When we examine industries and markets in economics, one of the key things we look for is how competitive the market is. A question that we ask is, under what type of market structure is this firm operating? To answer this, we will need information on the number of competitors, the products, prices, advertising, profits, efficiency and how the firms are likely to behave in both the short and long run.
A lot of the time firms are independent: their behaviour doesn’t affect the actions of rivals. This is usually because each firm within the industry only has a relatively small market share. If one firm changes the price, or how much it spends on advertising/product development, this won’t have an impact on the market equilibrium.
However, it’s not as easy for an oligopolist, as interdependence is a key characteristic of this market structure. As such, it’s not surprising that firms have a decision to make: should they compete with the other firms and try to maximise our own profits, or should they collude and try to maximise industry profits? Whilst collusion is illegal in many countries, activities such as price fixing do go ahead and it can be difficult to prove, as the ACCC is finding with a petrol price-fixing case in Melbourne. In 49 of the 53 weeks studied, when one of the big petrol stations changed their price, the industry followed these movements exactly.
As competition in a market decreases, it could be a sign that an oligopoly is developing. A few firms are beginning to dominate the market and this could spell trouble for customers. Indeed, in the Australian banking sector, there are concerns that an oligopoly will develop if more competition is not introduced. The Deputy Chairman of the Australian Bankers’ Association said: “We’ve got four major banks that are repricing all their commercial and small business customers’ margins upwards”. Customers may therefore lose out with higher prices and less choice, while the dominant firms see their profits growing.
The market structure under which a firm is operating will have a major impact on its decisions and the outcomes in the market, as shown in the articles below.
ACCC on safe political ground in targeting the Mobil takeover The Australian Business, John Durie and Martin Collins (3/12/09)
Nippon Steel Chairman warns of Australian oligopolies Market Watch, Stephen Bell (10/11/09)
Government’s bank guarantee hurting BOQ: Libby Business Day (2/12/09)
Regulators to scrutinise BHP and Rio’s Australian joint venture Financial Times, William McNamara and Elizabeth Fry (7/12/09)
Crackdown on price fixing draws mixed reaction The Korea Herald (7/12/09)
- What are the main characteristics of an oligopoly?
- Illustrate a cartel that fixes prices and show how a member of this cartel must sell at that price and at a given quantity.
- Some factors make collusion more likely to occur and more likely to succeed. In the Australian banking sector, which factors do you think are allowing price fixing to occur?
- Is the example of petrol price fixing barometric price leadership or dominant firm price leadership? Explain both of these terms and use a diagram, where possible, to illustrate the effects.
- The articles suggest that oligopolies are bad for competition. Explain why this is the case.
- To what extent are oligopolies against the public interest? Use examples from the articles to back up your argument.