Category: Economics for Business: 8e Ch 17

One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.

Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.

Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.

And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.

The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.

So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.

Articles

Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)

Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release

Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)

Questions

  1. Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
  2. What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
  3. How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
  4. Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
  5. If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
  6. What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
  7. Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’

In a blog post on 1 May this year, What’s really on offer?, we looked at the ‘super-complaint‘ by Which? to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) about supermarket special offers. The complaint referred to bogus price reductions, ‘cheaper’ multi-buys which weren’t cheaper, smaller pack sizes and confusing special offers. Under the rules of super-complaints, the CMA had 90 days from the receipt of the complaint on 21 April 2015 to publish a response. It has now done so.

Here is an extract from its press release:

In its investigation the CMA found examples of pricing and promotional practices that have the potential to confuse or mislead consumers and which could be in breach of consumer law. Where there is evidence of breaches of consumer law this could lead to enforcement action.

However, it has concluded that these problems are not occurring in large numbers across the whole sector and that generally retailers are taking compliance seriously to avoid such problems occurring. The CMA also found that more could be done to reduce the complexity in unit pricing to make it a more useful comparison tool for consumers. …Nisha Arora, CMA Senior Director, Consumer, said:

‘We have found that, whilst supermarkets want to comply with the law and shoppers enjoy a wide range of choices, with an estimated 40% of grocery spending being on items on promotion, there are still areas of poor practice that could confuse or mislead shoppers. So we are recommending further action to improve compliance and ensure that shoppers have clear, accurate information.

Although the CMA believes that misleading pricing is not as widespread as consumer groups have claimed, in some cases the supermarkets could be fined. The CMA also says that it will work with the supermarkets to eliminate misleading information in promotions.

In addition it recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) publishes guidelines for supermarkets on displaying unit prices in a consistent way. It also recommends that legislation should be simplified on how items should be unit-priced.

The following articles look at the implications of the CMS’ findings.

Articles

Some UK supermarket promotions are misleading, watchdog says Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (16/7/15)
Shoppers beware: Grocers ‘confusing’ consumers with special offers, unit pricing, says government investigation International Business Times, Graham Lanktree (16/7/15)
Supermarket pricing: CMA finds ‘misleading tactics BBC News, Brian Milligan (16/7/15)
How special are special offers? BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (16/7/15)

CMA publications
Response to super-complaint: link to elements of report CMA (16/7/15)

Questions

  1. Give some examples of the types of promotion used by supermarkets?
  2. In what ways might such promotions be misleading?
  3. How is competition from Aldi and Lidl affecting pricing and promotions in the ‘big four’ supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons)?
  4. What cost and other advantages do Aldi and Lidl have over the big four? How might the big four reduce costs?
  5. Are misleading promotions systemic across the industry?
  6. How can behavioural economics help to explain consumers’ response to promotions in supermarkets?
  7. What is meant by ‘heuristics’? How might supermarkets exploit consumers’ use of heuristics in their promotions?

For years, the UK consumer organisation, Which?, has exposed misleading supermarket pricing practices. These include bogus price reductions, ‘cheaper’ multi-buys, smaller pack sizes and confusing special offers. Claiming that these practices are still continuing, Which? has made a super-complaint (available to designated consumer bodies) to the competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Commenting on this action, Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd said:

“Despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves. Shoppers think they’re getting a bargain but in reality it’s impossible for any consumer to know if they’re genuinely getting a fair deal.

We’re saying enough is enough and using one of the most powerful legal weapons in our armoury to act on behalf of consumers by launching a super-complaint to the regulator. We want an end to misleading pricing tactics and for all retailers to use fair pricing that people can trust.”

The CMA will consider the issues raised under the super-complaint to establish whether any of them are significantly harming the interests of consumers. It will publish a response within 90 days from the receipt of the complaint on 21 April 2015. The possible outcomes include:

recommending the quality and accessibility of information for consumers is improved
encouraging businesses in the market to self-regulate
making recommendations to government to change the legislation or public policy
taking competition or consumer enforcement action
instigating a market investigation or market study
a clean bill of health

Some 40% of groceries are sold on promotion. Supermarkets are well aware that consumers love to get a bargain and use promotions to persuade consumers to buy things they might not otherwise have done.

