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.
Each week, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts readings from a book serialised in five 15-minute episodes. In the week beginning 18 January 2021, the readings were from English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks, a farmer from the Cumbrian fells. His farm is relatively small, covering 185 acres.
He has attempted to make it much more sustainable and less intensive, reintroducing traditional Herdwick sheep, having a mixture of cows and sheep rather than just sheep, a greater sub-division of fields, and more natural scrubland, peatbogs and trees. As a result, soil quality has improved and there has been an explosion of biodiversity, with an abundance of wild flowers and insects.
Apart from being an autobiography of his time as a farmer and his attempt to move towards more traditional methods, the book examines broader issues of agricultural sustainability. It looks at the pressures of consumers wanting cheap food, the market power of supermarkets and wholesalers, the cost pressures on farmers pushing them towards monoculture to achieve economies of scale, and the role of the agrichemicals industry promoting fertilisers, feeds and pesticides which bring short-term financial gains to farmers, but which cause longer-term damage to the land and to biodiversity.
Rebanks has gained quite a lot of media attention after the publication of his first book, The Shepherd’s Life, including being one of the guests on Desert Island Discs and the subject of an episode of The Food Programme.
Listen to the Food Programme podcast and try answering the questions, which are all based on the podcast in the order of the points made in the interview.
- What are the incentives of an unregulated market for food that result in monoculture and a loss of biodiversity?
- To what extent are consumers responsible for changes in farming methods?
- Have the changes helped the urban poor?
- How is the monopsony power of supermarkets and food wholesalers impacting on food production and the pattern of agriculture?
- There are various (private) economies of scale in food production, but these often involve substantial external costs and long-term private costs too. How does this impact on land use?
- What are some of the limits of technology in increasing crop, meat and dairy yields?
- Will more recent changes in the pattern of food consumption help to increase mixed farming and biodiversity?
- Is it ‘rational’ for many farmers to continue with intensive farming with high levels of artificial fertilisers and pesticides?
- Is diversity in farming across farms within a local area a public good? If so, how could such diversity be achieved?
- How can farmers be encouraged to think and act holistically?
- Is there a trade-off between food output and biodiversity?
- What are the dangers in the UK reaching an agricultural trade deal with the USA?
- What are the benefits and costs of encouraging local food markets?
Back in November, when Joe Biden had just been elected, we considered some of his proposed policies to tackle climate change (see A new era for climate change policy?). On 20th January, the day of his inauguration, he signed 17 executive orders overturning a range of policies of the Trump presidency. Further executive orders followed. Some of these related directly to climate change.
The first was to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. If it had gone ahead, it would have transported 830 000 barrels of oil per day from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. It would have involved building a new pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska, where it would have linked to an existing pipeline to Texas. Extracting oil from tar sands is a particularly dirty process, involves cutting down large areas of forest (a carbon sink) and total emissions are around 20% greater per barrel than from conventional crude.
The pipeline would have cut across First Nations land and any spills would have been highly toxic to the local environment. In terms of profitability, returns on tar sands oil extraction and transportation are very low. This is likely to remain the case as oil prices are likely to remain low, with greater global energy efficiency and the switch to renewables.
Critics of Biden’s decision argue that the pipeline project would have created some 5000 to 6000 temporary jobs in the USA during the two-year construction phase. Also they claim that it would have contributed to greater energy security for the USA.
The second executive order was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, a process that will take 30 days. Rejoining will involve commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the adoption of various measures to bring this about. During the election campaign, Biden pledged to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050. As we saw in the previous blog, under Biden the USA will play a leading role in the November 2021 UN COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
At present, the Paris agreement is for countries to aim to reach a peak of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century. Many countries have have made commitments about when they aim to achieve carbon neutrality, although concrete action is much more limited. It is hoped that the COP26 conference will lead to stronger commitments and actions and that the USA under Biden will play a leading part in driving this forward.
In addition, to cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris Agreement, the executive orders reversed more than 100 other decisions with negative environmental effects taken by the Trump administration – many overturning environmental measures introduced by previous administrations, especially the Obama administration.
These orders included reversing the easing of vehicle emissions standards; stopping reductions in the area of two major national monuments (parks) in Utah; enforcing a temporary moratorium on oil and natural gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and re-establishing a working group on the social costs of greenhouse gasses.
