Category: Essentials of Economics: 8e Ch 05

A row erupted in mid-October between Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, and Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company. Unilever is the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer with many well-known brands, including home care products, personal care products and food and drink. Unilever, which manufactures many of its products abroad and uses many ingredients from abroad in those manufactured in the UK, wanted to charge supermarkets 10% more for its products. It blamed the 16% fall in the value of sterling since the referendum in June (see the blog Sterling’s slide).

Tesco refused to pay the increase and so Unilever halted deliveries of over 200 items. As a result, several major brands became unavailable on the Tesco website. The dispute was dubbed ‘Marmitegate’, after one of Unilever’s products.

This is a classic case of power on both sides of the market: a powerful oligopolist, Unilever, facing a powerful oligopsonist, Tesco. With rising costs for Unilever resulting from the falling pound, either Unilever had to absorb the costs, or Tesco had to be prepared to pay the higher prices demanded by Unilever, passing some or all of them onto customers, or there had to be a compromise, with the prices Tesco pays to Unilever rising, but by less than 10%. A compromise was indeed reached on 13 October, with different price increases for each of Unilever’s products depending on how much of the costs are in foreign currencies. Precise details of the deal remained secret.

An interesting dynamic in the dispute was that Tesco and Unilever were acting as ‘champions’ for retailers and suppliers respectively. Other supermarkets were also facing price rises by Unilever. Their reactions were likely to depend on what Tesco did. Similarly, other suppliers were facing rising costs because of the falling pound. Their reactions might depend on how successful Unilever was in passing on its cost increases to retailers.

This example of ‘countervailing power’, or ‘bilateral oligopoly’, helps to illustrate just how much the consumer can gain when a powerful seller is confronted by a powerful buyer. The battle was been likened to that between two ‘gorillas’ of the industry. Its ramifications throughout industry will be interesting.

Podcasts and Webcasts
Tesco-Unilever row: Can unique shop explain ‘Marmitegate’? BBC News, Dougal Shaw (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever in Brexit price clash Reuters, David Pollard (13/10/16)
Brexit price-rise warning to shoppers BBC News, Simon Jack (10/10/16)
Tesco in Brexit Pricing Spat With Unilever Wall Street Journal (13/10/16)
Tesco battles Unilever over prices Financial Times on YouTube (14/10/16)
Tesco vs Unilever: Who won? ITV News, Joel Hills (14/10/16)

Articles

Tesco removes Marmite and other Unilever brands in price row BBC News (13/10/16)
Marmite Brexit Shortage ‘Just The Beginning’ Of ‘Gorilla’ Grocery Battle As Pound Slumps Huffington Post, Louise Ridley (13/10/16)
Unilever sales increase despite dozens of its brands being removed from Tesco shelves Independent, Ben Chapman (13/10/16)
Tesco-Unilever price row: Why pound value slump has caused Marmite to disappear from shelves Independent, Zlata Rodionova (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls Marmite from online store amid Brexit price row with Unilever The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak, Steven Swinford and Ashley Armstrong (13/10/16)
Tesco runs short on Marmite and household brands in price row with Unilever The Guardian, Sarah Butler (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls products over plunging pound Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Paul McClean (13/10/16)
Brexit means…higher prices The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever settle prices row after pound’s Brexit dive Reuters, James Davey and Martinne Geller (14/10/16)

Questions

  1. To what extent can Tesco and Unilever be seen a price leaders of their respective market segments?
  2. What would you advise other supermarkets to do over their pricing decisions when faced with increased prices from suppliers, and why?
  3. What would you advise manufacturers of other consumer goods sold in supermarkets to do in the light of the Tesco/Unilever dispute, and why?
  4. What determines the price elasticity of demand for branded products, such as Marmite, Persil, Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, PG Tips tea and Wall’s ice cream?
  5. What factors will determine in the end just how much extra the consumer pays when supermarkets are faced with demands for higher prices from major suppliers?
  6. Give some other examples of firms in industries where there is a high degree of countervailing power.
  7. What are the macroeconomic implications of a depreciating exchange rate?
  8. If, over the long term, the pound remained 16% below its level in June 2016, would you expect the consumer prices index in the long term to be approximately 16% higher than it would have been if the pound had not depreciated? Explain why or why not.

