The global battle for fuel is expected to peak this winter. The combination of rising demand and a tightening of supply has sparked concerns of shortages in the market. Some people are worried about another ‘winter of discontent’. Gas prices have risen fivefold in Europe as a whole.
In the UK, consumers are likely to find that the natural gas needed to heat their homes this October will cost at least five times more than it did a year ago. This surge in wholesale gas prices has seen several UK energy suppliers stop trading as they are unable to make a profit. This is because of an energy price cap for some consumers and various fixed price deals they had signed with their customers.
There are thus fears of an energy crisis in the UK, especially if there is a cold winter. There are even warnings that during a cold snap, gas supply to various energy-intensive firms may be cut off. This comes at a time when some of these industries are struggling to make a profit.
Demand and supply
The current situation is a combination of long- and short-term factors. In spring 2020, the demand for gas actually decreased due to the pandemic. This resulted in low gas prices, reduced UK production and delayed maintenance work and investment along global supply chains. However, since early 2021, consumer demand for gas has soared. First, there was an increased demand due to the Artic weather conditions last winter. This was then followed by heatwaves in the USA and Europe over the summer, which saw an increase in the use of air conditioning units. With the increased demand combined with calm weather conditions, wind turbines couldn’t supply enough power to meet demand.
There has also been a longer-term impact on demand throughout the industry due to the move to cleaner energy. The transitioning to wind and solar has seen a medium-term increase in the demand for gas. There is also a long-term impact of the target for net zero economies in the UK and Europe. This has hindered investors’ willingness to invest in developing supplies of fossil fuels due the fact they could become obsolete over the next few decades.
Nations have also been unable to build up enough supplies for winter. This is partly due to Europe’s domestic gas stocks having declined by 30% per cent in the past decade. This heightened situation is leading to concerns that there will be black-outs or cut-offs in gas this winter.
Importation of gas
A concern for the UK is that it has scant storage facilities with no long-term storage. The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage – less than 6% of annual demand and some five times less than the average in the rest of Europe. It has been increasingly operating a ‘just-in-time model’, which is more affected by short-term price fluctuations in the wholesale gas market. With wind power generation remaining lower than average during summer 2021, more gas than usual has been used to generate electricity, leaving less gas to go into storage.
However, some argue that the problem is not just the UK’s physical supply of gas but demand for gas from elsewhere. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from its own production sites, while the rest is piped in from Europe or shipped in as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA, Qatar and Russia. In 2019, the UK imported almost 20% of its gas through LNG shipments. However, Asian gas demand has grown rapidly, expanding by 50% over the past decade. This has meant that LNG has now become much harder to secure.
The issue is the price the UK has to pay to continue receiving these supplies. Some in the gas industry believe the price surge is only temporary, caused by economic disruptions, while many others say it highlights a structural weakness in a continent that has become too reliant on imported gas. It can be argued that the gas crisis has highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the gas industry as the UK transitions to a net zero economy. The lack of any industry investment in new capacity suggests that there is currently no business case for new long-term storage in the UK, especially as gas demand is expected to continue falling over the longer term.
Impact on consumers and industry
Gas prices for suppliers have increased fivefold over the past year. Therefore, many companies face a considerable rise in their bills. MSome may need to reduce or pause production – or even cease trading – which could cause job losses. Alternatively, they could pass on their increased costs to customers by charging them higher prices. Although energy-intensive industries are particularly exposed, every company that has to pay energy bills will be affected. Due to the growing concerns about the security of winter gas supplies those industries reliant on gas, such as the fertiliser industry, are restricting production, threatening various supply chains.
Most big domestic gas suppliers buy their gas months in advance, meaning they will most likely pass on the higher price rises they have experienced in the past few months. The increased demand and decreased supply has already meant meant that customers have faced higher prices for their energy. The UK has been badly hit because it’s one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas – 85% of homes use gas central heating – and it also generates a third of the country’s electricity.
The rising bills are particularly an issue for those customers on a variable tariff. About 15 million households have seen their energy bills rise by 12% since the beginning of October due to the rise in the government’s energy price cap calculated by the regulator, Ofgem. A major concern is that this increase in bills comes at a time when the need to use more heating and lighting is approaching. It also coincides with other price rises hitting family budgets and the withdrawal of COVID support schemes.