What is more, consumer rationality is bounded by the information and time available. People are often in a hurry when shopping; prices change frequently; people are often buying numerous low-value items; and they don’t know what competitors are charging. People may thus accept an offer as genuine and not spend time investigating whether it is so. Supermarkets know this and use all sorts of tactics to try to persuade people that they are indeed getting a bargain.

Videos

Supermarkets Face Super-Complaint On Pricing Sky News (21/4/15)
UK supermarkets face possible probe over pricing practices Reuters, Neil Maidment (21/4/15)
Which? launches ‘super-complaint’ against supermarkets BBC News, Stephanie McGovern (21/4/15)

Articles

UK supermarkets dupe shoppers out of hundreds of millions, says Which? The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (21/4/15)
Supermarkets face inquiry into ‘rip-offs’ The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
15 supermarket rip-offs that led to an inquiry The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
What does Which?’s supermarket pricing complaint mean for you? The Guardian (21/4/15)
Supermarkets hit back over Which? report on pricing Financial Times (21/4/15)

Press release
Which? ‘super-complains’ about misleading supermarket pricing practices Which? (21/4/15)

CMA case page
Groceries pricing super-complaint Competition and Markets Authority (21/4/15)

Questions

  1. Give examples of supermarket offers that are misleading.
  2. Why are supermarkets able to ‘get away with’ misleading offers?
  3. How can behavioural economics help to explain consumer behaviour in supermarkets?
  4. Identify some other super-complaints have been made to the CMA or its predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading. What were the outcomes from the resulting investigations.
  5. What is meant by ‘heuristics’? How might supermarkets exploit consumers’ use of heuristics in their promotions?

As we saw in Part 1 of this blog, oil prices have fallen by some 46% in the past five months. In that blog we looked at the implications for fuel prices. Here we look at the broader implications for the global economy? Is it good or bad news – or both?

First we’ll look at the oil-importing countries. To some extent the lower oil price is a reflection of weak global demand as many countries still struggle to recover from recession. If the lower price boosts demand, this may then cause the oil price to rise again. At first sight, this might seem merely to return the world economy to the position before the oil price started falling: a leftward shift in the demand for oil curve, followed by a rightward shift back to where it was. However, the boost to demand in the short term may act as a ‘pump primer’. The higher aggregate demand may result in a multiplier effect and cause a sustained increase in output, especially if it stimulates a rise in investment through rising confidence and the accelerator, and thereby increases capacity and hence potential GDP.

But the fall in the oil price is only partly the result of weak demand. It is mainly the result of increased supply as new sources of oil come on stream, and especially shale oil from the USA. Given that OPEC has stated that it will not cut its production, even if the crude price falls to $40 per barrel, the effect has been a shift in the oil supply curve to the right that will remain for some time.

So even if the leftward shift in demand is soon reversed so that there is then some rise in oil prices again, it is unlikely that prices will rise back to where they were. Perhaps, as the diagram illustrates, the price will rise to around $70 per barrel. It could be higher if world demand grows very rapidly, or if some sources of supply go off stream because at such prices they are unprofitable.

The effect on oil exporting countries has been negative. The most extreme case is Russia, where for each $10 fall in the price of oil, its growth rate falls by around 1.4 percentage points (see). Although the overall effect on global growth is still likely to be positive, the lower oil price could lead to a significant cut in investment in new oil wells. North sea producers are predicting a substantial cut in investment. Even shale oil producers in the USA, where the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel, need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable. What is more, typical shale wells have a life of only two or three years and so lack of investment would relatively quickly lead to shale oil production drying up.

The implication of this is that although there has been a rightward shift in the short-run supply curve, if price remains low the curve could shift back again, meaning that the long-run supply curve is much more elastic. This could push prices back up towards $100 if global demand continues to expand.

This can be illustrated in the diagram. The starting point is mid-2014. Global demand and supply are D1 and S1; price is $112 per barrel and output is Q1. Demand now shifts to the left and supply to the right to D2 and S2 respectively. Price falls to $60 per barrel and, given the bigger shift in supply than demand, output rises to Q2. At $60 per barrel, however, output of Q2 cannot be sustained. Thus at $60, long-run supply (shown by SL) is only Q4.

