to break open cement market Competition Commission Press Release (21/5/13)
Aggregates, cement and ready-mix concrete market investigation Competition Commission core documents (various dates)
- Explain tacit collusion using a Prisoner’s dilemma game.
- Is cement the type of product where we might expect coordination to be most likely?
- Why is cement an important market in the UK economy?
- The first article above suggests that most of the management team at the new entrant came from the other main players in the market. Do you think this may significantly affect the likelihood of tacit collusion?
- Evaluate the pros and cons of the alternative remedies the CC are considering.
Last year, an academic discovered that the only two firms on Amazon selling new copies of a classic biology textbook were charging well over $1 million (plus $3.99 for shipping!). Furthermore, when he checked the next day, prices had risen even further to nearly $2.8 million! Intrigued by this strange pricing behaviour, he started to investigate the prices further.
In oligopoly markets with a small number of players, firms must make strategic decisions taking into account how they expect their rivals will react. One option in today’s online market places is for firms to use computer algorithms which automatically adjust their prices according to the prices their rivals are charging. The results of his investigation suggested that this was exactly what was causing the prices for this textbook to be so high.
One of the firms appeared to adopt a pricing rule which set its price at 0.9983 times the price of the other firm. This seems to make sense – this firm wants to undercut its rival in order to be more likely to sell its copy. However, if both firms operated under this strategy, we would expect to see prices falling over time (see also). In contrast, the strategy of the other firm appeared to be to price 1.270589 above its rival’s price. Why would it want to try to make sure it was always more expensive that its rival? The academic’s plausible explanation was that:
“…they do not actually possess the book. Rather, they noticed that someone else listed a copy for sale, and so they put it up as well – relying on their better feedback record to attract buyers. But, of course, if someone actually orders the book, they have to get it – so they have to set their price significantly higher – say 1.27059 times higher – than the price they’d have to pay to get the book elsewhere.”
Put both of these pricing rules together and prices will continuously rise over time! This was exactly what the academic observed for over a week, until human intervention appears to have returned prices to a more sensible level.
As Tim Harford discusses in his recent blog post, it had been hoped that online market places would result in very low prices because the high degree of price transparency increases competition. Clearly the prices Amazon was initially charging for the textbook didn’t support this theory and even after human intervention prices would seem to be well above marginal production costs. However, as the blog post goes on to explain, we should not necessarily expect price transparency always to lead to low prices. Economic theory shows us that in oligopoly markets, when a small number of players interact repeatedly, they may be able to collude tacitly on high prices. Furthermore, a high degree of price transparency may help such collusive behaviour because it makes it easier for firms to detect cheating by a rival.
Amazon’s $23,698,655.93 Book About Flies (SCREENSHOT) The Huffington Post, Steven Hoffer (26/04/11)
- What are the key features of competition between book sellers on Amazon?
- What price setting rule would the two firms have to use for prices to continuously fall over time? Provide an illustrative example.
- What are the pros and cons for a firm of relying on a computer algorithm to set its prices?
- How might a firm program its price setting algorithm if it wanted to collude tacitly with its rivals?
- Can you think of any other explanations for the pricing strategies that the two Amazon sellers adopted?