Government intervention – maximum pricing
If the government feels that the equilibrium price in a particular market is too high, it can intervene in the market and set a maximum price. When the government intervenes in this way, it sets a price ceiling on certain basic goods or services and does not permit the price to go above that set limit. A maximum price is normally set for reasons of fairness and to benefit consumers on low incomes. Examples include energy price caps to order to control fuel bills, rent controls in order to improve affordability of housing, a cap on mobile roaming charges within the EU and price capping for regional monopoly water companies.
The energy price cap
Even without the prospect of a colder than normal winter, bills are still increasing. October’s increase in the fuel cap means that many annual household fuel bills will rise by £135 or more. The price cap sets the maximum price that suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge domestic customers on a standard, or default tariff. The cap has come under the spotlight owing to the crisis among suppliers, which has seen eleven firms fold, with more expected.
The regulator Ofgem sets a price cap for domestic energy twice a year. The latest level came into place on 1 October. It is a cap on the price of energy that suppliers can charge. The price cap is based on a broad estimate of how much it costs a supplier to provide gas and electricity services to a customer. The calculation is mainly made up of wholesale energy costs, network costs such as maintaining pipes and wires, policy costs including Government social and environmental schemes, operating costs such as billing and metering services and VAT. Therefore, suppliers can only pass on legitimate costs of supplying energy and cannot charge more than the level of the price cap, although they can charge less. A household’s total bill is still determined by how much gas and electricity is used.
- Those on standard tariffs, with typical household levels of energy use, will see an increase of £139.
- People with prepayment meters, with average energy use, will see an annual increase of £153.
- Households on fixed tariffs will be unaffected. However, those coming to the end of a contract are automatically moved to a default tariff set at the new level.
Ordinarily, customers are able to shop around for cheaper deals, but currently, the high wholesale prices of gas means that cheaper deals are not available.
Despite the cap limiting how much providers can raise prices, the current increase is the biggest (and to the highest amount) since the cap was introduced in January 2019. As providers are scarcely making a profit on gas, there are concerns that a further increase in wholesale prices will cause more suppliers to be forced out of business. Ofgem said that the cap is likely to go up again in April, the next time it is reviewed.
The record prices being paid by suppliers and deficits in gas supply across the world have stoked fears that the energy crisis will get worse. It comes at a time when households are already facing rising bills, while some energy-intensive industries have started to slow production. This has started to dent optimism around the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Historically, UK governments have trusted market mechanisms to deliver UK gas security. However, consumers are having to pay the cost of such an approach. The price cap has meant the UK’s gas bills have until now been typically lower than the EU average. However, the rise in prices comes on top of other economic problems such as labour shortages and increasing food prices, adding up to an unwelcome rise in the cost of living.
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
- Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
- Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.
With the coronavirus pandemic having reached almost every country in the world, the impact on the global economy has been catastrophic. Governments have struggled balancing the spread of the virus and keeping the economy afloat. This has left businesses counting the costs of various control measures and numerous lockdowns. The crisis has particularly affected small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), causing massive job losses and longer-term economic scars. Among these is an increase in the market power held by dominant firms as they emerge even stronger while smaller rivals fall away.
It is feared that with the full effects of the pandemic not yet realised, there may well be a wave of bankruptcies that will hit SMEs harder than larger firms, particularly in the most affected industries. Larger firms are most likely to be more profitable in general and more likely to have access to finance. Firm-level analysis using Orbis data, which includes listed and private firms, suggests that the pandemic-driven wave of bankruptcies will lead to increases in industry concentration and market power.
What is market power?
A firm holds a dominant position if its power enables it to operate within the market without taking account of the reaction of its competitors or of intermediate or final consumers. The key role of competition authorities around the world is to protect the public interest, particularly against firms abusing their dominant positions.
The UK’s competition authority, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) states:
Market power arises where an undertaking does not face effective competitive pressure. …Market power is not absolute but is a matter of degree; the degree of power will depend on the circumstances of each case. Market power can be thought of as the ability profitably to sustain prices above competitive levels or restrict output or quality below competitive levels. An undertaking with market power might also have the ability and incentive to harm the process of competition in other ways; for example, by weakening existing competition, raising entry barriers, or slowing innovation.