Short-termism is a problem which has dogged British firms and is part of the explanation of low investment in the UK. Shareholders, many of which are large pension funds and other financial institutions, are more concerned with short-term returns than long-term growth and productivity. Likewise, senior managers’ rewards are often linked to short-term performance rather than the long-term health of the company.

But the stakeholders in companies extend well beyond owners and senior managers. Workers, consumers, suppliers, local residents and the country as a whole are all stakeholders in companies.

So is the current model of capitalism fit for purpose? According to the new May government, workers and consumers should be represented on the boards of major British companies. The Personnel Today article quotes Theresa May as saying:

‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions. In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.

We’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.’

This model is not new. Many countries, such as France and Germany, have had worker representatives on boards for many years. There the focus is often less on short-term profit maximisation and more on the long-term performance of the company in terms of a range of indicators.

Extending this model to stakeholder groups more generally could see companies taking broader social objectives into account. And the number of companies which put corporate social responsibility high on their agenda could increase significantly.

And this approach can ultimately bring better returns to shareholders. As the first The Conversation article below states:

This is something that research into a ‘Relational Company’ model has found – by putting the interests of all stakeholders at the heart of their decision making, companies can become more competitive, stable and successful. Ultimately, this will generate greater returns for shareholders.

While CSR has become mainstream in terms of the public face of some large corporations, it has tended to be one of the first things to be cut when economic growth weakens. The findings from Business in the Community’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Index suggest that many firms are considering how corporate responsibility can positively affect profits. However, it remains the case that there are still many firms and consumers that care relatively little about the social or natural environment. Indeed, each year, fewer companies take part in the CR Index. In 2016 there were 43 firms; in 2015, 68 firms; in 2014, 97 firms; in 2013, 126 firms.

In addition to promising to give greater voice to stakeholder groups, Mrs May has also said that she intends to curb executive pay. Shareholders will be given binding powers to block executive remuneration packages. But whether shareholders are best placed to do this questionable. If shareholders’ interests are the short-term returns on their investment, then they may well approve of linking executive remuneration to short-term returns rather than on the long-term health of the company or its role in society more generally.

When leaders come to power, they often make promises that are never fulfilled. Time will tell whether the new government will make radical changes to capitalism in the UK or whether a move to greater stakeholder power will remain merely an aspiration.

Articles

Will Theresa May break from Thatcherism and transform business? The Conversation, Arad Reisberg (19/7/16)
Democratise companies to rein in excessive banker bonuses The Conversation, Prem Sikka (14/3/16)
Theresa May promises worker representatives on boards Personnel Today, Rob Moss (11/7/16)
If Theresa May is serious about inequality she’ll ditch Osbornomics The Guardian, Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs (19/7/16)
Theresa May should beware of imitating the German model Financial Times, Ursula Weidenfeld (12/7/16)

Questions

  1. To what extent is the pursuit of maximum short-term profits in the interests of (a) shareholders; (b) consumers; (c) workers; (d) suppliers; (e) society generally; (f) the environment?
  2. How could British industry be restructured so as to encourage a greater proportion of GDP being devoted to investment?
  3. How would greater flexibility in labour markets affect the perspectives on company performance of worker representatives on boards?
  4. How does worker representation in capitalism work in Germany? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model? (See the panel in the Personnel Today article and the Financial Times article.)
  5. What do you understand by ‘industrial policy’? How can it be used to increase investment, productivity, growth and the pursuit of broader stakeholder interests?

Concerns have been expressed about the UK’s relatively poor record of upgrading broadband services so that households can receive ultrafast connectivity. Some commenters have argued that future economic growth prospects will be harmed if the UK continues to lag behind its leading rivals.