But assuming the global economy grows over the coming months, demand shifts to the right: say, to D3. Assume that it pushes price up to $100 per barrel. This gives a short-run output of Q3, but at that price it is likely that supply will be sustainable in the long run as it makes investment sufficiently profitable. Thus curve D3 intersects with both S2 and SL at this price and quantity.

The articles below look at the gainers and losers and at the longer-term effects.

Articles

Where will the oil price settle? BBC News, Robert Peston (22/12/14)
Falling oil prices: Who are the winners and losers? BBC News, Tim Bowler (16/12/14)
Why the oil price is falling The Economist (8/12/14)
The new economics of oil: Sheikhs v shale The Economist (6/12/14)
Shale oil: In a bind The Economist (6/12/14)
Falling Oil Price slows US Fracking Oil-price.net, Steve Austin (8/12/14)
Oil Price Drop Highlights Need for Diversity in Gulf Economies IMF Survey (23/12/14)
Lower oil prices boosting global economy: IMF Argus Media (23/12/14)
Collapse in oil prices: producers howl, consumers cheer, economists fret The Guardian (16/12/14)
North Sea oilfields ‘near collapse’ after price nosedive The Telegraph, Andrew Critchlow (18/12/14)
How oil price fall will affect crude exporters – and the rest of us The Observer, Phillip Inman (21/12/14)
Cheaper oil could damage renewable energies, says Richard Branson The Guardian,
Richard Branson: ‘Governments are going to have to think hard how to adapt to low oil prices.’ John Vidal (16/12/14)

Data

Brent crude prices U.S. Energy Information Administration (select daily, weekly, monthly or annual data and then download to Excel)
Brent Oil Historical Data Investing.com (select daily, weekly, or monthly data and time period)

Questions

  1. What would determine the size of the global multiplier effect from the cut in oil prices?
  2. Where is the oil price likely to settle in (a) six months’ time; (b) two years’ time? What factors are you taking into account in deciding your answer?
  3. Why, if the average cost of producing oil from a given well is $70, might it still be worth pumping oil and selling it at a price of $30?
  4. How does speculation affect oil prices?
  5. Why has OPEC decided not to cut oil production even though this is likely to drive the price lower?
  6. With Brent crude at around $60 per barrel, what should North Sea oil producers do?
  7. If falling oil prices lead some oil-importing countries into deflation, what will be the likely macroeconomic impacts?

An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has revealed how more than 1000 businesses from 340 major companies from around the world have used Luxembourg as a base for avoiding huge amounts of tax. Many of the companies are household names, such as Ikea, FedEx, Apple, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Dyson, Amazon, Fiat, Google, Accenture, Burberry, Procter & Gamble, Heinz, JP Morgan, Caterpillar, Deutsche Bank and Starbucks. Through complicated systems of ‘advanced tax agreements’ (ATAs), negotiated with the Luxembourg authorities via accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), companies have used various methods of avoiding tax.

Although such measures are legal, they have denied other countries vast amounts of tax revenues on sales generated in their own countries. Instead, the much reduced tax bills have been paid to Luxembourg. The result is that this tiny country, with a population of just 550,000, has, according to the IMF, the highest (nominal) GDP per head in the world (estimated to be $116,752 in 2014).

So what methods do Luxembourg and these multinational companies use to reduce the companies’ tax bills? There are three main methods. All involve having a subsidiary based in Luxembourg: often little more than a small office with one employee, a telephone and a bank account. All involve varieties of transfer pricing: setting prices that the company charges itself in transactions between a subsidiary in Luxembourg and divisions in other countrries.

The first method is the use of internal loans. Companies lend money to themselves, say in the UK, from Luxembourg at high interest rates. The loan interest can be offset against profit in the UK, reducing tax liability to the UK tax authorities. But the interest earned by the Luxembourg subsidiary incurs very low taxes. Profits are thus effectively transferred from the UK to Luxembourg and a much lower tax bill is incurred.