It can be hard to distinguish between a rapidly growing business and growing concentration of market power. In a pandemic, these distinctions can become even more difficult to discern, since there really is a deep need for a rapid deployment of capital, often in distressed situations. It is also not always evident whether the attempt to grow is driven by the need for more productive capacity, or by the desire to engage in financial engineering or to acquire market power.
It may be the case that, as consumers, we simply have no choice but to depend on various monopolies in a crisis, hoping that they operate in the public interest or that the competition authorities will ensure that they do so. With Covid-19 for example, economies will have entered the pandemic with their existing institutions, and therefore the only way to operate may be through channels controlled by concentrated power. Market dominance can occur for what seem to be good, or least necessary, reasons.
Why is market power a problem?
Why is it necessarily a problem if a successful company grows bigger than its competitors through hard work, smart strategies, and better technology adoption? It is important to recognise that increases in market power do not always mean an abuse of that market power. Just because a company may dominate the market, it does not mean there is a guaranteed negative impact on the consumer or industry. There are many advantages to a monopoly firm and, therefore, it can be argued that the existence of a market monopoly in itself should not be a cause of concern for the regulator. Unless there is evidence of past misconduct of dominance, which is abusive for the market and its stakeholders, some would argue that there is no justification for any involvement by regulators at all.
However, research by the International Monetary Fund concluded that excessive market power in the hands of a few firms can be a drag on medium-term growth, stifling innovation and holding back investment. Given the severity of the economic impact of the pandemic, such an outcome could undermine the recovery efforts by governments. It could also prevent new and emerging firms entering the market at a time when dynamism is desperately needed.
The ONS defines business dynamism as follows:
Business dynamism relates to measures of birth, growth and decline of businesses and its impact on employment. A steady rate of business creation and closure is necessary for an economy to grow in the long-run because it allows new ideas to flourish.
A lack of business dynamism could lead to a stagnation in productivity and wage growth. It also affects employment through changes in job creation and destruction. In this context, the UK’s most recent unemployment rate was 5%. This is the highest figure for five years and is predicted to rise to 6.5% by the end of 2021. Across multiple industries, there is now a trend of falling business dynamism with small businesses failing to break out of their local markets and start-up companies whose prices are undercut by a big rival. This creates missed opportunities in terms of growth, job creation, and rising incomes.
There has been a rise in mergers and acquisitions, especially amongst dominant firms, which is contributing to these trends. Again, it is important to recognise that mergers and acquisitions are not in themselves a problem; they can yield cost savings and produce better products. However, they can also weaken incentives for innovation and strengthen a firm’s ability to charge higher prices. Analysis shows that mergers and acquisitions by dominant firms contribute to an industry-wide decline in business dynamism.
Changes in market power due to the pandemic
The IMF identifies key indicators for market power, such as the percentage mark-up of prices over marginal cost, and the concentration of revenues among the four biggest players in a sector. New research shows that these key indicators of market power are on the rise. It is estimated that due to the pandemic, this increase in market dominance could now increase in advanced economies by at least as much as it did in the fifteen years to the end of 2015.
Global price mark-ups have risen by more than 30%, on average, across listed firms in advanced economies since 1980. And in the past 20 years, mark-up increases in the digital sector have been twice as steep as economy-wide increases. Increases in market power across multiple industries caused by the pandemic would exacerbate a trend that goes back over four decades.
It could be argued that firms enjoying this increase in market share and strong profits is just the reward for their growth. Such success if often a result of innovation, efficiency, and improved services. However, there are growing signs in many industries that market power is becoming entrenched amid an absence of strong competitors for dominant firms. It is estimated that companies with the highest mark-ups in a given year, have an almost 85 percent chance of remaining a high mark-up firm the following year. According to experts, some of these businesses have created entry barriers – regulatory or technology driven – which are incredibly high.
Professor Jayant R. Varma, a member of the MPC of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), observed that in several sectors characterised by an oligopolistic core and a competitive periphery, the oligopolistic core has weathered the pandemic and it is the competitive periphery that has been debilitated. Rising profits and profit margins, improving capacity utilisation and lack of new capacity additions create ripe conditions for the oligopolistic core to start exercising pricing power.