Much of the fixed line system that allows people to connect to broadband was originally installed many years ago for the land-line telephone network. The so called ‘final mile’ consists of copper-based wiring that is carried from street cabinets to the premises of the end-user. This wiring is transported via a huge network of telegraph poles and cable ducts (small underground tunnels).

In order for people to gain connectivity to ultrafast broadband this copper based wiring needs to be replaced by fibre optic cables. This is commonly referred to as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). Unfortunately, the UK has a relatively poor record of installing FTTP. Japan and Korea were forecast to have 70% and 63% coverage by the end of 2015 as opposed to just 2% in the UK.

Why is the UK’s record so poor? Many observers blame it on the structure of the industry. In other network industries, such as those for gas pipeline and electricity grids, the business responsible for managing the infrastructure, National Grid, is a regulated monopoly. This company does not directly supply services to consumers using the network it is responsible for maintaining. Instead, customers are supplied by the retail sector of the industry, where firms compete for their business. This sector includes the so-called ‘big six’ (British Gas; npower; SSE; Scottish Power; EDF; E.On) and a number of smaller suppliers such as Ovo Energy and Ebico.

The structure of the fixed line telecommunications sector is very different. The company that manages the ‘final mile’, Openreach, is a subsidiary of BT. BT also competes with other Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as TalkTalk and Sky, to supply broadband to customers using this network. Its market share of 32 per cent makes it the largest player in the broadband market. Sky and TalkTalk have market shares of 22 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. Virgin Media also supplies 20 per cent of this market using its own network of ducts and cables.

Given that in most cases ISPs such as Sky and TalkTalk are stuck with the network Openreach provides, BT may have limited incentives to invest. It can still earn a good return from its infrastructure of copper-based wiring and avoid installing expensive FTTP. Dido Harding, the chief executive of TalkTalk, argued that:

“We need to separate Openreach from the rest of BT to create a more competitive, pro-investment market”

Ofcom, in its recent review of the market, has taken a different approach. Rather than creating an entirely separate monopoly business to manage the network (i.e. splitting Openreach from BT), the regulator instead opted for a policy of encouraging competition between different suppliers that deploy fibre optic cables. It states in the report that:

“We believe competition between different networks is the best way to drive investment in high-quality, innovative services for customers.”

This competition could come from ISPs such as TalkTalk and Sky or other smaller network providers such as CityFibre and Gigaclear.

One major problem with this approach is that potential new entrants might be deterred from entering the market because of the very high initial costs involved in building a new network in order to deploy FTTP. In particular, the costs of digging up the roads and laying the ducts are considerable. Matt Yardley, author of a study on the industry, said:

“It is widely accepted that civil works such as digging trenches account for up to 80% of broadband deployment costs.”

One way of reducing these costs and encouraging more competition is to allow rival firms access to the existing ducts and poles that are currently managed by Openreach. Once access has been obtained, these firms could effectively rent space inside the ducts and lay fibre optic cables alongside the existing copper-based wiring. Vodafone reported that a similar policy in Spain had reduced its capital expenditure of building FTTP by 40 per cent compared with constructing its own network of ducts and poles.

Ofcom first introduced this type of policy in 2010 when it launched its Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) initiative. Unfortunately it has proved to be relatively unsuccessful with very little demand for PIA from rival firms. The success of this type of policy will depend on a number of factors including (1) the prices charged by Openreach to access and rent space inside the ducts; (2) the simplicity of any relevant administration; and (3) the availability and reliability of information about the ducts. With this last point, key issues include:

Where they are located .
How much space is available: i.e. is there enough space for firms to lay fibre optic cables alongside the existing wiring?
What condition they are in: i.e. are they flooded or clogged up with sand and mud, which will involve expensive work to make them usable again?

Firms did complain about the pricing structures and bureaucratic nature of the administration process under the PIA scheme. However, their most significant concerns were about the uncertainty that was created by the lack of information about the ducts and poles. For example, analysts from the consultancy firm, Reburn, argued that if a firm contacted Openreach to try to obtain access to the network it was informed that:

“We don’t know what condition the ducts and poles are in. Please pay £10 000 for a survey. Also unfortunately we are rather busy and we can only start in six weeks.”