The second involves royalty payments for the use of the company’s brands. These are owned by the Luxembourg subsidiary and the overseas divisions pay the Luxembourg subsidiary large sums for using the logos, designs and brand names. Thus, again, profits are transferred to Luxembourg, where there is a generous tax exemption.

The third involves generous allowances in Luxembourg for losses in the value of investments, even without the company having first to sell the investments. These losses can be offset against future profits, again reducing tax liability. By transferring losses made elsewhere to Luxembourg, again usually by some form of transfer pricing, these can be used to reduce the already small tax bill in Luxembourg even further.

Tax loopholes offered by tax havens, such as Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and the Channel Islands, are denying exchequers around the world vast sums. Not surprisingly, countries, especially those with large deficits, are concerned to address the issue of tax avoidance by multinationals. This is one item on the agenda of the G20 meeting in Brisbane from the 12 to 16 November 2014.

The problem, however, is that, with countries seeking to attract multinational investment and to gain tax revenues from them, there is an incentive to reduce corporate tax rates. Getting any binding agreement on tax harmonisation, and creating an essentially global single market, is likely, therefore, to prove virtually impossible.

Webcasts and videos

Luxembourg Leaks: Tricks of the Trade ICIJ in partnership with the Pulitzer Center (5/11/14)
Luxembourg ‘abetted’ companies in avoiding taxes France 24, Siobhán Silke (6/11/14)
Tax deals with Luxembourg save companies billions, says report Deutsche Welle, Dagmar Zindel (6/11/14)
Luxembourg: the tax haven and the $870m loan company above a stamp shop The Guardian, John Domokos, Rupert Neate and Simon Bowers (5/11/14)
Luxembourg leaks: nation under spotlight over tax avoidance claims euronews (6/11/14)
Northern and Shell used west Dublin address to cut Luxembourg tax bill on €1bn The Irish Times, Colm Keena (6/11/14)
The ATO’s global tax avoidance investigation ABC News, Phillip Lasker (9/11/14)
Pepsi, IKEA Secret Luxembourg Tax Deals Exposed TheLipTV, Elliot Hill (9/11/14)

Articles

Leaked Docs Expose More Than 340 Companies’ Tax Schemes In Luxembourg Huffington Post, Leslie Wayne, Kelly Carr, Marina Walker Guevara, Mar Cabra and Michael Hudson (5/11/14)
Luxembourg tax files: how tiny state rubber-stamped tax avoidance on an industrial scale The Guardian, Simon Bowers (5/11/14)
Fact and fiction blur in tales of tax avoidance The Guardian (9/11/14)
companies engaged in tax avoidance The Guardian, Michael Safi (6/11/14)
The Guardian view on tax avoidance: Europe must take Luxembourg to task The Guardian, Editorial (6/11/14)
G20 leaders in the mood to act on tax avoidance after Luxembourg leaks Sydney Morning Herald, Tom Allard (6/11/14)
Scale of Luxembourg tax avoidance revealed economia, Oliver Griffin (6/11/14)
EU to press Luxembourg over tax breaks amid fresh allegations BBC News (6/11/14)
Luxembourg leaks: G20 alone can’t stamp out tax avoidance The Conversation, Charles Sampford (7/11/14)
‘Lux leaks’ scandal shows why tax avoidance is a bad idea European Voice, Paige Morrow (8/11/14)
EU to Probe Luxembourg’s ‘Sweetheart Tax Deal’ with Amazon International Business Times, Jerin Mathew (7/10/14)

Investigative Project

Luxembourg Leaks: Global Companies’ Secrets Exposed The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (5/11/14)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Which of the two is being practised by companies in their arrangements with Luxembourg?
  2. Explain what is meant by transfer pricing.
  3. Do a search of companies to find out what parts of their operations as based in Luxembourg.
  4. In what sense can the setting of corporate taxes be seen as a prisoner’s dilemma game between countries?
  5. Discuss the merits of changing corporate taxes so that they are based on revenues earned in a country rather than on profits.
  6. What type of agreement on tax havens is likely to be achieved by the international community?
  7. Is it desirable for companies to be able to offset losses against future profits?