Then there will be new measures, such as adopting strict fuel economy standards and investment in clean public transport. But it remains to be seen how far and fast the Biden administration can move to green the US economy. With the desire for bipartisanship and seeking an end to the divisive policies of Trump, there may be limits to what the new President can achieve in terms of new legislation, especially with a Senate divided 50:50 and only the casting vote of the chair (Kamala Harris as Vice-President) being in Democrat hands.
The articles below consider the various green policies and how likely they are to succeed in their objectives.
- Climate change: Biden’s first act sets tone for ambitious approach
BBC News, Matt McGrath (20/1/21)
- Biden nixes Keystone XL permit, halts Arctic refuge leasing
The Hill, Rachel Frazin (20/1/21)
- Biden’s return to Paris pact just a first step for U.S. climate action
Reuters, Megan Rowling (20/1/21)
- Court Decision Lets Biden Set New Emissions Rules To Meet Paris Agreement Climate Goals
Forbes, Allan Marks (20/1/21)
- Biden to ‘hit ground running’ as he rejoins Paris climate accords
The Guardian, Oliver Milman (19/1/21)
- What could a Biden-Harris administration mean for the planet?
Euronews, Marthe de Ferrer (20/1/21)
- Ask a Scientist: What Should the Biden Administration and Congress Do to Address the Climate Crisis?
ecoWatch, Elliott Negin (18/1/21)
- Biden marks Day One with burst of orders reversing Trump policies on climate and health
Science Business, Éanna Kelly (21/1/21)
- What Is the Paris Climate Agreement That Joe Biden Will Rejoin, Why Did Donald Trump Leave?
Newsweek, Kashmira Gander (18/1/21)
- Find out what other environmental policies are being pursued by President Biden and assess their likely effectiveness in achieving their environmental objectives.
- Would policies to reduce carbon emissions necessarily be desirable? How would you assess their desirability?
- When is it best to use the ‘precautionary principle’ when devising environmental policies?
- To what extent is game theory relevant in understanding the difficulties and opportunities of developing internationally agreed policies on carbon reduction?
- If the objective is to tackle global warming, is it better to seek international agreement on limiting the extent of global warming or international agreement on carbon reduction? Explain.
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.
The UK rail industry was privatised by the Conservative government in the mid-1990s. As Case Study 14.8 on the Economics 10th edition website states:
The management of rail infrastructure, such as track, signalling and stations, was to be separated from the responsibility for running trains. There would be 25 passenger train operating companies (TOCs), each having a franchise lasting between seven and fifteen years. These companies would have few assets, being forced to rent track and lease stations from the infrastructure owner (Railtrack), and to lease trains and rolling stock from three new rolling-stock companies. …In practice, the 25 franchises were operated by just 11 companies (with one, National Express, having nine of the franchises).
In 1996, at the start of the franchise era, the train operating companies were largely private-sector companies such as National Express, Stagecoach, Virgin Rail and Prism Rail. By 2020, most of the franchises were operated by a foreign state-owned business or a joint venture with a foreign state-owned firm.
As a result of poor performance (see above case study), Railtrack was effectively renationalised in 2002 as Network Rail – a not-for-profit company, wholly dependent upon the UK Treasury for any shortfall in its funds.
TOCs had mixed success. Some performed so poorly that their franchise contracts had to be temporarily taken over by a state-owned operator. For example, in June 2003 the Strategic Rail Authority withdrew the operating licence of the French company Connex South Eastern. The franchise was temporarily taken over by the publicly-owned South Eastern Trains from November 2003 until March 2006 before being returned to a private operator.
Perhaps the most troubled franchise has been the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland. It was renationalised in 2009, reprivatised in 2015 and renationalised in 2018.
The effect of the coronavirus pandemic
The spread of the coronavirus and the accompanying lockdowns and social distancing saw a plummeting of rail travel. Passenger numbers fell to just 10% of pre-pandemic levels. In March 2020, the UK Government introduced Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs), which temporarily replaced rail franchise agreements. TOCs were paid a 2% fee (based on pre-Covid costs) to run trains and losses were borne by the government.
When the EMAs ran out on the 20 September, they were replaced by Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs), set to last until no later than April 2022. Under these measures, the fees paid to TOCs were reduced to a maximum of 1.5%. These consist partly of a fixed fee (again based on pre-Covid costs) and partly on a performance payment, depending on punctuality, passenger satisfaction and financial performance. As with the EMAs, the new arrangements involve virtually no risk for the TOCs (except for the size of the performance-related fee). Costs and revenue will be passed to the Department for Transport, which will bear any losses.