The drivers and macroeconomic implications of such rises in market power are likely to differ across economies and individual industries. Even in those industries that benefited from the crisis, such as the digital sector, dominant players are among the biggest winners. The technology industry has been under the microscope in recent years, and increasingly the big tech firms are under scrutiny from regulators around the world. The market disruptors that displaced incumbents two decades ago have become increasingly dominant players that do not face the same competitive pressures from today’s would-be disruptors. The pandemic is adding to powerful underlying forces such as network effects and economies of scale and scope.
A new regulator that aims to curb this increasing dominance of the tech giants has been established in the UK. The Digital Markets Unit (DMU) will be based inside the Competition and Markets Authority. The DMU will first look to create new codes of conduct for companies such as Facebook and Google and their relationship with content providers and advertisers. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the regime will be ‘unashamedly pro-competition’.
The additions in regulation in the UK fall in line with the guidance from the IMF. It recommends that adjustments to competition-policy frameworks need to be made in order to minimise the adverse effects of market dominance. Such adjustments must, however, be tailored to national circumstances, both in general and to address the specific challenges raised by the surge of the digital economy.
It recommends the following five actions:
- Competition authorities should be increasingly vigilant when enforcing merger control. The criteria for competition authorities to review a deal should cover all relevant cases – including acquisitions of small players that may grow to compete with dominant firms.
- Second, competition authorities should more actively enforce prohibitions on the abuse of dominant positions and make greater use of market investigations to uncover harmful behaviour without any reported breach of the law.
- Greater efforts are needed to ensure competition in input markets, including labour markets.
- Competition authorities should be empowered to keep pace with the digital economy, where the rise of big data and artificial intelligence is multiplying incumbent firms’ advantage. Facilitating data portability and interoperability of systems can make it easier for new firms to compete with established players.
- Investments may be needed to further boost sector-specific expertise amid rapid technological change.
The crisis has had a significant impact on all businesses, with many shutting their doors for good. However, there has been a greater negative impact on SMEs. Even in industries that have flourished from the pandemic, it is the dominant firms that have emerged the biggest winners. There is concern that the increasing market power will remain embedded in many economies, stifling future competition and economic growth. While the negative effects of increased market power have been moderate so far, the findings suggest that competition authorities should be increasingly vigilant to ensure that these effects do not become more harmful in the future.
Reviews of competition policy frameworks have already begun in some major economies. Young, high-growth firms that innovate and create high-quality jobs deserve a level playing field and a fair chance to succeed. Support directed to SMEs is important, as many small firms have been unable to benefit from government programmes designed to help firms access financing during the pandemic. Policymakers should act now to prevent a further, sharp rise in market power that could hold back the post-pandemic recovery.
- What are the arguments for and against the assistance of a monopoly?
- What barriers to entry may exist that prevent small firms from entering an industry?
- What policies can be implemented to limit market power?
- Define and explain market dynamism.
In recent years, US tech companies have faced increased scrutiny in Washington over their size and power. Despite the big tech firms in America being economically robust, seemingly more so than any other sector, they are also more politically vulnerable. This potential vulnerability is present regardless of the recent election result.
Both the Democrat and Republican parties are thinking critically about monopoly power and antitrust issues, where ‘antitrust’ refers to the outlawing or control of oligopolistic collusion. Despite the varied reasons across different parts of the political spectrum, the increased scrutiny over big tech companies is bipartisan.
Rising monopoly power
Monopoly power occurs when a firm has a dominant position in the market. A pure monopoly is when one firm has a 100% share of the market. A firm might be considered to have monopoly power with more than a 25% market share.
If there is a rise in market concentration, it tends to hurt blue-collar workers, such as those employed in factories, more than everyone else. Research, from the University of Chicago, studied what happens to particular classes of workers when companies increasingly dominate a market and have more power to raise prices. The study found that those workers that make things tend to be left worse off, while the workers who sell, market or design things gain. When companies have more pricing power, they make fewer products and sell each one for a higher profit margin. In that case, it’s far more valuable to a company to be an employee working in so-called expansionary positions, such as marketing, than in production jobs, such as working on a factory line — because there’s less production to be done and more salesmanship.