Matthew Hare, the chief executive of Gigaclear, argued that it was like going to a shop where the assistant says:

“Give me some money, and I’ll tell you whether you can have it or not.”

In response to these criticisms Ofcom has introduced a number of changes to PIA, which has been re-named Duct and Pole Access (DPA). In particular, it has imposed a new requirement on Openreach to create a database that provides information on the location, condition and capacity of its ducts and poles. The database must be made available to rival ISPs and network providers. DPA must also be provided on the same timescales, terms and conditions to all businesses including other parts of BT – this is referred to as ‘equivalence of inputs’.

The first big test of this policy is in Southend where City Fibre is hoping to deploy 50km of fibre optic cables using DPA. However, reports in the media have suggested that the initial surveys have found very limited capacity in some of the ducts, which would make DPA impossible.

It will be interesting to see how the trial in Southend progresses. If it is successful, then DPA may be viable for about 40 per cent of premises in the UK. If it fails, then Ofcom might ultimately have to force Openreach to be completely separated from BT.

Articles

How the gothic city of York became a broadband battleground The Telegraph, Kate Palmer (22/5/16)
City Fibre first to mount BT challenge after Openreach is told to share network The Telegraph, Kate Palmer (1/3/16)
Challenges as CityFibre Moot Using BT Cable Ducts in Southend-on-Sea ISPreview, Mark Jackson (2/5/16)
CityFibre to build pure fibre infrastructure for Southend Networking (5/4/16)
Ofcom tells BT to open up infrastructure to rivals The Guardian, Rob Davies (26/2/16)

Questions

  1. Draw an average total cost curve to illustrate the economics of building a network of ducts and poles. Label the minimum efficient scale.
  2. To what extent does DPA create a contestable market?
  3. For DPA to deliver productive efficiency, what must be true about the economies of scale of laying fibre optic cables?
  4. In the run-up to Ofcom’s review of the telecoms industry, many commentators described Openreach as being a natural monopoly. To what extent do you agree with this argument?
  5. What are the advantages of marginal cost pricing? What issues might a regulator face if it tried to impose marginal cost pricing on a natural monopoly?
  6. Using a diagram, explain how the network of ducts and poles might be a natural monopoly in rural areas but not in densely populated urban areas.
  7. Discuss how Ofcom has tried to increase the level of separation between Openreach and BT.

According to the BBC’s Joe Lynam, “Britain has the most competitive and dynamic retail environment in the world, which attracts shoppers globally.” It is perhaps this fact which may save BHS, with new owners being attracted by such an opportunity. BHS is soon expected to file for administration, with debts of more than £1.3 billion and having failed to secure the loan needed to keep it afloat. If this company collapses, it will bring an end to the life of an 88 year old giant.

The British retail scene has certainly changed over the past decade, with names such as Woolworths and Comet disappearing – could BHS be the next casualty of the changing retail climate? In the world of retail, tastes change quickly and those stores who fail to change with the times are the ones that suffer. One of the factors behind the downfall of BHS is the ‘dated’ nature of its stores and fashions. As clothing outlets such as Zara, Oasis and Next have continued to change with the times, commentators suggest that BHS continues with a trading offer from the 1980s. With the online shopping trend, many household names adapted their strategy, but BHS failed to do so and the second chance that BHS asked the public for when Sir Philip Green, its former owner, sold BHS in 2015 hasn’t materialised.

With administrators ready to be brought in and thousands of jobs hanging in the balance, the administrators will be looking at methods to attract funding, new owners or so-called ‘cherry pickers’ who may be interested in buying up the more profitable stores. Some of their stores remain in prime locations and deliver a tidy profit and it is perhaps these gems, together with the tradition that British Home Stores brings that may yet see the company saved. The outcome for BHS will not only affect the jobs of its employees, but will affect the pensions of thousands of workers. The BHS pension fund currently has a deficit of £576 million and so the Pension Protection Fund will have to look closely at the situation before thinking about issues a contribution notice to those connected with the fund.