TOCs were required to run a virtually full service to allow reduced passenger numbers to observe social distancing. Despite journeys still being only 30% of pre-pandemic levels, social distancing on trains meant that many trains were sold out.
The ERMAs also contain provisions for the replacement of franchises when they come to an end. The precise nature of these will be spelt out in a White Paper, which will respond to the recommendations of the Williams Review of the railways. This review was set up in 2018 in the aftermath of difficulties with various franchises and a chaotic nationwide timetable change. The review’s findings were originally scheduled to be published in Autumn 2019, but were then put back because of the general election and the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The government hopes that it will be published before the end of 2020.
It is expected that the review will recommend replacing the franchise system with something similar to the currents ERMAs. TOCs awarded a contract will be paid a performance-related fee and revenues will go to the government, which will bear the costs. While this is not quite renationalisation, it is not the previous franchise system where TOCs bore the risks. It is in effect a contract system where private companies are paid to deliver a public service.
The CrossCountry franchise
The first test of this new approach to contracting with TOCs came this month. Arriva’s franchise for running CrossCountry trains ran out and was replaced by a three-year contract to run the services, which span much of the length of Great Britain from Aberdeen to Penzance via Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol and Plymouth; from Bournemouth to Manchester via Reading, Oxford, Wolverhampton and Stoke; from Cardiff to Nottingham via Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby; and from Birmingham to Stanstead Airport via Leicester and Cambridge.
The contract will last three years. The Department for Transport will gain the revenues and cover the costs and pay Arriva (owned by Deutsche Bahn) a management fee that is ‘performance related’ – as yet unspecified. This, like the EMAs and then the ERMAs, will remove the risks from Arriva.
Nationalisation in Wales
The Welsh government has announced that Transport for Wales will be taken over by a publicly owned company in February 2021. TfW operates many of the routes in Wales and the borders and most of the branch lines in Wales, including the valley commuter lines into Cardiff. It is currently owned by KeolisAmey (a joint company owned 70% by the French company, Keolis (part of SNCF), and 30% by the UK company, Amey), which took over the franchise in 2018 from Arriva. The Welsh government considered that KeolisAmey would collapse if it did not provide support. Ministers decided that nationalisation would give it greater control than simply subsidising KeolisAmey.
James Price, chief executive of the Welsh Government, stated that this allows it:
to reduce the profit we pay to the private sector massively over time, and make sure that when the revenue comes back, it comes back in to the taxpayer.
Under emergency measures, KeolisAmey has already been supported by the Welsh government to the tune of £105 million (£40 million in March and £65 million in June) to continue operating the franchise. Passenger numbers fell by 95% as the pandemic hit.
Is nationalisation a better way forward, or should private train operating companies continue with the government taking on the risks, or should the franchise system be amended with greater support from the government but with the TOCs still bearing risk? The articles below consider these issues.
- Rail nationalisations may be coming down the track
BBC News, Tom Burridge (17/9/20)
- ONS recognises full nationalisation of the UK railways
Financial Times, Tanya Powley (31/7/20)
- Train services are very efficient for shareholders – less so for customers
The Conversation, Daniel Fisher (22/8/19)
- UK government on standby to nationalise more rail lines
Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Philip Georgiadis (17/9/20)
- British Government Ends Rail Franchising
Railway-News, Josephine Cordero Sapién (21/9/20)
- British government announces end for rail franchise system
Trains, Keith Fender (12/10/20)
- Monday essay: A new era?
Railnews, Sim Harris (19/10/20)
- Arriva secures three-year CrossCountry contract
International railway Journal Kevin Smith (16/10/20)
- New contract signed for Arriva CrossCountry
RTM, Ailsa Cowen (16/10/20)
- Franchising is Dead
Railway-News, Josephine Cordero Sapién and Gareth Davies (16/9/20)
- Transport for Wales rail services to be nationalised
BBC News (23/10/20)
- Transport for Wales to be nationalised
- Why has the Welsh Government nationalised rail’s Wales and Borders franchise?
BusinessLive, Sion Barry (22/10/20)
- Explain how the franchising system worked (prior to March 2020).
- To what extent could each franchise be described as a ‘contestable monopoly’?
- What incentives were built into the franchising system to deliver improvements in service for passengers?
- What were the weaknesses of the franchising system?
- In the context of post-pandemic rail services, compare the relative merits of nationalisation with those of awarding contracts where the government receives the revenues and bears the costs and pays train operating companies a fee for operating the services where the size of the fee is performance related.
- What are the arguments for subsidising rail transport? What should determine the size of the subsidy?