Monopoly power under Trump Vs Biden
In February, President Trump and his economic team saw no need to rewrite the federal government’s antitrust rules, drawing a battle line with the Democrats on an issue that has increasingly drawn the attention of economists, legal scholars and other academics. In their annual Economic Report of the President, Mr. Trump and his advisers effectively dismissed research that found large American companies increasingly dominate industries like telecommunications and tech, stifling competition and hurting consumers. At the time the Trump administration contended that studies demonstrating a rise in market concentration were flawed and that the rise of large companies may not be a bad thing for consumers.
On page 201, the report reads:
Concentration may be driven by economies of scale and scope that can lower costs for consumers. Also, successful firms tend to grow, and it is important that antitrust enforcement and competition policy not be used to punish firms for their competitive success.
The Trump administration approved some high-profile corporate mergers, such as the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, while also trying to block others, such as AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner. Mr. Trump’s advisers stated that agencies already had the tools they needed to evaluate mergers and antitrust cases. It lamented that some Americans have come to hold the mistaken, simplistic view that ‘Big Is Bad.’
However, it is likely that such big firms, including the tech giants, would take a hit under the new presidency. President-Elect Joe Biden has pledged to undo the tax cuts introduced by Trump and has vowed to increase corporation tax from 21% to 28%. As part of these tax changes, he has suggested the introduction of a minimum 15% tax for all companies with a revenue of over $100 million. This has now been given the nickname of the ‘Amazon Tax’ and it is clear how it would impact on the big the firms such as Amazon.
This is the opposite of what was probable if Trump were to have been re-elected. It was expected that the US would continue along the path of deregulation and lower taxes for corporates and high-income households, which would have been welcomed by the stock market. However, analysts suggest that the tax changes under Biden would negatively affect the US tech sector, with some analysts maintaining that the banking sector would also be hit.
Antitrust enforcement is often associated with the political left, but the current situation is not so clear-cut. In the past, Silicon Valley has largely avoided any clashes with Washington, even when European regulators have levied fines against the tech giants. European regulators have fined Google a total of $9bn for anticompetitive practices. In 2018 Donald Trump attacked the EU decisions. “I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google,” Trump tweeted. “They truly have taken advantage of the US, but not for long!”
However, since then the mood has changed, with Trump and other conservatives joining liberals, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in attacking the dominance of tech firms, including Amazon, Google, Facebook and others. While Democrats have largely stuck to criticising the scale of big tech’s dominance, Republicans, including Trump, have accused the major tech companies of censoring conservative speech.
An antitrust subcommittee of the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee released a 449-page report excoriating the Big Four tech companies, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google-owner, Alphabet, for what it calls systematic and continuing abuses of their monopoly power. Recommendations from the report include ways to limit their power, force them out of certain areas of business and even a break-up of some of them.
Democratic lawmakers working on the probe claim that these firms have too much power, and that power must be reined in. But not all Republicans involved agreed with the recommendations. One Republican congressman, Jim Jordan, dismissed the report as “partisan” and said it advanced “radical proposals that would refashion antitrust law in the vision of the far left.” However, others have said they support many of the report’s conclusions about the firms’ anti-competitive tactics, but that remedies proposed by Democrats go too far.
The US tech giants
Amazon is a leading example of the economic strength held by the tech giants. Amazon has produced 12-month revenues of $321bn to October 2020, which in an increase from 2019 and 2018 revenues of $280bn and $233bn respectively. However, Amazon, along with the other big players Apple, Facebook, Google parent Alphabet, and Microsoft, are facing increased government scrutiny.
The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Google for entrenching itself as the dominant search engine through anti-competitive practices. Google’s complex algorithms, software, and custom-built servers helped make it into one of the world’s richest and most-powerful corporations. It currently dominates the online search market in the USA, accounting for around 80% of search queries. The lawsuit accuses the tech company of abusing its position to maintain an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising. Facebook also faces an antitrust lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission. It is arguable that the US tech giants are so powerful that they may accomplish the seemingly impossible and unite the two parties, at least on one policy – breaking them up.
If it is correct that the tech giants’ behaviour ultimately damages innovation and exacerbates inequality, it is arguable that such problems have only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic. Many smaller businesses have succumbed to the economic damage: many have been closed during lockdowns or suffered a decline in sales; many have gone out of business.