A deal was on the cards last week, with BHS owner Dominic Chappell in talks with Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct, but the high debts and pensions deficit appears to have deterred this deal. The failing fortunes of BHS have now come back to haunt former owner, Sir Philip Green, who in March 2015, sold the business for just £1. Sir Philip may return to save the day, but the options for this once giant of the British high street are rather limited. The following articles consider the fortunes of BHS.

BHS seeks Sports Direct lifeline as it heads for collapse The Guardian, Graham Ruddick (24/04/16)
BHS expected to file for administration on Monday BBC News (25/04/16)
Thousands of BHS workers face anxious wait amid administration fears The Telegraph (25/04/16)
BHS administration: ‘Imminent bankruptcy’ puts 11,000 jobs at risk Independent, Peter Yeung (25/04/16)
Up to 11,000 jobs face the axe as BHS is expected to announce collapse of chain after efforts to find rescuer failed Mail Online, Neil Craven (24/04/16)
BHS nears collapse putting 11,000 jobs at risk Sky News (25/04/16)
BHS set to file for administration after sales talks fail Financial Times, Murad Ahmed (25/04/16)

Questions

  1. Using a demand and supply diagram, can you explain some of the factors that have contributed to the difficult position that BHS finds itself in?
  2. Now, can you use a diagram showing revenues and profits and explain the current position of BHS?
  3. What type of market structure does BHS operate in? Can this be used to explain why it is in its current position?
  4. How has the company failed in adapting its business strategy to the changing times?
  5. Looking back at the history of BHS, can you apply the product life cycle to this store?
  6. If another company is considering purchasing BHS, or at least some of its stores, what key information will it need and what might make it likely to go ahead with such a purchase?

There has been a link between Sainsbury’s and Argos, with Sainsbury’s offering Argos concessions in some stores. But now, we’re looking at a much more significant link, with Sainsbury’s offering £1.3 billion for control of Home Retail Group’s Argos.

Many have questioned the sense of this offer, wondering what Sainsbury’s will gain from purchasing Argos, but Sainsbury’s has indicated it will boost sales, give itself access to a more advanced delivery network and Argos customers. Argos has worked hard to update its image, moving towards a more technology based catalogue and promising same day delivery in a bid to compete with companies, such as Amazon.

Online delivery is a costly business, with suggestions that retailers make losses on each delivery and hence pay customers to shop online. This move by Sainsbury’s may therefore be an investment in expanding its online delivery services and using the infrastructure that Argos already has. This will therefore help Sainsbury’s to invest in this sought after customer service, without having to invest millions into providing the infrastructure in the first place. This move may give Sainsbury’s a first mover advantage in the grocery sector, which may force other competitors to follow suit.

We could write for hours on the ins and outs of this potential deal and undoubtedly commentators will argue both for and against it. The following articles consider the good and bad sides and the future of grocery retailers in the UK.

Why does Sainsbury’s want to buy Argos? BBC News, Katie Hope (01/02/16)
Sainsbury’s agrees terms to buy Home Retail Group in £1.3bn deal The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Sarah Butler (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s bets on Argos takeover for digital age Reuters, James Davey and Kate Holton (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s returns with £1.3bn offer for Argos The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans and Ashley Armstrong (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s could shut up to 200 Argos stores Sky News (12/01/16)
Sainsbury’s strikes deal to buy Home Retail Group Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Arash Massoudi and Josh Noble (02/02/16)

Questions

  1. What are the benefits to Sainsbury’s of taking over Argos?
  2. Why have many critics been surprised by this take-over?
  3. What is meant by a first mover advantage?
  4. Do you think that grocery retailers should diversify further or focus on their core business?
  5. Commentators suggest that delivery costs more to retailers than the price charged to consumers. Can you illustrate this using cost and revenue curves?
  6. Online delivery infrastructure is a big fixed cost for a firm. How will this change the shape of a firm’s cost curves and what impact will this have on profits following changes in market output?
  7. Do you think this take over will cause any concerns by competition authorities?