The changing patterns in teleworking and retail have accelerated in ways that have made Americans more reliant on technologies produced by a few firms. Shares in the Big Four, along with Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla, added $291 billion in market value in just one day last week. It could therefore be claimed that the dangers of Big Tech domination are more profound now than they were even a few months ago.
On 20 October, the Department of Justice — along with eleven state Attorneys General — filed a civil antitrust lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to stop Google from unlawfully maintaining monopolies through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets and to remedy the competitive harms.
This is the most significant legal challenge to a major tech company in decades and comes as US authorities are increasingly critical of the business practices of the major tech companies. The suit alleges that Google is no longer a start-up company with an innovative way to search the emerging internet. Instead Google is being described as a “monopoly gatekeeper for the internet” that has used “pernicious” anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies.
The allegation that Google is unfairly acting as a gatekeeper to the internet is based on the argument that through a series of business agreements, Google has effectively locked out any competition. One of the specific arrangements being challenged is the issue of Google being preloaded on mobile devices. On mobile phones running its Android operating system, Google is preinstalled and cannot be deleted. The company pays billions each year to “secure default status for its general search engine and, in many cases, to specifically prohibit Google’s counterparties from dealing with Google’s competitors,” the suit states. It is argued that this alone forecloses competition for internet search as it denies its rivals to compete effectively and prevent potential innovation.
However, Google has defended its position, calling the lawsuit “deeply flawed”. It has argued that consumers themselves choose to use Google; they do not use it because they are forced to or because they can’t find an alternative search platform. Google also argues that this lawsuit will not be beneficial for consumers. It claims that this will artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, increase phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.
Despite wanting to stop Google from “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for” search services, advertising, and general search text, the lack of consensus and divergence among the Democrats and Republicans on the antitrust issues remains a major issue to move things forward.
The Democrats want to see the power held by these companies reined in, while the Republicans would rather see targeted antitrust enforcement over onerous and burdensome regulation that kills industry innovation. It is clear that the US government will have to balance its reforms and ideas while making sure not to put the largest companies in the USA at a competitive disadvantage versus their competitors globally.
- US tech giants accused of ‘monopoly power’
BBC News (6/10/20)
- Tech, healthcare & the ‘fear index’: An investor’s guide to US election night 2020
Investment Trust Insider, Alex Steger, Alex Rosenberg, John Coumarianos, Nicole Piper, Jake Martin and Ian Wenik (2/11/20)
- Justice Department Sues Monopolist Google For Violating Antitrust Laws
The United States Department of Justice (20/10/20)
- Trump Administration Sees No Threat to Economy From Monopolies
The New York Times, Jim Tankersley (20/2/20)
- Trump vs Biden: Winners and losers under America’s next leader
Shares, Yoosof Farah (29/10/20)
- America’s Monopoly Problem Goes Way Beyond the Tech Giants
The Atlantic, David Dayen (28/7/20)
- US justice department sues Google over accusation of illegal monopoly
The Guardian, Dominic Rushe and Kari Paul (20/10/20)
- With the aid of a diagram, explain how pricing decisions are made in a monopoly.
- What factors influence the degree of monopoly power a company has within an industry?
- What are the advantages of a monopoly?
- Why would a government want to prevent a monopoly? Discuss the policies a government could implement to do this.
Like most other sectors of the economy, private schools have been significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. As with all schools, they have been restricted to providing their pupils with online instruction. In addition, some parents are likely to have seen their ability to pay the high fees private schools charge restricted. As a result of both of these factors, private schools have been forced to look into providing discounts or refunds on their fees. However, the UK competition authority have received evidence that these schools may have been communicating with each other over how they will set these fee reductions. The authority is concerned that this will allow the schools to restrict the discounts and keep their fees higher.
In other markets (see here and here) the competition authorities have been prepared to relax certain elements of competition law in light of the coronavirus situation. However, price fixing is the severest breach of competition law and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been clear that this continues to be the case in the current climate. A CMA spokesperson said:
Where cooperation amongst businesses or other organisations is necessary to protect consumers in the coronavirus outbreak, the CMA will not take enforcement action. But we will not tolerate organisations agreeing prices or exchanging commercially sensitive information on future pricing or business strategies with their competitors, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.
Therefore, the CMA has written to the Independent Schools Council and other bodies representing the private school sector. This letter made clear that communicating over the fee reductions would be very likely to breach competition law and could result in fines being imposed.
This warning is important since the sector has a history of illegal communication between schools. In 2006 the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) (one of the predecessors to the CMA) imposed fines when it discovered that 50 of them, including Eton and Harrow, had for a number of years shared information on the fees they intended to charge. The OFT discovered that this had taken place following evidence obtained by a student who hacked into their school’s computer system. Here the student found information on the intended fees of competitor schools and leaked this information to the press. It is clear that the CMA will keep a close eye on private schools as they react to the ongoing pandemic.
- What are the key features of the private school sector? Is this a market where you would expect competition to be intense?
- Why is price fixing the severest breach of competition law?
- Assuming communication between the private schools is eradicated, how would you expect the sector to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate in the UK, the government has been forced to introduce a range of drastic measures, including severe restrictions on movement of people to ensure social distancing. Supermarkets have also been forced to act as they experienced panic buying and struggled to keep up with supply. They responded by starting to impose limits on the number of certain items an individual consumer could purchase and by reducing the range of products they made available. In addition, supermarkets contacted the government to suggest that competition law should be relaxed to allow the rival chains to coordinate their response to the ongoing situation.
WM Morrison, the forth largest supermarket retailer in the UK, was one of the key players lobbying for this change. Their chief executive, David Potts, argued that “There will be legislation that works perfectly in peacetime and not so well in wartime.”
The supermarket industry is in fact a market where the UK competition authorities have expressed considerable concerns in the past regarding a lack of competition (see for example the 2008 market investigation and the recent decision to block the merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda). The supermarkets also previously made similar demands for a relaxation of competition law in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Despite this, the government has agreed to temporarily relax elements of competition law to help supermarkets respond to the Coronavirus crisis with the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, stating that:
By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.
In moves supported by the Competition and Markets Authority, laws enabling them to do so will soon be passed through Parliament. Supermarkets will be allowed to:
- share data with each other on stock levels
- cooperate to keep shops open
- share distribution depots and delivery vans
- pool staff with one another to help meet demand.
It is also expected that the Groceries Code Adjudicator will take a pragmatic approach to rules previously in place to prevent the big supermarket chains abusing their power over suppliers. These rules previously prevented supermarkets from stopping orders from a given supplier without reasonable warning. However, it is now accepted that they may need to do so in order to focus on supplying a restricted range of essential products.
Such relaxation of competition laws has been rare, with previous examples being measures taken in 2006 for the maintenance and repair of warships and in 2012 during the fuel crisis. In contrast, typically competition law is extremely hot on preventing agreements between firms. This is due to the fact that they distort competition and prevent the considerable benefits that can arise for consumers when firms compete to offer the best deals.
In the extreme situation the UK is currently in, the government’s stance appears to be that there are sufficient other benefits from restricting competition between supermarkets and allowing some degree of cooperation. It is then important that the form of cooperation between the supermarkets is restricted to narrow areas that will help to ensure the continuity of supply. In particular, it would be worrying if the supermarkets started discussing the prices they charge. Already food prices may rise due to increased demand and a potential shortage of supply. Furthermore, many consumers will see their income reduced. Therefore, it is important that coordination between supermarkets doesn’t result in further increases in prices.
It is therefore reassuring that the Government made clear that the relaxation of competition law:
will be a specific, temporary relaxation to enable retailers to work together for the sole purpose of feeding the nation during these unprecedented circumstances. It will not allow any activity that does not meet this requirement.
The Competition and Markets Authority has also stressed that they will not:
tolerate unscrupulous businesses exploiting the crisis as a ‘cover’ for non-essential collusion. This includes exchanging information on longer-term pricing or business strategies, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.
Once the current crisis is over, it will also be important that the competition authority closely monitors the supermarket sector to ensure that cooperation between the supermarkets ends and normal competitive conduct is resumed.
- Outline the effects agreements between firms to raiser prices have on economic welfare.
- What are the pros and cons of allowing cooperation between the supermarkets in response to the Coronavirus crisis?